On Sunday, AEW sold out the Now Arena in suburban Chicago for its annual Labor Day pay-per-view, All Out. The show saw Toni Storm crowned the new interim Women’s champion, the surprise return of disgruntled loose cannon MJF (with a new, pricey theme song in “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones), an unexpected classic World Tag Title match, and CM Punk avenging his three-minute AEW World Championship loss several weeks ago on Dynamite by capturing the title in his hometown in a bloody brawl against Jon Moxley. It was an undoubtedly eventful show with a lot of very good wrestling, and an hour later nobody was talking about it at all.
What they were talking about was new champion CM Punk coming into the post-match press conference and angrily firing direct shots at his former friend Colt Cabana, former opponent Adam Page, and various executive vice presidents (EVPs), whom people assumed to mean the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, who currently hold EVP positions within All Elite Wrestling. So what did he say? Why did he say it? And what does it mean?
CM Punk and Colt Cabana’s Falling-Out
Punk and Cabana both started training at the Steel Domain wrestling company in Pittsburgh at the same time; the “Steel” in the company’s name is from Ace Steel, who is a backstage producer in AEW and had been part of Punk’s story line leading up to the title match on Sunday. Punk and Cabana were both teammates and opponents in the earlier part of their career in the Midwest independent scene, and were stablemates in Ring of Honor as the Second City Saints with Ace Steel.
That close relationship fractured after Punk left WWE. Cabana hosted a pioneering wrestling podcast, Art of Wrestling, where he interviewed wrestlers about their art (think a pro wrestling version of WTF With Marc Maron). Cabana had Punk on after his departure from WWE, and he discussed his frustrations with his booking and usage. And more importantly, Punk accused WWE and one of its doctors, Chris Amann, of negligence. Punk said the company ignored a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, which he said ended up being life-threatening after WWE doctors loaded him up with Z-PAK and sent him out to wrestle, causing him to––as he said––“shit my pants on SmackDown.”
WWE and Amann sued both Punk and Cabana for defamation, a lawsuit Punk eventually won. The falling-out came when Cabana sued Punk, claiming that the wrestler had agreed to cover Cabana’s legal fees but reneged on the promise. Punk’s response was that Cabana was greedy and trying to extort him; lawsuits between the two were eventually settled.
The beef became news again in August 2021, when Punk joined AEW, where Cabana was employed as a member of the Dark Order. Cabana eventually stopped appearing as part of that team and was moved to the ROH roster. There were rumors published that Punk had asked for Cabana to be fired or transferred, rumors that Punk attributed to Adam Page, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega during his scorched-earth press conference on Sunday. Punk also made his first public statements in years about Cabana (né Scott Colton), during which Punk talked about not being friends with him anymore.
“My problem was I wanted to bring a guy with me to the top that did not want to see me at the top,” Punk said. “You can call it jealousy. You can call it envy. Whatever the fuck it is, my relationship with Scott Colton ended long before I paid all of his bills. I have every receipt. I have every invoice. I have every email. I have the email where he says, and I quote … ‘I agree to go our separate ways. I will get my own lawyer and you do not have to pay anymore.’ That’s an email that I have. The only reason the public did not see it is because when I finally had to countersue him through discovery we discovered he shared a bank account with his mother. That’s a fact.”
CM Punk and the Elite Beef
Punk also went after Adam Page, the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega. “What did I ever do in this world to get to deserve an empty-headed, fucking dumb fuck like ‘Hangman’ Adam Page to go out on national television and fucking go into business for himself,” Punk asked. “For what? What did I ever do? I didn’t do a goddamn thing!”
Members of the wrestling press say that the comment about going into business for himself refers to a promo during their feud in May, where Page said, “You talk a big game about worker’s rights, but you’ve shown the exact opposite when you came here.” Punk is said to have interpreted that line as a reference to his blackballing Cabana, which he has denied doing.
Punk continued by saying, “There’s people who call themselves EVPs that should have fucking known better. This shit was none of their business. I understand sticking up for your fucking friends. I fucking get it. I stuck up for that guy [Colton] more than anybody. I paid his bills until I didn’t and it was my decision not to. When somebody [Page] who hasn’t done a damn thing in this business jeopardizes the first million-dollar house that this company has ever drawn off of my back and goes on national television and does that, it’s a disgrace to this industry. It’s a disgrace to this company. Now, we’re far beyond apologies. I gave him a fucking chance. It did not get handled and you saw what I had to do, which is very regrettable, lowering myself to his fucking level, but that’s where we’re at right now.”
It is unclear what Punk meant by jeopardizing “the first million-dollar house.” There were rumors of Punk being so mad at the Page comment that he threatened to walk out, although the veracity of rumors is sort of what this whole thing is about. Punk also could be referring to Page trying to damage him as a babyface to hurt the draw of the match.
Punk responded after he returned from his injury by cutting an unplanned promo challenging Page to an immediate rematch, and when Page didn’t come out, Punk said, “That’s not cowboy shit, that’s coward shit.” At that point, there were no plans for a Page vs. Punk match and no plans on the show for Page to appear and fight Punk, and it reportedly embarrassed Page and made him look bad that Punk extended an open challenge that Page couldn’t answer.
Punk also verbally attacked Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks during his Sunday comments: “Now, it’s 2022. I haven’t been friends with this guy since at least 2014, late 2013, and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs yet they couldn’t fucking manage a Target and they spread lies and bullshit and put into the media that I got somebody fired when I have fuck all to do with him. I want nothing to do with him. I do not care where he works or where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. The fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is fucking embarrassing.”
The mention of EVPs refers to the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, whom he seems to blame for spreading the rumors about his trying to get Cabana fired. There were also rumblings about the impetus for Cody Rhodes’s departure to WWE, which was at least partially caused by anger about Punk being slotted above him; Rhodes is part of the Elite group that helped found AEW.
This situation is obviously fluid. Like all things in pro wrestling, you have to take situations like this with a grain of salt. There is a long history of real-life beef being turned into wrestling story lines, and conversely, story lines morphing into real-life beef.
Several news sites have reported that Punk went backstage and got into a fistfight with the Young Bucks. Eddie Kingston was recently suspended for a similar incident with Sammy Guevara, and if the reports are true, AEW is left in a situation where it has to choose between suspending its newly crowned World champion at the beginning of a big angle with MJF (who is fresh off working his own blurred-lines angle) and exacerbating the complaints of favoritism––which seem to be behind many of the problems in the locker room.
In the longer term, Tony Khan may have to choose sides in a locker-room civil war between Page, Omega, and the Bucks—who were all instrumental in starting All Elite Wrestling, and (outside of Page) hold positions in management—and Punk, the promotion’s biggest star and biggest draw. Khan is well-known for these long, freewheeling, energetic, conversational postgame press conferences, and this feels like that business style completely backfiring.
Also, if Punk continues with the title, how will all of this affect his reception with the fans? It already seemed like his previously rapturous reaction in Chicago was a bit muted, and it is hard to imagine that the perpetually online AEW audience will give him a babyface reaction after he took such barbed swings at wrestlers who are such a huge part of the promotion.
In the short term, I imagine this will be a ratings boost on Wednesday as people tune in to Dynamite to see the fallout, but we will see whether this ends up successfully drawing money or splitting AEW apart.
Editor’s Note: The following section was added to this piece on Thursday after AEW reportedly suspended several wrestlers and vacated their titles.
According to the Wrestling Observer, AEW has suspended Ace Steel, the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson), Kenny Omega, and CM Punk along with Pat Buck, Christopher Daniels, Brandon Cutler, and Michael Nakazawa, for their involvement in a brawl backstage after Punk’s press conference comments.
There are conflicting stories about the details of the fight, but most say that punches were exchanged. Additional reports say a thrown chair hit Nick Jackson in the eye, and that Ace Steel bit Kenny Omega. Sources close to Punk and Steel have said that the Bucks broke down the locker-room door and that Steel was defending his wife, while others say Punk was the instigator and the Elite group just wanted to talk. Right now, it’s just a mountain of blind news reports from various sites of varying reputations, with very little actual confirmed news. There have also been rumors that CM Punk suffered an injury in his match with Jon Moxley, which would have necessitated that he vacate the AEW World title regardless.
On Wednesday night’s episode of Dynamite, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and CM Punk were all absent from the opening credits. Tony Khan then announced that both the Trios titles (which the Bucks and Omega had just won at All Out) and the World Championship (which Punk had just won back) were both vacated.
The Trios titles were captured by Death Triangle (a team consisting of the Lucha Brothers and current AEW All-Atlantic Champion PAC) when they won their previously scheduled match against Best Friends (Chuck Taylor, Trent Beretta, and Orange Cassidy). The AEW World Championship tournament consisted of former World and TNT champions. The first match saw Bryan Danielson defeat Hangman Page (who had left the arena before the media scrum and thus avoided the brawl and suspensions); the tournament also includes Darby Allin, Sammy Guevara, Moxley, and Chris Jericho.
It seems that for now, AEW is biding its time for a final decision on the employment of everyone involved. They are running an internal investigation, and in many ways Punk’s injury allows them to let things cool down rather than be forced to fire anyone immediately. With AEW hoping to renew and extend its television contract, releasing any of their top stars could place them in a weakened bargaining position. Just having Punk go away to rehab his injury while the Bucks and Omega serve out a suspension lets them push other acts, and hope that cooler heads prevail. If Punk and the Elite can work a program together when he heals up, it could be a bigger money-drawing feud than anything else on the table.
Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.