For the first time this past weekend, and intentionally no matter what they may say, WWE and AEW ran PPVs/PLEs on the same weekend, perhaps being in direct competition with each other for the first time since NXT was backed off Wednesday nights. Feels like as good of a time as any to see where the companies are individually and in relation to each other with big changes, big stories, and the future as exciting and intriguing as it’s ever been. Today, we do our best to get a handle on just what’s going on with AEW.
Whether Tony Khan actually is aggrieved or secretly loves that WWE came for him on Labor Day weekend, we’ll never know. He claimed in his pre-show media call that one of the things that have upset him about the way WWE has “treated” him was the scheduling of Clash At The Castle the day before All Out, as AEW’s biggest PPV has been on Labor Day weekend for all four of its installments. It has been, and depending on your views till is, AEW’s weekend. But deep down, you get the feeling that Khan relishes getting to put his product on in such close proximity to New York’s.
What exactly Khan thinks is the AEW product and all that comes with it is another question.
Before diving into the nuts and bolts of AEW’s “Rough Night” weekend, it’s impossible to miss that AEW had all these mishegas to the point where no one in the industry is talking about Clash At The Castle now (though there weren’t a lot of talking points coming out of that show, which we’ll get to in our next installment). It’s just a little perfect, no? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the whole point of wrestling is trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t and what’s story and what isn’t, and that everything is up for that exact debate.
Still, AEW has been bonkers for weeks now, and one wonders if it’s part of the plan. Khan has been out front to say it’s a good thing to have intrigue and rumors and unrest behind the curtain because it can improve the product in front of it. But some of those claims have a real “Baghdad Bob” feel to them, as Khan tries to tell us there’s nothing to see here. We know Khan hasn’t dealt with conflict or criticism well in the past (Big Swole would like a word), and there is a feeling that quite simply he doesn’t know what to do when things don’t go according to his plan. The more you scream, “This is fine! This is fine!” the more the house burns around the coffee-sipping dog, as anyone on the internet knows.
It’s a horribly dated reference, and I’m a horribly dated guy, but the whole thing has felt like Guns N’ Roses in the Use Your Illusion era. If you weren’t around, or don’t remember, GNR was the biggest band in the world in a way that few have approached since. But their world tour to support the Use Your Illusion albums was a complete circus. Yes, most of the shows were great, but the stories off-stage swallowed up as much as the shows did. It was constantly something, as Axl started two riots, Slash died for eight minutes, Duff McKagan’s pancreas exploded a year later, Izzy quit, shows were canceled as Axl dodged the cops over said riots, or some of the shows were awful, as everyone was too fucked up to play. It was very rock n’ roll, but of course, the band was done as soon as it was over.
That’s not to say that AEW will end because of all this, or anything close. And a fair number of fans, maybe even most AEW fans, love the turmoil. Or they’re just drinking the Kool-Aid. And fuck, Dynamite on Wednesday is going to be must-see. Anything could happen! They’ll all be so until Grand Slam in two weeks when it’s likely MJF faces CM Punk, and Queens is technically part of Long Island, so the math is there. But there are definitely fans who don’t really need the stories of backstage politics and straight-up fights, and indeed others who don’t like hearing that AEW has been an unpleasant place to work for some for a while now, with a couple of beloved stars reportedly aching to get out. And there’s a symmetry to those who claim they are lapping up the controversies now are the same ones who mocked WWE under Vince McMahon and all the misery he was causing backstage in WWE.
While there’s a lot of leeway, what fans want the most is just some small level of stability, of knowing that the company A) will make it long-term and B) can put out the same level of shows it has been. When you have stories of wrestlers threatening to walk, or actually walking at times, those fears grow. And there’s a shelf life of just how long you can keep things going while you’re a complete circus backstage. Something major will go wrong that AEW can’t just “great match and show” over.
On the flip side, most but not all of AEW’s “problems” right now are centered around one thin-skinned CM Punk. What the truth is with Punk, what he did or didn’t do to Colt Cabana’s status, what he cleared for promos and what he didn’t, we may never know for sure until someone writes the tell-all book in 10 years. And none of this had to be a thing, because whatever comment Hangman Page made was no different than what Eddie Kingston or MJF had said in their promos for their matches with Punk, and no one else thought anything of. Punk just sat on it while injured and stewed, and then brought it back up simply so he could get the last word in and then brought this all on himself. Whatever it was, it was petty.
Whatever you think of Punk, and it ranges the spectrum, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone inside the industry or outside that would have a bad word to say about Colt Cabana, regarded as one of the bigger sweethearts in the business. Meanwhile, throw a rock and you’ll probably hit someone who can tell you for sure that Punk is a certified asshole. As a close friend of mine has said, you can’t find someone so proudly and outwardly straight-edge who isn’t a certified asshole.
With everything that spilled out from backstage and the post-All Out press conference, it was clear that Khan didn’t really have any control. Maybe he wants it to look that way, and it’s all a grand story, or they can get it there, but the feeling was that this was all happening to Khan instead of at his direction. Which gave it a real WCW feel, and we know how that ended. But then there’s the MJF arc, which looked like another thing that spun out of Khan’s control, or made to look like it had, and ended with MJF right where he’s always been, except maybe just higher on the card and with a bigger check.
It’s obviously more than just Punk. There’s whatever is going on with Thunder Rosa, Miro’s reported agitation, or possibly what’s going on with Malakai Black (could be personal issues and having nothing to do with Khan), or one or two other stories. It feels like Khan is trying to corral a thunderstorm and get it to the next town, though that’s much in the tradition of wrestling’s carny roots. While AEW’s devoted fanbase will always give it lots of roads and provide it with a base in attendance and ratings, part of the charm of AEW in its first three years was that it was started by a group of friends who wanted to run a company the way they thought it should, and everyone was happy getting to do the matches and stories they wanted to. This is obviously quite different now.
AEW is going to burn really brightly over the next few weeks and months from the fallout from all this. But there is a fear that if you burn that brightly you’re going to burn out, which is what AEW fans have always feared.