On Sunday, September 4, AEW capped off a weekend of professional wrestling cards with its annual All Out pay per view. The event took place at the Now Arena in the Chicago suburbs. Favorite son CM Punk defeated Jon Moxley, who had beaten him for the title in a flash the previous Wednesday. The All Out match itself was exciting, with the hometown hero exacting revenge and emerging with a hard fought victory, and a lasting final image of a returning Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) cementing his claim as a title contender.
The card itself was a success.
Then things got weird.
In a media scrum after the pay per view finished, CM Punk took the microphone and unprompted, unleashed a tirade at his place of employment, and wrestlers including Executive Vice Presidents the Young Bucks (Nick and Matt Jackson), as well as Adam Page (whom he felt had insulted him by refusing to take veteran wrestlers’ advice), MJF and Colt Cabana. Cabana’s inclusion was the most curious since he holds no position of power within AEW and has been used sparingly since Punk’s arrival. The two were once great friends, but fell out over who should pay to defend a lawsuit brought by a WWE physician over remarks Punk has made on Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast. A lawsuit between the two former friends had long been settled, and while it seemed that the rest of the world had moved on, Punk still harbored enough resentment (despite saying he no longer gave Cabana much thought) to broadside him during the interview.
Then things got weirder.
Allegedly, Punk’s comments caused a fight backstage between him, Kenny Omega (who is alleged to have tried to move Punk’s dog out of the way and was bitten — not by the dog — for his troubles), the Young Bucks, and Punk’s friend and AEW coach Ace Steel. Punk may have been seriously injured in the fight. Tony Khan would officially suspend wrestlers and personnel including Punk, Steel, Omega, Matt and Nick Jackson, Pat Buck, Christopher Daniels, Michael Nakazawa, and Brandon Cutler for their roles in the fracas, and it remains to be seen which, if any, of these participants show up again, and if they do in what roles.
On Wednesday, September 7, AEW CEO Tony Khan appeared at the beginning of Dynamite. Booed by the crowd, he did not address what had happened at All Out directly. Instead, without naming the parties involved, he advised that the AEW World Championship and the new Trios titles had been vacated, and set out the plans to declare new champions. In a wildly uncertain situation where executives’ futures may be at stake and legal action could be pending, this actually seems like the best possible move. If you’ve ever worked with legal counsel, you’ve probably heard that the best advice is to say nothing at all.
Pro wrestling is littered with examples of promos and backstage scuffles that blurred or crossed the line between performance and reality. Punk himself is the author of a few of the former, including the infamous ‘Pipe bomb’ promo that closed the June 27, 2011, edition of Monday Night Raw. In this promo Punk took WWE to task; shouting out friends from the independent scene (including Colt Cabana), criticizing WWE management and threatening to take the WWE Championship with him and defend it outside the company, mentioning New Japan and Ring of Honor by name. Punk later acknowledged that while the sentiments were real, his words were approved backstage before he spoke. Extreme Championship Wrestling was born of such a promo in August 1994, when Shane Douglas legitimately rejected his newly-won NWA World championship in favor of the inaugural ECW title.
The “shoot” promo was a mainstay of the Attitude Era. Bret Hart’s excellent final heel run with the WWF was bookended by a shoot promo on March 17, 1997. and his real departure and fight with Vince McMahon at Survivor Series of that year. Not to be outdone, on November 20, 1997, Jeff Jarrett returned to WWE Raw and took shots at everyone from Eric Bischoff to Steve McMichael to Ahmed Johnson to Bret Hart. Most infamously he sought to start a program with Steve Austin, only for the latter to refuse over Austin’s treatment in Jarrett’s Memphis promotion. On February 7, 2000, Scott Steiner tore a strip off WCW management, particularly Ric Flair, during a live Nitro. His increasingly unhinged comments taking aim at others in the business would become part of his legend going forward. In December 2007, Samoa Joe went after carpet-bagging superstars from other promotions in a fiery promo at TNA’s Turning Point. After Scott Hall no-showed the event, Joe tore a strip off the established talent who had made their way to the promotion, while homegrown names like Joe, AJ Styles and the Motor City Machine Guns did the heavy lifting. WWE continues to lift from reality to enhance its storylines. The current feud between Seth Rollins and Matt Riddle has been punctuated by references to both wrestlers’ personal lives, including Riddle’s divorce.
Similarly, wrestling has seen its share of backstage brawls, some of which may be more legitimate than others. Instances of these fights become public knowledge used to be more rare, but the advent of smart phones and social media has made backstage leaks inevitable, and used smartly, a way to add an air of reality to what’s put on screen. The biggest issue with ‘real’ fighting becoming public is that those fights rarely pay attention to the performers’ positions on the card or alleged toughness. In 1995 semi-retired WCW road agent Paul Orndorff beat the much larger Vader bloody after the latter sucker punched him. Orndorff scored his victory in flip-flops and Vader left WCW soon after. Away from the ring entirely, in 1993 Arn Anderson and Sid Vicious had a protracted fight in a hotel, using a chair leg, a pair of scissors and a squeegee as weapons. Chris Jericho is a smaller competitor in the ring, but has often beaten much larger opponents backstage, including Bill Goldberg. He also directly stood up to Brock Lesnar. The Ultimate Warrior was known to be stiff in the ring; in feuds with Andre the Giant and Rick Rude, both men took matters into their own hands, legitimately beating Warrior up to encourage his compliance. In 2006, Booker T infamously shot on Batista, who was ‘big-timing’ the Smackdown roster. My favorite story has ECW announcer Joey Styles (who left RAW with a heck of a shoot promo in his own right) getting tired of John “Bradshaw” Layfield’s bullying during a tour in Iraq, and knocking the Texan to the ground with one punch.
Past a point, whether Punk’s comments and the altercation that followed are work, shoot, or somewhere in between is not the point. AEW has of late seen incidents of ‘unprofessional’ conduct that blur the line between performance and reality. In each case fans were left wondering whether what they’d witnessed was ‘real’; only for those events to fold neatly into ongoing storytelling.
A few months ago MJF engaged in one of the best feuds I’ve seen in ages against Punk. Friedman grounded his increasingly unhinged bloodlust in childhood experiences of isolation, racism and crushing disappointment in his hero, Punk. Friedman’s performance drew Punk out from backstage, where he cast his usual bluster aside to ask MJF whether his comments were true or just meant to draw a bigger house. It seems like they were a bit of both, and Punk ultimately beat MJF in a brutal dog-collar match which also sparked a Wardlow babyface turn with his own Goldbergian march up the card. MJF’s loss and Wardlow’s redemption should have hived off to its own feud immediately, but the next time we saw MJF on TV, he launched into his own eight-minute F-bomb laced tirade against the company and specifically his boss, Tony Khan. He begged Khan to fire him and went so far as to no-show a fan event before losing quickly to Wardlow at May’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view. As it turns out, Friedman wasn’t fired, and after All Out is now positioned to challenge for AEW’s World Championship. In fact, on Wednesday’s Dynamite MJF returned to a hero’s welcome before cutting a disingenuous promo and obliquely name-dropping Triple H and Cody Rhodes. In the wake of All Out, it’s difficult to believe that every word of this promo wasn’t pre-approved.
More recently, Punk has engaged in reality-bending programs with Adam Page and Jon Moxley. The press conference disaster was triggered by an errant, allegedly unscripted remark made by Page that he didn’t need to listen from advice, impliedly from more senior, old-school stars, which is one way Punk identifies himself. Punk dragged his offence to Page’s comment into a promo that was supposed to set up a title unification match with Mox. The two former WWE champions would accelerate the timeline for their clash, resulting in a Sammartino-Rogers like three-minute match where Moxley beat Punk for the title. Despite the announcers selling it ahead of time, and an oh-so-perfect look back at the ring while Moxley celebrated his win, fans were quick to question whether the short match was a punishment for Punk’s going off-script, a way to camouflage a still-active injury, or both, or neither. The fact that Punk would beat Moxley in a longer, charged match at All Out seems to suggest that until the press conference later that evening, kayfabe was alive and well.
The challenge these storylines pose is twofold: First, if you’re relying on breaking the fourth wall that is performance in pro wrestling, each time you do so, you need to up the ante. The ‘real’ conduct needs to go to further and further lengths to be seen as credible, even if the actual events are so over the top as to belie reality. Second, as witnessed in the old WCW, calling out portions of the show as ‘real’ implies that everything else is the dreaded F word: ‘Fake’. If fans are trained to wait for those moments that bring legitimate raw intensity, what keeps them hanging around for the rest of the show, particularly for matches which may be excellent but are plainly acknowledged as ‘less than real’?
As a rule, the ‘unscripted’ moments that the audience sees tend to be verbally driven: the pipe bomb promos or Brian Pillman “I respect you, Bookerman” comments…the resolution of these real feelings comes in the form a contest where even basic headlocks and Irish whips run counter to the laws of physics. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels blurred the line throughout their late 1990s feud, including verbal barbs, backstage pull-aparts, culminating in one of the more lasting shoot double-crosses in history. In the present case apparently real fisticuffs ensued, complete with biting and a legitimate chair shot. Unlike Michaels and Hart, so far the All Out fight does not appear to have been taped for us to gawp at.
A subset of wrestlers and hangers-on will note that whatever the parties’ intentions, from a carny point of view this week has been hugely successful. In a week that featured three major shows with significant developments including a bunch of title changes, all anyone is talking about is the brouhaha and its fall-out. Some note that the best wrestling storylines center not around titles or paychecks but around personal issues between combatants. Whatever’s going on in AEW, it seems clear that those issues exist in spades. The question is whether those issues overshadow the show they’re meant to advance. If so, and if they’re so strong that they warrant the termination of one or more of the participants then they have done significant damage to the promotion, taking out top stars who in some cases have burned so many bridges elsewhere they may have nowhere else to go.
What gets lost in the kayfabe discussion is the fact that alleged executives in their late 30s allegedly got into a fistfight with a 40-plus-year-old employee. Said employee (OK, independent contractor)’s almost 50-year-old buddy, who is also employed by the company, evened the odds by biting and throwing a chair at his bosses. My friend Evan Ginzburg was quick to note the lunacy of the situation: grown men in their work environment, whose job it is to put on a show, deciding to settle their differences like kids on the playground. All the more ridiculous considering that the event at which they performed was a rousing success, and all of the active performers involved make more money than they likely would have dreamed of in their days on the independent circuit.
Much as I want to be sympathetic to Punk in particular, his conduct has damaged whatever goodwill he had generated less than a year after coming back. Worse, it has undermined every aspect that made him worth watching.
Punk has always been known as a malcontent. In small doses it’s endearing. It was the basis of his last best promo, the infamous ‘pipe bomb’ from his WWE days. That event took place at the end of a live RAW broadcast, holding a WWE microphone in a controlled environment. What happened this weekend took place during a press conference following a pay-per view. Without so much as a question asked of him, Punk lashed out against AEW, its executives and his colleagues, burying them on personal terms while CEO Tony Khan looked on helpless. Punk took the opportunity to punch down on Colt Cabana, Adam Page and others. He was less a voice of the voiceless than a voice for his own disingenuous discontent. It was, as my friend Elliott Silverstein would say, a textbook example of a media event gone wrong. Punk not only blew up AEW in his rant, but he hurt his own brand. Whenever, wherever, however he comes back, it’s difficult to see how someone trusts him with a live microphone again. For someone whose greatest talent lie in his promo skills, this feels fatal. If Punk is truly this unhappy with the promotion that gave him a second act, he already knows how to quit. His issues with the Young Bucks feel less like righteous indignation and more, to borrow a line from past baseball strikes, “millionaires fighting billionaires.”
Further, Punk apparently suffered serious injuries in a fight that he allegedly started. If he were to come back, he’d be out six to nine months with a shoulder or pectoral injury. Fans were already willing to suspend disbelief to see him as a tough guy five years after a pair of UFC losses to lower-level opposition. If he can’t finish a fight he started against opponents whose wrestling offence is transparently goofy, he loses credibility. Former Mid-South promoter Bill Watts infamously instructed his roster that they shouldn’t go looking for fights outside the ring, but if they found themselves in trouble they had better beat their opponents, lest they lose face with fans and become useless to the promotion.
My colleague, John Powell recently took the Bucks and Omega to task for their involvement in the fracas, correctly noting that their actions were unbecoming any kind of executive. A closer look into AEW’s personnel suggests that the titles may carry some weight backstage but are not recognized in any real governance sense. For staters, Tony Khan and his father, Shahid, are the founders, sole owners and top executives of AEW. Tony Khan is listed as the President, Chef Executive Officer, General Manager and Executive Producer of AEW — a consolidation of power that rivals Vince McMahon’s monopoly on WWE control until he recently retired. Despite their titles neither the Bucks nor Omega are listed among AEW’s actual corporate staff, reproduced from Wikipedia below:
- Amanda Huber – Community outreach officer
- Chad Glenn – Director of finance
- Chris Harrington – Vice president of business strategy
- Dana Massie – Chief marketing officer; Chief merchandising officer
- Kevin Sullivan – Vice president of post production
- Margaret Stalvey – Legal coordinator
- Mark Caplan – Head of licensing and merchandising
- Megha Parekh – Chief legal officer
- Nik Sobic – Vice president of business operations
- Shane Emerson – Head of global programming and partnerships
While it would appear that AEW is in fact one part of a larger, closely held private company, it’s also worth noting that the Khans (not Nick, he works for the other guys) have handed out a number of executive vice presidencies and other titles. What’s more interesting is that as far as I have seen the Bucks’ and Omegas are EVPs without specific portfolio. Contrast to Sonjay Dutt for example (Vice President of Production and Creative Coordination), QT Marshall (Vice President of Show and Creative Coordination), or Christopher Daniels (Vice President of Talent Relations) and one wonders to what extent the executive titles, like the Trios belts, are themselves works. The Elite’s executive responsibilities seem to lie on the creative side, although all (including former EVP Cody Rhodes, who has been silent about this except for a satisfied-looking cigar-chomping silhouette on social media) acknowledge that ultimately Khan holds the pen on his promotion’s creative direction. It is also worth noting that Punk’s tirade has brought into sharp relief dissatisfaction with the EVP’s management style, including the opportunities for non-Elite members to get ahead in the promotion. Full disclosure, a recent search of AEW’s corporate structure didn’t turn up any official documentation. If anyone out there has something, I would be delighted to look it over and offer a more informed opinion.
— Cody Rhodes (@CodyRhodes) September 4, 2022
All told, it’s a bad look for AEW, especially Khan. Work or shoot, an out-of-control press conference has painted him as a weak leader who is not in charge of his company. Wrestling, particularly under the Khan umbrella, is big business. This isn’t the kind of ‘outlaw mudshow’ that Jim Cornette runs down, but a sophisticated entertainment corporation. Whoever threw the first or the last punch needs to be disciplined. If they’re making a significant salary or carry an executive title they should also probably be removed from the company entirely.
As a fan, this sucks. I’m a long-time Punk supporter but his comments were insubordinate and dragged personal issues into a professional environment. His response to his colleagues’ and bosses’ actions would get him fired from any job that didn’t involve fake-hitting people, and the same should apply here (it goes without saying that Ace Steel, who seemed to inflict the most damage, should also be let go). The Bucks and Omega should follow suit. WWE recently shed some of its most senior executives and owners for reasons stemming from their failure to keep their hands to themselves.
Pro wrestling is based on the idea of pretending to hurt people in front of an audience for money. While wrestlers, like baseball or hockey players, may consent to a certain amount of violence in their respecting playing fields, this does not apply to real-life fights once the cameras stop rolling. Time will tell whether the events of this weekend were work, shoot, or somewhere in between. It will also tell us how much patience we as fans will have with this sort of conduct, and how professional AEW’s brand of wrestling truly is.
TOP PHOTO: CM Punk after AEW All Out. Photo by George Tahinos, https://georgetahinos.smugmug.com