Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks are all currently serving suspensions from All Elite Wrestling, with CM Punk’s future also uncertain. Omega and The Bucks have been stripped of their newly-won Trios Titles, while Punk was forced to relinquish the promotion’s World Title that he won for the second time, eight days ago.
The suspensions and subsequent title vacations are the result of an explosive press conference, an even more explosive backstage brawl and months of simmering tensions that led to the already infamous events of Sunday, September 4.
To put it mildly, AEW All Out 2022 was a far cry from the barnstorming success of the preceding event 12 months ago.
All Out 2021: AEW’s Next Phase
Labor Day weekend 2021 was a momentous time in AEW’s brief history. Bryan Danielson debuted for the company. As did Adam Cole. Perhaps most notably of all, CM Punk competed in his first professional wrestling match in almost eight years.
After the final bell had rung, and the post-main event shenanigans had subsided, press conferences were uproariously positive. The pay-per-view had felt like a seismic night for Tony Khan‘s Jacksonville-based promotion.
Reactions in the arena, and online, were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The Chicago crowd molten for their hometown hero Punk as he overcame Darby Allin. They were almost as white hot for the arrivals of Danielson and Cole.
It was a monumental hat-trick of star power for Khan to add to his roster. Dream matches were immediately being fantasy booked, and talk of The Elite and co. catching up with their more powerful neighbours in Stamford, Connecticut caught on like wildfire. Could it happen? Was the old ‘New York’ territory under threat from another TNT-housed promotion?
Well, if Labor Day weekend 2022 is anything to go by, probably not for the foreseeable future.
Instead of toasting another memorable show for the ages, Tony Khan was suspending four of his top stars, all of whom had been coronated with championship gold only 48 hours previously.
Punk, fresh off only his second match back after completely destroying his foot three months ago, took it upon himself to ether former AEW Champion, ‘Hangman’ Adam Page, and Executive Vice Presidents, The Young Bucks and Omega.
Entering the media room at the Now Arena bloody, exhausted, and armed with a truckload of soda cans and baked goods from Mindy’s Bakery, and even more grievances, the now two-time AEW Champion appeared the polar opposite of a man who had just lifted the World Title in his hometown.
Rather than discuss his victory over Jon Moxley in a hellacious classic of a main event, the former WWE Champion spent more than 20 minutes verbally eviscerating former best friend Scott ‘Colt Cabana’ Colton, Omega, The Young Bucks and ’empty-headed dumb f**k’ Page.
For a man synonymous with dropping ‘pipebombs’, even this seemed like a good few steps too far.
And The Bucks and Omega clearly agreed.
What happened next is currently the subject of an internal investigation. There are, of course, differing views of how ‘Brawl Out’ played out.
Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
Omega and The Bucks’ side of the story presents The Elite as Punk’s frustrated co-workers. Showing up at his locker room to demand answers, and receiving fists, chairs and teeth for their efforts.
Punk’s side, flanked by his good friend and AEW producer, Ace Steel, alleges that The Elite did not bother with knocking, and instead kicked the door down. The initial punches and chair were thrown as a form of self-defence, is the case Punk and Steel are making. Steel sunk his teeth into Omega’s arm when he believed he was about to be choked out by the former AEW Champion.
The oft trotted verbiage ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’ springs to mind. No matter the outcome of the investigation, it is unlikely we will ever really know for sure the exact specifics. If Punk manages to maintain his status with the company or he doesn’t, neither side of the story is likely to alter.
But Punk’s status now leaves All Elite at the precipice of either impending success or disaster.
CM Punk: Saviour or Sacrifice?
Multiple reports over the past week have alleged that Punk already had existing heat backstage before he applied scorched Earth tactics to his All Out press conference. On a recent podcast, the Straight Edge Superstar was labelled a ‘c**t’ by one of the Elite’s former stablemates, Bobby Fish. The one-time Undisputed Era member was left unimpressed by Punk’s attitude following a match the pair had in October of last year.
And Punk’s once sunny disposition, that he arrived in AEW with over a year ago, has apparently not been spotted backstage in a considerable amount of time.
Frustrated that younger members of the roster have been unwilling to listen to his advice, the two-time AEW Champion declared: “I’m hurt, I’m old, I’m f**king tired and I work with f**king children“ in between rage-filled bites of muffin at the now infamous press conference/character assassination.
He would also add: “I’m tired of wrestling these p***ks. I’m tired of wrestling these kids that think they know everything.”
Is Punk in Danger of Being Passed By?
This mood is worlds away from the one Punk entered the promotion with. Wanting to tear it up with a prodigious young roster, Punk seemed reborn in 2021. He now seems like a veteran at odds with an industry that has changed in his absence. And changed considerably.
Punk’s advice reportedly not being taken onboard is perhaps a result of the Bucks and Omega’s growing influence over the business over the past few years. They, not Punk, are now seen as the benchmark. They are the inspirations for the new generation.
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer has intimated that Punk’s advice now feels out of place for many young talents. It is not seen as relevant to the modern pro wrestling landscape.
For Tony Khan, this could potentially make his upcoming decision a bit easier. His biggest star is not seen as a locker room leader at present. His experience is seemingly not counting for as much as was hoped backstage. Therefore, is it worthwhile keeping him around? What would happen to morale? If reports are to be believed, it would actually improve.
Money vs Morale
But what of business? The bottom line. The most important aspect of wrestling. Or any industry, for that matter. All the great morale in the world is worthless if there’s no money to support it.
Punk is, undoubtedly, AEW’s biggest drawing card. The back-to-back million+ viewerships enjoyed by Dynamite heading into All Out were generated almost entirely by the controversy surrounding his return from injury.
A promo going off script on Adam Page set tongues wagging across the industry. A World Title match with Jon Moxley added further fuel to the fire. Debate surrounding Punk’s injury and general mood generated nothing but intrigue and speculation. What will happen next? What is his relationship like with the locker room? With Tony Khan?
Controversy Creates Cash
The Dynamite following All Out likewise did another rating of over a million – no doubt due to the enormity of the fallout from Punk’s nuclear press conference. He didn’t appear, of course, but that was beside the point. His words had secured the bag for another week.
Whatever the result of the internal investigation, plenty of people within AEW want Punk gone. They already cannot see a way back for him. Yet without him, a guaranteed big-money programme with The Elite can never happen. The weekly intrigue such an on-screen feud would garner would be phenomenal.
It was with such business in mind that Punk perhaps went into that fateful press conference. OK, he’ll infuriate his colleagues, but he’ll also present them with a chance to produce some of the most talked about television the industry has ever seen.
By keeping him around, however, Khan could be teaching his locker room a terrible lesson. Essentially, Punk could be seen as bigger than the promotion in one sense. OK, he’s taken a suspension, but he’s been allowed to tear into the company at one of their own shows, sat next to the boss no less, and be welcomed back into the most high-profile programme in company history. Yes, it’s drawing houses. But at what cost?
CM Punk vs The Elite in 2023?
Would The Elite even want to do business with CM Punk? Would they rather take their myriad of talents elsewhere? Perhaps somewhere considerably further North East than Jacksonville, Florida? One rumour emanating from the situation by Fightful Select insinuated that Omega and The Bucks had informed Khan they could walk if Punk wasn’t relieved from duties.
Another twist in the tale, of course, is Punk’s newest injury. A suspected torn tricep happening within five minutes of his All Out main event with Moxley. It is likely to keep him on the shelf for a long period of time. Therefore, there is time to allow the current situation to cool. However, given that legal proceedings could emerge from ‘Brawl Out’, that is far from a guarantee.
CM Punk being kept in a job, but being away from the locker room for 8-12 months, could work perfectly. If the company continues to thrive in his absence, he perhaps realises he is dispensable and also that ‘the kids’ know what they’re doing. Maybe he softens his current attitude and alters his mindset for a money-spinning return.
On the flip side, if AEW struggle to regain the interest levels they had with Punk, his most ardent critics will surely allow business sense to prevail over emotion and agree to do business for the good of the brand. A dramatic return after almost a year on the sidelines, with ‘Go To Sleeps’ being dished out to Omega and The Bucks, would set the industry alight. Tony Khan just has to prevent them from trying to put each other to sleep for real backstage.
Can Khan Crack the Whip?
Khan’s own image is also on the line in all of this, of course. Sat next to Punk post-All Out, he had multiple opportunities to shut everything down. He could have. He should have. Crucially, he didn’t.
Seemingly, Khan had not briefed Punk ahead of time, when there was clearly unresolved tension from his existing beef with Page. Punk should have been made aware that no dirty laundry was to be aired in public. Instead, Punk was soiling reputations left, right and centre.
Punk’s show of force made Khan look helpless. It shone a light on a promoter seemingly trying to keep his head above water while his entire locker room pulled him into the murky depths of political stand-offs and punch-ups.
New Leaders Step Up
Enlisting the services of Moxley, Chris Jericho and Bryan Danielson as de facto locker room leaders in CM Punk and The Elite’s absence is a wise strategy from Khan, however. Reports have already confirmed that the meeting the trio held before Dynamite this past week was met with overwhelming positivity.
Bringing back MJF, although a story overshadowed by the Punk debacle, was also a perfectly timed bit of creative.
The new number one contender for the AEW Title may have had his own very well-publicised differences with Khan this year. But now he’s back, he is certainly best for business. Turning the real-life drama surrounding MJF’s contract into an on-screen storyline certainly developed fan interest further. However, a similar play with Punk and The Elite is so much more deeply personal, with so many more moving, potentially volatile parts at play, that it is not something that can be replicated as easily.
Interestingly enough, MJF is also one of the ‘neutral’ witnesses to ‘Brawl Out’ who is seen as crucial to any decision that is made off the back of the ongoing investigation, along with AEW and Jacksonville Jaguars Chief Legal Officer, Megha Parekh.
Of course, backstage fights are often as commonplace as on-screen ones in the world of professional wrestling. The history of the business is littered with countless of them. Some are very well-documented. But most of them are stories shared between the members of the locker rooms they occurred in. It is rare that they are ever as public as what went down between CM Punk and The Elite, however.
Tony Khan: The Decision
The public nature of this explosion makes the next steps infinitely more complicated for Tony Khan. There is money to be made. But at what cost? A released Punk could even wind up back in Stamford, Connecticut. Unlikely though it may be, you can never say never in pro wrestling. CM Punk back in a resurgent WWE under new management, even management he historically doesn’t like, could spell danger for AEW.
What is undeniable is that Punk’s press conference comments, and subsequent brawl, did dwarf the huge amounts of publicity WWE garnered from their historic Clash At The Castle show at the Principality Stadium on Saturday 3rd September.
The show, almost universally praised, was a tremendous success, both critically and commercially. Happening just a day prior to All Out, it threatened to dominate the weekend’s news. Instead, all eyes were on Jacksonville. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but as the cliche states, no publicity is bad publicity.
Strong-arming attention away from a WWE that is continuously gaining momentum isn’t a bad short-term play for AEW. More eyes are on their product as a result. It just remains to be seen how many of those eyes will stick around if CM Punk doesn’t.
Tony Khan is now faced with a decision that will make LeBron’s in 2010 look like Mr. Burns trying to decide between ketchup and catsup.
Featured Image Credit: AEW