According to the current rumor mill (i.e. Meltzer, Sapp), it seems like AEW is negotiating to buy out the rest of CM Punk’s contract. From various accounts, supposedly AEW is anti-Punk. Already, Punk’s mentor/trainer Ace Steel has been reported to be gone. So the question becomes, what does this mean for AEW and CM Punk?
First, according to the newsletters, the main sticking point at the moment is a non-compete clause in Punk’s contract. Most people have speculated or pointed to the possibility of a WWE return as we have seen numerous WWE talents going back under the Hunter regime. Even Brock Lesnar, who seemed done at one point after McMahon announced his retirement, had been convinced to change his mind and continue working with them. Although it’s been said that Punk’s contention with the WWE has been HHH, HHH has been known to smooth things over as he’s worked his way up the corporate ladder (Billy Graham, Bruno Sammartino for the Hall of Fame). So with the WWE hurting for more main eventers, the likelihood of Punk having a Lesnar-like contract is possible, which makes the non-compete an actual reality.
But if Punk does still bear a grudge that money can’t resolve, then I think his career with pro-wrestling is done. At his age, with his health problems and the fact that there really aren’t anywhere else where he can go that will pay him what he believes he’s worth, there’s very little reason for him to carry on. While the foot injury was just a case of bad judgment (he got caught up in the moment), the injury with his elbow might’ve been an eye opening incident to Punk. Punk has mentioned that his bump card is pretty full, he’s admitted to “being old” during the infamous scrum and he’s probably looking at AEW as a place that could cause permanent injury since Tony Khan clearly hasn’t done much to fix the problems of continuous weekly issues in that regard. So Punk getting to sit home and collect a large paycheck might be good for him, although he potentially would miss some huge payoffs if the WWE is ready to talk to him.
And while some might say he can wait for that non-compete to end, the truth is that at his age and condition along with the high expectations of the WWE, I think that window will shrink pretty fast. I’m sure if he were able to take off right this second to the WWE, they would have quite a few high profile matches waiting where he can make a pretty good pay off for them. So he might not be that happy with the non-compete in the short term.
As far as AEW is concerned, this is a really bad look even if Punk is considered toxic within the locker room. He was able to bring in his share of fans to boost things up and with him gone, there’s a high likelihood that those fans won’t be watching AEW anymore. Or worse yet, they might just shit all over the product and especially Tony Khan. I did hear that fans were booing Tony Khan out of the building after this situation in another arena after he came out so a lot of the goodwill/political capital that Tony Khan has been building up with the fans will diminish.
If that’s the case, will they keep Kenny Omega and the Bucks? I’m going to guess yes. I don’t know if they will be stripped of their titles but I have a feeling that once Punk is gone, Omega and the Bucks will probably try to get more of their influence back. I think Moxley doesn’t care because he’s going to make good money and his wife is there while Jericho probably has gained more influence with the Bucks and Omega out (he just signed a new contract that explained his growth within AEW). Also, I think Jericho is smart enough to know how to maneuver in these situations and probably doesn’t really care which side won as long as he’s making money and having influence over what he’s interested in.
But I do think that with Punk more than likely being gone from AEW that we’ve already started to see Omega and the Bucks’ influence being reasserted (if that ever truly went away). You had Shida getting an unearned title shot against Tony Storm, Riho returning (and looking ridiculous) with Saraya and Britt fighting to the back so that Riho gets the spotlight and Mei Suruga looking to make her return soon. I believe Jamie Hayter is going to face Riho and there’s a high probability that Hayter loses. But if she does, then it’s a pretty clear indicator of Omega returning within the near future since he’s been said to hold a great deal of influence over the women’s division.
Then with the Bucks, we already saw the Best Friends receive a trios title shot against Death Triangle on AEW, in the opening match no less. Anyone believing that Chuck Taylor deserving of a title is out of their minds while Orange Cassidy now has the All Pacific title, which renders that title meaningless in more ways than one. Also, FTR has been constantly relegated towards the back and Mark Sterling being in segments against The Acclaimed to cool them off with Sterling’s fake lawyer act.
Yet again from the 10k mile high optics, I think this situation is going to be really bad for AEW. We’re going to see more indy crap, more dangerous stuff, more injuries and poorly thought out stories that are meant for “long term story telling.” But none of this will gain ratings. The only way AEW will gain another ratings spike is if someone dies on national TV with the audience tuning in out of morbid curiosity (which has a high likelihood of occurring given that every week you see some wrestler getting a serious injury and being out for months).
But the real blemish is going to be on Tony Khan’s reputation in the long run. I think he’s put himself in a bad predicament and while the general legal way this was handled probably is the right move, the business move will have severe consequences. I’ve already mentioned the alienation of Punk’s fans so AEW will lose a percentage of people there. Chicago will more than likely be AEW’s version of Montreal (a la Bret Hart/screwjob) moving forward. The TV networks, especially with the recent merge of TBS and Discovery, will call into question this situation especially as advertisers look at why AEW’s ratings might be failing or losing potential sponsors over knowing that a well known star in CM Punk had left. Merchandise sales will go down since Punk is a huge seller that Tony Khan has admitted. In general, it won’t make a huge dent in Tony’s deep pockets, but it does hurt the growth prospects down the line as well as the optics from the business components.
The other thing is that this might be viewed as a victory for the indy way of thinking, which is what I termed a conflict in wrestling philosophies. Indies are the indies because they won’t ever grow and cater to niche, regional audiences. While indy wrestling has its place, it certainly isn’t for everyone. And that’s your core issue here. The old school way that Punk wanted to go is based on Bret Hart and more traditional values in wrestling. Selling, the emotion, the art of the promo, making the wrestling feel real despite everyone knowing its predetermined, etc. It already is tough enough to convince people these days to watch wrestling because most people will think its stupid. But if it looks bad on top of stupid, people will tune out.
Also, the way AEW is doing the actual wrestling itself has been bad except for the select few who are capable of executing a good wrestling match. They certainly have the talent and trainers to move them in the right direction. But if the people from the top are resisting that philosophy, then the product as a whole suffers. The biggest aspect where the product suffers is the talent themselves. While the matches will never truly reach 5* (in my book), the main problem is that these people are heavily injury prone. You cannot deny this fact. Every week, at least one person gets injured during a match. Some are freak accidents, others just look like botches from untrained people. But the “style” that they are doing is missing something that has caused an increase of incidents that are unprecedented.
Another issue that has been underscored during this is that there is a division within AEW between the Bucks/Omega camp and the Punk camp. Right now, the dirt sheets have been putting out that AEW is anti-Punk but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone within that company. I’m certain guys like FTR, Hobbs, Darby, Moxley, The Acclaimed (particularly Anthony Bowens), etc. were either pro-Punk or at least a fan/friend of the guy, but I sense that other talent might be fearful of their positions and this might be a clear indication that the Bucks/Omega will return shortly and resume their positions as EVPs.
And again, this goes back to everything being on Tony Khan’s head. It’s clear he’s losing control over the locker room aspect. We’ve already heard about Andrade being sent home while Sammy Guevara having issues with Andrade and Eddie Kingston. There’s some rumors about Thunder Rosa being under scrutiny, which might even go back as far as Ivelisse. There was the Jonathon Grisham incident where he cussed Tony Khan out before the last ROH PPV. You had Malakai Black and Buddy Murphy taking time off reportedly for mental health issues, although the rumor was that they wanted to get released to return to the WWE (along with Andrade). Whichever way you paint the situation, the bottom line is that Tony Khan does not feel as though he’s truly in charge of AEW. I think people view him as just a guy that can pay them to get on national TV so that eventually they can make a name for themselves to return or possibly get to the WWE, especially with HHH in charge.
At this point, I think Tony Khan needs to hire experienced veterans who are capable of running a company and Tony needs to function just as an angel investor with some strategic input. But getting guys like say Jerry and Jeff Jarrett, Jerry Lawler, etc. to come in and take over might be a good start. He needs people who have been successful in running a pro-wrestling company to go in and start managing it. It might require a complete reboot where the new people run down the roster and do a massive house cleaning. But if that doesn’t happen, I can’t see AEW being around longer than 3 more years at this rate. It’s either going to be attrition, a bad lawsuit, the TV networks kicking them off or Tony Khan burning out that will cause the downfall of AEW. And watching Tony Khan unprofessionally handling the recent Ariel Helwani interview demonstrates clearly to me that Tony’s headspace is not in a good spot and that he might be slowly cracking under the pressure.