Coming off the heels of a summer that was chalk full of creative changes due to numerous injuries to his top stars, All Elite Wrestling CEO Tony Khan is now facing the toughest challenge in his company’s young history. Once again, many of AEW’s biggest names are going to be out of action for the foreseeable future, but under very different and unfortunate circumstances.
In the world of professional wrestling, controversy sells. The product is best when the lines between story and reality are blurred. Does Eddie Kingston really hate Chris Jericho? He’s said multiple times that he does, but is he just working the crowd to add more layers to their rivalry? Probably not, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
Was MJF’s threat to no-show at Double or Nothing a shoot that turned into a job? By all accounts from the credible members of the wrestling media, yes. But who cares? Outside of poor Wardlow, who said Max’s antics ruined any and all enjoyment for him that night. Regardless, Max did show up. He did the job and helped elevate his former bodyguard. And in turn, all the off-camera drama between himself and Tony Khan sent MJF’s stock sky high.
However, what happened this past weekend was a completely different animal. Many of us at the All Out media scrum were prepared to talk to CM Punk about his huge win over Jon Moxley. The self-proclaimed heart and soul of AEW’s first clean pinfall loss (in singles competition) in roughly three years came at the hands of Chicago’s favorite son, in the Windy City. Add in MJF’s shocking return and there was no shortage of positives to dive into.
Punk however, had other things he felt he needed to get off his chest.
His 20-minute expletive-laden tirade, with Tony Khan just inches away, reportedly led to an all out brawl between Punk, Ace Steel, AEW’s EVPs and others. Punches and chairs were thrown and Kenny Omega got bit. And it wasn’t by Larry the dog, whom the former AEW World Champion apparently made a priority of getting to safety.
Let’s not pretend like this is the first time a group of performers have had beef with one another, but it’s been quite some time since a dispute has boiled over in such a public way. Sunday night’s brawl at the NOW Arena (thankfully) did not result in any major injuries, but it could cause a ripple effect that alters the landscape of the entire company.
Tony Khan spent well over a year trying to talk CM Punk into coming out of retirement, and it’s no secret as to why. You cannot deny Punk’s star power. His ability to captivate and connect with an audience is rivaled by very few. Seven years after his controversial exit from WWE, the fans continued to chant his name.
The mere rumor of his return to wrestling sold out the United Center last year. Bringing CM Punk back into All Elite Wrestling was a slam dunk decision. And one that was done in hopes of catapulting AEW from being the top alternative to being a legit challenge to the WWE throne. The first nine months of his return was a dream for Tony Khan and AEW fans alike. In the last three months, it’s turned into a total nightmare.
What was supposed to be the sequel to the ‘Summer of Punk’ was derailed by a major foot injury that the newly crowded AEW World Champion suffered on the June 1st episode of Dynamite. Punk needed 16 screws to repair the bones in his foot; doctors described it as being pulverized. After three months of grueling rehab, Punk returned to defeat Jon Moxley to recapture the gold. Except, the 43-year-old reportedly suffered another catastrophic injury.
Reports are that, prior to the brawl, Punk tore a muscle in his arm which will put him out for eight months at the bare minimum. Even if he came out of that fight and the match that preceded it unscathed, there’s no way that CM Punk would still be AEW World Champion today. The injury only turned what was going to be a tough call for Tony Khan into an easy call to make. The same could be said for Punk, who figured to be faced with accepting a lengthy suspension, or exiting the company all together.
Ace Steel, who is accused of throwing a chair at Matt Jackson and biting Kenny Omega, has been taken off the road and might be done with AEW. As for Omega and the Young Bucks, they have also been suspended and were stripped of their newly won Trios Championships.
Tony Khan is now left to run his company without an undisputed men’s or women’s champion, and must also navigate the future without his top draw and all three of his Executive Vice Presidents. But in his biggest challenge, Tony Khan also has what I believe to be his biggest opportunity.
The first thing he has to do is decide on a new World champion. Someone who can hopefully provide some stability to a main event scene that’s been marred in mishap and controversy ever since Double or Nothing. Tony Khan was banking on CM Punk being that guy. Maybe the guy he should have bet on was the same man who carried the gold while Punk was on the shelf.
At a time when leadership was desperately needed, several candidates emerged on screen during Wednesday night’s episode of Dynamite, none more prevalent than Jon Moxley. Channeling Dante Hicks (google it, kids), Mox showed up in Buffalo during AEW’s hour of need, despite the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be there that day. Instead of going on vacation as planned, the former 2-time AEW World Champion cut an incredibly passionate promo about how important that title is to him and so many others in the locker room.
“The AEW World Championship represents passion for this sport. Passion for this business. It represents the passion of the guys and girls in the back, and the fans that fill the arenas and watch at home. Those three letters on the AEW World Championship, they represent heroes during a pandemic, at a time when the world needed heroes. It represents the dream. The vision that we all had when we started this thing years ago. When we wanted to show the world just what wrestling could be.”
While in character, Moxley blamed himself for no longer being AEW World Champion, but at the end of the day, it was Tony Khan’s call to put the belt back on CM Punk. It’s a decision he can take back with the Grand Slam Tournament of Champions. But will he?
After that speech on Wednesday, it’s almost unfathomable that Khan could go with anyone else. Hell, I was ready to run through a brick wall for the guy after hearing that promo. If ever there was someone to carry the flag for AEW, to drag the company out of the waste deep muck and mire it finds itself in, Jon Moxley is that guy.
Some people may not want to hear this, but Chris Jericho would also be an excellent choice. To this day, Jericho remains the single most important signee in the history of AEW. The future Hall of Famer provided instant credibility to the young upstart company. A star to build around before guys like Hangman Page, MJF, and Darby Allin rose to fame. A face of the brand before megastars like CM Punk, Sting and Bryan Danielson ever stepped foot in All Elite Wrestling.
The 51-year-old is in the best shape of his life and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. More importantly, as Mox mentioned, it comes down to leadership. Jericho has been incredibly impressive in the way he has handled this entire ugly situation. While chaos was unfolding backstage at All OutJericho subbed in as a last second replacement at the media scrum and spoke with such poise and charm – putting MJF over as a remarkable talent and potential game-changing, mega babyface in the process.
At a time when others were tearing talent down, and tearing each other apart, Jericho stepped in to try and build others up. If MJF is destined to cash in his chip and become the new AEW World Champion, why not have Jericho be the man who puts over Mad Max once again?
Don’t worry guys and gals, I hear you. I didn’t forget. Yes, Bryan Danielson should absolutely be under heavy consideration to win the Tournament of Champions. The six-time World Heavyweight Champion has done nothing but lead by example ever since he made his debut in AEW.
Danielson’s in-ring performances and willingness to put others over may be unmatched by anyone else in the company over the past year. So much so, that some will argue that the American Dragon has been underutilized by Tony Khan. Underutilized may be the wrong word to use here, but for as much as Danielson has accomplished during his short time in AEW, it oddly feels as though he could have done even more.
Then there are the two men who will fight tonight Rampage. Sammy Guevara and Darby Allin.
The only competitors in this tournament who have never held a World title. Tony Khan could choose to go all in with one of his home grown guys. And it’s that mindset that could ultimately be the key to leaving all this controversy in the past.
This story isn’t going away anytime soon. There’s still an investigation going on and the immediate futures of those involved hang in the balance. But when it comes to the on-screen product, Tony Khan has spent years cultivating and developing young talent. It should be their time now.
In no particular order: Ricky Starks, Powerhouse Hobbs, Miro, Andrade, Brody King, Swerve Strickland, Keith Lee, Ethan Page, and the reigning TNT Champion Wardlow, could all be credible main eventers, right now. They’re ready. The fans are ready. And that’s just a small portion of that talent that could ascend to the next level.
Veterans like Samoa Joe and Claudio Castagnoli should be leaned on heavily in the coming months as well. It’s insane how deep this roster is, even with several of the biggest names out of action for the foreseeable future.
Note: I would love to add Adam Cole and Malakai Black to the list, but it’s impossible to tell when either man will be an active competitor again… or in Black’s case, if he’ll be an active competitor in AEW again.
Speaking of roster depth — I’m going to say something, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record. Now would be a great time to really push the Women’s Division.
Criticism over the amount of time and focus that the women get in AEW has been a constant thorn in Tony Khan’s side since the company was first formed. Criticism that he has, vehemently at times, pushed back against. He’ll often use stats and ratings to justify his booking decisions. It’s in this case, that Mr. Khan has completed a self-fulfilled prophecy.
There is a very loud vocal minority online that continues to beat the drum for the AEW Women’s Division. But when it comes to the majority of viewers, both at home and on television, the support just doesn’t seem to be there. But I’ll make the same argument as I used to with WWE’s mid-card Championships. If you don’t show the audience that they matter, then they aren’t going to matter.
It’s not a lack of talent that’s the issue in the AEW Women’s Division, it’s a lack of investment. That self-fulfilling prophecy is a two-way street. If you book them, the fans will care — eventually. Patience is the name of the game here.
While improvements have certainly been made over the years, things can always be better. Celebrating anytime a women’s match happens in the first hour of Dynamite, as online supporters are known to do, shouldn’t be a thing. As a staunch supporter of women’s wrestling, pushing for more time and better in depth storytelling is something that I probably won’t stop doing anytime soon. Leaving well-enough alone is not in my vocabulary.
All that said, I’m not here to throw shade. Tony Khan certainly has enough on his plate right now. It’s with that in mind that I’m here to help. He has a new champion in Toni Storm he needs to continue to build. There’s still plenty of story left to tell between Jade Cargill and Athena, and he has a big time rivalry starting to brew between Dr. Britt Baker and Jamie Hayter.
The opportunity is there to take this division to the next level.
Opportunities and options: Those are two words I keep thinking about when it comes to what Tony Khan does next. He has a myriad of options at his fingertips and an opportunity to crawl through a river of muck and come out cleaner on the other side.
Sunday’s incident in Chicago is a major turning point for All Elite Wrestling. What direction will the company go? We’ll all find out in due time.
Rick Ucchino can be reached at Rick.Bleav@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @RickUcchino and make sure to subscribe to the Bleav in Pro Wrestling YouTube Channel.