Social media is blowing up. There are people who are happy that CM Punk has been fired from AEW. There are people who are outraged. There are people who are simply over the drama and just want things to cool off. At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their opinion but we do have to look at the facts behind the situation, the role of wrestling reporters and social media influencers in all of this and what all of this means for everyone’s future.
It Started With Colt Cabana
Prior to the build to CM Punk challenging “Hangman” Adam Page for the AEW title at Double or Nothing 2022, there were no indications of any backstage troubles. That’s not to say that there weren’t any issues, but nothing had been made public. In the build to Punk challenging for the title, rumors started to circulate that CM Punk wanted Colt Cabana fired. (Punk has repeatedly denied this and says it’s a story fabricated by members of The Elite)
Then, the infamous face to face promo on the May 12th, 2022 episode of Dynamite where Adam Page went off script happened. It was clear that Page’s words weren’t part of the story. CM Punk was a storyline “babyface” and Page, the champion of the company, was calling him a cancer he was defending AEW from. It made no sense to viewers. It didn’t fit within the story. It wrestling terms, Page was “shooting” on Punk by going off script and Punk was forced to react on the fly to something he wasn’t prepared for.
There’s a lot to unpack here and it’s important because to the best of our knowledge, this is the genesis of all the issues we would see play out over the next 16 months, culminating with Punk being fired. Why did Page go off script? He’s never denied that he did or even spoke on the subject. If he did go into business for himself, he did in fact jeopardize the company’s first million dollar live gate, which is arguably a fireable offense.
We need to pause and try to figure out “the why” of it all. Page had been built up since Day 1 as the guy to eventually take the title. It was a slow build, with him losing in a tournament final to Chris Jericho to determine the inaugural champion. Then Page had a long storyline build to get to the top of the mountain. Fans were desperate for Page to finally “win the big one” and when he eventually unseated Kenny Omega to become the company’s fourth ever champion, it was considered a crowning achievement in terms of long term storytelling.
But then his reign was largely considered a flop. All of the build would amount to little. Page would have good matches with Bryan Danielson and Lance Archer but wasn’t the focal point of storylines and amounted to little more than a transitional champion. The writing was on the wall that CM Punk was now the biggest draw in AEW and the man that the company had invested so much in prior to winning the title, was now just a placeholder until it was time to hand Punk the gold.
Did Adam Page resent Punk for this? Nobody knows but it would be understandable if he did. He went from being the future to a stepping stone quickly. I don’t think a single person would blame him for having feelings about this. Unfortunately, this type of thing has happened a million times in pro wrestling. Ask someone like Bret Hart. Or CM Punk himself. We can’t make any conclusions that Page reacted out of anger when he went off script in his face to face promo with CM Punk but is it plausible that Page and his friends in The Elite were upset that the company they helped start was now shifting its focus over to someone from the outside who is notoriously opinionated and often controversial.
CM Punk would go onto defeat Adam Page for the AEW Championship at Double or Nothing 2022, in a match that was clunky at best. Punk would later tell ESPN that Page chipped his tooth in the match and that Page chopped him in the mouth, instead of the chest. Again, Page has never publicly commented on any of this but Punk’s side of the story is that Page was unprofessional (shoot promo) and dangerous (title match). Punk would break his foot days after the match and be out until August. In his return to the company, he would go off script himself, daring Page to come out to the ring in an unplanned move and then insulting him for not coming out. Punk called this a “receipt”, a wrestling term for payback.
Everyone knows the story of All Out 2022 at this point. It’s as well documented as the Montreal Screwjob. Punk defeats Jon Moxley to regain the title, injures himself again in the match and then publicly trashes many of his co-workers in a media scrum following the show. The brunt of his verbal wrath is directed at Adam Page and The Young Bucks. After 20 minutes of Punk saying literally anything that came to mind and putting Tony Khan in an incredibly awkward position, Punk goes to his locker room. In his locker room was his dog Larry and Ace Steele’s wife Lucy. The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega – all Executive Vice President’s of the company – entered Punk’s locker room and a fight breaks out, which would also involve Ace Steele, Christopher Daniels and others.
This leads to a major investigation and suspensions for many, Punk and The Elite included. Ace Steele was fired. It’s a major black eye for the company and the backstage tension was high. Reports are coming out of a divided locker room, where some people sided firmly with The Elite and others firmly with Punk. Accusations of The Young Bucks holding certain talents back come into play. Ultimately, The Elite retain their EVP titles and everyone comes back, with The Elite adamantly refusing to speak with Punk and Punk insisting that a sit down was needed. Tony Khan tries to separate everyone and avoid confrontation rather than demanding a resolution.
The Summer of 2023
Punk returns, on his own show on Saturday nights. The Elite and anti Punk talents are on the Wednesday show. Talents who seemingly are anti Elite move to Saturdays. A soft brand split happens not for any creative reasons, but rather to separate a tense and divided locker room. An awkward summer plays out where Ace Steele is rehired but isn’t allowed to attend shows, in a move designed to placate both Punk and The Elite. As a rebuttal, Punk insists that certain talents can’t work Saturdays, where he is attempting to be a locker room leader and part of the creative team. Punk tells talents that Saturdays are different and in the case of Jack Perry, stunts involving real glass aren’t to be done on Saturdays. Finally, Punk after one show insults Adam Page to the live crowd. The story circulates around and Punk tells people he’s close with that he regrets it and offered to apologize.
Then, the events of All Out 2023 happen. A brief recap:
– Punk’s travel plans were bungled by the company and he has to take public transportation with the help of fans after his flight.
– Punk, Brody King and Miro were seen entering Wembley Stadium with fans, going through security, at the same time that other talents such as Chris Jericho arrived in a private entrance without the security or being with fans.
– Jack Perry taunts Punk on the pre show, after reportedly telling others he planned to do this. Punk and Perry have a physical altercation when Perry gets back stage, minutes before Punk is set to go to the ring for his match with Samoa Joe.
– On the September 2nd episode of Collision, Tony Khan announces that he has fired CM Punk following the events in London and claims that he “feared for his life”. On the same show, The Young Bucks appear and Warner Brothers Discovery is informed that the soft brand split between shows is now over.
Where Do We Go From Here?
CM Punk has been fired. The backstage “war” is over. The Elite and those who work Wednesdays will now be on both shows, meaning that the Saturday show likely won’t retain the identity it’s been building and be more in line with what we see on the flagship show. Questions about which talents will be featured are inevitable.
There will be questions about how happy those backstage are. There are definitely talents who sided with Punk throughout all of this and there were definitely those who liked being away from The Elite creatively. It also can’t be denied that Punk was a draw ratings wise and also, the company’s top seller in terms of merchandise. There will be repercussions to his termination.
But will the locker room morale improve in time? I can’t help but think of Cody Rhodes, who left because in his words, of a “personal issue” and returned to WWE to the biggest push of his life. There were a lot of stories floating around at the time about Cody and The Elite not being on the same page in terms of their vision for AEW. If those stories are to be believed, The Elite won that battle too. Which makes you wonder what battles they may fight in the future and with who?
Who Is Really To Blame?
There’s a lot of blame to go around. Adam Page never should have went into business for himself on live TV. Punk shouldn’t have blown up the media scrum. The Elite, as EVP’s of the company, never should have went into Punk’s locker room when it was obvious that he was looking for a fight. It’s important to remember that they aren’t just wrestlers- they’re executives and should be held to that standard. Tony Khan should have been more assertive earlier, insisting upon a conversation to see if these issues could be worked out. The Elite, again as EVP’s, should have had that conversation as executives. The Ace Steele firing / rehiring was botched. Punk shouldn’t have shot on Hangman after the show. Perry honestly should have been fired for what he did in London. And Punk most definitely shouldn’t have gotten physical with him.
So yeah, there’s a ton of blame to go around. Should Punk have been fired? It’s hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it but at the same time, there’s a long line of mistakes that happened prior that never had consequences or true repercussions. For Punk to be the only one with a true consequence doesn’t sit right, at all to be blunt. One can’t help but wonder about lawsuits and what all could come out in time. AEW in theory could be the one with the greatest consequences of all to pay, which could have been easily avoided through real conflict resolution instead of pretending everything was fine and putting people on different shows.
Wrestling Media’s Role in This
We can’t have this conversation without looking at the role wrestling media has played in this. CM Punk himself has called out certain outlets and reporters for biased reporting. Other notable outlets have made it clear that there’s been a lot of bad reporting. Even notable figures such as Eric Bischoff have spoken publicly on how bad certain big name reporters are at getting facts in general, and not specific to just this situation.
Fans don’t have an obligation to vet every outlet or reporter or even social media influencer to see what their track record is like but in this social media age, perhaps we should be better about this. Are we getting our news and basing our opinions off things we read from unreliable sources? Are we reading websites that don’t actually report their own news that they got through sources and personally verified but rather just copy and paste what PWInsider or Fightful reported?
There’s been a ton of heat thrown towards Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alvarez and PWTorch for reporting what their sources wanted them to report and not necessarily the truth. There’s a ripple effect to this. When bad reporting impacts public narrative, it adds to existing problems we don’t know all the facts for. We form opinions based on partial truths and discuss these opinions on social media, creating a public narrative that absolutely is known about amongst wrestlers and crew. Which can only add to the tension. Then there’s also the issue with social media influencers. They’re paid by comments and engagement rates, which means they want to post controversial topics and questions, designed to get people talking so they can make more money. Which means they’re posting the most inflammatory things they can find, which typically are from the least credible wrestling journalists. This is how the vicious cycle not only continues but also gets exponentially worse.
So yes, fans do have a role in all of this. We need to be more careful about who we get our news from and how we engage on social media because we absolutely can be making the problems worse.
Looking back at this nearly year and a half long saga, it’s hard not to get mad. Mad that things got to this point. Mad that Punk couldn’t control himself. Mad that there were no consequences for The Elite and now they’re literally running victory laps in the ring and making their BTE videos taking shots at CM Punk. Mad that we as fans don’t get to see all of the dream matches we could have seen. Let’s face it – Punk brought a certain magic to AEW, a star power, that few can bring. His body of work while in AEW was exceptionally good. Now it’s done, over, gone. At the end of the day, fans and AEW as a company all lose here.
AEW could band closely together and enter a creative boom. Or the backstage tension could remain, with someone new taking the Cody Rhodes / CM Punk role as disrupter and we could see this saga play out all over again, only with different names and details. AEW might build a new star to replace Punk’s star power or maybe a part of the audience will simply be gone. Who knows at this point. My point in all of this is that the story of CM Punk vs The Elite might be over but history will decide who was right and who was wrong. All we can do today is look at the facts we have available and all the potential wasted because grown adults couldn’t get along behind the scenes.