The Steamy Files: Toxic Wrestling Fandom (Part Three)

“And even though the battle was won, I feel like we lost it; I spent too much energy on it, honestly I’m exhausted; And I’m so caught in it I almost feel I’m the one who caused it” – Eminem, Like Toy Soldiers

On September 7th of 1996, rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in the passenger seat of a rented car when he was shot in a drive-by incident after leaving a Mike Tyson fight. He was taken to the hospital, but died 6 days later at the age of 25. A few months later, on March 9th 1997, Christopher Wallace (better known as The Notorious BIG) was also killed in another drive-by incident after leaving the after-party of The Soul Train awards in Los Angeles. He was only 24 years old and a father of two young children: a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old baby boy.

These two men’s careers and lives are now intertwined due to their feud and their deaths, that many speculate were a direct result of the East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop beef that was going on at the time. While there has been progress in Tupac’s case and the murder seems to be gang-related, there are still questions as to whether Wallace or his producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs were in any way involved in the shooting. While Wallce’s killers have never been caught, it is widely accepted that the murder was most likely a “retaliation hit” for the previous murder of Shakur.

Two great artists were snuffed out of this world while still in the prime of their lives, due in part to events that came from “tribalism” of which style of hip-hop was better. This isn’t the only reason, as gang violence, drugs and the criminal lifestyle were absolutely factors in the two men’s deaths, but they are mostly remembered not for their songs, or their talent, but for their tragic deaths.

I’ve taken a long time to get to this conclusion, and while there hasn’t been this level of violence as it relates to these wrestling rivalries, I thought rap beefs would be a good way to introduce what can happen in extreme cases. In the last two parts, I explored what events led us here and talked about some of the players that stoked the flames for their own monetary benefit. Now it’s time for me to say my piece.

Click here for Part 1**

Click here for Part 2**

5- What now?

Now that I’ve laid out what I feel are the reasons this divide is growing, I want to look at what we can do to try and bring the heat down. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about WWE and their actions, I’ve talked about WWE fans putting down AEW but that’s not to say AEW fans don’t have to shoulder some of the blame.

Toxic Gossip Train?

I’m an AEW fan. To me the WWE product is not enjoyable, hence I don’t watch it (outside of a few clips on Twitter) but I recognize that some AEW fans take their love of the company to the extreme. While some people are thriving off negativity, we also have fans who go to the other end, with toxic positivity. For those people, everything in AEW is perfect, nothing ever goes wrong and any criticism is seen as an attack. I don’t think AEW is perfect. I love the product, but I think the women don’t get enough time on TV; I dislike the ROH integration into AEW, especially with them using the term “World Title” for the ROH belt, and I feel like they overuse 4 way matches to have a reason for a title to be defended. I can also accept that some people might disagree with me, and I accept that the AEW product is not for everyone.

I defend AEW a lot, I can’t help it, because I love the overall product. I always end up enjoying myself after watching an AEW show. I’ve never wanted to turn off my TV at something. Some stuff I love, some stuff I like, some I don’t care for but overall, AEW has earned my fandom.

It’s important to acknowledge that opinions differ. There are the trolls who just like to make fun of AEW because it’s fun to join the dogpile, but that’s not who I’m referring to. Take for example the recent Texas Death Match between Hangman Page and Swerve Strickland. I absolutely loved it; I was on the Copeland of my seat the entire match and it was awesome. Some people felt the blood drinking spot was disgusting and that the match was too violent. Those people have the right to say “I didn’t like it” or “It wasn’t for me” and not be called an “E drone” or be told to go back to watching WWE.

When we do this, we are no better than the same people who call TK a cokehead, say AEW is a backyard wrestling company, that TK doesn’t know what he’s doing and any other disingenuous comment meant to attack the concept of AEW as a whole. It’s great that you’re passionate about the product but you should try and engage respectfully with others, even when they are trying to goad a reaction out of you. If your response to a constructive criticism is to try and demean the person, then you’re engaging in toxic behavior. I’m not saying you can’t reply and state that you feel differently, you should absolutely do so, debating can be fun. Just try to keep the topics at hand and be reasonable. It’s perfectly fine to agree to disagree.

The last word on Mistah Cody

At this point, Cody Rhodes has been gone from AEW for almost 2 years. He’s doing very well for himself in WWE and there doesn’t appear to be any animosity between Cody and AEW. He was a big part of the company when it first started, but I do think he is more at home in the WWE environment. I hope he gets his big win at WrestleMania to capture the belt that eluded his father and brother. Nothing but love for Cody. Fans need to let this one go; this is a case of two parties outgrowing each other. AEW’s has acquired lots of world-class talent since 2020 and Cody’s babyface character hit his ceiling around that same time. In my opinion, Cody’s plan was always to go back to WWE. I think he had fun with All In, he liked being an Indy wrestler for a while and was most likely sincere in his desire to help launch AEW. This is also my theory as to why he disqualified himself from ever challenging for the World title after Full Gear 2019.

Dusty Rhodes never held the WWE World title, neither did Dustin. Both these men had (and in Dustin’s case still do) amazing careers and success, but they never could get that one accomplishment. Cody has had to spend his career in the large shadows of two legends, and this is the one thing that he can do that neither has. This was also most likely why he didn’t want to win the AEW World title. He wanted his first major World title win to be in WWE. I think the desire to go back also got reignited once he reached a deal with WWE to reuse the Cody Rhodes name. Remember that for a while, he was only Cody, no last name due to trademark issues. He told fans he didn’t mind and in fact liked being just Cody better, but it wasn’t true. Cody is a smart man; he knew coming in hot at WWE would not help get him his name back.

He took the diplomatic approach and the seeds were laid for an eventual return to WWE. Add this with becoming a father for the first time, seeing AEW grow from an idea to a national promotion which attracted top talent and, for the first time in decades, provides a true alternative to WWE. However, being stuck in limbo with a gimmick that wasn’t working with responsibilities he didn’t enjoy and the possibility for a big return with a large raise; it makes a lot of sense to take the deal. No one should blame Cody for doing what was best for him. He had no ownership in AEW, he was an employee and he got an opportunity to be the first big name to jump.

Oh my god, is that RC Cola Phil?

Punk is a hot-button issue. From the official stories I’ve heard from reading wrestler’s books, hearing shoot interviews (including Punk’s) and simply from observation, I gather that Punk has a very short fuse and holds grudges. He’s an intense guy and that’s been a big reason for his success. He’s been very open about his belief that “Luck is for losers” and he doesn’t seem to be great at communicating his frustrations before they boil over. I don’t know the man personally, but this seems to be an accurate description based on available information.

If you like Piña Cabana

I wish we knew more about the resentment Punk feels for Colt Cabana. I read the petition Cabana filed when he sued Punk to cover his legal expenses stemming from the defamation trial, but legal petitions are not statements of pure fact. They’re made to present your case in the best possible light. According to this document, Cabana believes Punk’s legal team were worried about Cabana settling with the WWE Doctor and testifying against Punk, hence why (allegedly) Punk told Cabana to use the same attorney and that Punk would cover the legal fees.

They both agree that sometime during the trial, Cabana sought to get his own legal representation and that’s where the dispute comes in. From the information I’ve been able to gather, there’s no clear event that’s publicly been described as to why the dispute happened. All we know is that Punk initially said he would be billed for all legal fees and eventually as costs spiraled, a dispute over money occurred. The biggest culprit here is the legal system in my opinion. I still don’t get how a suit against Cabana was able to proceed past a motion to dismiss. Cabana wasn’t the one accusing the Doctor, he simply provided a platform for Punk to vent; I am not a lawyer but it never seemed right to me.

He who must not be named

It’s really sad that a long-time friendship ended this way but it’s clear that for Punk, Colt Cabana is a very sensitive subject. I believe Punk when he says he never demanded Cabana be fired or removed from the AEW roster before singing with the company. That being said, there was no way they could share a locker room and so TK made the call to sideline Cabana. It was smart business; Cabana was already being used sporadically and so he continued paying Colt’s salary and eventually began using him in the relaunched ROH. Everyone wins right?

This is the best explanation I can come up with as to why Punk was so offended by that “worker’s rights” line from Hangman. To me and most of the audience, that line didn’t hit until Punk sent a direct shot at Hangman once Punk returned from foot surgery. Looking back on Punk’s AEW run, both Eddie Kingston and MJF said way worse, but for some reason, that subliminal line from Hangman really got under Punk’s skin. Maybe the fact he got injured so soon after winning the title, coupled with the fact that he was pissed about the line made it worse. He had no outlet to channel his anger into, so it stewed up inside him and he just had to let it out.

Won’t someone please think of the money

Right here, this should have been nipped in the bud. I always try when writing these columns to stick to publicly confirmed facts, as well as my best guess based what’s the most logical explanation. Whatever happened after that Punk promo, it didn’t solve anything. If Punk hadn’t torn his triceps at All Out 2022, would he have done the same thing at the media scrum? I can see how two major injuries so close together right after a big moment could have just sent him over the Copeland. I maintain that after that, even if there hadn’t been a locker room brawl, Punk and AEW should have parted ways. I think most of the wrestling fandom would have understood and probably respected Tony Khan’s decision if that had been the case.

Saturday Night Fever

There’s been rumors that the Collision deal happened because WBD wanted Punk back. I find that highly unlikely. WBD is such a massive company, they’re still dealing with the aftermath of their merger and are restructuring their whole content catalogue, I don’t think they would have time to pay attention to the inner workings of their wrestling programming. I’ve said it before, live sports are the most desirable content to cable providers right now. It’s one of the last types of programming that consistently attracts viewership and where streaming doesn’t dominate the genre. The “One Bill Phil” line was TK’s; he said it himself not long after Punk’s Collision debut. What I believe is most likely is that WBD wanted more AEW programming (discussions were probably ongoing for some time) and that TK saw an opportunity to bring Punk back and separate him from the people he had issues with. It was a bad idea and a massive mistake. This isn’t a case of hindsight being 20/20; if you’re CM Punk, this is basically a golden ticket to do whatever you want. You trashed the company in public, sitting right next to the owner and got rewarded by being the centerpiece of his own show.

It’s all about The Elite bay-bay

As for The Elite, their silence on the issue means that I have nothing to go on to make an educated guess about what they did after “Brawl Out”. I’ve heard the same rumors as you, but again, they’ve said absolutely nothing publicly so I don’t know what they did or didn’t do. The one thing I will say is I believe that AEW should publicly explain what the EVP roles entail. It seemed at first that they would be in charge of creative and would have a major say in hiring talent, but we know that changed. Is it a ceremonial role only? Meaning a cherry on top of their current contracts as a Thank you for helping start AEW? That would make sense. If they do have official responsibilities, then we’d need confirmation as to what those are to judge their potential actions as it relates to the CM Punk situation.

At the end of the day though, what’s done is done. We can rehash the issue all we want, try to find a culprit but I believe blame goes all around. Mistakes were made and it ended up blowing up in people’s faces. As someone who loved Punk, this turn of events disappoints me immensely. I lost all respect for him after All Out 2022’s Gripe Bomb. Airing your dirty laundry so openly in public unprompted is unacceptable. It shouldn’t have happened; but it did. The best thing for all parties was to move on.

Who do we pin the blame on then?

There’s been lots of talk as to why they never tried to bury the hatchet after the incident and the truth is we don’t know. Did Punk try to communicate with Omega and The Bucks after the brawl? Did he try to give them a call? Did he try to fly himself to a Dynamite show after The Elite returned and talk it out? Some might ask “Well why didn’t The Elite do that?”, it’s true, they could have. In the same vein, Punk is an adult, a very rich man and the instigator of this entire debacle. Did Punk have legitimate criticisms about The Elite? Were there preceding incidents we are not aware of? Maybe. However, the entire situation became public because of Punk’s actions.

My point is simply that there’s blame on all sides. Punk should have handled his emotions better; The Elite shouldn’t have gone to confront Punk right when he was this angry. Tony Khan should have cut off CM Punk’s mic when he was going off the rails at the press scrum or simply have him escorted out of the building immediately after it was over. It doesn’t matter anymore, what’s done is done.

In the end, it doesn’t even matter

Punk is back in WWE and hopefully this run goes better. AEW will continue on just fine without him. Throughout history, stars have come and gone; and it’s an opportunity for someone else to fill the gap. I understand that recency bias is a thing, and that people are taking Punk’s return to send jabs at AEW, but honestly, why bother? Human beings make mistakes, whether they’re a CEO, an EVP or a talent. If you’re a fan of WWE and a fan of Punk, then I’m happy for you that he is back. If you’re a fan of Punk and AEW, I understand that you’re disappointed and conflicted. This is not what anyone was hoping for or thinking would happen when Punk first appeared on Rampage, but that’s unfortunately the way life goes sometimes. If AEW without Punk is no longer interesting to you, that’s fine too. If you still enjoy the product though, it’s time to move on. As I said, no one is irreplaceable, big stars have come and gone, yet the business is still here.

6-Steamy’s Final Thoughts

Are we done yet?

Before I end this novel, I want you to close your eyes and think back to one of the first times you told someone that you liked pro wrestling or that someone found out that you liked pro wrestling. What did they answer? Did they tell you that “It’s fake”? Did they make you feel stupid for liking wrestling? And what was your reaction? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t “Yeah you’re right, it’s fake but I think it’s cool”. If it was, you’re a saint and someone with a control over their emotions so great you should run humanity. I’m guessing most of you either ignored it or you tried to defend it. We always feel the need to justify our fandom to outsiders.

We will answer that yes, it’s predetermined but it’s a physical sport and the athletes get hurt, that the bumps themselves aren’t fake even though they protect themselves. Thankfully, the veil has been lifted for a while; pro wrestling is more accepted as part of the mainstream now. The old “it’s fake” argument doesn’t really make much sense when no one is pretending that this is an actual competition nowadays. There are a million podcasts, wrestlers do out of character interviews, you can interact with your favorites on social media and see into their real lives. I’m not sure the conversation I laid out above is something Gen Z fans can relate to? Or that if it does, it’s as common as it was for us who grew up during the 80’s. Yet, now it seems we are turning amongst ourselves. The loudest voices call for us to pick a side, they want our outrage, they want us to be their soldiers and attack the enemy. Resist.

It seems a lot of people like to attack Tony Khan or Triple H directly. For TK, while I do agree that he should be more careful about what he posts on social media, I can sympathize. Remember, this is his family’s money and if AEW closes tomorrow, the Khan family take a big financial hit. They wouldn’t go bankrupt, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt. As for WWE, the McMahon family is set for life, especially with the sale to Endeavor. For them, it’s a matter of pride. Vince McMahon has always wanted to stand alone at the top of the mountain, and he has passed on his life’s goals to his son-in-law. Vince may not be physically present at every show, his direct influence may be significantly decreased, but he will never truly be gone as long as his loyal soldiers are there.

What brings us together?

We all love pro wrestling, that’s what we have in common, we can be different races, ages, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, but we love professional wrestling. Don’t listen to the promoters, on either side, trying to rile you up. Don’t listen to those who point a finger of shame at a company to draw you in, whether it’s for money or just attention. Talk to each other about what you like and what you don’t like, but don’t resort to attacking each other.

And finally, if a product doesn’t entertain you, if you hate a certain wrestler or if you hate certain forms of wrestling, don’t watch it. Turn off the TV, don’t click on the YouTube clips, don’t start flame wars with people that enjoy that product to tell them how wrong they are. Why waste your precious time on this earth on something that brings you negative emotions? There’s enough content out there to last you until the end of times. Don’t let the carnies draw you in for their own personal gain. Remember why you like wrestling in the first place and focus on that. In the immortal words of Brian Zane, like what you like, just don’t be a dick.

Until next time, this has been the Steamy Files, fans ain’t dumb but extremists are

Follow me on Twitter @steamyrv

**If you wish to read the entire piece in one place, I have created a PDF which you can download right here