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Pro Wrestling

AEW Is Burning

CM Punk
All Elite Wrestling

After what could have been a new high in one of the most eventful wrestling careers of the 21st century—winning his company’s world title at a pay-per-view in his hometown of Chicago—All Elite Wrestling’s CM Punk decided instead to light a match inside a promotion with a gas leak. And what happened after his inflammatory press conference, though the details still remain in dispute, turned what could have been a celebratory weekend into the most troubled in AEW’s young history.

Let me try my best to explain the drama that has in recent weeks engulfed what was once a bright-eyed, idealistic upstart wrestling promotion. It begins with a wrestler named Colt Cabana, who’s never been a mainsteam star but has over the last decade-plus used podcasting and merch sales to help blaze a trail for freelance wrestlers to make a decent living, and has thus earned the respect of many who followed the same path—namely the tag team the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson), who’ve worked as executive vice presidents in AEW since its inception. Cabana, though, had a falling-out with his old friend Punk that culminated in a 2018 lawsuit and later settlement involving a dispute over legal fees incurred when WWE doctor Christopher Amann sued the pair for comments Punk made about him on Cabana’s podcast.

Still with me? So Cabana was hired by AEW, seemingly more as a backstage presence than a TV performer, in early 2020. A year and a half later, Punk gave the company its most momentous night yet when he made his return to pro wrestling after seven years away. Then in 2022, after AEW President and CEO Tony Khan bought the smaller promotion Ring of Honor with the intent of running it concurrently with AEW, Cabana was reassigned to that lesser-known brand. Cabana’s friends in AEW believed that Punk’s animosity toward Cabana was responsible for what was essentially a demotion, though Khan denies this.

The frustration toward Punk briefly spilled into the public eye in the build-up to a Memorial Day PPV that featured Punk going for the title against “Hangman” Adam Page. In a promo segment on TV, Page claimed that Punk was unfit to be a champion because of the way he behaved when the cameras were off, and said, “You talk a big game about workers’ rights. Well, you’ve shown the exact opposite since you’ve gotten here.”

The logical belief at the time was that these comments were part of a muddled, confusing storyline, but Punk was apparently both surprised and infuriated by what he saw as sabotage of his real-life progressive persona. This line was pretty much forgotten after Punk missed most of the summer due to injury, but when he finally returned, the very first thing he did was get back at Page, going off-script to challenge Hangman to a rematch and then calling him a coward when, of course, Page did not run headlong into an improvised confrontation on a minute’s notice.

I’ve never met Punk, but he strikes me as the kind of guy who has a line with everybody he meets, that only he can see. He’s nice to people, but when they unwittingly cross that line, he holds a grudge that he never lets go. So even after Punk beat Jon Moxley to win back the belt at All Out on Sunday, he stormed into the media scrum looking to let off steam both about the perceived disrespect he’d gotten from younger wrestlers in the company and the leaks to reporters about the Cabana situation. He called Page an “emptyheaded fucking dumbfuck,” said that “irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs … couldn’t fucking manage a Target,” and claimed he “didn’t do a goddamned thing” to deserve the public insult from Page. He did all this not only while an apparent audio malfunction in the broadcast made him sound like a demon, but also with Tony Khan sitting right next to him.

Even if you are totally on Punk’s side and think he has a right to be frustrated, and even acted reasonably in briefly hijacking a show to embarrass a guy who he believes helped spread a false rumor about him, it’s hard to see this as anything other than an unprofessional attack on his co-workers during a moment when his job was to hype up the event that had just taken place. (I know there are some skeptical holdouts, but there is no logic or reporting that would indicate this is part of a scripted storyline.) And the drama didn’t stop there.

Later on in the post-show scrum, after Punk was gone, those gathered saw a running security guard. According to multiple reports, he was moving toward an altercation between Punk and his old friend/AEW producer Ace Steel on one side and the Young Bucks and another top AEW star in Kenny Omega, who’ve long been associated with Adam Page, on the other. There’s disagreement on who started the fight, but consensus that Punk punched Matt Jackson and Steel threw a chair at Nick Jackson, bit Omega, and pulled his hair.

On television, wrestling companies are like this all the time. But in the real world, you absolutely cannot have a workplace where public personal attacks leading to legitimate fights are tolerated, and handling the aftermath of this brawl is easily the most difficult challenge of Khan’s time running AEW. Punk is his champion and biggest draw, and he’s already shown no qualms about scorching anyone who he feels disrespects him. The Bucks and Omega, meanwhile, are cornerstones of this company, and Omega’s reign as champ in 2021 oversaw AEW’s biggest stretch of popularity growth. You can punish all of them in various ways—firing Steel, making Punk drop the title, suspending the Bucks and Omega—but in the long term, if the parties involved can’t be adult enough to work this out themselves, there has to be a clear resolution, which would either entail doing what’s worst for fans and cleaning house, or picking a side and risking the alienation of half the roster.

Off-camera clashes that spill over into physical violence are far from unprecedented in pro wrestling—Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels’s feud is the most well-known example—and frankly, they can turn out to be a boon for business. Certainly, there’s more interest now in what will happen next in AEW than there’s been throughout a mostly stagnant summer. Honestly, because of all the intrigue, a CM Punk vs. Kenny Omega match at AEW’s next big show would likely have the best conceivable buyrate of any potential main event. But that could only happen if the warring sides agree to put aside their differences for the good of their paychecks. It still feels like we’re a long way from that kind of professionalism.

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