The Fallout from All Out Was a Brawl Out – Thoughts on Current AEW

All Out 2022 is the first AEW non-joint pay-per-view of this calendar year I didn’t attend in-person. More than that, it’s the first one I didn’t watch since 2020. Naturally, that meant that everything happened on the show.

Well, except that isn’t quite true. Everything that has persisted at this point happened after the show.

During that show, CM Punk became a two-time AEW World Champion by defeating Jon Moxley in the main event, a match in which he sustained a torn triceps. During the after-show media scrum, an AEW mainstay that typically isn’t that interesting, an obviously disgruntled Punk enters the room, picks a target, and starts a rant about former friend (and current barely-present AEW talent) Colt Cabana, going off for a long stretch without a question about the state of their relationship, the rumors that Punk got Colt removed from AEW television, and then places the blame for said rumors at the EVPs of the company, burying former champ Hangman Adam Page, and promoting a local Chicago bakery. Oh, and then he left and got into a fist fight with the EVPs, including punching one, his friend and AEW producer Ace Steel hitting another in the eye with a steel chair, and that same Ace Steel biting (yep, with his mouth) Kenny Omega. Those seem to be facts, with the only real disputes being who went to whom first and how things started, and even that seems to be settling on Punk turning violent first (although no full confirmation of this is public yet).

It was…bizarre, and yet also somewhat predictable, in a way. To explain, we need some context.

Wrestling in general is an artform that both relies on and yet subverts the traditional separation of art and artist. What you see on TV and PPV is characters in storylines – just like any other form of performance art, and yet wrestling, while it maintains this separation to a point, also undermines it, by weaving in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) references to real life, to the people behind the characters and behind the curtains of the show. When you watch CM Punk on television, that’s the character of CM Punk – an identity cultivated for the show, with decades of history between stints in Ring of Honor, WWE, and now AEW. There are traits and pieces of that character with history spanning years. CM Punk, the character, is fairly well-regarded. The person behind that character, Phil Brooks, is, perhaps, less so – with stories that have followed him everywhere, from every corner of wrestling, about how he’s hard to work with, a diva, self-obsessed, a martyr, quick to anger and cut people out, and slow to change. These character traits – of the person – weave into the CM Punk character in many ways. His character in his top run in WWE was based on the real frustrations of the real person, a line between the two less often blurred and more often erased from existence. His character for his AEW run to-date has been appreciative man given another chance – after 7 years away from pro wrestling, a man given a shot to write a better final chapter and promote a new organization and new talent along the way.

Personally, I think I need to draw a line before we continue and say that I have little interest in the idea of a parasocial bond with any of these people. I think they all have their own foibles and moments, and on-screen, I like all of them. I’ve generally used my wrestling writing here to fawn over AEW as an organization, much of which has centered on the Elite – the executive vice-presidents of the company, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. I also wrote a whole-ass post about how CM Punk returning to wrestling via AEW was one of the biggest things that has ever happened in the industry and how I was genuinely quite excited for it. I’ll say that of the people involved, the one with the most bad press as a person is CM Punk, and I think that seems pretty warranted from how he so often acts towards other people outside of the ring and the number of stories supporting that perception over decades. He’s never had the best reputation as a person, although those that can remain his friends often see a better side of him, more compassionate and kind. The stories the man himself tells about his childhood and life paint a fairly clear picture of some reasons why that might be, and I’m not going to armchair psychologist that much more than simply mentioning it. There are much smaller and less severe stories about the EVPs of AEW, and while I’m sure they have their bad moments as much as anyone else, there’s not that many stories of them being questionable people.

With that out of the way, let’s try to speedrun the context that remains and look over what happens now. (Edit: no speed here, enjoy 5,000 words!)

Understanding CM Punk and Colt Cabana

CM Punk and Colt Cabana were once best of friends. Coming up on the indie scene in Chicago together, Punk and Cabana were locked in each other’s orbits very early on. When Punk left WWE, and after the dust had settled a bit near the end of 2014, Punk appeared in a two-part episode of Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast to discuss the issue. Punk alleged a damning slate of misdeeds by WWE, some bordering on malpractice – that WWE had pushed for Punk to return early from a crucial knee surgery, that he was constantly assigned negligent opponents like Ryback who frequently hurt Punk, that the company had little regard for him in spite of his top run outselling WWE constructs like John Cena, that WWE had turned down his idea of ring gear sponsorships – disallowing that for Punk despite Brock Lesnar returning to the company and keeping his UFC sponsors, that his actual release from his WWE contract had been FedEx overnighted to him to arrive on his wedding day, and, most crucially, that he had contracted a staph infection the size of a softball on his lower back near the end of his run in WWE, which WWE doctor Chris Amann had ignored in favor of prescribing Z-paks (Zithromax), which led Punk’s health to deteriorate to the point that he shit himself in the ring on a December 2013 episode of Smackdown, the fallout of which can be seen on the footage (a referee with bare hands removing small bits of fecal matter from the ring).

This led to Dr. Amann filing a defamation suit against Punk and Cabana, with the backing of WWE. This led to one of the unintentionally-funniest YouTube clips ever – WWE showing CM Punk’s ass in extreme zoom to dispute the staph infection claim. The video no longer exists from WWE, although their response article on their site remains active. The initial response was to take down the podcast, but Punk decided against it, advising Cabana to leave it up and that he would handle the legal side of things through his lawyers, including paying for them. At some point, Punk asked Cabana for the money for his half of things, which Cabana refused due to Punk’s original claim, with Cabana moving to retain his own lawyers. After the two won their case against Amann, the two sued each other over claims about legal fees – Punk for Cabana’s share that he claimed he was owed and Cabana for his legal fees after he sought his own counsel. This case was settled and dismissed before Punk returned to WWE, but as a Fox employee for the show WWE Backstage in 2019.

For many fans, the public facts were de facto not kind to Punk, painting him as renegotiating a deal he made to cover the legal fees for a case that he was the primary defendant in, a case that Cabana had been willing to mitigate entirely by simply taking down the episode and had not done so because of Punk’s request. Punk’s public comments on the case do nothing to help the reputation he’s accrued as a person across those decades worth of stories. Cabana was later signed to AEW in 2020. He made a reasonable number of appearances, most notably with the Dark Order faction, before those slowly wound down in the summer of 2021. A logical reason why that might be appeared in August of 2021 – the return of CM Punk to wrestling, signing with AEW, both men, former friends, now in the same company.

Rumors and speculation have had it that CM Punk had something to do with the disappearing act of Cabana, but it has never been confirmed and no one within the company seems to have said anything of the sort, with only speculation in that direction and publicly direct refusal of the story. Punk interprets this as the EVPs (who are known friends of Cabana) having started the rumors with wrestling journalists, but reporters who’ve spoken on the topic have all said the EVPs aren’t saying anything about that to them.

CM Punk in AEW: The Stated Goal, The Actual Results

When CM Punk came in to AEW, one of his stated goals was to work with new talent to build the roster up. The early part of his run was full of moments like this – his first match back against Darby Allin further established Allin as a reckless high-flyer and top performer, even though Punk won. Punk’s feud with Eddie Kingston over the fall into Full Gear 2021 produced a great competitive match that built Eddie’s legacy in AEW even in defeat. He gave MJF a win on an episode of Dynamite in Punk’s hometown of Chicago, a moment that was interesting, even if Punk got his win back at Revolution 2022 in their excellent dog collar match.

Early on, Punk’s AEW run seemed to largely live up to the idea of putting over younger talent, even if they all lost to Punk (MJF notwithstanding). In pro wrestling, a talent can be made much bigger in defeat, by establishing them as tough contenders able to stand against veteran stars in longer, more competitive matchups. I do think that Punk’s untarnished win streak on AEW PPV is still something of a challenge to his stated goal (establishing the new stars), but the storytelling that comes before, during, and after the match can often mean more than a single match win or loss, and Punk’s early feuds so often set apart the talent he worked with in a positive way.

Then came Double or Nothing 2022, and Punk was finally ready to challenge for the AEW World Championship, against the then-champion Hangman Adam Page.

Here’s where I start to sour on Punk, if I’m being honest – Page is a fantastic talent who has really been the heart and soul of AEW since its inception, He was pegged early on as a world champion and the first two years of the company were really a long-term narrative arc around building him to that level, a story that I have gushed over before on this very site. Page’s story came together so beautifully and his world title win was such a defining, crowning moment of what made AEW special and set it apart for me compared to WWE. Why would this sour me on Punk? Well, it’s simple – he just never presented the match as that serious or interesting.

The build to their match at Double or Nothing, looking back on it, was…weird. Punk never really seemed that interested in or threatened by Hangman Adam Page, and most of the emotive energy behind the storytelling came from Page, who cut impassioned promos and built the match while Punk stood around cutting largely generic, smarmy promos. Going into DoN, I was conflicted, because in the end, I wanted Hangman to retain. Punk winning would be a “moment” but it would also tarnish the story that had been told leading to Hangman becoming the champion, and the build for the match seemed to be set for the idea that Punk was going to fail by not taking Hangman seriously. But then Punk won, and I mean, it was a cool moment for a minute.

Then an injury happened.

On the episode of Dynamite immediately following DoN 2022, Punk broke his foot, requiring a surgery. He was out as champion for the summer of 2022, with AEW crowing an “interim” champion in Jon Moxley, taking their cue from UFC and other combat sports. Once Punk was healed, he would challenge the interim champion to unify the titles and establish the true champion. This arrangement, frankly, sucked. Because the timetable for Punk’s recovery was variable, the company stalled, losing a ton of momentum in the summer months without a top champion, treating Moxley’s run as a temporary amusement rather than a real viable championship run. Moxley had been the AEW champion before, the second-ever in fact, and his summer run deserved a lot more than it got, which led to some seemingly real frustration over that damned word “interim” leaking into promos and segments with Moxley. With the injuries of other top stars like Adam Cole, the abrupt departure post-DoN of MJF in a worked-shoot channeling real frustration with his position in the company, and a sudden pivot to crossover matches to build the exceptionally good Forbidden Door event co-promoted with New Japan Pro Wrestling, AEW’s core storylines were losing steam fast. The action was still good and the show wasn’t dreadful, but it was lacking cohesion and intrigue – everything was obviously in a holding pattern until closer to early September’s All Out.

Punk came back in mid-August, throwing down an unscripted challenge to Hangman Page which went unanswered (we will come back to this one) before losing his unification match with Moxley, crowning Moxley the undisputed AEW champion. Until two weeks later at All Out, where Punk won a rematch against Moxley in Chicago, became a two-time champion, and was injured in that win with a triceps injury that would take surgery and months of time to heal. Then we get the scrum, the backstage brawl, and the fallout of said brawl, with Punk stripped of his title and the Elite stripped of their just-won AEW Trios Tag Team championship, with all four performers suspended for an unspecified amount of time and the situation only addressed as “vacant” titles on the following Dynamite episode.

Punk Gets What Punk Wants, But Should He?

So what made Punk so prickly and the DoN match with Hangman such an empty build? Well, we’re working from rumors and the scrum rant here, so let’s discuss.

Hangman’s story intersecting with Punk was an interesting idea if Punk had been willing to go with it, but most word from behind the scenes is that he wanted precious little to do with that. He was unwilling, reportedly, to lose to Page, a feeling that was exacerbated by the final promo segment between the two leading in to Double or Nothing 2022.

This promo is fascinating because it adds a subtext to the story that wasn’t really present before as an explicit element of the on-screen storytelling, but was a part of the perception of it from fans – the idea that Page represented the ideal of AEW at launch and that Punk was an interloper, entering the company from WWE (however large the gap in time was) and challenging the very ethos that was the foundation of AEW. If anyone could defend the ideal of AEW as a day-1 talent, Page is a pretty ideal pick, short of the EVPs. He’s the guy that the company’s intersecting storylines were largely about for those first years, and so much of what made AEW stand apart was his storyline and the way it was told, allowed to bake and simmer until it was ready to be served.

Punk took pretty big offense to one specific line in this promo, when Page hits with the line, “you talk a big game about worker’s rights, but you’ve shown the exact opposite since you’ve been here.” This was interpreted, by Punk, as Page “going into business for himself” – going off-script to specifically critique Punk for the ghosting of Colt Cabana on AEW TV. And in truth, who knows what was scripted or not, it seems there isn’t dispute about it being improv from Hangman, but it also references a behind-the-scenes drama in such a veiled, indirect way. In my opinion, if this truly is the line that pissed-off Punk enough to do…all of that bullshit, then it sits poorly with me and only adds to the list of questionable decisions and behaviors from CM Punk the person.

The rumor mill, sort of vaguely confirmed by Punk in the scrum rant, is that Punk had threatened to walk from DoN over this, that he would simply not show for their match, win or not, which Punk addressed in the scrum indirectly by talking about Page “jeopardizing” the company’s first-ever million-dollar ticket gate. AEW fans are generally more connected to the backstage drama and intrigue, but even at the time of DoN, this reference wasn’t really commonly connected to Cabana and most people felt it was simply a part of the build. It did, however, sit so poorly with Punk that when he finally returned to TV post-injury in the late summer, he called out Hangman unplanned, going into business for himself to make Page look like a coward and integrating that into his promo for a minute before continuing past it (the same behavior he complained about when Page did it, but you know, go off). To make the sting worse, after the loss at DoN, Hangman was basically directionless for months, floating around aimlessly in decent singles matches before joining his friends in the Dark Order as a part of the Trios tournament, paying off some of that incredible original AEW storytelling by facing his old friends the Elite in the finals of that tournament at All Out.

So in the end, Punk got what he wanted – a title win over Page, Page falling off the radar for a little while with no rematch in sight, and he got to win the title again in his hometown of Chicago, and all it cost AEW is the conclusion of one of their best and most foundational stories, an aimless summer of 2022 waiting for things to start, and a good title reign for Jon Moxley, who spent the summer tagged as “interim,” squashed Punk on his return in a short match, and then two weeks later lost to Punk anyways in booking and storytelling that simply made no sense at all, only for Punk to be injured anyways, with Moxley now, as of this writing, a 3-time AEW champion. Was it worth it? In my eyes, no.

Brawl Out at All Out

So after Punk’s heated scrum comments at All Out, he returned to his dressing room. It is said that the EVPs approached him there afterwards, where a fight broke out. Punk is said to have thrown the first punch, hitting Matt Jackson, while Ace Steel threw a chair at Nick Jackson’s face, hitting him in the eye. At some point, Kenny Omega was bit on the forearm by Ace Steel, a wound that was still visible when Omega was recently in Japan for TGS. Some reports are that Kenny was trying to pick up Punk’s dog Larry, and some speculation on the placement of the bite wound (which was inflicted by a person and not the dog, to be clear!) suggests that maybe Kenny was putting Ace in some sort of rear choke or headlock. A handful of AEW agents and producers were there, including Steel, Christopher Daniels, Brandon Cutler, and some reports have even suggested AEW’s head of legal Megha Parekh was also there, maybe even brought by the Bucks there to begin with.

All the talent involved were suspended, with the Elite and Punk both stripped of their titles – no interim this time out. Punk will be out for months anyways due to the triceps injury, and the Elite have been off the road ever since, with their YouTube show Being the Elite on an indefinite hiatus as a result. The company found a decent on-screen footing in the weeks that followed, with the return of MJF, a title tournament leading to that previously-mentioned third crown for Moxley, and with both MJF and Hangman Page lined up for shots at the title held by Moxley. The team of Death Triangle took on the Trios titles and the show has, with fewer of the “must-feature” weekly talent around, had a better variety and time allotment for some previously under-represented talent.

On the business side, things have looked a little less rosy, with smaller houses, and this year’s Grand Slam event at the Arthur Ashe stadium selling fewer seats than the first edition last year. TV ratings have been down slightly and without BTE to tie in some storytelling, the show feels a little less interesting and nuanced – in my opinion, anyways.

Some rumors have suggested that the differences may be irreconcilable and see one side or both ejected from the company altogether. Rumors have been swirling about a contract buyout that would see Punk removed from the company, it seems that the Elite could be either removed or stripped of EVP status depending on any internal investigation into the fight, and Punk may have threatened a lawsuit in the heat of the moment (for someone calling themselves a “punk” he’s awfully litigious, eh?).

My Take On The Whole Mess

So, I guess to end all of this, let’s dive into my thoughts. I’ve interspersed them throughout the piece, but it’s probably worth collecting them in one spot.

Firstly, I think the whole thing is a big mess that has drastically lowered my opinion of CM Punk as a person and performer. His AEW tenure has highlighted how the business has moved on since he left WWE in early 2014. In WWE, in that era, his ringwork was above the average, coupled with his exceptional ring psychology and promo work. In AEW, the average ringwork is far ahead of that era of WWE, which makes Punk stand out as a bit more basic athletically, and while Punk’s ring psychology is still quite good, it isn’t as good as MJF’s or Eddie Kingston’s, both of whom kind of looked better in their feuds with Punk. In promos, Punk’s style doesn’t fit AEW as well, and once the “happy to be back” schtick wore thin in late 2021, he hasn’t done enough to stand apart consistently (barring some exceptional one-off hits) compared to many of the talent on the roster. It is quite telling that at the conclusion of All Out 2022, in a standoff with a returning MJF, his hometown crowd was chanting…for MJF. His welcome was wearing out even before the so-called “gripebomb” and it’s probably a good thing he hasn’t been in front of a live crowd since then.

For the Elite…I struggle with this a little bit. The story that seems to be settling is that they mostly wanted to talk and that Punk escalated matters, and I’m inclined to believe that, even though I will express a modicum of doubt until we hear the full story, if we ever even do. I think that Punk’s comments about them were just inaccurate, as while I don’t know how well they do as executives in the company, they’ve obviously built something very impressive in a short window of time, impressive enough that Punk went from ghosting them on offers to accepting a contract to return.

When it comes to the on-screen presentation, I almost resent Punk. Punk’s presence has sort of dulled the edge that made AEW interesting and must-watch to me, turning it into a sort of WWE-lite, especially when combined with the influx of talent and Tony Khan’s increasingly narrow-minded booking. The title scenes have had more hotshots and runarounds than ever, All Out’s build was so awful that I don’t regret not ponying up to watch it (even though the matches sounded great in terms of action and in-ring as they usually are), and even in the recovery from all of this, the company still feels like it is in a bit of a holding pattern. The window after Forbidden Door is some of the worst storytelling that ever has been seen in AEW and while the company is doing better now, I didn’t watch Dynamite last week, and I haven’t watched Rampage in like 6 months now. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything that can’t be delivered in clips on Twitter and YouTube, and that isn’t great when the show was appointment viewing as a whole block for me most of the time.

A lot of the talent that made AEW special and unique are in hiding. The company’s roster has gotten too big, with the booking not making the concessions needed to rotate talent and keep things fresh. Without BTE, the current build towards Full Gear feels kind of empty and missing that oomph. More than that, though, the loss of the Hangman title run has not been replaced with a suitable new arc that fills that role, which makes the show feel sort of empty and vacuous. Talent are publicly unhappy, and it feels just like old WWE, with more people hitting the dirt sheets to dish on how things are going poorly. AEW has, in my opinion, lost its sense of identity – it went from being this alternative to being another wrestling show that isn’t as big or grandiose as WWE, not helped by the fact that WWE’s creative direction under Triple H has been vastly improved and worth paying attention to for the first time in a long time.

The conflicts coming to surface bring back the early year story of Cody Rhodes leaving AEW behind to return to WWE, and it makes him seem like an intelligent room-reader (a tall order for a man who cut a promo about ending racism and has an American-flag personal logo tattooed on his fucking neck). AEW has been splintering in his absence, while his WWE run, which I was initially critical of, has been exceptional prior to his torn pectoral injury in June.

As this continues to shake out, I think that my preferred outcome would be, quite honestly, for Punk’s contract to be bought out and for him to leave the industry. His AEW run’s later months and his behavior at the scrum killed my interest in him, and he’s also not evolved enough to be as big in the modern product as he once was. While I was 100% with him in his complaints about WWE, it seems like he can find something to be aggrieved about anywhere, even as the owner of the company is bending over backwards to please him, and it makes me question the validity of some of his comments about WWE. He has a big case of main character syndrome and it feels like a lot of the stories about him have proven mostly true. If you smell shit in one encounter a day, that person might be an asshole, but if you smell shit everywhere you go, maybe it’s just that you are the asshole. His opinion on Hangman Page in particular bothers me, because so much of what is known of Hangman is that he is an exceptionally thoughtful and kind human. He taught school, he graduated from college early, and he frequently uses his platform to advance social issues and promote good causes. Punk presents as a thick-skinned truth-teller, but when given the gentlest softball of a “shoot” promo from Hangman, he went nuclear and held onto his offense over that tiny little line for almost four months, and threatened to take the company down with him, it would seem, by putting forward the idea that he might sit out that main event with Hangman.

If the Elite are forced out in favor of Punk, I’m probably done with AEW, to be honest. I’m already kind of there, as I don’t know that I care enough to actually tune in right now. The show has been rapidly deteriorating, and while I think Tony Khan is generally a smart guy and owner, he has his own vision of how things should be, is very combative and prickly when questioned, and has let a lot of things sit and fester. Multiple talent are irritated, big names like FTR are nowhere to be seen, and guys like Buddy Matthews and Malakai Black are taking sabbaticals and talking about leaks and backstage discussions being made public as issues with the company. The Elite are, to me, the backbone of AEW, and without it, the company just lacks that spice that made it special. The early days of AEW were chaotic on TV and not always great, but it was always entertaining and went somewhere. For as big as CM Punk wants to claim to be, for as much as he wants the credit for the company’s success, he wasn’t there to build it, they were. Not only that, but the results show that he hasn’t had the massive impact he’d like to portray – outside of early ratings pops for his return and the big All Out buys number in 2021, most of the business side has been about as high as ever with him around, and while his segments are successful, they haven’t been anomalously so since around the first month after his return.

As a day-one AEW fan, it’s been interesting to see the ways the company has changed, and while a lot of the changes over time have been positive, the current trajectory just feels bad and uninteresting in many ways. The show is slowly losing the unique flavor that once set it apart – and while I’d love to believe that there’s some hope for change, I lose a little more of that each week. The matches are still exceptional and head-and-shoulders above WWE, but in a time where WWE is getting actively better at telling stories and the connective tissue that makes those big matches worthwhile, it’s not enough to just be the workrate promotion. Far too many wrestling companies have come and gone on the promise of being where good wrestling is.

For a while, AEW had it all – great matches held up with exceptional long-term storytelling, but right now, it kind of feels like the culmination of the Hangman title chase was the beginning of the end, because nothing has stepped up to replace it and give the show that energy that came from having a main protagonist the whole show built around. So far, it doesn’t look like they intend to try something like that again, which is regrettable, because it makes the show feel empty and like an easy pass.

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