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AEW Still Isn’t Over CM Punk

CM Punk
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In August of last year, during All Elite Wrestling's biggest show ever, the wrestler CM Punk got into a backstage fight with his coworker, Jack Perry, at Wembley Stadium in London. The fight led to Punk's firing from the promotion and his subsequent rehiring by WWE. In April of this year, this remains one of the biggest stories in wrestling—at least for AEW, which tried to steal back some attention after an all-consuming WrestleMania weekend by airing legitimate security footage of the Punk-Perry altercation on its flagship TV show, Dynamite, on Wednesday.

The storyline justification for airing this tape was flimsy. It was meant to further a tag team feud between FTR, good friends of Punk, and the Young Bucks, who've been completely swallowed by his drama for the past year-and-a-half. It also presumably set the table for the return of Perry, who's been exiled from the company ever since that Wembley show. The real reason for airing it was a recent interview Punk did with WWE hypeman Ariel Helwani. That interview was notable mostly for being very long, but it also featured some pointed criticism of AEW president Tony Khan as a pushover boss and Punk's own self-aggrandizing account of the Wembley confrontation with Perry, who'd made a little insider dig at him in the previous match.

The idea behind showing the clip on TV, presumably, was to ensure that Punk's portrayal of himself as the badass locker-room cop wasn't the only one on the public record. To some extent, I guess it accomplished that feat. AEW already seems to be trying to scrub it from the internet, including their own YouTube video of the segment, but here it is: a tense discussion, an attack by Punk, and then a quick separation.

The magic of internet tribalism and Wrestling Mindset have allowed fans to see whatever they want to see in the video. For those who dislike Punk, it's him being a petty little jerk with a short fuse, and trying to hurt a co-worker for no good reason. For his devotees, it's Punk behaving like a superstar by asserting his privilege after he was called out unscripted on camera by Perry. What everyone should be able to agree on is that nobody in All Elite Wrestling is helped by this footage airing on TV, over seven months later.

Wrestling's on-screen conflicts are often rooted in real-life stories known to the audience, but while Punk stays untouchable in WWE—he's making all these waves without even wrestling, due to injury—anyone interacting with him in AEW storylines is fighting a ghost. No sellable, tangible match can come of it, because Punk doesn't work there anymore. Tony Khan, meanwhile, looks like a goofball, because he said after Punk's firing that he feared for his life at this show, and the footage he's now chosen to air doesn't remotely support that. Plus, the whole fictional kayfabe universe of AEW has taken a hit, because Dynamite and their other programs include backstage attacks all the time. To call attention to the artificiality of those performances by contrasting them with a real fight only gives fans less of a reason to care. (Yes, people know pro wrestling is "fake," but they hide the wires and the green screens in movies for a reason. There are rules, or anyway best practices, to all this.)

A lot of wrestling history/mythology is based on the idea of The One Moment That Changed Everything—something like Austin 3:16, or Tony Schiavone's "butts in seats" remark—that caused audiences to shift their allegiance in droves and at once. That kind of storytelling glosses over how television usually works. It's a medium built on the comfort of habits and routine—of football on Sundays and Raw on Mondays and, for the last four-and-a-half years, Dynamite on Wednesdays. It's also a medium built on forgiveness; rarely does one bad episode cause a fan to swear off a show for good.

Change doesn't typically happen at that mythic scale and speed. But every measurable number points to the fact that AEW has gradually lost support since its peak in late 2021/early 2022, and especially over the last several months. It's still a huge success by the standards of a No. 2 wrestling company, or cable television in general in 2024. But as WWE's line goes up, AEW's is going down, and there's no guarantee that it'll stop at some floor. Everyone who cares about this stuff has their own explanation for why, which includes some mixture of inconsistent long-term storytelling, burnout brought on by expansion, and WWE fixing its flaws enough that audiences no longer demand an alternative.

But the decision to show footage of the Punk fight is both novel enough and stupid enough that, if the decline continues, it could rise above all explanations and become, symbolically if not actually, the decision that brought about AEW's downfall. I don't think that's the case, but I do know that, even if the promotion of the footage brought in curious viewers for a night, it won't make them stick around to see what comes next without Punk actually there to participate in any storylines. If AEW can't stop the bleeding, it won't be because of CM Punk. It'll be because nobody telling AEW's stories could come up with anything more compelling than talking about a thing that a former employee did last year.

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