On Sunday night, All Elite Wrestling, the upstart promotion run by Tony Khan, the son of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, had their biggest event of the year at Now Arena in Hoffman Estates, IL. Odds are, though, if you have heard anything about the proceedings of the evening, you aren’t aware of the wrestling so much as the post show fire bombing of the company by newly crowned champion CM Punk.
For those that know the Lockport, IL born wrestler, he is a soothsayer and a truth teller. He is a great wrestler and gatekeeper of the sport, but also acerbic and short tempered with those he feels has crossed him or wronged him in any way. He is as notable for his promos as he is for much of what he has done in the ring. On Sunday night, he decided to light an M-80 and throw it into the AEW toilet to see how hard he could blow it all up.
In a post-show interview (think post-NCAA tournament interviews with players, a concept that has existed in Japan for a long time but is new to american audiences) Punk decided to air his grievances against Adam “Hangman” Page, who made a remark in an interview about Punk months earlier, causing anger in CM that he has held onto, new wrestlers, whom he believes don’t show him enough reverence and respect when he talks to them, and the Executive Vice Presidents of AEW: Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, Nick and Matt.
The latter of these targets decided to confront CM Punk after the interview in a very real argument. While details are sketchy, what is generally regarded as truth is that during the heated confrontation is that Punk punched one of the Young Bucks while show producer and longtime friend Ace Steel pulled Kenny Omega’s hair, bit him, and threw a chair that hit one of the Young Bucks in the face.
Six thousand miles away in Cardiff, Wales, a once stale wrestling promotion was continuing a string of strong showings that had begun when an old face was given a new role within the company.
Vince McMahon long ruled WWE as his singular interest in life, or so we thought. It turned out, he also enjoyed having extramarital affairs and using company money to pay the women off. That would end up being his undoing, as he was removed from the kingdom he had reigned over for four decades by the company’s board of executives in July. He was replaced with Paul Levesque, known to wrestling fans as HHH. In prior years, Levesque had been charged with building WWE’s developmental territory, NXT. It was there that he built a cult following among wrestling fans for bringing in a host of indy darlings and young athletes and developing their characters, with the NXT brand becoming known as the wrestling branch of the company, while WWE proper became more known for entertainment.
Unfortunately, that entertainment had grown stale. After having spent 17 years with no real competition, Vince and the company had grown repetitive and more well known for things that people despised (quick camera cuts, complete de-emphasis of wrestling) than anything else. This is largely due to McMahon’s refusal to let anyone except him into his kingdom. 70 year olds aren’t known for being people who are interested in or familiar with changes in the larger pop culture landscape. McMahon was no exception. Known more as someone who enjoyed a fart joke more than anything relating to nuance, the product lost it’s way, and ratings showed.
During this time, McMahon also had pushed Levesque out of NXT along with any of his associates after Levesque suffered a heart episode (never called a heart attack publicly) last year. They were replaced with known McMahon lackeys like Bruce Pritchard. Vince was trying to pin the failures of the wrestlers who were graduating from NXT up to the main roster on Levesque, even though the failures were more on the man staring back in the mirror, as McMahon had taken it upon himself to give the wrestlers wholesale changes when they hit the main roster that largely neutered their characters and took away what made them so popular in developmental in the first place.
With Vince pushed out, HHH was put in charge of every brand of the company and the changes have been abrupt and noticeable. He immediately started rehiring wrestlers that Vince hadn’t seen value in and fired. The look of the matches changed. It started to really feel different. It started to get better. And as the matches got better, the ratings improved, as well. In the middle of summer, when people are generally tuning out from their TV sets, WWE’s television ratings have increased 15%. This is not by coincidence.
Fans who had long given up on the product that WWE was putting out were very willing to come back when they thought they weren’t going to be treated like they were idiots.
Back in 2019, the fortunes of these two companies were going in very different directions. Around the time that AEW was starting to gain momentum and had started airing their own weekly live television show to rave reviews and ratings numbers in core categories that made Turner Broadcasting very happy, WWE were caught in controversy with a group of people more notable now for starting a rogue golf league and killing journalists.
While stories are still muddled, what is generally known now is that via a disagreement in payments, Vince McMahon had run afoul of the country of Saudi Arabia. This is known as fact due to WWE having to tell their stockholders in a quarterly report that they would have a cash flow shortfall related to the event. What is also known is that the nature of these payments was very illegal, and the WWE would pay a 39 million dollar settlement to the SEC to clean up their legal issues.
What is also known is that a large number of staff and wrestlers were “held” in Saudi Arabia for many hours, not being allowed to leave the country. Some guys like Vince had taken a private jet and left before the show had even ended, but now a large portion of the WWE team were being held on a tarmac in a chartered jet, not being allowed to leave.
At the time, WWE was seen as this monolith that didn’t know how far it’s base had crumbled, and AEW was the upstart company destined to run neck and neck with Vince and the boys.
Three years later, and the wind change has been noticeable. WWE is the company that everyone wants to work for now, and AEW is being seen as the ship that everyone is abandoning before it sinks.
Of course, AEW isn’t going anywhere. While they haven’t grown in terms of television ratings as they had hoped, their core numbers still make them one of the most watched shows on cable television every week. But a lot of what made it new and exciting has worn off and now they have to learn how to exist on a week to week basis. They aren’t different from a new restaurant that pops up in your town. At first, everyone is talking about it, and everyone wants to check it out. But after the hype fades, then you still have a business to run and bills to pay and asses to put in seats.
It is far from the beginning of the end for AEW, but it is definitely the end of their beginning. Cody Rhodes, who was perhaps the biggest reason there was so much stability in the locker room of AEW in the first place is gone, having gone back to WWE earlier this summer. Other wrestlers reportedly want out, such as Tommy End, knowing in WWE has Aleister Black and in AEW as Malakai Black. His talent went wasted in WWE, but now his character is what feels neglected in AEW.
Additionally, AEW is criticized for not having enough of a women’s division presence on their television, which is partly fair, but partly explained by pinning a lot of their division from 2020-2021 on the back of Brit Baker, and having fans crap on her existence, even as she continued to progress and put on better matches.
AEW started as a company that was trying to be all things to all wrestling fans. What they didn’t take into account is that wrestling fans crave one thing more than a good match, a great promo, flashy stage, or anything else: they crave attention. That’s why they spend their time posting in fan groups and devote their existence to trolling each other.
You can’t be all things to wrestling fans, because wrestling fans don’t want everything to be fulfilled. Then what would they complain about? Where would they go for the attention they so crave?
Right now, WWE is the hot product. Everyone is laying flowers at their feet and talking up their changes. HHH is the belle of the ball right now, and he has three decades of experience in the ring to fall back on when he needs an idea. He has a group of wrestlers who are hungry to show what they can really do now that Vince has been showed the exit. WWE and HHH have the wind at their back. All the momentum going their way.
AEW has a PR crisis. This will undoubtedly be good for their ratings. Their highest rated show in history is definitely in play for Wednesday night. But their executives and their biggest star literally fought each other on Sunday night. Where they go from here is the first major test of the three year old company. Owner Tony Khan built the company like a fan with deep pockets. He was given the abilities to build his dreams. But now that he has gotten everything he wants, he doesn’t know how to keep it all from crumbling below him. How he handles the next six months-year is going to say a lot about the long term viability of the company.
Both companies are pointed in different directions, sailing through the night. Inevitably, the fortunes will change. They always do. The problem with wrestling fans is also what will inevitably lead to them turning on WWE. Once they get what they want, then what will they have to complain about? They will find something. They always do.