Has Tony Khan Handed AEW Critics A Loaded Weapon?

(Photo Credit: AEW)

It is impossible to discuss Wednesday night’s airing, on AEW Dynamite, of the security footage from Wembley Stadium during last year’s All In event, without going back in time to explain how we got here.

CM Punk had very notably said during his AEW debut, The First Dance, that he had left professional wrestling when he went to WWE, and now he was back. It was a watershed moment, a sellout of the United Center in Chicago on merely the rumor that Punk would return, and a roar so loud, it muffled the audio of his entrance music on the broadcast. He was soon followed by Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole weeks later, two major stars in their own right. The wind was at AEW’s back, WWE looked like fools being unable to sign talent, losing track of contract expiration dates, etc. The first Grand Slam was held in September 2021 at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, Full Gear featured the close of the epic two-year build between Hangman Adam Page and Kenny Omega, CM Punk’s own phenomenal feud with Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) started at this time, and the run culminated in Punk beating Page at Double or Nothing 2022 for the AEW Championship. It was the first million-dollar gate in the company’s history. 

Behind the scenes, though, the wheels started coming off. 

Adam Page (and ostensibly, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega behind him) were making accusations and stirring up sentiment against Punk, because in their minds, his continued hatred of former best friend Colt Cabana had led to Cabana being pulled off TV. Whispers went around that Punk had demanded that Tony Khan fire Cabana and that Khan had agreed. Cabana’s television appearances had been diminishing ever since Brodie Lee’s untimely early death in late 2020—Cabana was a centerpiece of Lee’s storyline at the time—and without Lee, he floundered. Cabana likely would’ve been missing anyway, but his absence combined with Punk’s presence equated to CM Punk taking work from their friend in their minds. This led to the Elite turning on Punk, not in kayfabe, but in reality.

An oft-overlooked part of this backstage animus, from the perspective of CM Punk, was that Punk told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview in August 2021 that he came to AEW in large part because he didn’t see leaks to the “dirt sheets” (wrestling sites like this one) and that when Brodie (a close friend of Punk) was dying, AEW kept it all in-house. That impressed him enough to sit down with Tony Khan and discuss a return. Punk liked the idea of working for a company where he did not have to worry about backstabbing. Therefore, when the leaks began after Hangman Page made a veiled reference to workers rights and protecting AEW from CM Punk, this situation was, for lack of a better phrase, triggering. While a broken foot put Punk on the shelf for three months, everyone thought things had simmered down. When he returned, though, Punk would call out Page on air, in the ring, on a night Page was not at TV. This was followed by Punk getting into an uncharacteristic argument with Jon Moxley (uncharacteristic in the way that the two never had heat in the past) about their title match for All Out, and Punk briefly posting the spat on his Instagram stories, clearly signaling that rifts were growing backstage. By the end of All Out, Punk’s 30-minute rant at the post-show press conference about working with children, and the subsequent events of “Brawl Out,” would create an unbridgeable gulf between the Elite and CM Punk. 

Last August, after a new show, Collision, was launched for CM Punk, where he got a heavy hand in creative, talent used, etc., the fractured relationship between CM Punk, Tony Khan, The Elite, and All Elite Wrestling reached its breaking point. Jack Perry, the son of teen soap legend Luke Perry and a talented performer in his own right, took a thinly-veiled verbal shot at Punk during his preshow match with HOOK at All In. That it was an insult was immediately apparent to us terminally online wrestling fans, along with people backstage—CM Punk included. When Perry came back after the match, a fight took place between the two, Samoa Joe pulled them apart, and Perry was sent home. Joe calmed Punk down, the two went out and had a solid match. Punk spent some time with fans ringside afterwards, walked back through the entrance, and would never be seen again in AEW.

Since that point, AEW’s ratings and attendance have faltered. The messy divorce between the two sides, announced in Chicago a week later at All Out by Khan himself, was further exacerbated by Punk’s return to WWE at November’s Survivor Series.

Fast forward to WrestleMania week. CM Punk goes on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour and after Helwani prodded, he proceeded to open up in full about his time in AEW, including great detail about his backstage fight with Jack Perry, the fight that Tony Khan told the All Out crowd was “the first time that I’ve ever feared for my life.” That line was the exact reason given for Punk’s termination with cause by All Elite Wrestling, with no non-compete clause or anything. Punk, during his interview with Helwani, said that he quit on the spot, that AEW was “a fucking joke,” and that he went out and wrestled because of his respect for Samoa Joe and he wanted to have that last match with him and he respected Jerry Lynn and Paul Turner, the producer and referee, respectively. 

When Helwani asked about Khan’s statement, Punk flat out denied doing anything that would make him fear for his life, and then when Helwani was like, “did you attack Tony,” Punk sarcastically replied, “ohmigod, think of the billionaires!” He continued, “This was a continued effort to ruin my character and slander me. Why are you lying? Why are you spreading rumors and bullshit? Why would you do that to someone working for you?” That was the halfway point of the interview, and while much more followed, this was apparently the impetus for Khan’s decision to announce, during the second hour of Collision (airing at the insane start time of 11:30 pm EDT Saturday because of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament and WrestleMania), that they would air the security footage from Wembley Stadium.

And now, if you’ve stuck with me, this is why I said AEW has submitted to its worst instincts. 

Nobody thought this was a good idea. 

The word is that Tony Khan was really angry about what CM Punk said (one suspects Khan’s own deep animus towards Helwani factored into this) and decided to retaliate and show the world this footage that he claims backs up his speech in Chicago about Punk’s firing. You know who reacts in this fashion? High schoolers. Immature teenagers feel hurt about something and retaliate way out of proportion to the original injury. Punk did it to Jack Perry at All In, and now Khan (and the Young Bucks) have done it to Punk.

Adam Copeland went out on Dynamite after Punk’s interview and gave a glowing, fired-up promo about how he loves AEW and loves getting to have these amazing matches and enjoy what he does. Tony Schiavone, on his podcast What Happened When, said he wasn’t going to talk about it and wanted to let the show do the talking. The general mood was, “We’re just going to go do our thing.” That was absolutely the right response. Doing a 180-degree turn now reeks of desperation. It’s reminiscent of 1999 WCW, when Eric Bischoff threw every last thing at the wall to try and regain dominance in the ratings after the WWF rode the Vince McMahon-Steve Austin feud to the top, and Bischoff destroyed the promotion instead. This stunt might spike a single good week after a monthslong descent into ratings hell, but then what? It generates heat with a guy who no longer works there. It makes two of your most credible public faces (Copeland and Schiavone, Hall of Famers both) look like chumps for focusing on positives, and it just reminds everyone that AEW self-sabotaged their own meteoric rise by refusing to force talent to act like adults and work with each other. 

There was no better reaction to what an absolute own goal Dynamite was than this shot of Tony Schiavone after the segment.

(Photo Credit: AEW)

Schiavone was there when Bischoff ran WCW into the ground with Vince Russo. He was the guy who crapped on Mick Foley on Bischoff’s orders, caused a massive channel flip to occur, and then ended up having talked up the match that became known as the “Fingerpoke of Doom.” I was a teenager during the Monday Night Wars and remember them well. Last night felt like that kind of moment to me. Schiavone’s face showed he thought the same thing. It appears that AEW, belatedly, recognized that it was a mistake around the point on Dynamite where the Young Bucks came out to join Kazuchika Okada in attacking PAC. The crowd broke out in “C-M Punk! C-M Punk!” chants. Soon thereafter, Twitter posts that included the security video were taken down by AEW copyright claims, including one by Ariel Helwani himself, who’d timed up the footage to Punk’s narration of what happened. By the end of the broadcast, the copyright claims were being aimed at video shot by fans inside the arena of fans negatively reacting to the video or chanting CM Punk’s name at the Bucks. 

DMCA notices regularly are abused by copyright owners, but using them against your own fans and their own video is such an act of self-immolation I don’t have the adjectives to properly describe it.

In a world where the Elite shrugged off the Brawl Out incident and worked with Punk, the six-man match at Wembley could’ve been an 8-man with CMFTR plus Wardlow vs. The Elite. Epic promo builds. Talented wrestlers. A banger of a match, showcasing old school vs. new school styles. Instead, we got a meltdown and a fired superstar, who promptly goes back to the place he vowed never to return to and sets the world on fire in terms of moving the needle, YouTube clicks, social media engagement, et cetera.

What did showing this footage do for AEW? What was gained from this?

Not a goddamn thing. The ratings bump was miniscule. Didn’t even clear 850,000 viewers.

I have been an AEW fan from day one. Between AEW’s presence and Vince McMahon being driven out of WWE, professional wrestling is experiencing a boom period. The words themselves, pro wrestling, are welcome on WWE television again, which is probably more of a “Hell Froze Over” moment than Punk’s return was! Both promotions are putting on better matches and talent have choices again on where they want to work, which also means more wrestling jobs exist. AEW has been crucial to professional wrestling being fun to watch again. 

Organically, although ratings and ticket sales haven’t reflected it, they’ve largely found their footing under Bryan Danielson’s status as TK’s deputy booker. The Hangman Page-Swerve Strickland feud has been off the charts amazing, launching Strickland into the stratosphere. Will Ospreay is a megastar waiting to explode: he has the charisma, the look, and the moves to be the face of the company. Samoa Joe is healthy and performing as the world champion AEW needs. Kazuchika Okada and Mercedes Moné are huge, huge free agent signings. Adam Copeland is a strong veteran presence whose feud with Christian Cage has been another fantastic story, and who continues to elevate the TNT championship. 

Good things are happening in All Elite Wrestling. It’s often said that how you carry yourself in the bad times demonstrates how you’ll be in the good times. Up until Saturday night, I thought that AEW was handling things well during what’s been a rough start to 2024 in terms of ticket sales and television ratings. Their name might be in everyone’s mouths since Saturday night, while WWE put on its best WrestleMania show in years, but almost everyone speaking it is doing so in dismay at this stunt, or using them as an example of what not to do.

All the reporting indicates that Tony Khan pushed this in an act of spite. When one looks at television most weeks for AEW, it’s become clear that TK has lost his magic. He’s probably overworked (the man has three full-time jobs and not much of a personal life), and for the first time since launching the promotion used it this week to try to gain retribution on the competition over a personal slight. Instead, he validated Punk’s criticisms of his ownership, he gave ammunition to all of the bad faith critics (see Bischoff, Eric; Cornette, Jim; Russo, Vince) to declare AEW buried themselves, and he took valuable TV time away from the talent actually in the company to take a shot at someone who is no longer there because Tony Khan fired them. 

I said on Twitter that the best response for AEW would’ve been a simple statement, put out over all channels: “All Elite Wrestling has an exciting, talented roster that guarantees a bright future for our company. We are choosing to look forward, and not to rehash past events involving a talent, Phil Brooks, that we fired for cause.”   That would’ve been the adult thing to do, but to be honest, nobody in this sorry mess has been an adult for nearly two years. The Elite used gossipy bullshit to piss off the guy who boosted sales in every area. Punk didn’t vocalize his feelings, he put them into fighting his coworkers more than once. Tony Khan made claims that didn’t hold up (Collision being the solution, instead of making his EVPs act like their job titles imply and do business; his life being in danger) and used television time to shoot his company in the foot. Warner Bros Discovery isn’t going to give AEW the rights renewal they want when they’re drawing 25-33% of the audience numbers that WWE is and pissing away TV time to relitigate a personal insult. 

The best thing Khan can do for the promotion is to give Danielson (or, if necessary, a talent who isn’t wrestling, like Keith Lee, Christopher Daniels, etc) the reins as booker, take a step back, and for God’s sake, reel in the Bucks, who are just not cut out for executive positions. They’re fantastic wrestling heels. I don’t hate them on the mic or in the ring—I think they are very good at what they do—but Wednesday night they served as the face of a slow-motion suicide, and that’s not, to use a phrase, best for business. The pieces are all there, but AEW needs some tough love if they are going to succeed. 

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