There will be those who will tell you that last night’s AEW Dynamite was the worst one the company ever aired. Which is saying something, considering that it still had a great three-way match for the All-Atlantic title, a surprisingly good contest between Brian Cage and Samoa Joe (though no Joe match can ever really be bad), a pretty entertaining promo segment from The Acclaimed (though no Acclaimed promo segment can ever be bad), and an appearance from Japanese legend Katsuyori Shibata to set up a match for Friday with Orange Cassidy — a sentence which breaks the brain of any wrestling fan. Shibata and Cassidy? That’s beyond Narnia. That will only be Shibata’s second match since coming back from nearly dying after a match in 2017, thanks to a subdural hematoma. For wrestling fans that have sat through three-hour shows where literally nothing good happened, and doing that often, this is certainly quite the high floor.
But still, the first hour was certainly a mess. You’re always asking the wrong question if the answer is Jeff Jarrett in any form, as he came strolling out after the show’s first match. But the nadir for a large swath of fans was Chris Jericho’s open ROH challenge being answered by Colt Cabana.
Make no mistake, this was either Jericho’s or Tony Khan’s — and likely both’s — biggest possible middle finger to CM Punk. The root of whatever went down backstage at All Out — “Brawl Out” if you prefer — had been Punk’s relationship with Cabana. Whether he had him removed from the company or didn’t, and how the rest of the locker room felt about what he did or didn’t do. But the crux of last night was the company — whether spearheaded by Jericho or Khan or as a team — backing Cabana, whom the locker room loves, and sticking it to Punk, whom the locker room despises.
Full disclosure: At the moment, I kind of loved it, and am here for anyone happy to call Punk out on his petty, selfish bullshit. At the same time, after the initial giggle, it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t something a true CEO of a company does, whether it’s his idea or not.
Is there value to his locker room to show that he takes their concerns seriously? Absolutely. And there is value in sending the message that it does matter in being a good coworker behind the scenes versus being a raging asshole. But what benefits the roster doesn’t always necessarily benefit the fans, at least not at the same time.
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There are certainly a lot of Punk fans still amongst the crowds at AEW events. They haven’t come close to trying to hijack shows or make their presence the center of any show like they did in WWE after Punk’s departure from there. Last night was also — indirectly most likely — a middle finger to them. While almost all of them have accepted that Punk won’t be coming back and are OK with it because AEW regularly still produces such great shows, it really isn’t worth prodding them in any way. They didn’t do anything, after all, and even if that wasn’t Khan’s intent, it’s still how it felt. There were plenty of other ways to reintroduce Cabana to the roster.
While some freaks like me might enjoy the pettiness or Khan and Jericho’s dedication to getting the last word, is this really how the head of the company should act? Shouldn’t he be above that?
While the company has hidden behind reported threats of litigation, those appear to be over. There’s also been the cover of ongoing investigations or continuing negotiations of a buyout for Punk. But fans still haven’t heard anything official. Punk and The Elite were never even officially announced as suspended. They were just gone and AEW left us all to assume. It definitely feels like Khan and AEW are kind of waiting for it to all blow over on its own.
It wasn’t really fair to the fans, who aren’t part of the fight, and yet felt like some of them were being goaded to be. It wasn’t fair to Cabana either, who really was a bystander to all of the mishegas. While he may have said one or two things to other wrestlers behind the curtain, he never said anything publicly about the feeling that he had to be removed from the roster to accommodate Punk. It was all rumors and buzz. He wasn’t at that famous press scrum. He was basically, violently sideswiped by Punk when a question that didn’t really have anything to do with Cabana himself was staged to give Punk the platform to go off. Last night he was vaulted in front of a crowd that didn’t really know how to feel about him, but he’s also been the only subject of the whole furor that’s ever really been put in front of them. Other than maybe Hangman Page when he wrestled Jon Moxley. Punk and The Elite have been gone, Khan made his one comment on the show from a pre-taped video, and that’s been it.
And really, all of this stems from Khan’s inability to take control. If he had cut off Punk at any part of his rant at the press conference, which again didn’t have anything to do with anything that night really, how much more could have been salvaged? How much more could have been kept behind closed doors? Maybe Punk was always a loose cannon who couldn’t be wrangled once he decided he was going to go nuclear. But Khan is still paying for his complete lack of trying. And putting your thumb in the eye of it all weeks later isn’t really great management.
Whatever is lingering in this situation, Khan needs to end it. Whether it’s a buyout or a straight firing of Punk, fans just want it to be over. He’s still hanging over anything, and while everyone basically knows he won’t be seen again (at least not in these arenas), a final underlining of it will help everyone move on. If money is the issue, we know Khan has plenty of it (or his dad does, at least).
Throughout his tenure, Khan has shown to be incredibly affable and magnetic when things are going well. He clearly revels in being the guy who gives the fans what they want — great matches, clean stories, big shows. But he’s also been easily flustered, or just completely frozen, when things don’t go according to plan. His snapping at Big Swole when she quit the company, his dismissal of complaints about how he runs the women’s division, and outsized reactions to other criticisms are just some examples. Khan clearly wants to be everyone’s wrestling-loving buddy who just happens to run the show, and he’s really good at that. And for the most part, it’s what makes AEW as great as it is, because everyone is having so much fun from the top down.
But being the boss also means doing the stuff people don’t like, taking criticism on the chin and maybe using it for some self-reflection, and not getting into pissing contests with the biggest name that ever worked for you.
It’s past time for AEW to move beyond Punk. And it can’t do that until Khan actually drives them to, like the boss is supposed to.
(Also hire “The Boss” Sasha Banks, and make her the center of the company. I’m still dreaming).