MR. TITO: 2 Years Later with CM Punk… Was It Worth the Effort for AEW?

For today’s column entry, I could have written one of my On This Day in Pro Wrestling History… columns regarding CM Punk‘s official AEW debut that occurred 2 years ago on Friday’s AEW Rampage during the August 20th, 2021 edition. Last we officially saw CM Punk, besides a few indy shows here and there for fun, was at the 2014 WWE Royal Rumble. As you’ll recall, CM Punk walked out of the WWE due to creative differences and for health reasons following that Rumble show and had his WWE contract terminated on his Wedding Day to AJ Lee. Ever since All Elite Wrestling (AEW) began during early 2019, wrestling fans online were BEGGING them to sign CM Punk.

But the AEW signing never happened until the Summer of 2021. Before then, CM Punk reportedly was seeing inquiries and negotiations via text message by the company’s EVPs (reportedly, the Young Buck). He disliked that way of negotiating declined their inquiries. However, things changed during 2021 after AEW’s viewership numbers were beginning to tank after a tough 2020 year during COVID-19 era and none of the prior former WWE wrestler signings were sticking. They needed to sign bigger names, to which CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (or Bryan Danielson) were signed.

CM Punk started off well, as viewership numbers started popping at or above 1 million again and then AEW Pay Per Views beginning pulling $1 million gates and higher buyrates with Punk on or headlining the cards. Punk’s merchandise was selling quite well… Then, business sort of leveled off after the initial pop. Why? Did Punk become “just one of the guys” (great moving, by the way) or was Father Time holding back CM Punk from the wrestler we all remembered?

Before we could fully know, the Elite political machine sprang into action. Probably jealous of CM Punk’s lucrative contract, creative control, and drawing ability, they had convinced a gullible and idiotic Adam “Hangman” Page to actually shoot on CM Punk during an AEW Dynamite promo. If you don’t know how STUPID Adam Page is, just watch his performance from the 2018 All In show. Yes, that is him losing to Joey Ryan on that show, along with being surrounded by guys in disgusting costumes. He’s a stooge of the California Indy crowd and he allowed himself to be easily swayed to attack CM Punk.

Through Tony Khan’s own actions, he moved Colt Cabana from the AEW roster to the Ring of Honor roster. The Elite tried to insinuate that Punk had Cabana “demoted” to the ROH roster instead and got Page all stirred up that this actually happened. Page, like a complete stooge and mark for the Elite that he really is, complied and alleged that Punk had Cabana demoted on live AEW television. Then, the EVPs were spreading same story to the dirtsheets (which Tony apologized to Punk about during the All Out Media Scrum, as one of the Young Bucks did that). After the All Out event, CM Punk had enough of the political games and destroyed Page and the Elite EVPs at the famous media scrub event. “I work with children”.

The Bucks, Kenny Omega, and a couple of stooges then tried to confront CM Punk in his own locker room about comments made at the AEW All Out 2022 Media Scrum and a big fight broke out. In the end, this caused multiple suspensions but CM Punk was not suspended, as he was recovering from an injury actually sustained at AEW All Out 2022. Everyone was reinstated and in fact, the Elite were given 4 year extensions.

CM Punk has since returned to work, as he’s now on the AEW Collision Saturday Night show and was requested to be there by the Warner Brothers Discovery group in order for AEW to receive $50 million over several years for this show. Money talks.

Now, CM Punk is back… He is 44 years old, about to turn 45. Several injuries have mounted in AEW, as he injured his leg and tore a muscle in his arm during 2022. He was actually becoming injury prone during 2012-2013 and actually had a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the WWE physician based on comments that CM Punk made regarding working through pain. Punk has been wrestling since 1999, so thus by the time he walked out of the WWE, he had about 14-15 years of mileage on his body. He joined AEW with over 7 years off, but he was also over 7 years older, too, past the prime years of your 30s.

Punk is currently working on the Collision shows, and there is zero interaction with the Elite. None of those guys want to get along and make money. Furthermore, Punk is showing his age inside the ring based on trying to still work the in-ring style of his younger self. People online have been savaging his recent attempt of his GTS finisher on Samoa Joe, where Punk was clearly struggling to lift and then drop the heavier Joe.

2 years in for AEW… Was it really worth it?

To grow as a Professional Wrestling company, it is typically done with one of the 3 following things:

(1) Great creative mind running the show.

(2) Signing free agents still in their prime.

(3) Organically growing or developing your own talent.

The WWE benefits well from all 3. You can argue with me all day about Creative, but the Bloodline is killing it right now for the WWE. Free Agent wise, Cody Rhodes is crushing it and they are really thriving on celebrity signings lately. Before that, Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, Bill Goldberg, etc. were great free agent signings. WWE’s farm system has carried the WWE company for the past 25 years, though the NXT developmental system is struggling. The OVW and FCW talent are still crushing it for the WWE.

WCW did well with all 3, too, at least before 1997… Eric Bischoff pushed for more reality-based storylines and hence the NWO storyline. Bischoff, though he struggled at first, began to really nail the free agency with Hogan, Savage, Hall, and Nash. Bischoff also raided ECW, Japan, and Mexico of much of its top talent to create incredibly diversity and different styles in WCW. The WCW Power Plant wasn’t as good as Jim Ross’s system in the WWE, but it still pumped out Bill Goldberg as a talent.

Go back to ECW… They were strong with (1) in Paul Heyman and (3) with organically growing/developing their own talent. Problem with ECW is that their R-rated style couldn’t allow for them to grow and their lack of money caused all of that talent to be easily raided.

TNA wrestling was hit or miss on creative, often signed free agents past their prime, and had issues with growing their own unique talent. They were very focused on the free agents signed and Dixie Carter was infatuated with them as “stars”.

For AEW, however, they are WEAK at Creative. I don’t care what the markish Wrestling Observer subscribers voted on for consecutive years now. Tony Khan is NOT “Booker of the Year” and creative ideas are laughed at often. His television shows are not growing, attendance is still struggling, etc. He’s lucky that Cable Television is desperate for cheap sports content and hence why his terrible storylines drawing 800,000 viewers won’t get kicked off the air. Secondly, they are just like TNA in that they are signing ex-WWE stars past their prime. WWE terminated multiple wrestlers from 2020-2022 and AEW has seriously not benefitted from signing any of them. Furthermore, AEW signs much older free agents like Sting and Christian. The Bucks and Omega have made many, many bad free agent signings of their indy buddies.

But the last point is where AEW truly struggles… They are NOT creating new stars. They have nothing worthwhile in place to develop and grow new stars. Yes, they have a training facility, but is being operated by the right people? They keep refusing to use Jim Ross for Talent Relations, even though he developed the OVW system that has filled the WWE roster for decades now.

If AEW is going to succeed, they need to sign the right free agents and at the right time. Go back and look at WWE signing the Undertaker, Mick Foley, Steve Austin, and Triple H. All 4 wrestlers had YET to peak as performers and WCW actually neglected them. WWE signs all 4 and converts them into the biggest stars in the business. AEW is out of their minds if they sign Edge. He is about to turn 50 years old and on top of that, has years of neck injuries including the one that retired him for almost a decade.

For CM Punk, AEW signed him as an ex-WWE star who was past his prime.

Now, it wasn’t apparent when they signed him, as that goodwill was there for the first few weeks of him being with AEW. But then, you saw him inside the ring… He’s not as good as he once was, as getting older does that to everybody including greats like Tom Brady and Michael Jordan (returning for the Wizards). Eventually, you hit a wall physically but in the case of Pro Wrestling, you need to have the passion to keep moving forward in your 40s. I just don’t think Punk has it anymore, and lost that love for Pro Wrestling during 2013 when his hard work wasn’t appreciated in the WWE (hence why he walked out). I believe that CM Punk initially thought it would be a great idea, but he over-valued the younger talent in AEW and didn’t fully realize how big of political monsters that the Elite actually were.

I also believe that creatively, AEW is still trying to push CM Punk too hard as a babyface. Half of that audience is actually mad at Punk for the comments made at the Media Scrum last year. That’s not going away, as it was a public relations nightmare and made AEW look really awful in the process. Whether you like the Elite or not, they do have loyal fans…

If this CM Punk thing is to succeed, Creative not only has to change, but so should CM Punk.

Punk has to realize that he’s physically NOT the same wrestler he once was… The GTS finisher has to go, as he no longer has the strength and flexibility to pull off that finisher. Get something new that doesn’t require heavy lifting. Have an honest conversation with a guy like Chris Jericho, who has adopted new moves into his set that fits his older self to be less depending on aerial moves like his younger self could do. Jericho does fewer Lionsaults and now has a Judas Effect finisher instead. Where is all of that MMA training that CM Punk did? Why not incorporate more grappling into Punk’s style, along with more ground & pound?

Leaping from the top rope often and trying the GTS isn’t going to work well with that 44-45 year old body. In fact, his physical gifts are only going to disappear more with age. Thus, he needs to evolve as a wrestler and develop a style that is not only safer for him, but safer for other wrestlers, too. Anytime someone starts botching moves, the opponent’s health is at risk too.

The bigger issue is the drama that having CM Punk brings to your backstage. Yes, the Elite trolled him, but we’re seeing a pattern of behavior of attacking an entire company. After he left the WWE following Royal Rumble 2014, he burned that bridge to the ground during November 2014 with the Colt Cabana podcast and he continued taking shots at WWE throughout the 2010s. With AEW, he went delivered his receipt on Adam Page with the unscripted promo, but went in further with the Media Scrum attack on AEW, Adam Page, and the Elite with lots of vulgarity. One would figure that adults would get into the same room and figure out a way to make money. Nope, upon CM Punk’s return, he’s relegated to his own Saturday show and kicking out anyone remotely associated with the Elite. Then, he mocked Adam Page heavily in a post-show promo for merchandise sales (calling Adam Page a “peg warmer” because his action figures don’t sell). Months before all of this, he appeared unannounced at a WWE show backstage to meet and greet with various wrestlers while reportedly trying to meet with Triple H. Is Punk really worth this effort? In many ways, I argued that Tony should consider releasing him and let WWE deal with his bitterness towards the wrestling business especially with Punk and Triple H having past issues.

The beauty about Pro Wrestling is that you can last longer than say NFL or NBA players… The gift of speaking on the microphone and having the ability to script matches beforehand can keep wrestlers relevant well into their 40s and now 50s. If CM Punk simply adjusts his in-ring style by scaling back the high risk, implementing a new & easier finisher, and focuses more on the pre-show stuff like angles, promos, and psychology, he’ll be fine. However, if Punk keeps thinking this is 2013 and doesn’t realize it is 10 years later, he’ll keep looking bad inside the ring as he just did with the botched GTS on Samoa Joe the other night.

A good “Booker of the Year” would notice that about CM Punk and work with him to adjust his in-ring style…

But Tony Khan is NOT that kind of guy. He’s a kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth and spending his dad’s money on a wrestling company.

Free Agent opportunities are going to dry up soon, especially once this Endeavor deal is completed. I believe that Endeavor’s WWE will sign a MAJOR television contract or two for 2024 that will net them beyond the $400 million per year that Comcast and FOX pay the WWE right now. Thus, AEW has to focus on growing and developing their own talents. Instead of constantly pushing guys whom the WWE doesn’t want and that the public has previously seen, they need to present wrestling fans with a new star that they really haven’t seen before. That or they need to get creative and repackage one of the signed free agents. Are you telling me that you can’t do something with Miro?

CM Punk wasn’t that free agent and he doesn’t have a good AEW roster of “young talent” to work with. Completely contrary to that, as the matches haven’t been good and CM Punk’s older abilities are struggling to keep up with today’s speed. He needs to adjust his in-ring ability ASAP to work like a smart veteran rather than an older risk taking wrestler. If he doesn’t, he’ll be opened to more injury and a lack of good matches.

The bigger shame was the crack that the WWE was smoking during 2011-2013 when they completely disregarded CM Punk’s work there. Just look at 2013, alone, and be shocked at the quality of matches he was pumping out. Just watch Wrestlemania 29 (Undertaker) and SummerSlam 2013 (Brock Lesnar) alone for CM Punk’s work… That should have been praised and rewarded, not ignored. WWE is weird like that, as they were beginning to reconfigure a WWE with Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar on top. Being honest here, though it took like 6 years with Roman Reigns, it’s hard to deny the WWE’s thinking in hindsight. But I believe that CM Punk headlining Wrestlemania 30 would have been a better idea than Randy Orton vs. Batista.

If I were CM Punk, I’d either adjust my in-ring style or just mail things in for the next 2-3 years until his AEW contract expires. Then, see if the WWE wants him… But I gotta tell you, publicly burning bridges with your employer isn’t the wisest of moves, but time heals everything I suppose. The Elite getting 4 year extensions will only mean that Punk is going to be miserable throughout the rest of his AEW contract.

The Bucks and Kenny have no idea how to grow or develop talent, and neither does Tony. Hence why their idiotic business plan of signing past-their-prime free agents and independent wrestler friends has stunted AEW’s growth.

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