Planet Kayfabe: AEW Just Got Punk’d!

Planet Kayfabe: AEW Just Got Punk’d
By: “KCA” Paul Matthews
Bristol County, Massachusetts

Hello everyone and thanks again for reading Planet Kayfabe. Once again from the Southcoast New England area. Kum & Go coffee fueled my Missouri columns. Dutch Brothers kept me stoked in Washington. Now we are back to good ol’ Cumberland Farms and Dunkin’ Donuts. Better yet, I might need a Narragansett beer to get through this one. CM Punk, you may be straight-edge, but the fact that I’m still covering your primadonna bullshit in 2022 is too much for me to handle sober.

It has been a rough year for AEW in some ways. In 2022 you can confidently say the honeymoon is over. They had a nice run as the hip new promotion, but this year has been a setback and WWE is on the rebound. It seems this shift happened somewhere around Wrestlemania. It had been a while since WWE had a win. Sure, they are winning with all their revenue streams and ridiculous TV contracts, but in terms of critical success, there wasn’t much happening in WWE’s favor. It’s come to the point where I may actively vote for WWE as promotion of the year for the first time in a very long time. Not so much because WWE has been so great, but AEW has had a complex and questionable year. Dave Melter of the Wrestling Observer insists that Tony Khan isn’t dumb enough to make the same mistakes WCW did… Apparently, he’s only dumb enough to make the same mistakes TNA did never mind WCW.

Wrestlemania 38 this year went down in Arlington, Texas to much critical acclaim. Steve Austin returned for his first match since WrestleMania 19 in 2003 and headlined the first night of the event and had a legitimate match with Kevin Owens which everyone seemed to love. Johnny Knoxville surprised everyone in a match with Sami Zayn that delivered. However, most importantly, Cody Rhodes made his return to WWE. That’s former AEW executive vice present and co-founder of AEW Cody Rhodes. Once again in a WWE ring after six years away from the company.  For months ex-WWE talent had been hopping over to AEW, but WWE got them back in spades with one simple signing of Cody Rhodes.

After a great event and Cody, as the “American Nightmare” with his AEW presentation and music coming to WWE to much praise, the AEW response showed signs of growing pains for perhaps the first time. Cody was on top of the wrestling world and after being pretty much booed out of AEW as a babyface, he came to WWE a loved hero and in turn came off as a bigger star than he has in his entire career. Tony Khan and even Chris Jericho would at times downplay Cody’s role in AEW on social media and in interviews, but it just came off as desperate. Like the jilted ex-lover who is holding back tears while saying “fuck it she was a bitch anyway”.

Around this time AEW signed yet another old, run-down ex-WWE guy with Jeff Hardy. Possibly AEW’s worst signing to date. Jeff walked out of a house show in the middle of a match. Given Jeff’s history, everyone thought he was on drugs, including WWE. So when WWE asked him to go to rehab or be fired, he chose the latter.  Fans on the internet mostly buried this decision by WWE to release Jeff without drug testing him despite every fan online assuming Jeff was inebriated. Regardless of Jeff’s long, documented history, Tony Khan signed Jeff Hardy without testing at all and immediately started booking him like he has 2001-era Jeff Hardy on his roster. In March, Jeff made his debut, and three months and a few concussions later Jeff would be arrested in Florida for a DUI driving about FOUR times above the legal blood alcohol limit.

In recent columns, I’ve made many references to AEW quickly turning into TNA and this was literally a TNA move. WWE was vindicated and Tony Khan rolled the dice on a troubled old wrestler and got burned in the end.

AEW also ran the Forbidden Door event. A good show in a vacuum, but something that also put AEW stories on hold and really did nothing to expand the promotion’s audience. In fact, it seemed like more of an exercise in how they can whittle down their audience into even a smaller base of hardcore. Something Tony Khan may brush off as a non-issue but in reality, is a problem for AEW.  It’s bad enough that shit happens on TV and guys debut on Dynamite without any explanation as to who they are. They just assume their fans are all super hardcore and already know and the rest can just look it up on the internet because the producers of the show can’t be bothered to explain in short who these people are the masses.  Plus, I’m tired of their most ardent fans defending this nonsense by saying “if you have internet just look them up”.  It’s not up to me to do research. Its up to them to get the audience up to speed. That’s THEM being lazy. Not the fans.  Can you imagine watching a real sport and some new player was on the field and the announcer said “just go on Google and you’ll get his name, what college he went to and how long he’s been playing”.  That would be ridiculous and its ridiculous in AEW where to just know basic shit you need to follow their dorky ass YouTube channel and their Twitter V-logs or whatever the fuck. This is the same company that once bemoaned the idea of the “casual fan”, so I’m not surprised, but I bet they wished they had them now. I don’t know how retarded Tony Khan can be rolling his eyes at the idea of casual fans. Everyone starts out as a casual fan and then a small percentage goes on to be your future hardcores. For whatever reason, they’ve been just fine with their base and use that as an excuse not to branch out.

During this period, Tony Khan’s press conferences got increasingly weird. When AEW started, Tony was clean-shaved, in a suit, and had a crew cut. Now he’s showing up to these press conferences with wild hair, unkempt facial hair, and wide eyes like he just bumped an 8-ball. Awkward exchanges with wrestlers and media members. Getting super defensive at the ONE reporter who dared to ask a somewhat relevant and tough question. Going off the rails to the point where every wrestler next to him had a face of cringey awkwardness. All this greatly hurt the company in my opinion. The hardcores will always be there, but there are some of the fringes that are turned off by this type of behavior. The owner of the company coming out there dressed like a filthy bum and swearing in every response and using the word “fucking” like a comma in every sentence just gave off an overall feeling of unprofessionalism from the top.

This past June MJF cut a “worked shoot” promo. That’s what most are calling it. Worked shoot implies that it is a promo that’s all a work, but meant to sound like a shoot. I personally think some of what was said was a shoot, though. (If I got worked, whatever. At least I can admit it unlike the rest of the internet.) The promo itself was great. It was given universal praise and it also unintentionally turned MJF babyface. During the promo, MJF buried Tony Khan. Calling him a “fucking mark” and shooting on his tendency to hire a bunch of old WWE wrestlers for, apparently, more money than he makes and featuring them more than the AEW originals (other than the EVPs). It was a legitimate gripe that a lot of old AEW fans agree with. A lot of AEW fans are seeing their little for fans/by fans promotion turn into another WWE retirement home like TNA was overnight.

Dave Meltzer from the Wrestling Observer was somewhat critical of the promo saying it reminded him of WCW when guys like Scott Hall would bury the promotion and it became cool to bury WCW and consequently uncool to like WCW. If you didn’t think AEW’s “do-no-wrong” honeymoon period was done at Wrestlemania, it was certainly done here. MJF hasn’t been seen since and while I can applaud a company for long-term story-telling there’s something to be said for striking while the iron is hot and it really just feels like MJF buried the company, left a hot babyface, then hasn’t been seen all summer.

This could have been the summer of MJF, instead, ratings have been falling for AEW and rising for WWE. Here we are at the end of August and is anyone talking about MJF or his promo anymore? No. Sure, they could reignite this story with another hot promo, but I already feel like they missed the boat on what was a pretty hot story and what could have been a hot angle to carry them all summer long. Instead, they had nothing but an injured roster and a bunch of silly-themed shows to give wrestlers an excuse to wrestle PPV-style matches on free television.

Now we are in late August. Summer is ending. The kids are going back to school. AEW, while producing decent content, is pretty cold. Even you AEW die-hards drafting your hate comments cannot deny that AEW is cold right now. So now what? CM Punk and Kenny Omega are ready to return! Yay!

Well, CM Punk comes out and goes into business for himself shooting on Adam Page, burying him as a coward despite Page being supposed to be getting over as a babyface now, Punk as well. Then he goes into work mode for interim champion Jon Moxley but buries him as being the “3rd best” in his group and was third best in The Shield as well. He then says Eddie Kingston is the third best Eddie he has ever faced and the 2nd best Kingston. Fun lines and all, but all lines that reminded me of TNA. The old WWE guy coming in and cutting a promo basically saying “there are bigger and better stars in WWE and I beat them, so you’re nothing”.

Thanks, CM Punk. Thanks for reminding us that all the better guys you faced are on a different channel in a different promotion. Well done.

Now there have been reports of a rift in the locker room caused by CM Punk. The Wrestling Observer, a very much pro-AEW outlet, namely Dave Meltzer himself is reporting that the tensions backstage are reaching a boiling point. When AEW started they were like a family and didn’t want backstage drama. Well, that’s nice and all, but its going to happen. CM Punk has been a source of drama in every promotion he has been in both big and small. In a place like WWE, he’s more like that whiny kid at the park you just ignore until he goes home, but in a place like AEW he could be a locker room cancer and that seems to be the case.

This isn’t something that just happened overnight. Do you think all of what MJF said was work? Fuck no. I’m sure he’s pissed that the company has a young guy like him ready to go big as a homegrown talent while he’s watching 40 and 50-something-year-old WWE midcarders pass him by the hall every week getting better deals and more TV time. There apparently is also a communication issue between Tony Khan and talent. Like, Tony just always wants to be the “cool boss” and never be the bad guy, but his inactions lead to talent getting confused and not knowing where they will work once their deals are up.

The public bashed WWE for ruthlessly releasing talent during the pandemic, but what does Tony Khan do? He signed a bunch of wrestlers and bloated up his roster and instead of releasing workers that he has no plans for he just lets their deals run out without ever telling them if he’s going to renew them or not. Like he’s avoiding all the tough conversations and would much rather just be the guy who signs talent and hugs them in front of the camera. Well, anyone can be the rich kid who throws money around and signs big contracts with a smile, but eventually, you also have to be an actual businessman and make tough business decisions even if they hurt someone’s feelings. Even if you want to just let contracts run out on their own, ghosting talent when they are trying to contact you about their future is no way to handle business. People may be critical of WWE’s “budget cuts” but at least they don’t conduct business scared with one toe in the water.

A quick recap of AEW’s year so far:

  • Co-founder and EVP Cody Rhodes leaves for WWE
  • Tony Khan makes ass of self on social media
  • Jeff Hardy gets signed, does Jeff Hardy things, ends up Jeff Hardying and gets arrested
  • CM Punk wins title and gets injured
  • MJF shoots on the company. Gets hot and is nowhere to be seen almost 3 months since.
  • Tony Khan conducts awkard and unprofessional press conferences.
  • Ratings fall in the summer after not capitalizing on the MJF hype along with a series of injuries.
  • CM Punk returns, buries the talent as inferior and there’s an apparent divide in the locker room largely due to him.

How about WWE? It’s not like they’ve had the easiest year.  Their headlines could have sent the company into a PR tailspin. You may have heard but Vince McMahon had to be forced into retirement due to allegations of sexual misconduct and him using company money to cover it up. When Vince McMahon tweeted out his retirement, the easy thing to do, which most in the business did, was thank Vince for his years of service.

Tony Khan, who seriously should consider hiring someone to tweet for him, posts:

“Thanks to you wrestling fans and your great support of AEW, I’m grateful to now be the longest-tenured CEO in pro wrestling.
Thank you very much to every single person who watches AEWonTV!”

It was simple. Vince is taking his lumps on social media by fans. Wrestlers are doing the politically correct thing and taking the high road by not piling on and all Tony Khan can do is put himself over? When MJF called him a fucking mark, it’s things like this that make most people agree.

Here, Tony. I’ll be your social media consultant. All you had to tweet was this: “Vince McMahon took this business to new heights and the industry has lost a true living legend. Enjoy a well-deserved retirement and I will strive to hold my position with AEW with the same work ethic you had for 40 years with WWE.”

There. In one statement Tony could have appeared both appreciative and humble while at the same time mentioning his own company.

Much like with WCW, fans aren’t turned off by one “finger poke” it’s a series of finger pokes that finally cause a breaking point with fans. I would argue, and have in the past, that Tony Khan’s behavior on social media and at these press conferences have done more to turn off potential new fans that is has to gain fans and the numbers don’t lie. At this time just one year ago, AEW was challenging Raw in the demo and even doing better on occasion. Even out drawing at live events. Now what? Raw, who could barely sniff 1.5 million viewers not long ago and were almost dipping below 1 million are now flirting with 2 million again while AEW is pretty much spinning their tires in the 900,000’s when earlier in the year they were routinely ticking over 1 million. Not too bad right now, but where will they be next year?

This seems to very much be a period of growing pains for AEW. Learning how to deal with unhappy talent. Having to say the word “no” when every wrestler wants to steal every show. They did just fine as the hip/new promotion when they could do-no-wrong but how will they respond to actual criticism from both fans and talent? It has been rumored in the past that Tony has a thin skin and I’ve seen nothing based on his public outbursts and arguing on Twitter to prove that wrong. Anyone can have fun being the promoter when times are good, but what about now? Not so fun anymore once Tony’s little fantasy fed turns into actual real work and having to manage big egos and personalities.

All I can say is: You wanted Punk so bad?  You got him, Tony.  Have fun.  His promo was layers of shitty. As a shoot, he’s an asshole and kinda proving the point that he’s only out for himself and at times a cancer in the locker room. And the parts of the promo that were a work still sucked because all he did was put over everyone in WWE as bigger stars and better wrestlers. TNA used to do that shit and look how they turned out. AEW was supposed to be better and they’ve spent 2022 basically being TNA and I’m not shocked that WWE is rebounding and AEW is falling back a bit and morale backstage is low.

CM Punk and Omega returning was supposed to turn their fortune back around but nope, CM Punk goes into business for himself and causes a rift in the locker room. Great job!

If you take anything from this, its not a burial of AEW. The wrestling world needs and is better off with AEW around. It’s just frustrating seeing this golden opportunity be pissed away by an incompetent money mark and a group of best friends who are afraid to make tough decisions. Cody was the smart one. He saw where this was going and that it wasn’t what he and many others thought it would be early on and got out.

2023 is going to be an interesting year. Cody’s exit opened the eyes of many AEW wrestlers who thought going to WWE would be a career killer and with the retirement of Vince McMahon, there are even more wrestlers willing to give WWE a (or another) shot since they all respect Paul Levesque and saw McMahon as someone who was out of touch. Now with Triple H in charge of creative, WWE for the first time in a very long time as intrigued a lot of people and a lot of fans are coming back to sample the product again to see what will change going forward. It is safe to say, the honeymoon is over for AEW and the pendulum has officially swung in WWE’s favor.

Again, I don’t say that with glee. The rumors of AEW’s next TV deal being up in the air are very real and I’m sure stressing a lot of people out in AEW. Also, WWE could get by just fine when AEW was hot but will AEW survive a WWE resurgence in popularity? I’m not so sure. I know one thing, MJF better get a sweet offer coming his way because if he were to pop up in WWE it would mark another huge loss for Tony Khan as a promoter and there’s no washed-up old Attitude Era midcarder he can sign to make up for it.

Well, have fun negotiating these TV deals along with trying to keep your one big homegrown star and the constant battle of keeping CM Punk from pouting backstage, Tony Khan. You have a fun year ahead of you. The time for giddy hugs and tickle-butt press conferences with adoring dirt sheet writers is over. Time to run your business and end your e-Fed fantasy.

Thanks again for reading, everyone. Leave a comment below, especially if you’re an AEW fan who is still in denial after all this time. I feel like 2019 was like the Summer of Love for hardcore wrestling fans and now they’re having a hard time transitioning into the cold, hard 70’s. Don’t worry. You’ll get there. Even if you have to wait until 1984 to yuppie up and slap that Deadhead sticker on your Cadillac.

Take care and God bless. For NoDQ, I’m KCA Paul Matthews. See you next time.