CM Punk is back, not in AEW, where he left as the people’s world champ, fired after a backstage incident at the Wembley Stadium show in August, but in WWE, reportedly under a multi-year deal.
This is a huge coup for WWE, which now has added two of the biggest stars from the four-year run of Tony Khan’s AEW, Punk and Cody Rhodes, who was one of the original co-founders of AEW back in 2019.
So much for me hoping the Punk firing was a cleverly-done work. That was me giving Khan too much credit, assuming that he didn’t send Punk out in front of 70,000 people at the biggest show he will ever put on to go over Samoa Joe knowing that he was going to fire him after the show.
I gave Khan credit for playing multi-dimensional chess; turns out, he plays checkers, and isn’t even good at checkers.
For WWE, which is already getting two to three times the weekly TV viewers for its “Raw” and “Smackdown” shows compared to AEW’s haul for its flagship “Dynamite,” this is a chance to do what AEW has not been able to do four years in – draw crossover viewers.
Speaking personally here, I am not a regular viewer of WWE programming, to say the least – I haven’t watched more than a couple of minutes of WWE TV content with the volume on in years, and have tuned in exactly once to what they now call premium live events since the changeover from WWE Network to Peacock.
But I’ll be tuning in to “Raw” tonight, because CM Punk is advertised.
And as far as AEW is concerned, my fandom, which has been strong – I was in D.C. for the premiere of “Dynamite” in 2019, I’ve been to live shows in D.C. and Norfolk since, and ordered all but one of the company’s pay-per-views, the one that I missed being the “All Out,” after the firing of Punk – may be on the verge of lapsing.
The reason: there’s basically one marketable star left – Maxwell Jacob Friedman, MJF, the current world champ.
The remainder of the top of the card is a mishmash.
WWE, on its side of the ledger, is clearly moving toward a Roman Reigns-Cody Rhodes rematch, but other than that, they had themselves a top-of-the-card problem, too, with Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins being overexposed as top guys, Randy Orton just coming back from injury, and who knows how much you can rely on him given his recent injury history.
The emergence of LA Knight as a top guy, organically, was a godsend, and now you can add in Punk for feuds with Rollins, as a likely first dance partner for The Best in the World, and eventually Knight and perhaps even Rhodes, to give Rhodes someone at the top to go over on his way to getting back to Reigns.
AEW has plenty of guys who could be top guys – Bryan Danielson, for example, though his injury history makes it hard to book around him with any reliability; Samoa Joe, who not only jobbed to Punk as Punk was heading out the door, but also jobbed to MJF a month later.
There’s Wardlow, who has a clean pinfall win over MJF from more than a year ago, but has been booked erratically since, to the point where he’s on a third effort to rebuild the heat he’d had two summers ago.
I’ve been thinking for a while that Swerve Strickland deserves a run at the top of the card, and I want to assume that Khan does, too, now that he’s put Strickland over former AEW world champ Adam Page on back-to-back pay-per-views.
I don’t know where any of these folks fits into the Devil storyline that has been playing out behind the scenes for the past three months.
Now that we know the person in the devil mask isn’t Punk, my sense is that the storyline is doomed to fizzle – go ahead, have it be Adam Cole, who cares.
Khan’s solution to his bad booking has always been to reach for the checkbook to find another free-agent WWE castoff to hotshot book for a few weeks until he decides it’s time to find another new shiny toy to play with.
What I’d suggest to Khan, who claims to have been a wrestling fan dating back to the Attitude Era, is that he study what Vince McMahon did in the mid-1990s when his situation seemed as dire as Khan’s seems to be right now.
Eric Bischoff was using Ted Turner’s checkbook to buy all of Vince’s stars – Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, The Ultimate Warrior – and Vince was running out of money.
Vince’s solution was to turn inward, focus on developing guys on his roster who had shown promise – “Ringmaster” Steve Austin became “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and Hunter Hearst Helmsley teamed to form a stable, a stuntman named Mick Foley got the greenlight to do whatever he wanted, Rocky Johnson’s kid became “The People’s Champion” – and the rest is history.
No more hotshotting; no more just opening the checkbook to paper over bad booking.
The free-agent market doesn’t have a CM Punk or Cody Rhodes who can come in and save AEW, but there is plenty of talent on Khan’s payroll that he can build around.
The first order of business would seem to be putting actual wrestling people in charge of the direction of the company.
It may be more fun for Khan to play with his toys as he sees fit, but if the last four years of his life, and hundreds of millions of dollars of his money, was about building a business, it’s time for him to treat it as such.