Wrestling hot streaks often require luck and AEW may have stumbled upon something by bringing CM Punk back after his post-All In 2022 Media Scrum and then the locker room brawl with the Elite. If you’ve watched AEW Collision for the past 2 weeks and then Forbidden Door on Sunday Night, you’ll notice the crowds acting differently. Obviously in Chicago, CM Punk’s hometown, it’s very favorable to him there. But the further he gets away from Chicagoland, the more the crowds become mixed. If you watched Punk at AEW/New Japan’s Forbidden Door, he began to react to the boos with some heel antics.
If you go back to 1997 for the WWE, they were facing declines and were about to lose Shawn Michaels for what they thought was permanently (“lost my smile”). Following Wrestlemania 13 when the WWE finally realized Steve Austin’s potential as a babyface draw and turned Bret Hart heel in the process, Bret Hart formed the new Hart Foundation which consisted of his real life brother Owen Hart (been feuding with him since 1994), brother-in-law British Bulldog (feuded with him, things were tense with sister Diana), his former tag partner and returning Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and longtime Hart family friend Brian Pillman. This stable was downright amazing and was full of great workers to pull the struggling WWE wagon back to the top of the mountain.
What made the NEW Hart Foundation of 1997 compelling is how they were presented to fans. WWE, back then, toured Canada often and the Hart Foundation was heavily cheered by Canadian fans. However, the Hart Foundation were booed heavily in the United States and the Hart Foundation would ramp up its heel antics when South of the border (that “enema” comment about Pittsburgh still hurts, man). It created a cool Canada vs. United States feud that pumped out some high quality Pay Per Views or match-ups for the most of the summer.
THAT is the history that Tony Khan and AEW needs to review. CM Punk is like a babyface at or near Chicago, but ramps up the heel antics elsewhere. In return, the Elite or any of Punk’s opponents would do the same on the flipside.
While I am on this topic, why haven’t CM Punk and the Elite mended fences and attempt to build a great feud? They are leaving sooooooo much money on the table by being petty, especially over Colt Cabana working for either AEW or Ring of Honor, of all things. If they just worked together, they’d make a damn killing on CM Punk/FTR vs. The Elite and then transition into CM Punk vs. Kenny Omega. Omega vs. Punk would crush it anywhere they tried it. Reportedly, Omega nad the Bucks have contracts coming up soon (early 2024) and that could factor into all of this.
But anyway, to me, CM Punk is a better heel than he is a babyface. While the WWE mishandled his booking and barely let Punk main event RAW, let alone Pay Per Views for the first half of 2012, part of the reason why his WWE Title reign of 2012 was lackluster because he just doesn’t fit that babyface role. He’s better as the dastardly heel to generate heat against an opponent that give Punk what he deserves. However, if you keep Punk acting like a face in front of his Chicago fans and really ham it it, then it won’t get stale if he’s a heel everywhere else.
To me, 1997 Bret Hart is the BEST Bret Hart. While his younger self had better matches (that match against Perfect at SummerSlam 1991 is flawless), the character of Bret was never cooler than it was in 1997. He only got derailed a bit when Shawn Michaels returned abruptly, found his smile, and his knee miraculously healed while also wanting to play heel. Hart was a heel character, but he had to always play babyface, in any region, when feuding with Michaels.
It’s so simple… Punk is a babyface in Chicago and the surrounding Midwestern areas, and a complete heel and jackass to fans elsewhere. Punk is a polarizing wrestler and is even moreso now with the hardcore AEW fans who actually like the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. Many feel that Punk instigated the events surrounding All In 2022.
Besides making it “Chicago vs. the World” geographically, everything lines up politically, too.
Chicago is a blue state, as are other Midwestern areas (besides Ohio and Indiana) and thus he can freely express himself politically to maintain his heat in blue states and anger those in red states. I’m actually SHOCKED that his praising of the LGBTQ+ community following his first AEW Collision event didn’t generate more heat online than it did, as many places online have been savaging Bud Light, Target, Kohl’s, and others who have tried to embrace Pride Month. I can show you a few YouTubers who have been constantly attacking Bud Light, for example. I guess it proves that AEW still has some growth to do before becoming a bigger target for political criticism. That said, the LGBTQ+ promo in Chicago was of Punk’s doing and not a company initiative (as we know the politics of the Khan’s).
Think about the Abortion T-Shirt that Punk wore on AEW Dynamite one time… Just keep wearing it and see how much heat he could generate when AEW tours in the South.
Bring back the Straight Edge stuff. Trust me, that stuff really bothers fans who loves to drink beer while enjoying sporting events. Hell, Punk could even trash wrestling fans for their treatment of Bud Light. At Forbidden Door, there were chants of “Pepsi Sucks”, so there you go. Furthermore, as more and more states make smoking pot become legal, Punk would really lay into those decisions as a Straight Edge guy.
I’m just saying, this stuff is pure dynamite and just realizing the Geographical differences could make things very easy to book for Tony Khan, just as 1997 booking became for the WWE with Bret Hart acting differently in Canada versus the United States. But AEW could go further by digging into political and cultural lines that are also different in the North versus the South (excluding racism, of course). Punk could just lay into other cities for “not being as great as Chicago”, while his opponents can bring up Chicago’s crime rates or other things to mock the city to really turn up the heat.
It’s that simple.
This would mark the second time that I’ve recommended a wrestling promotion to LOOK BACK at the 1997 WWE year. In a previous column, I remarked that Roman Reigns should reboot his Bloodline feud just as Faarooq (Ron Simmons) did with his Nation of Domination. While he retained D’Lo Brown, he replaced everyone else with Kama, the Rock, and Mark Henry and the group flourished with new and different personalities… Of course, those personalities grew and grew, and eventually engulfed Simmons as their leader. I recommended that kind of kind of booking for rebooting the diminished Bloodline and creating an eventual escape route for Roman to leave the group and become a babyface again.
But 1997 represents something else… TRUST. Vince McMahon began to trust his management group to help revitalize the declining WWE. After Mick Foley and Steve Austin began paying dividends, Vince let Jim Ross have more power for talent development. Needing a change in the booking style, Vince trusted Vince Russo to give the WWE a much needed style overhaul and appeal to older wrestling fans (or make it cool for teens). He always had faith in Pat Patterson to create great finishes to matches and everything done during 1997-1999 was done with pure quality. Jim Cornette was a great idea man, as all you need to see is the Badd Blood 1997 Pay Per View with Hell in a Cell and Kane’s entrance of ripping that door off (both Corny ideas).
THAT is why the WWE rebounded so quickly in 1997 and began to grow significantly again in 1998. Vince didn’t and couldn’t do everything on his own, but he could TRUST a great team to make things interesting once again in the WWE. 1997 featured Steve Austin turning babyface but remaining cool, the NEW Hart Foundation, more normalizing of the Undertaker and letting him actually wrestle, introducing Kane, the multiple faces of Foley, Degeneration X, the New Age Outlaws, lots of Sable, and so much more. Creativity flourished because Vince McMahon wasn’t hogging the ball… He TRUSTED his teammates to help fix the WWE’s creative and talent direction.
And one of those great ideas was to make Bret Hart a BABYFACE in Canada and a HEEL in the United States. It worked and drew much needed money for the WWE to begin growing again.
The money is RIGHT THERE for you, Tony Khan. CM Punk is a BABYFACE around Chicago and its surrounding areas, and a HEEL everywhere else. On the flipside, the Elite would likely get showered with boos in Chicagoland while possibly seeing the opposite elsewhere. It’s money.
Now, if AEW could just get Punk and the Elite to work together…