Johnny Gargano and Kyle O’Reilly are both free agents after their deals expired following NXT WarGames and the subsequent episode of NXT 2.0 last Tuesday night. Joining them shortly is reportedly Kevin Owens, whose deal is set to expire in January 2022.
Many fans have speculated as to where the three may sign, though some are hoping that one or more re-sign with WWE. In all of the speculation, the most discussed landing spot has been AEW, which has been on a run of impact signings over the past six months.
However, if AEW only has one contract to give, who should they sign between Gargano, O’Reilly, and Owens?
Each wrestler would be another in the run of shocking signings for AEW with the recent additions of C.M. Punk, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, and Ruby Soho (among others). Still, when trying to be as objective as possible, there are a few things to consider.
In-ring styles of all three men are a fit in AEW
While the three have unique aspects about their style, because of their pre-WWE experience they’re not necessarily categorized as wrestlers doing “WWE style.” We’ve seen over the years how Gargano and O’Reilly in NXT and Owens in NXT, Raw, and Smackdown meshed their styles with WWE’s.
Gargano and especially O’Reilly can add so much to an already stacked tag team division in AEW. O’Reilly can reform reDRagon with Bobby Fish or find another partner, and Gargano could easily find a partner (Daniel Garcia, anyone?).
Both men would be awesome in the singles division as well, and they’ve shown in the past they can carry the responsibility of the main event (most recently O’Reilly in Ring of Honor and Gargano in NXT). O’Reilly’s failed singles run in NXT is probably more attributable to bad writing and booking than on his skills; just watch his run as ROH World Champion.
Where Owens lags behind the other two in tag teams he more than makes up for as a singles competitor. Even when given the most questionable writing and booking over the past few years, he has always found a way to flourish and portray his character. Look no further than his connivingly intelligent ploy to enter the Day 1 WWE Championship match.
Owens may not have the TakeOver track record of Gargano because of Owens’ short tenure there, but Owens can have, at worst, above-average matches with pretty much any talent on the roster, both WWE and AEW. He’s fantastic at being the hard-hitting heel, great at the babyface making his comeback, and can do comedy matches with the best of them.
Gargano has produced classic after classic in NXT, many on the tag team side, but his battles with Tommaso Ciampa and Adam Cole are still regarded as some of the best matches of the previous decade. O’Reilly spent nearly all of his time in NXT putting on tag team classics as part of The Undisputed Era, not to mention those four WarGames matches.
They’d all fit well, and it really depends on where AEW wants to invest that next men’s signing: singles or tag?
Age isn’t a big issue, but bumps might be an issue
Gargano and O’Reilly are both 34, both born in 1987, while Owens is three years older at age 37. They’re still sitting in their wrestling primes, and then you look at wrestlers like Bobby Lashley flourishing in their 40s and realize these three still have at least a decade of fantastic wrestling to go.
Ring time might be a different issue. Owens has had some WARS throughout his career, including the aptly-named Ladder War with El Generico (Sami Zayn) while Owens was still known as Kevin Steen in ROH. He’s also had some hellacious matches in WWE, like the Hell in a Cell match with Shane McMahon and various ladder matches for the Intercontinental Championship.
Gargano had some brutal matches with Ciampa like the Last Man Standing and One Final Beat matches. O’Reilly was in the aforementioned WarGames matches, maybe none more brutal than the one involving Ricochet, Pete Dunne (“Peter Dune”), and The Viking Raiders.
What has helped is the cutback of house shows. Luckily, these are three wrestlers who don’t really need the reps other than to stay in ring shape, and wrestling on television once a week (with training in-between) is probably enough. The “bump card” for each shouldn’t be as high as their projected paces were before the pandemic.
AEW does tend to have a more physical style than WWE, which has led to some injuries. As with any athletic endeavor, injuries happen. All three men have been pretty durable during their time in WWE, so hopefully, that durability streak continues.
Promos might tilt the balance, but all three are fine
I think any objective fan would say that Owens is clearly the best promo of the three. His conviction when he speaks makes you believe that he believes what he is saying. His passion is evident in how he delivers his words. It’s not all about his conviction, either; he knows how best to fit his words to his character’s disposition.
Gargano does well, and his work with The Way showed he has more range than just the fiery babyface overcoming the odds. AEW has also shown that size isn’t necessarily a determining factor in a face or heel, so Gargano could very well be a top-tier heel. The only thing he didn’t really show in The Way is a more serious heel side, which would be fascinating to explore.
O’Reilly is behind the other two, but I do think he is underrated. Again, I believe bad writing hindered his NXT singles run. However, when you watch some of the promos and vignettes involving The Undisputed Era, O’Reilly was always the person with the best reactions, facial expressions, and one-liners. I still laugh at “Peter Dune.”
Owens can come right in and give promo battles with the best of MJF, Punk, Danielson, and eventually, everyone’s favorite wrestler: HOOK.
Gargano is more polished than O’Reilly, but we haven’t seen the range from Gargano that Owens has shown.
O’Reilly has the most to show in the promo department, but also may have the most potential if he can hone in those quirky responses into his character presentation.
Then again, pairing the latter two with a manager may negate the need to be a top-tier promo.
The issue of AEW’s growing roster
AEW began in 2019 and signed many wrestlers to three-year contracts. Some of those wrestlers have indicated they will not have their deals renewed or re-sign with AEW, including Big Swole. While AEW has rarely released wrestlers with the caveats of Kylie Rae and Jimmy Havoc, it has led to a vast roster.
The men’s singles division saw the recent big additions of Punk, Cole, and Danielson, including signing others like Lee Moriarty. The division does have a solid mid-card as well, and Gargano seems too perfect to not be a long-term TNT Champion, should he sign.
The tag division, arguably the best tag division in all of pro wrestling, also has a bubbling mid-card to go along with their top acts of The Lucha Bros., FTR, and The Young Bucks. reDRagon becoming World Tag Team Champions seems likely, should O’Reilly sign.
All three could be players in both divisions. It’s inarguable that, for many wrestling fans, adding any of the three will bring more recognition and, because of the quality of their recent signings, even more legitimacy to AEW for those wrestling fans who may not yet be AEW fans.
While the roster is full, AEW has shown great patience (sometimes to a fault) in how they build some wrestlers. The recent examples of Cole’s and Danielson’s respective builds are proof of this, so while any of the three might not come right in and go for a title, they’ll at least be involved in angles and on television nearly every week.
Look, if talent the caliber of these three became available, you would be committing promotional malpractice if you didn’t even try to sign them. However, some wrestlers fans were hopeful for a few years ago now seem more unlikely to ever receive the push that some wanted, including Scorpio Sky.
While Tony Khan has indicated he fulfills contractual obligations, there is always the chance that the roster grows so big that cuts need to be made. I doubt these three signings would shift the balance that way, but it is a long-term predicament that could befall AEW.
With all that said, the one AEW should sign is…
Kevin Owens, and objectively, I don’t think it’s a tough decision.
This is in no way to diminish Gargano and O’Reilly, two wrestlers that any promotion would love to sign (WWE made attempts, per reports). They are both extremely talented and a boon to any organization.
However, I think Owens excels in every aspect of professional wrestling, has shown an amazing amount of range (remember his scrapped “everyday dad” gimmick when he shot with selfies in his car?), can wrestle any style, and delivers some of the best promos in the business.
Even though he wasn’t WWE or Universal Champion for most of his run, he always lingered in the main event scene, as he is now, and carries with him that credibility I believe more than the other two.
We should also keep in mind that Gargano may decide to remain a free agent for a few months. He said in his farewell promo that his wife, Candice LeRae, is due in February, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he took more time off to spend with his wife and newborn son. This may make signing Gargano soon unfeasible, though it really depends on how quickly AEW would want a signed talent to debut.
If you disagree, great! Depending on how you would further build AEW and what you prioritize, any of the three are “correct” answers. AEW would and should be ecstatic should they sign any or all three wrestlers. Nevertheless, I believe Owens stands out as the clear favorite should he become available, followed closely by Gargano and then O’Reilly.