The Last Dance: CM Punk's Exit from AEW

Originally published at The Last Dance: CM Punk's Exit from AEW

The two-year relationship between AEW and Phil Brooks will be dissected and debated for years to come, taking AEW to its zenith and nadir among fan perception.

In August of 2021, a simple press release stating, “I’m back” as a nod to Michael Jordan signaled the figure’s return to the industry after 7 ½ years. On Saturday, the press release confirming his termination was much different in tone and finality.

In the modern era, there is probably no more compelling figure than Punk, who has touched on an emotional connection with his fanbase that embodies his “Cult of Personality” persona. What he touches, how he feels, and actions he takes are the subject of headlines, stories, podcasts, and psychoanalysis, and create a bitter divide among his backers and critics.

Traditionally, if one is a star, they are afforded the longest leash and given chance after chance because this is an industry where drawing money and attention is one’s currency. For a profession where we point out the lack of power most performers command related to labor rights, independent contractor classifications, and a hand-to-mouth dependency on one’s promoter. CM Punk is someone who has always understood his power in the equation and has never been shy about testing the limits of his influence knowing his numbers supports his confidence to push the limits.

In another era, CM Punk would be a Bruiser Brody hitting a territory in need of a shot in the arm, providing a spark, and inevitably, would upset promoters along the way and split for the next one. Brody’s argument was if you treated him right, he would do the same and if not, he wasn’t afraid to fight fire with fire. This isn’t the territorial system and wrestling doesn’t move backward despite many people’s romanticized view of what the industry was and fear for what it has become.

When Punk arrived in AEW, it sent the company to its greatest period of business. On his resume, is the most purchased pay-per-view in company history, the most-watched episode of Rampage and instant sell-out of the United Center without a formal announcement of his arrival, merchandise sales that were as strong as anyone the company has marketed, and a strong catalog of matches when most questioned how he would perform with so much time away and injuries accrued. The resume will also be flanked by the cracks in the foundation that exploded last year with a press conference diatribe and subsequent locker room brawl that fractured the company and removed four of its major stars from television.

The writing may have been on the wall from day one. During Punk’s first media call after arriving in AEW, he was asked by David Bixenspan about past issues with people on the roster (Colt Cabana) and it became obvious that no water was under the bridge from their nasty falling out during a lawsuit and the two filing separate suits against each other.

All locker rooms will have their divisiveness, bad blood, and people who do not get along. But, for most, it’s left at the door and business is business. None of us like all the people we work with, but we tolerate and get the job done. The issues became deeper once they spilled onto television and it became a grievance playground for settling scores and landing shots on their targets.

For Punk, his zero tolerance for disrespect began with Hangman Page’s line about “worker’s rights” on the go-home Dynamite before their Double or Nothing match in May 2022. Punk felt it was out of bounds to go there with the line being a reference to chatter amongst the locker room that Colt Cabana being reassigned to Ring of Honor was a handiwork of Punk, an accusation Punk and Tony Khan have publicly refuted but different people are going to draw different conclusions.

The odd part is that few people watching that promo that evening connected the dots on what it meant and the weight those words would hold. For those that defend Page, he was building a match and wasn’t just throwing out a cute line to score points with people in the back. Pro wrestling is built on conveying real emotions and manipulating the audience with that belief for maximum drama. However, when you fly too close to the sun, you get burned. The other argument is that it was a line going over so many people’s heads, was it really that effective in building the match?

They had their match and on the next week’s Dynamite, Punk broke his foot and was out of action therefore, most people didn’t think twice about any outstanding issues even if they were simmering below the surface and would come to a boil.

The first opportunity Punk had on live television when he returned resulted in a stunning moment where he issued an open challenge for Hangman Page to come out and fight him, resulting in no response and most assuming it was designed for a program. Only after, did it become known that Punk went into business for himself on live television, painting Page as a coward for not answering the challenge – but also, without any plans for the company to go in that direction. This was a giant warning sign when a segment on television was hijacked to settle a personal score.

With tensions rising, a talent meeting was held in August 2022 with the following reported in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that week:

What we noted that I felt needed to be addressed, and also completely expected it wouldn’t be, was the catalyst of the Page-Punk issues, which has to do with Colt Cabana being removed from the Dark Order, no longer being brought to Dynamite, and eventually signing a new contract (believed to be for the same money), but for ROH. There was a question whether he would be given a new deal but those in management did push to Tony Khan it would be the best thing to do so.

There were many who believed Punk, who is the company’s biggest star, was the reason. Punk has told people he wasn’t. On one hand, there needed to be a direct answer as to what happened and why, but on the other hand, how that would have been addressed by Khan would have left top people furious either way.

Whatever attempts to quell the emotions privately didn’t extinguish the flames with the belief that tactics were being used to undermine and undercut. Famously, it came to a head at the All Out press conference last September. Punk, fresh off one injury and the realization of a new one with months of rehab in his future, unloaded on the company and primarily its EVPs with Tony Khan seated to his right and taking it all in as the audience was.

Punk made broad accusations of certain people leaking information regarding the Cabana rumors (which reporters Dave Meltzer and Sean Ross Sapp disputed hearing anything regarding Punk from the Young Bucks) but was a “shoot now, ask questions later” mentality. The court of public opinion will reach its conclusion on who was being accurate, which Tony Khan knows the answer and at least publicly has always stated Punk played no role in Cabana’s reassignment.  

Punk issued an open door policy for anyone who had an issue with him and when Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks proceeded to take Punk up on that offer, a fight broke out and multiple parties were suspended indefinitely with an investigation launched and a year of turmoil ahead of the company with this ugly cloud over its head. Months later, it was frequently noted Punk’s desire to sit down and speak with the members, who appeared to have no interest in such a truce. Given the precedent of the three approaching Punk at All Out and a full-on fight breaking out, you can understand their hesitancy to engage anymore with Punk while also understanding that the sides working out their problems in a constructive way was best for the company.

While attending the subsequent Dynamite in Buffalo, it felt eery at the show like the goodwill of the company was gone and it was a promotion under stress and the double whammy of internal strife mixed with a thriving WWE that was capturing the audience’s imagination through new creative directions under fresh leadership.   

It was unknown how to handle Punk’s situation and his torn triceps allowed breathing room to keep him away for a prolonged period and not being forced to act with a performer antsy to return. It was grounds for termination with how he conducted himself at the press conference and coupled with the fight, it was hard to imagine he would be back except for the golden rule in an industry catered to stars.

The Bucks and Omega were the first to return in November at the Full Gear show and then, on Dynamite in Illinois on Thanksgiving Eve. The Elite was booed vociferously, and they responded in kind working their match against Death Triangle with multiple references to CM Punk including Matt Jackson botching a Buckshot Lariat as another shot. For the crowd, it made for a heated atmosphere and they played to that audience, but at what cost? The reality was super-heated, real-life tension and only fanned the flames further after the company refused to acknowledge the incident publicly and this group broke that edict and wrestled a match that only served to paint them as antagonists to the situation.

With months removed, the talk of Punk’s return began to gain steam and with a Saturday night program greenlit, it was seen as the solution. But it wasn’t a solution any more than pausing the inevitable with the heart of the conflict beating stronger than ever.

Reports surfaced that Punk was expected to be unveiled at the WBD upfronts with the Collision news being released without Punk’s name attached. Every week, something new was popping up from groups divided, talent and personnel welcomed or unwelcomed on Saturday nights, requests being acquiesced to, Punk popping up backstage at a WWE Raw show in Chicago, a battle over Ace Steel’s employment, the head of talent relations becoming a casualty of the cold war, Twitter posts turning into real-life conflicts and a realization that for Tony Khan to try and keep all parties under the same roof, he would need to engage in weekly exercises of putting out fires before the flames engulfed company-wide morale.

Everyone had an opinion on how management should deal with the problems, but no one solution came without risk and damage. It was (and is) imperative for Collision to be a hit on Saturday nights and CM Punk was viewed as the strongest tool to achieve that goal. The question of his durability after two serious injuries was answered with ten matches in eleven weeks for the 44-year-old with no sign of a slowdown having been idle for most of the last year. After eleven shows, Collision was averaging a 0.20 in the 18-49 demographic, which is right at the level of success but also, with the fall season upon them and significant competition coming its way as the college football season is underway.

All roads led to London for the biggest show in company history and after putting on an excellent show with a new verified paid attendance record, it should have been a week-long celebration for AEW, but alas, the latest backstage skirmish stole the headlines, and All In became a distant memory days removed from the record-setting card at Wembley.

“You know what this is right here? Real glass, go cry me a river.”

Innocuous enough but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back after Jack Perry uttered the line during his Zero Hour match against Hook, a reference to an issue between Perry and Punk at a Collision in July with Perry wanting to perform a stunt using real glass. The line was either viewed as a small quip for the audience that got it, but far more saw it as poking the bear, who was all out of patience. Perry would have to answer for himself if he felt it was Punk’s side that got his version of the story out and painted Perry in a poor light, perhaps he felt a public clapback was necessary rather than a private conversation. The latter would have been the mature response rather than taking time out of a match on the company’s biggest show to score points with your colleagues and land a jab on the company’s biggest show. For CM Punk, he was hardly the person to press this argument given we were a week removed from him addressing the live audience in Greensboro and insulting Hangman Page and his merchandise not selling (privately, Punk was said to have apologized). It’s very difficult to paint Punk as an aggrieved party over the line issued by Perry when Punk has engaged in identical conduct in AEW forums over the past year and been much more strongly worded and direct at his targets from Cabana, Hangman Page, and the “Counterfeit Bucks”.


We all know of the incident backstage and reports of who engaged in the physicality, but it painted a bad scene and resulted in both being suspended. What we don’t have all the details on is the interaction between Punk and Tony Khan beyond reports that Punk “lunged” at the company president (a wording that Dave Meltzer admits he downplayed and was “far too kind” in how he covered Punk’s issues) and Wade Keller of PW Torch believing something went down behind closed doors. What was known was Khan’s statement that he had never felt so endangered over his thirty years of attending wrestling shows and citing his responsibility for the safety of innocent members of the staff, who could have been injured as bystanders.

When you read the termination statement on Saturday and heard Khan’s speech to the Chicago crowd, it was clear Punk was never coming back and it was only a matter of legally protecting themselves and having the assurance of WBD and those within the company of moving forward with the public firing of its top star during a weekend catered to his fanbase in the arena that had become Punk’s pulpit and site of his 2021 return.

Statement from All Elite Wrestling and Tony Khan

— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) September 2, 2023

Jack Perry remains suspended indefinitely, which shows he is not absolved of any wrongdoing, but AEW felt confident enough to not terminate him as well.

Unlike the locker room fight last year, there were many witnesses to this incident and footage that relieves any reliance on biased accounts of the incident from parties with a horse in the race. The smoking gun was caught on camera and led to outside counsel and an internal disciplinary committee convening and assessing Punk’s actions throughout his tenure and arriving at Saturday’s decision to terminate his wrestler and employment agreements with AEW.

So, where does this go next?

It seems foolhardy to believe this is the final chapter of CM Punk and AEW’s grievances. A termination with cause spells out that Punk is out sizable amounts of money and a lawsuit could easily be the next step. In 1997, Bret Hart could have sought legal options for breach of contract when Vince McMahon violated the reasonable creative control clause of his contract by altering the planned finish of the Survivor Series, but any legal steps taken would have been met with an easy countersuit by McMahon for assault at the Bell Centre and the two sides went their separate ways without getting lawyers involved. It could be argued in this one that Punk could feel like an aggrieved party with a wrongful termination claim, but whatever is contained on camera could be the case’s fait accompli and deter him from engaging in endless legal bills and potentially years of litigation (something he lived through from 2015 until 2018 and few would want to jump into again).

Khan wouldn’t address any restrictions for Punk to resume his wrestling career elsewhere. For the amount Punk was making in AEW, there is only one comparable destination and it’s WWE, which opens a pandora’s box of conflicts and history, but never has there been an industry that gleans so much from the “never say never” axiom.

Punk’s longstanding issues with WWE were not limited to Vince McMahon, as his problems with Paul Levesque were well documented by Punk himself. WWE is in a spot where they do not need any one person as their business is on fire and Punk has thrived in an environment where he knows his worth and value to a tee and has tested those limits. He is also someone extremely motivated by grudges and a refusal to let bygones be bygones with those he feels have wronged him. Only he can answer what his feelings are toward Tony Khan and AEW, but it doesn’t take a leap of faith to assume it’s not a pretty framing after his firing.

There is a sad ending to this relationship where AEW was able to rekindle a genuine love for professional wrestling that I believe CM Punk possesses. He had a vision for what this company and locker room could be, and I wouldn’t doubt his vision for that destination and set of goals were admirable ones as evidenced in his speech at the Cauliflower Alley Club that conveyed and wise veteran with an understanding of the history of the business and hoping to instill his wisdom like his heroes did for him.

But the path taken toward those goals became problematic and untenable of talents and personnel being blocked, settling grudges in public, and worse, resulting in violence.

Punk’s legacy in AEW will be a complicated one. His on-camera contributions led to several figures that will be tough to eclipse. His first match against Darby Allin was the key one on the All Out card in September 2021 that set the promotion’s record for pay-per-view buys and it’s safe to assume that Rampage will never do a larger audience than his debut two years ago.

It would be unfair to single him out as the cause of all the backstage derision and problems, but many will because he was the one fired. Many people made wrong turns along the way and the most you can hope, is that lessons were learned and there are some major takeaways to avoid this level of catastrophe festering and exploding in public forums. It’s also not fair to ignore Punk being the central figure in all these stories regardless of those who supported his decisions or vehemently opposed his leadership style.

In another era, Punk was lauded as an outlaw in the mold of Bruiser Brody, who was praised for his heavy-handed tactics against promoters he felt wronged him. Or, if Punk was running a territory in the ‘70s and ruled with an iron fist. But this isn’t 1978 and Punk isn’t Bill Watts or Eddie Graham. It is 2023 where discipline committees exist, you’re attached to a massive media conglomerate, and your fans are more aware of the inner workings than ever before.

With Punk removed from the environment, it should hurt Collision short term and time will tell what the long-term effects are. Punk was not the difference-maker for Collision that most thought he would, nor did he fail, but he performed at a good, not great level. Timing-wise, Punk will look great as numbers inevitably go down with college football beginning and those supporting Punk can point to a downtrend “post Punk”.

The final chapter of CM Punk’s pro wrestling career is likely unwritten, but his time in AEW is over and that writing was on the wall for far too long.


How much of a plane crash it was in the two years.

1 Like

Meltzer shifting his approach to what he reported about the lunging is either BS or an unacceptable lapse in journalistic standards.

I would equate it more to a dollar coaster ride. High highs and Low lows.

I took his “we were too kind” remark to mean that he was trying not to be inflammatory without knowing all of the facts. But I haven’t read/heard every word he’s had on the subject.


Great job @johnpollock :slight_smile:

Well written. A very dramatic chapter in wrestling history is finally over. For now.