It’s hard to know which aspect of AEW firing CM Punk yesterday is more frustrating: How much both sides left on the table, or how easily it would have been for them to solve whatever the problems were so long ago.
Looking back on what little of a flicker turned into this complete meltdown, it’s laughable. All it needed was either Punk to be an adult, or Khan to be the boss. Neither could bring themselves to that knee-level platform until Khan felt he was left with no choice but to finally do the portion of the job he’s shied away from, if not actively waved away, just on a much larger scale. It was just one line from Hangman Page in a promo setting up his match with Punk at May 2022’s Double Or Nothing. One line, that kinda-sorta insinuated Punk might have had something to do with Colt Cabana being moved off AEW TV.
It didn’t warrant much. Punk could have just shrugged it off, confident in the knowledge that he didn’t have anything to do with that, and let it sit. Khan could have nipped it in the bud before it even got to that insignificant point. The buzz that some backstage felt that Punk had something to do with Cabana’s removal — and keep in mind that whatever you think of Cabana as an on-screen presence, he’s universally loved by those behind the curtain — had been around for a few weeks before Adam Page ever grabbed that mic. Khan could have addressed his roster behind closed doors, told them it was his call where Cabana was, and if they had an issue they could take it up with him. That fire would have been tamped out then and there.
But Khan has always hesitated to be the bad guy unless there was no way out, and Punk can’t let any little thing go. Each would have more opportunities. They missed them all. When Punk came back from his first injury, with the Page incident weeks in the rearview, he could have just moved on. But he couldn’t, because Punk has to be right and get the last word every time. Which only kept all of this bubbling. Khan could have addressed it well before last year’s All Out with his roster. He didn’t. Khan could have cut Punk off at that press conference as he dressed down the entire company. Instead he pulled a Mitch McConnell before it was cool. Punk could have soaked in the glow of winning back the top title in his hometown and his place on top of the roster, even with an injury he knew would keep him out for most of a year. But not when there were more points to score in his head.
It kept going after Punk’s return. Khan could have limited the amount that Punk could throw his weight around backstage at Collision. Punk could have just been a good soldier instead of picking various arguments and fights and then immediately deploying his PR team to get his side of the story out first. Kicking one of the biggest shows in wrestling history, Punk could have let a petulant outburst from a non-entity like Jack Perry slide.
But this is what happens when two sides miss every chance to put out some kindling. It eventually grows into something out of everyone’s control.
CM Punk is a lot of things, and a lot of them are good. An all-time great wrestler, and an all-time great mind for the business and the show in the ring. Social conscience and box office. But the worst thing he is is a sore winner.
It’s worth reviewing all the things Punk was given, and they still weren’t enough. Two comeback shows specifically designed for him at the United Center. Every match he could have wanted. A title run. That title being held in stasis for him while he was hurt so he could win it back in Chicago again. A match booked against Hiroshi Tanahashi for the first Forbidden Door before he got hurt. He was given his own show that he was then allowed to basically run. This might not even be a complete list.
And he blew it all up because of a couple of off-hand comments. Most everyone would agree that when you’ve returned from a lengthy suspension from work for fighting coworkers and airing out your bosses in front of people, the one thing you probably shouldn’t do is quickly fight more coworkers and air out your bosses in front of people. Punk couldn’t resist, because the idea of not getting the last word over absolutely everything was more important than all the things he was provided, including the massive check he was getting.
As for Khan and AEW, this feels like as rocky ground as they’ve been on since the company’s creation. Collision was created with the idea that Punk would anchor it. Who’s there now to do so? Is there anyone?
What Khan may have had in the back of his mind, though a lot of have forgotten, was that a big part of AEW’s charm, at least in its infancy, was the harmony it ran with. It was a stark contrast to WWE’s pile of misery under Vince McMahon, as a great percentage of that roster was upset with booking, treatment, direction, the foreboding of the next round of layoffs, or just the general dungeon-type feel of the place. AEW feasted on the fun that both the roster and the fans were having that fed off each other.
Perhaps Khan wants to get back to that, but for the first time, he’s dealing with at least a portion of the fanbase questioning the company’s direction, recent booking, and maybe even a schism within it. It won’t all be solved overnight (though Khan could do a lot of that healing by taking the Punk money and giving it straight to Mercedes Mone and letting her make the women’s division something the company can center around, but that’s a discussion for another time). Khan is adding more PPVs at his overlords’ behest, and yet judging by the card at tonight’s All Out and some of the stumbling getting to All In, it doesn’t feel like he’s got the juice to do more than he already was, nor the flexibility to pivot when things go wrong.
Still, Khan will return to AEW’s known formula. Put on enough great matches and the fans will be placated. Everyone’s disappointment with what might have been with Punk will fade, because everyone has dealt with that before.
It is poignant that even with the All Out card kind of a mess, it is highlighted by Jon Moxley vs. Orange Cassidy, two guys who have made it clear how special they think AEW is, and two guys the company can always bank on. Moxley left a WWE career to enjoy the freedom AEW provided. Cassidy has flourished in the only place that would have his out-of-left-field character. Punk always acted as if he was only deigning to be a part of AEW, that it was beneath him. Khan finally acted like the boss of a company that isn’t anyone’s step down.
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