Home CM Punk shoots on Tony Khan, AEW: ‘It’s not a sustainable business’

CM Punk shoots on Tony Khan, AEW: ‘It’s not a sustainable business’

Chris Graham
cm punk
Photo: AEW

AEW, per CM Punk, is not a “real company,” and will only continue to exist “as long as Tony (Khan) wants to put money in it.”

Thus ended the uneasy détente between Punk and Khan, who famously fired Punk, his company’s top draw, after a backstage incident involving a pre-show guy who shot on him on live TV at last year’s “All In” pay-per-view in London, which should have been a watershed night for AEW, with more than 70,000 fans on hand at Wembley Stadium for the biggest show in company history, and the biggest non-WWE live wrestling show in decades, but because of that backstage incident, may have been AEW’s jump-the-shark moment.

We can glean, from the fact that Punk talked openly with MMA podcaster Ariel Helwani this week about what went down at “All In,” that there is either no NDA preventing him from talking, or at least not one that Punk feels is legally enforceable.

Punk did, though, shy away, directly citing an NDA, from talking about the other backstage incident in his AEW past, the infamous “Brawl Out” melee that stemmed from his comments at the 2022 “All Out” pay-per-view, minutes after Punk had won the AEW world title in a main-event match with Jon Moxley.

About to go on the shelf with a torn triceps sustained during the match, Punk unloaded on the company’s toxic backstage culture in a post-“All Out” media scrum, leading to a locker-room confrontation with Kenny Omega and Matt and Nick Jackson, three of the company’s four founding executive vice presidents, who Punk had singled out as being at the root of the toxicity backstage.

The fallout from “Brawl Out” was lengthy suspensions for Omega and the Jacksons, and Punk telling Khan that he wanted out of the company, though Khan refused to let Punk out of his contract, and instead pitched to him the idea of having Punk headline the new “Collision” show that debuted last summer.

“Tony’s big idea was a separate show, and we are going to separate everybody,” Punk told Helwani. “I said, ‘That will never work. Just let me go. Get me out of here. Pay me my money. I’m already off TV. I hurt this arm. Just get me out of here.’ ‘No. I can’t let you go.’ ‘Why? ‘Just let me go. Who cares? It’s best. These guys don’t want me here. This isn’t a real business. This isn’t a business that’s predicated on making money, drawing money, selling tickets, doing business. It’s not what it was sold to me as. Let me go.’ ‘No. I can’t let you go. I’m gonna do this new show.’”

What happened at ‘All In’

The seeds of what went down at “All In” with Jack Perry were planted on Day 2 of Punk’s return for “Collision,” per Punk’s telling.

Punk said Tony Schiavone asked him for help in dealing with an escalating situation involving Perry, who was transitioning from babyface to heel, and had an idea to help him get over as a heel that involved an angle with Hook.

“I’m sitting in catering minding my own business. Tony Schiavone comes and gets me and he said, ‘Hey, I really need your help. Jack is cussing me out, he’s cussed out Mike Mansury, he cussed out Darryl from production, and he’s cussing out the doctor right now.’ I was like, ‘Dude isn’t supposed to be here. I was told people are getting separated so there’s not problems, and you don’t want me involved in this. You all need to handle this, because if you don’t, I’m going to handle it and you’re not going to like the way I handle it.’ Prophetic words,” Punk said.

The initial interaction went well, to Punk’s recollection.

“I walked up to Jack, and he’s sitting in a rental car. What he wanted to do was smash the window of the rental car with a pipe,” Punk said. “I was like, ‘It’s a rental car.’ I was very polite, because I like Jack, and I was like, ‘Doc told you no. Darryl told you no. Mike told you no. Schiavone told you no. Now I have to tell you no. Apparently you cussed them all out, so I’m telling you no. We don’t do that here. If you want to do this, go to Wednesday and do it.’

“He had no problem. He said, ‘OK, well, I thought it was a really cool idea.’ I said, ‘It might be, but it’s a rental car. You’re gonna ruin it for the boys. You’re gonna smash the window of a rental car and return it with no f**king window, and now National, Budget, Hertz, whatever are going to be like, don’t rent cars to pro wrestlers anymore.’ This is a thing that’s happened. I wasn’t trying to throw my weight around, like, this is my show. I’m like, this is dumb.”

Punk said he “didn’t think there was going to be a problem” after the talk.

“He obviously took something very business-minded very personally,” Punk said. “That’s fine, because I’ve done that before, too, but it’s very much who he is friends with, and sh*t never got squashed. Nobody’s in charge, and it turned into what it turned into.”

Punk said he went to Khan and asked him to handle the situation, and Khan’s response was: “What do you want me to do?”

“I was like, ‘I’m not telling you what to do. Be the boss, please. I’m tired of this sh*t. I told you it was a mistake. I told you separate shows weren’t going to work, and now we’re all here. Please handle it, because if you don’t, you’re not going to like the way I handle it,” Punk said.

Fast forward to “All In,” with Perry wrestling Hook on the pre-show, and Perry slamming Hook through the windshield of a rental car, then turning to the camera, and saying, “Cry me a river.”

The CM Punk-Samoa Joe match was next on the show, slated to be the first match on the main card, so Punk and Joe were at Gorilla, ready to go on, when Perry made his way backstage.

“I walk up to him and I’m like, ‘Jack, why do you insist on doing this dumb internet sh*t on TV?’ He’s like, ‘Well, if you got a problem about it, then do something about it.’ I was just like, ‘C’mon man. I can f**king kill you. What are we doing?’ I thought I was doing the responsible thing,” Punk said.

“I didn’t punch anybody,” Punk said. “I just choked somebody a little bit. Samoa Joe was there. He told me to stop, and then I quit. I turned to Tony (Khan), and I said, this place is a f**king joke, man. You’re a clown. I quit.’ I went to my room, and then Joe and Jerry Lynn came and got me, and they were like, ‘Let’s just go out there and kill it.’ I was just too fired up, and I’m fired up now, and I’m probably going to regret talking about all this sh*t, but that’s what happened.”

Punk worked the match with Samoa Joe as scheduled, and was the winner, as we can presume had been the booking plan, though Punk said he went to the ring knowing that it was going to be his last in AEW, not because he was going to be fired, but because he was just fed up with the AEW nonsense.

Khan, days later, fired Punk, and said in an AEW TV spot that he had “feared for his life” during the backstage incident, a claim that Punk, talking to Helwani, disputed.

“I can’t tell you what Tony felt or what he was thinking, but I never did anything that would make him fear for his life, but you know, he’s who he is,” Punk said, adding, in response to a follow-up question from Helwani about the claim from Khan possibly damaging Punk’s reputation, said, sarcastically, “Oh, my God, think of the billionaires, right?”

“No, yeah, they’re very much a part of, there’s a concerted effort to, I guess, slander me and try to ruin my character and stuff like that, and that’s the genesis of, the Punk scene, all the drama, don’t do that,” Punk said. “Why are you doing that to a guy who works for your company? Why are you lying? Why are you spreading rumors and lies and bullsh-t about your top guy? It doesn’t make any sense. You’re only hurting yourself.

“I don’t know, jealousy, envy, I don’t really know, and again, it’s not really the time to litigate it all and everything, but, like, it’s an unfortunate situation. I have a lot of friends there, and there’s a lot of good people that work there, I hope they continue to get paid.”

‘It’s not a sustainable business’

Helwani asked Punk if there was anything he was proud of from his time in AEW, and not surprisingly, this is where things went from Punk explaining to Punk being controversial.

First, to the things Punk was proud of:

“I made a lot of great friends there, which is ironic because I’m the guy that’s just, I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to make money,” Punk said. “But again, the people you work with, you wind up, and I did cool stuff. I got to work with Sting, let’s talk about a weird thing, like, it’s not even on the bucket list, because it’s just something you don’t consider that as a possibility. I worked with Sting in the Greensboro Coliseum. It’s fucking wild. Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. I think the positives definitely outweigh, the negatives.”

Here’s the beginning of the turn.

“I thought I was coming in to help business. If I could teach something, great, but I think I was just brought in for other reasons,” Punk said. “Like, their business, and I know a lot of people are going to be upset, it’s just not predicated, it’s not a real business. It’s not about selling tickets. It’s not about drawing money. It’s not about making money.”

Helwani interjected: “What’s it about?”

“I think having good matches, maybe? And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Punk said. “I was recently at an indie show, and somebody came up to me, and they asked me, Oh, did you watch my match? And I said, yeah. They’re like, Oh, can you give me anything? And I almost really faced, like, this dilemma, because where I was just, like, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘What do you think I’m going to say?’ ‘You’re going to tell me I need to sell more and not do as many moves.’ And, OK, because it’s a preference, right? Like, it’s a flavor of ice cream. But then I asked her, I said, ‘What’s the house here tonight?’ And she said, ‘It’s sold out.’ It’s an arcade bar in Chicago. And I said, ‘What can I tell you? You sold the place out.’ So, at this level, and this wasn’t like a, I’m on this level, and I’m talking down to you, but I said, ‘At this level, you’re doing everything you can,’ I said, ‘but that sh** does not fly on national television.’ I think that’s being proven right now. Maybe sometimes. Maybe little bites here and there.  It’s not a sustainable business.”

Was that an assessment of AEW?

Helwani pressed Punk on that.

“Can they be as successful? Do you feel like they’re trending? Do you watch them even?  What’s successful though?  What’s the definition?” Punk said. “See, this is, and this is what I’m talking about, like levels, because I started on the indies, and to me, successful was, I can eat tonight, I have gas money to get to wherever I was going, and man, I, golly, I had a good match.  And then, you get to television, and as somebody coming in who doesn’t know jack sh** about doing television, I have to lean on people, and ask questions, and watch, and learn, and grow. And a lot of people, I think, are still just stuck in that indie mindset, and again, that’s where I came from, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re more happy with some goof saying that you had a five-star match, and the building’s quarter full, we’re not in the same business.”

Woo, boy.

AEW stars fire back

Adam Copeland was trotted out to open Wednesday’s “Dynamite” with a non sequitur promo that didn’t directly address Punk, but, c’mon, we all know what Copeland was sent out there to do.

“There’s been a lot of negative BS that has been spewed this week, right? There has. Screw that! I want to talk about positives, and if you’re a fan of pro wrestling, man, it is a great time to be a fan of pro wrestling. There’s a whole lot of positives right now,” Copeland started with his version of a “Braveheart” call-to-battle, referencing how he grew up as a fan of the business, became a star, and had it taken away from him for nine years because of injuries.

“When I sat down, I started thinking about the end of my career, because let’s face it, I’m closer to the end than the start, I realized that AEW is where I need to end my career,” Copeland said. “And a lot of people didn’t seem to understand that, but I looked at the roster, and I saw a murderer’s row of talent. I have been in some of the most phenomenal locker rooms of all time, and I will put that locker room up against anybody. I came here because I can face Will Ospreay, I can face Kenny Omega. Hope you’re doing good, bud. I can face Hangman. I can face Swerve, Joe, Claudio, Moxley. I can face Darby. I can face FTR. I can face The Young Bucks. I can face Buddy Matthews, Brody King, and Malakai Black. By the way, those are all first-time-ever matches, how crazy is that? That happens in AEW.

“Now I got a lot of friends in the industry, right, and they call me and go, man, Adam, it looks like you’re having a blast out there. Guess what, I am,” Copeland said. “This isn’t hyperbole. This isn’t me knocking anywhere else. I have had a phenomenal career. I have fun everywhere I’ve been. Everything I’ve done. But this is the most fun that I have had in my entire 32-year professional wrestling career.

“So, I celebrate AEW. I celebrate the men who started AEW. So that means the Bucks. That means Kenny. That means Cody, and that means Tony Khan. And that should be celebrated. Those guys are all fans of this, just like me, just like all of you. That ain’t a negative. That’s not something to make fun of, because we love this.

“AEW has pushed this industry into a better place. AEW has pushed everyone into a better place. It has given more people the chance to do what they love for a living, and that should be celebrated. AEW makes pro wrestling better. AEW makes pro wrestling more fun. And AEW is where the best wrestle,” Copeland said.

Dax Harwood, who, you might remember, is a close friend of Punk, had this to say, post-“Dynamite”:

“With it being somebody’s dream, with it being everybody’s dreams, there’s gonna be somebody who tries to strip it down, strip it from you, take it away from you, take your joy away. Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them,” Harwood said. “I don’t care if they’re in real life. I don’t care if it’s fake life, social media, I don’t care if it’s in another company. Don’t let anybody strip you of what you love, what you’re passionate about, what you wake up for every single day.

“I know I talk about it, I talk about it to the point of annoyance. I have what kind of perceive to be my God, my wife, my daughter, and professional wrestling, and that’s it. That’s all I got, and AEW affords me that luxury, AEW affords me that life, and now, not only does AEW afford me that life, they afford me to do it with my best friends in front of all you people,” Harwood said.

This was Eddie Kingston’s take:

“He don’t work for us. I don’t give a f***. Honestly, he don’t work for us so I don’t care, that’s it,” Kingston said. “I’m not even mad. If it sounds like I’m mad, this is just the way I talk, but no, I don’t care, I don’t. I know other people do, but I really don’t give a f***, because he doesn’t work for AEW, that’s the way I look at it. If he worked for AEW and did that, then I might feel a certain way for a little bit, and then I would just let it go, and go, well, that’s Phil being Phil. Can’t control him, that’s his thing. He ain’t me, and I ain’t him, so I don’t care what he does.”

Even Cody Rhodes, in a separate podcast interview with Helwani, offered a bit of a different take on AEW from what Punk laid out, which is significant, in that Rhodes also left AEW under something of a cloud, back in 2022.

“That’s his assessment, it is not my assessment,” Rhodes said. “It’s always important for me to remind people that I am so proud of what me, Matt, Nick, Kenny, Tony, Bernie, Brandi, Dana, and Chris – and I name all these people because I was in those meetings. As much as the internet will spin a narrative one way, if one of those people had not been at that startup level, the company would not have happened.

“It’s not my assessment. In my time there, the infrastructure was just being built up. We were trying new things, and doing things. It was a startup company, a big-time startup company, but a startup company, and I wish them nothing but the best,” Rhodes.

When asked specifically about Punk’s comments on Omega and the Jacksons, Rhodes had this to say:

“I just think what happened there was a ton of misunderstanding, a ton of miscommunication,” Rhodes said.

“I love Matt, Nick, and Kenny and I love CM Punk. I don’t know how, but I do. I’m just happy for everyone involved. I just think it was a ships in the night thing. I wasn’t there, though,” he said.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].