August 20, 2021. A very important date in the history of AEW.
For weeks and weeks we had been hearing that CM Punk was on his way to the young promotion. AEW didn’t even have to announce Punk’s signing. The event, titled First Dance, promoted and sold itself and up until it started, AEW never mentioned that CM Punk would be there.
But everyone knew. It was the world’s worst kept secret. 15,316 fans packed the United Center for this second episode of Rampage. Chants of “CM Punk” rang around the arena before the first notes of Cult of Personality hit the speakers.
When it did start playing, the fans blew the roof off the arena. Chicago’s favorite son has finally arrived. CM Punk signs covered the stands. Fans were crying. Literally.
It had been seven long years of “CM Punk” chants across wrestling arenas. He was finally here on a mission to help elevate AEW and hopefully have a better experience than his previous employer – WWE.
His first in-ring promo on that episode of Rampage contained a lot of zingers against WWE. The crowd ate it all up. People backstage popped. Punk was the adrenaline shot that AEW needed to expand their business.
Just a few weeks later, the company got two more shots of that adrenaline – the arrival of Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson at All Out. To this day, All Out 2021 remains the most-watched AEW pay-per-view with 205,000 buys. Punk also had his first match there against Darby Allin, a match which he obviously won.
Punk’s arrival in AEW was a very successful one. Merchandise flew off the shelves, fans packed arenas, bought pay-per-views, TV ratings increased, and AEW hit their first million dollar gate, something which they now do more often.
His involvement to bring success to AEW cannot be denied, not even by the Punk haters. He moved the needle for the company and put asses into seats. He brought that extra star power to a company which was still up and coming and needed all the help it could get.
But Tony Khan knew one thing: with CM Punk comes controversy. And controversy is Punk’s middle name. For whatever reason, he cannot escape it.
One of Tony Khan’s biggest disadvantages is that he’s a young, inexperienced leader. I wouldn’t even call him a leader to be quite honest. He’s a young man living his dream at the moment, going from booking fantasy shows to heading a multi-million dollar company with the likes of Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, Sting, Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, and many other top stars in the business.
In the first few press conferences, you could see how Khan looked at Punk. It was love. Seriously, puppy eyes admiring his greatest acquisition. Punk couldn’t do anything wrong. Tony was full of praise and often said that Punk would help take AEW to the promise land.
At All Out last year all hell broke loose. The post-show press conference, now aptly referred to as Brawl Out, will live in the history of professional wrestling forever. CM Punk had just defeated Jon Moxley for the AEW World title and then showed up at the press conference, tore the script, and went to town on the members of The Elite.
Showing his inexperience, Tony Khan sat there like a little puppy nodding, with his eyes wide open and not even blinking. Rather than stopping Punk, he let him rant. And rant, and rant, and rant. The damage was done.
Backstage, Punk, The Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega all got into a fight. They were all suspended and stripped off their respective titles. Punk was the AEW World champion. The Elite had just won the AEW World Trios titles. Punk was also injured in the match so he would have been stripped off the title anyway. The Elite were suspended for two months and Punk rode off into the sunset, nursing his surgically repaired left tricep.
Fast forward nine months, and AEW was about to debut a new show titled Collision. Punk was set to be part of the WBD Upfronts event to hype the show but problems came up and there were rumors that he was going to pull out. AEW even booked a secondary location for the inaugural episode of Collision as they wouldn’t dare do it at the United Center if he wasn’t there.
But a day or so before, everything was settled again, and Punk was ready for his second coming. Same place as the first one, just a different day of the week, and a few less people in the stands.
On June 17, 2023, CM Punk successfully returned to AEW. The pop was there, the merchandise flew off the shelves again, but there was no crying this time around. He wrestled on the first episode with his close friends FTR, his first time in the ring since All Out.
But unsurprisingly, things quickly went down the drain, again.
Collision was largely a CM Punk show. He “ran” the show, had a say on who comes in and more. As history suggests, giving any active wrestler that kind of power often leads to disastrous situations. But Tony Khan didn’t care, he had his prized possession.
On the first episode of Collision, Tony Khan allegedly was backstage in Gorilla with the headset on, standing and chanting CM Punk with his hands up when Punk came out for his return.
At All In, the curse of CM Punk struck again. Maybe this time he was provoked. Jack Perry, who had an altercation with Punk weeks earlier over the use of real glass during an episode of Collision, was wrestling Hook in the pre-show and used real glass in a spot. He looked at the camera and said, “Real glass. Go cry me a river!”
Punk, in Gorilla waiting for his cue, took note, and when Perry walked to the back, all hell broke loose, again. By now you have read what happened and the different accounts, but one thing was for sure, it got nasty and physical. Things apparently flew, and this time it wasn’t merchandise.
Gorilla position is open and not like a locker room so unlike Brawl Out, there were many witnesses including AEW President Tony Khan. Khan launched an investigation into the incident, an investigation which wrapped up on Saturday.
This time, Punk drew the short end of the stick and was fired with cause. Khan, standing in front of fans at the United Center, again, explained his decision and said that last week in London, he felt his security, his safety, and his life were in danger.
Khan, until now, had a god-like status with the AEW faithful. No matter how goofy or stupid a decision was, he was always cheered and everyone jumped to his defense.
Chicago did not agree.
He got his first taste of boos. He acknowledged the reaction and took a seat at the top of the stage looking rather uncomfortable.
In the press release issued announcing the termination of Punk’s employment, Khan said, “Phil played an important role within AEW and I thank him for his contributions. The termination of his AEW contracts with cause was ultimately my decision, and mine alone.”
It was rather inevitable. Part of the problem is that Khan let the inmates run the asylum for far too long. In WWE, everyone knows who’s the boss. In WWE there are no active wrestlers with EVP statuses. That is asking for trouble. Just ask Cody Rhodes.
For now, CM Punk’s love story with AEW has come to an end in a nasty breakup.
Reconciliation in future?
In this business, never say never.