All In was probably the most important show in AEW’s short history. While we can sit here and argue the attendance numbers, the validity of Tony Khan’s bustle toward touting the tickets sales numbers vs. the turnstile numbers at Wembley ultimately don’t matter any more or less than other major wrestling show’s attendance figures. On that day in August, a lot of people piled into a large stadium and watched a wrestling show. Whether that’s WWE, AEW, NJPW or any other company that could pull off putting tens of thousands of live bodies into one place, that’s amazing.
Yet immediately, the one thing we were all talking about is the incident between CM Punk and Jack Perry.
We’re now about a month removed from what had been touted as one of the most important weeks in the company’s history, beginning with All In and culminating with All Out weekend that began with CM Punk’s firing and ended with a good show capped off by Jon Moxley and Orange Cassidy.
Even still, in the days after, we were still talking about CM Punk’s actions at All In, and Perry’s frankly put bullheaded, youth-infused numbskullery. One is now fired and presumably in the midst of a no-compete clause, and the other is indefinitely suspended. Both moves are justified.
The subject of the Young Bucks being seemingly unsuitable executives is a chat for another day, because if anything for as much as Punk antagonized them in his comeback promos, they’re as guilty for their actions both in the ring and on BTE. For now, all that matters is this simple admission: CM Punk is one of the greatest, magnetic wrestlers of all time. He had presence and even if you want to punch him in the face, you have to admit that when he speaks you listen. When he wrestles, you watch. He’s a brilliant wrestler and there’s no denying that.
Despite that fact he’s also been historically abrasive, and there’s no denying that either. I think it would also only be foolish to assume that only Punk is at fault for all the unrest that has loomed over AEW since early 2022.
Noticed anything yet? Punk dominates the conversation, even this one, because we allow the “cult of personality” of his presence and it dictates that everything else is naturally overshadowed. In the weeks following All In London, all we could talk about is how CM Punk had an altercation with Luke Perry’s kid over glass, and that, even during the event dominated the conversation.
That’s a disservice to the roster–any roster–who work hard to thrive, excel, and above all be professional when veterans and executives can’t get out of their own pettiness and habitual handcuffs. No one has come out of this looking better, not Punk, not Perry and not the Bucks in the aftermath.
The end result is simple: the CM Punk era has come and gone in AEW. That is likely for the better and for every grain of revolutionary sentiment we attached to him through his career, the veil is pulled back for one reason or another and what’s left is just Phil Brooks the individual and whatever he does next in wrestling.
AEW Excels When The Company Focuses on Itself
Some of the company’s brightest moments came with their backs shoved against a wall or when they tell their own stories with smart, talented people. For example, thriving amid the pandemic. It’s ingrained in their history and the original impetus for the first All In shepherded by the Elite, and more specifically Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks and an offhand, altogether dumb Dave Meltzer comment. From that very first show the soul of the company has steeped in adversity, dined on low expectations, and has built a platform for talented wrestlers to stand on. In the process a serious challenger brand to WWE was created. They did that by being an antithetical entity. They did it at their best by telling decent-to-good stories involving people fans cared about, coupled with great moments you never expected, great matches you previously thought were a pipedream and they did it consistently…
…until they stopped.
At some point AEW plateaued. At some point All Elite Wrestling started coasting, which itself was the antithesis to its creation. Perhaps it happened when Punk arrived, perhaps it happened when Cody left, or perhaps it was just all the drama of the last 18 months that overshadowed everything the company did regardless of how small, big, miniscule or grandiose it was.
I think back to Cody breaking the throne. Brodie Lee’s arrival. Eddie Kingston showing up and cutting Cody to ribbons on the mic, as well as Ricky Starks who to this day is mostly untapped. I think of KENTA showing up to attack Mox to bust down the Forbidden Door for the first time, Okada’s first appearance when the coin dropped, Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson’s double debut, and as well when Final Countdown blared over the speakers at Forbidden Door 2 in Toronto. For me I remember the first time Jay White showed up.
This draws us to the last few weeks.
Over the last month since All In’s fallout AEW has truly leaned into showcasing fresh talent. Ricky Starks for example has really shined in his impromptu feud with Bryan Danielson.
Swerve Strickland’s momentum has certainly been building over the last months, but it has especially so during his feud with Darby Allin and Nick Wayne, which all feels like a prelude to his boiling-point matchup with Hangman Page this weekend at WrestleDream.
Further, on Wednesday night we had Jay White and MJF come face to face for the very first time. That’s a feud I’ve been wanting for some time, and to have them promo battle each other with King Switch manipulating MJF perfectly and Max for his part leaning into the perception that White was only ever a finely tuned tofu-flavoured product of Bullet Club was well executed. As a fan of both, it was a great segment.
And then last week in the heart of New York City, the man who nearly retired during the pandemic and was near broke claimed the Ring of Honor World Championship. Eddie Kingston, who is probably one of the most relatable wrestlers working today, reached a height we have to believe he never thought he’d reach and became a double champion in ROH and NJPW. It feels earned, because we are behind him, respect his grind to get where he is now, and an Eddie Kingston run on top is something the AEW fanbase seems to have wanted for some time now. To top it off, while I expect a draw, watching him compete potentially for a third title against Shibata at WrestleDream is another wrinkle to his story.
In all respects, parts of AEW feel fresh right now. Coupled with other smaller shifts elsewhere, such as the complete dissolution of the stal(l)ing JAS, the rise of Don Callis’ group, the arrival of Ibushi and pairing of he and Omega with Jericho. The women’s division has different faces on top (not much more time, but I digress), with Saraya being a notable name and easily recognizable as a champion; Kris Statlander is continuing her run as TBS champion fresh off her clean win over the WWE-departed Jade Cargill ahead of her match with Julia Hart at WrestleDream. And then the tag division feels important with FTR in the driver seat as they take on all challengers, while also semi-feuding with Aussie Open.
Tack all of this onto the ongoing Adam Cole-MJF-Strong-Kingdom story, and the ongoing saga of Christian Cage being the “longest reigning TNT champion of 2023” and father all should aspire to be, and AEW feels like a stronger view than it has in quite a while. It’s refreshing to be excited to watch both WWE and AEW at the same time.
Kingston and Saraya winning their titles on their home turf, although expected, felt good to watch because you know their stories and the adversities they’ve faced. Watching Cage hijack the TNT title only to win it feels like a payoff with plenty of more room to develop. FTR is giving the tag division credibility because of their ability to actually adapt to their opponents and diversify their styles so each match feels fresh. White and MJF are two young wrestlers in their prime with in-ring chops for days (their eventual match is going to be great, quote me on that). And where Swerve is now feels like the culmination of every step since his debut in AEW, with the surface barely being scratched on what he’s going to accomplish.
AEW has been no more consistent over the last year than it is right now. It feels like less of a slog to watch a show, and that will perhaps only improve as the three shows synergize and the company holistically becomes more cohesive again.
As cornball-ish as it sounds, AEW was built off bravado, balls and hope. The notion of what defined the original All In, that Tony Khan eventually piggybacked off of with the creation and bankrolling of AEW, was the courage to stand out and defy the standard expectations we have as fans of the industry. It was moreover a benchmark for wrestlers to enlighten them of what could be possible if you had the determination to colour outside the lines. And for a myriad reasons what All In, and what parts of the London show fell short off, was this idea that a group of people could carve out a niche in the mainstream and be successful opposite an industry giant. That stories or matchups we would otherwise not see, or would be dramatically diminished, could be told or showcased to full bloom. Dream matches that seemed ridiculous previously because no one tried to extend those branches across boundaries became reality. That was All In was in 2018. That was the nexus of what birthed AEW. While the Khan family’s finances have kept it fuelled, what has kept it successful arguably in spite of some past booking snafus to the degree it has in the shadow of WWE is its mission statement.
The truth is in the reality. Saying it’s exciting to watch two young, talented people interact, or someone who has pulled themselves from the brink succeed is pure rhetoric and subjective. Statistically though two things ring true over the last two weeks at least where MJF-White and Eddie Kingston are concerned.
At Dynamite Grand Slam the show started with the hometown boy winning the big one, with the show staying consistent and ending at over a million viewers for the MJF-Samoa Joe overrun. This past Wednesday, the high point of Dynamite was MJF and Jay White’s promo segment that did 943,000 viewers. The company succeeds when its eyes are set on the future and leaning into their fanbase’s expectations. Like anything else as a viewer you need a reason to stay, whether that’s a deserving title win, a promo battle with two people with a gift for gab, or a show closing sprint that amps up the tension in the Swerve-Page angle and bleeds into the mysterious Jay White beatdown as the show went off the air.
I can only speak for myself, but for the first time in a little while AEW is making right-thinking moves with the company seeming to move in a cohesive direction. There’s still room to improve on many of its shortcomings, but heading into the weekend and the immediate beyond the last two weeks have been positive steps forward.