A year ago, All Elite Wrestling was riding the crest of a wave. Viewership was increasing week to week, tickets to live events were selling like hotcakes, and the company was the talk of the pro wrestling world. There was a very good reason for that. Tony Khan’s upstart pro wrestling company had succeeded where WWE and countless others had failed by signing CM Punk, ending a seven-year exile from wrestling and making headlines in major news and entertainment papers all over the world. To borrow a cliche, Punk’s return “broke the internet.” Arenas went crazy for him. Fans who’d never watched AEW TV before started tuning in.
For several months, things only got better from there for All Elite Wrestling. The company followed up the signing of CM Punk by bringing in Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson from WWE. It felt like the pendulum had swung in AEW’s favour, with huge stars choosing AEW over WWE when their contracts fell due for renewal. The prospect of toppling Vince McMahon’s empire seemed very real. Twelve months on, the picture looks very different. Vince McMahon was indeed toppled, but not by AEW. In fact, the fall of McMahon couldn’t have come at a worse time for Tony Khan.
Where did it all go wrong?
At first, everything seemed rosy between CM Punk and AEW. He wanted to work with the top young stars in the company, and he put them over on the microphone as he did so. He had an eyeball-grabbing feud with MJF, giving the fans the match they’d wanted from the moment he walked through the door. Punk praised the company in interviews, happily posed for backstage pictures with the likes of FTR behind the scenes, and generally behaved like you’d hope an ambassador for the company might behave. There was only one spectre hanging over his head – that of Colt Cabana.
If you’re a casual fan, you might not even know who Colt Cabana is. We’ll briefly explain. Colt Cabana is another wrestler and another member of the AEW roster – one with whom CM Punk was once best friends. Punk and Cabana fell out when WWE took Punk to court for libel several years ago. The two have never mended their differences, and it just so happens that when Punk started appearing on AEW television, Cabana disappeared. There were rumours that Punk insisted that Cabana was kept away from him.
Punk has vehemently denied those rumours – as has Tony Khan – but some members of the locker room believed them. One of those people was “Hangman” Adam Page, the AEW Champion at the time and a friend of Cabana both on and off the screen. When Punk’s in-story feud switched from MJF to Page, and his pursuit of the AEW World Championship began, everything changed.
A legendary press conference
The ins and outs of what happened next will only ever be known to the people who lived through them, but we can put some of the pieces together. According to Punk, Page “went into business for himself” by making some out-of-line comments about Punk’s backstage attitude during a promo exchange on an episode of Dynamite. Punk won the match between the two (and the title) anyway but got injured in the process. He went away for three months and then came back. When he came back, it was obvious that something was different.
The Punk who came back from injury looked older and more physically beaten. His demeanour had changed. One of the first things he did with a live microphone in his hand was to take unscripted shots at Page, despite Page not being in the ring with him at the time and the comments making little sense to the watching audience. Punk viewed this as a “receipt.” Page’s allies saw it as an overstep, delivered months after the apparent initial offence. Doing this apparently wasn’t enough for Punk, who won his AEW World Championship back from Jon Moxley and then attended a post-show press conference. This press conference is now legendary.
In an explosive meltdown, Punk went into an expletive-laden tirade about Page, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and the other “children” in the locker room. He then declared himself “old and hurt,” went back to his locker room, and got into a physical fight with the Bucks and Omega. He hasn’t been seen on AEW television since. One can never be one hundred per cent sure of anything in the pro wrestling business, but the general consensus is that he’s done and won’t be back.
A foreseeable problem?
Since CM Punk has been gone, AEW has found it harder to sell tickets and more difficult to persuade people to tune in. Ratings have dipped. So have ticket sales. The Punk experiment seems to have backfired, but was this foreseeable? Was this a gamble that didn’t pay off? AEW is, after all, a company that likes a gamble. Its biggest pay-per-view has a gambling-related name. The first video game it ever released was a casino game, albeit not one that’s troubled the pages of SisterSite.com as one of the most popular of its kind. However, one of the things that Sister Site will remind you is that you win as often as you lose (at best) when you play casino games, and perhaps that’s something that Tony Khan should have reminded himself of before he bet on a big-money contract for CM Punk.
The short answer is yes; this was a foreseeable problem. CM Punk is undoubtedly one of the best in-ring performers of his generation and one of the best “promo guys” in wrestling history. He has what Jim Ross would call “a million-dollar mouth.” However, you only need to speak to a few wrestlers to get a picture of how he can be behind the scenes. “Difficult to work with” is one of the most common pieces of feedback you’ll hear. “Touchy” is another. Punk’s ego is delicate, and when it goes off, so does he. The millions of dollars that Khan paid Punk gave his company a short-term boost, but he might be dealing with the long-term consequences of it for a while.