Accountability: CM Punk and AEW
By Jay Stringer
It’s August 27th, 2023. I’m in Wembley Stadium. Through a combination of events, my purchased seat next to the wrestler’s entrance isn’t available. As a result, the floor manager has given me permission to stand at the back, near the entrance to the staff-only section and photographers. (Sidenote: Samoa Joe’s pyro almost took my eyebrows off. The Young Bucks pyro almost reduced me to ash and bone.)
It’s just before kick-off time for the main show. I’ve watched a car drive in next to me, Hook and Jack Perry have had a wee kerfuffle that seemed a bit like a match, and then the ground crew have been hard at work getting everything ready for the PPV. On cue, a whole bunch of staff in AEW T-Shirts go running through the curtain to the back and make a joke to someone next to me that Punk’s probably hit the Elite again.
It wasn’t the Elite.
A few moments later, the show kicks off and I get to see CM Punk and Samoa Joe wrestle a fun match in front of the biggest crowd of their careers. And I feel a rare moment of ‘this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Flashback two decades.
I’m a British wrestling fan who (currently a vanishingly small minority) has felt alienated by much of the Attitude Era and mourns the loss of WCW. I start hearing about some great matches between two guys I haven’t heard of: CM Punk and Samoa Joe. I track down the matches, watch them a zillion times, and feel a sense of something I’ve lost in mainstream wrestling.
Flash forward again to right now, September 2023, and it feels like a lonely place to be a CM Punk fan again. I don’t mind it, but I also don’t understand it.
Everybody knows some of the story. None of us really know all of it. Punk became a legend through his absence, quitting WWE in 2014 and leaving the business. He returned in 2021 to one of the biggest ovations in wrestling history and went on to have a great run for the next six months. He worked with young talent. He said all the right things. He helped to show how good Will Hobbs, Wardlow, Daniel Garcia, Eddie Kingston, and Dax Harwood are. He put “send Hook” on the map. He had a feud with MJF that deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time greats in AEW. And then…. shit went wrong.
A few weeks of baseless rumors stoked by two members of the wrestling media who like to step back from all blame like the weasel kid on a school playground spawned all of this. There was the idea that Punk was behind the near-firing of Colt Cabana (despite joining a company that already had Colt there and him publicly saying he had no issue with anyone being there), which didn't add up but hey. It prompted Hangman Adam Page to use this as a live round in a promo battle, saying Punk is a hypocrite when it comes to workers’ rights. Watching it back, we can see Punk blink. We can see the exact moment that a comment in a pro-wrestling ring got under someone’s skin. And nothing in AEW has felt the same since.
Let's start with the criticisms first.
CM Punk is in his forties. He’s a grown-ass man. He is two years older than me. I work with 18–23-year olds, and nothing they say can offend me because I’m an adult. Punk is way too old to be upset by anything Adam Page, Jack Perry, Ryan Nemeth, or Matt Hardy say. It’s probably frustrating to be called a cancer by Chris Jericho and then have that go public, but my days of giving a shit about Chris Jericho’s opinions on the world would have ended somewhere around January 2021. Nothing any of these people could have said would justify Punk’s public meltdown at the All Out press scrum, or on social media, or the two backstage fights he’s been involved in. You’re an adult, man. Act like it.
All of that said, why does it seem as if the wrestling community only buys into one side of the narrative so completely? Adults (even when they’re failing to act like adults) are still allowed to be human beings. Hangman Page gets to make a public mistake. CM Punk gets to be pissed about it. The Bucks get to be annoyed at hearing their names dragged through the mud. Jack Perry gets to act like a brat. They all get to fight over it if that’s what they want to do. And, in all fairness to all of them, very few of us can understand what it’s like to live in a constant goldfish bowl where every personal beef is liable to be leaked by someone to a dirt sheet for clicks. I’ve had a career in publishing, I’ve fallen out with other published writers. Sometimes I’ve been in the wrong, sometimes they’ve been in the wrong, sometimes we’ve worked it out afterwards and sometimes we’ve never spoken again. But we’re not followed around by dirt sheets. We don’t have Dave Meltzer publishing rumors, then months later saying in relation to CabanaGate that “it was true all along” on mic, then even later still pretending to play no part in whatever happened. We get to be adults and make mistakes.
I’ll recap what little we know of CM Punk’s backstage antics. He got in a fight with two (possibly three) company executives (and active wrestlers) in his locker room in 2022 and somebody else threw a chair at somebody else. As a result, he was eventually shipped off to a whole separate show, and the only time he would ever appear on Wednesday again was when those three EVP’s were not in the building. He then seems to have told some people from Wednesday (a show he wasn’t allowed on) that they weren’t allowed on Saturday. Then he also got in a backstage fight at Wembley with a kid who’d just taken a verbal shot at him in front of a huge global audience. He may or may not have lunged at his boss, Tony Khan. I don’t know. You don’t know. If he did, that’s out of line.
Let’s recap something that Punk (as far as I know) has never done. He’s never been arrested multiple times for public intoxication. Never been arrested for being behind the wheel of a car drunk with a suspended license, in an act that could have killed somebody. He wasn’t named in #speakingout. As far as I’ve heard, none of his family were anywhere near DC in January 2021. He’s never done a podcast saying he wanted to sexually assault Sasha Banks. He hasn’t (as far as I know) had allegations that a company he works for covered up his sexual harassment. He’s never attacked a co-worker with scissors. And just to be fair and throw some shit in the direction of one of my favorites, Punk also isn’t currently under suspicion for brandishing a gun at someone while driving.
And to be clear, I’m not calling for Jeff Hardy to be fired, or anything approaching that. I’m about to hit six years sober. I will never pass judgement on someone for struggling with drugs or alcohol, and I wish Jeff nothing but sobriety, serenity, and happiness from here on out. But sobering up doesn’t remove you from accountability (as I’m sure Jeff himself would be the first to say), it does the exact opposite. As a sober person, I’m all about accountability. CM Punk must be held accountable for his actions, and he clearly has been. He let himself and others down, acted like a child, and is missing out on millions of dollars after being fired from a high-profile job.
Let’s have some more.
The issues that led to Punk’s firing won’t be resolved simply by him being gone. And if it is (absolutely) wrong for CM Punk to (allegedly) lunge at his employer, was it not also absolutely wrong for two or three company EVP’s to get into a fight with an employee in his own dressing room? If it was wrong for CM Punk to take public shots at Hangman Page, was it not also wrong for Hangman Page to have started this whole thing with a public shot at Punk? If it is wrong for Punk to have insulted the EVP’s on mic at a press conference, is not also wrong for the same EVP’s to keep taking shots at him on their own YouTube show?
I guess ultimately it comes down to this. In an industry that routinely puts up with some of the most toxic people, with a fanbase that will cheer these people on, and in a company that still employs people accused of all the things I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I’m not entirely sure why CM Punk getting into a couple of fights with other grown men is the ultimate “fired with cause” moment.
I was an AEW fan before Punk signed. My support of the company was never contingent on him being there. And hell, if the last I see of him is a match with Samoa Joe at Wembley, then there’s a certain full-circle quality to that. But I’d be lying if I said watching AEW is still as much fun for me as it used to be. I skipped an AEW PPV last month for the very first time, and I’ve missed some hours of TV that I don’t feel the need to catch up on. When someone shows you who they are, believe them. That’s how the saying goes. In my opinion, a lot of people in the company have showed us who they really are, and I’m choosing to believe them.
Bio: Jay Stringer was born in 1980 and he’s not dead yet. An award-nominated writer of crime and adventure fiction, he has also performed stand-up comedy, worked as a bike courier and debt collector, and spends too much time thinking about the Replacements.