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Tom's Column - October/November 23

I Went To Wembley, But It Had Nothing To Do With Football by Tom Beasley

At the tail end of August, I spent a wild evening surrounded by 81,000 other people at Wembley Stadium. I had long assumed that my first visit to the crucible of English football would be for... well, football. But after failing to get tickets for the play-off final, it turned out that I walked the length of Wembley Way for the first time in order to go to All Elite Wrestling's biggest show ever – All In: London.

In fact, this event wasn't just AEW's biggest show ever. It was the largest paid audience for a wrestling show in history – more than any WrestleMania or Mexican lucha libre spectacular. That's probably surprising to you given that you likely haven't heard of AEW. You'll be familiar with WWE – it used to be WWF until a legal battle involving pandas – and the British events that ITV used to show on World of Sport, with the likes of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. But AEW isn't either of those things.

AEW was formed in 2019 as an upstart rival to WWE, which had dominated the American wrestling landscape for more than two decades at this point. AEW signed some big names from the world's independent wrestling scene, as well as WWE greats familiar from the 1990s and 2000s, like multi-time world champion Chris Jericho.

They've been building steam over their four-year existence and the Wembley show was their debut in the UK – perhaps a surprise it has taken so long seeing as AEW owner Tony Khan has a British link as the owner of Fulham FC. AEW has a decent audience over here thanks to the fact their weekly programming airs for free on ITV. In order to watch WWE, meanwhile, you need a very pricey subscription to TNT Sports – formerly BT Sport. These things make a difference.

That's a lot of context to get to the point I wanted to make, which is that it was a really beautiful day and a heartening occasion as a fan of an art form that doesn't often get the respect it deserves. Wrestling is often dismissed as being “fake” nonsense. It's not wrong necessarily to say that it's fake – the “fights” are collaborative and the outcomes are pre-written – but that does a disservice to the talent of the storytellers in the ring. They're crafting live, physical theatre, as well as being elite athletes.

All In featured high-flying acrobatics, intricate grappling akin to MMA or Olympic wrestling, and a blood-soaked “hardcore” match in which someone stumbled around with barbecue skewers stuck in their head. It was the most varied of variety shows, showcasing every facet of what wrestling can be.

The Wembley show felt like a rare occasion in which a large crowd assembled to celebrate the art of wrestling. I've been to other big events in the past, but they've been a fraction of the size of what AEW put on and, as a result, they felt like fairly exclusive, small-scale occasions for a group of devotees. When you're in a mass of roaring fans, though, it feels like wrestling has won on a mainstream level. There were 10,000 fewer people at the last England men's international match.

By the time the final bell rung at All In, AEW had announced that they will return to Wembley in a year's time for another mega-show. It's entirely possible that they'll beat their own attendance record and again deliver a gargantuan wrestling audience of the sort even the behemoth of WWE can seldom manage. And all this from a company that didn't exist five years ago.

I'll be there in person again next year. As an adult wrestling fan, you have to endure the sneers, chuckles, and the “isn't that just for kids?” brigade. It's so nice to be around thousands of other people who share your passion, unapologetically and at the top of their lungs. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

© 2023 Tom Beasley

Tom Beasley is a staff writer for the film/TV website, The Digital Fix, living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at tomjbeasley@gmail.com.