The most noteworthy part of now-former AEW champion CM Punk’s three-minute loss to Jon Moxley on Wednesday’s Dynamite had nothing to do with the story beats presented on screen, in the ring, or by the show’s commentary team. It had everything to do with an incident last week in which Punk, at the beginning of a show-opening promo, was said to have legitimately gone off the reservation to taunt another former champion, “Hangman” Adam Page.
Quick refresher: As the rumors go, Punk felt disrespected by real-life elements Page incorporated into their title feud earlier this year, so upon returning from a foot injury, Punk wasted no time rekindling the beef by springing a trap intended to make Page, a fellow main eventer and fan favourite, look like a coward. On its own, this is no big deal — heel Punk is awesome, and demeaning a sympathetic figure is a quick and easy way to build pathos, which sets up anticipation for a big match, which in turn brings the pay-per-view buys and cable ratings. It’s textbook pro wrestling storytelling, except there was one big issue, according to the rumor mill: there had been no plans for a continued Punk/Page feud, nor was anyone backstage even aware of Punk’s intent to mention Page that night. Ultimately, if these reports are to be believed, Punk set out to damage the stock of a colleague on national television, and to some extent he succeeded. Worse yet, if you believe the anonymous sources, this stunt was not carried out in service of delicious pay-per-view buyrates or cable viewership, but petty revenge.
There’s a reason the words “report” and “rumor” are hammered home so frequently in the above summary of this mess — it’s wrestling, muddying the water is the part of the industry’s DNA. It’s impossible to get a clear, nuanced picture of any closed-door drama by looking at a series of tweets. While accounts of Punk’s alleged unprofessionalism did come from generally well-sourced and trustworthy industry journalists, including Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp and Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, at the end of the day reports like these are informed by unnamed sources who have personal relationships with the parties involved, are the parties involved, or have stakes of their own in the company’s backstage politics. Sure, following the dirt can be lots of fun, just make sure to insulate yourself in a thick layer of skepticism before wading through that muck.
Lending lots of credence to these reports, though, is that last night, one week after his alleged off-script ambush, Punk — unquestionably the face of the AEW franchise — was booked to lose the title in humiliating fashion, forced to roll through the motions like a sack of heavily-tattooed dough and limp off pathetically into the night after Moxley ran through him in the company’s shortest-ever world title match. You don’t book a multimillion-dollar investment to get trounced like that without a good reason.
Plugged-in fans immediately connected the dots, speculating reasonably that Punk’s embarrassment last night was a direct punishment for his behavior last week. But there are other possibilities, too. Perhaps Punk really did aggravate his injured foot and needed to be written off TV. This does not seem to be the case and apparently, according to Meltzer, a rematch of this fiasco is still planned to main event All Out (how they’re going to make this match exciting again and get themselves out of this corner they’ve written themselves into is anyone’s guess). Or, maybe, as another school of thought goes, this was a weird sort of meta storytelling, a way for Tony Khan to whip the Very Online contingent of AEW’s fanbase into a confused frenzy. Unlikely, but if that’s the case, mission accomplished… congratulations? And, of course, this storyline could have been the plan all along.
If indeed this booking decision was a punishment for Punk, as it appears to be, then a heavily-qualified round of applause goes out to Khan. It would be a ballsy move for him to so publicly dole out consequences to a guy he’s leaned on as the company’s MVP for the past year. Nobody’s bigger than the show. It’s a good precedent to set.
Still, it’s hard to see the events of last night’s Dynamite as anything but a colossal fuckup for a number of reasons, especially considering the silent majority of casual viewers who don’t know or care about the salacious backstage rumors, who have never heard of Dave Meltzer (how I envy you) — the ones who tuned in, watched Punk get killed, said “huh?” and flipped back to an NCIS rerun.
Because no matter the intent, whether or not Punk deserved his fate, this booking choice was as lousy as it gets — inexplicable at best and, at worst, a serious blow to the prestige of the company’s world title. Think about it: Just two weeks ago, a Punk/Mox championship unifier seemed like an obvious pay-per-view main event. Most expected it would headline All Outand few were opposed to that idea.
This week? That same match didn’t even main event a random-ass Dynamite in Cleveland. That distinction went instead to a six-man tag tournament match featuring Death Triangle and United Empire, a team not signed to AEW.
Is Khan sending a message to Punk, or anyone else on the talent roster, worth sacrificing the narrative cohesion of the company’s flagship show and its most important belt? Hello no. But that seems to be exactly what happened. (Again, it’s possible this was the plan all along, in which case it was just bad booking without an underlying statement being made.)
To make matters worse, the Dynamite commentary team didn’t even attempt to explain why this hugely important match was placed so low on the card, nor how the company could have had the foresight to schedule several more matches afterward when Mox and Punk could conceivably have gone the full hour. (Standby matches! It would have been so easy to handwave away and they didn’t even bother!) Yes, suspension of disbelief is important, but there’s a limit when the plot becomes aggressively nonsensical as it was last night.
It’s Khan’s business, Khan’s creative, and therefore Khan’s prerogative whether he wants to squash Punk, suspend him, or make him talk to a mop for the next six months (please do this). But no matter what, the overarching story presented to viewers — all viewers, not just the ones dedicated enough to sign up for text alerts about what Kenny Omega ate for lunch — needs to take precedence and make sense. Last night, it didn’t. AEW dropped the ball, and picking it up again won’t be easy.