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We Need to Talk about AEW Part 4 (The Year 2023)

It's Sunday 27 August, I'm standing in the lower bowl section of Wembley Stadium and I see a wrestling ring in the middle of the pitch where Harry Kane scored that goal vs Germany in Euro 2020, where Arjen Robben won the Champions League with Bayern Munich and where Carl Edwards beat Michael Schumacher in the Race of Champions (seriously, as a NASCAR fan you don't realise what that moment meant to me) and I just burst out with laughter. It was a moment of marking out and just emotion that for all those years of being thought of as that guy in my friends group that likes that fake weird niche thing that uncool people like, I was about to join tens of thousands of people to watch wrestling at Wembley Stadium. It felt like I was taking part in the coolest thing in the world on this very night.

The next 5 hours was really fun. I got to watch a ***½ CM Punk match (it felt like it was 2011 all over again) the moment when The Bucks kicked out the BTE Trigger from FTR was awesome. Getting to do the Judas sing along and the Elevated singalong (ok, that last one was just me) in a five minute period, seeing Sting wrestle one last time and then that main event which while on a rewatch is full of logic holes, in the stadium was a visceral experience. But on this day just over 100 yards from my seat, one event was the climax on the biggest problem in AEW over the past 18 months but 40 yards away from that very seat another event was evidence of another cloud developing over All Elite Wrestling.

Muffin man gone (for the moment)

Analysis of All Out 2022 has been done to the point of exhaustion. The positive thing to come from it was this meme.

As a result of All Out, suspensions were dished like cars at a Oprah show taping and a locker room was even more divided. While Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks returned at Full Gear, CM Punk had to wait longer after the blown triceps he suffered in his match against Jon Moxley.

While AEW had to face a period of time with more questions than answers, Jon Moxley had to carry the company on his shoulders forfeiting the richly deserved vacation he was due. Through unfortunate happenstance, a title defence against Hangman Page saw Page knocked out after a lariat which spawned what was my Feud of the Year of 2023.

Hangman/Mox merged into the Elite/Blackpool Combat Club feud, a feud which played into the story of who was heart of AEW and a battle of whose ideologies was supreme but while a feud that was a Top 5 feud of the year in wrestling was getting the reviews it deserved it was going to be overshadowed by two stories going on in the company. One in the ring, one out of it.

The fact that these two stories would bookend All In at Wembley would be more ironic than anything in an Alanis Morrissette song (everyone should watch the Ed Bryne bit on that Ironic song) but it also was the perfect setting for the goings on in AEW in 2023. So, I guess we should start with the show opener.

CM Punk and Samoa Joe at Wembley Stadium made a lot of sense from a logical booking point of view with the idea that it would be the first match between the pair since the famous trilogy that took place in ROH (if you ignore the match they had in Coventry 3 months after All Star Extravaganza II) The problem was a) it wasn’t and b) the eagerness for this match was as abundant as buses that went from Chiswick to Wembley on All In Sunday. So how did we get here?

While CM Punk was gone from AEW television for 9 months, the cloud was still around in the distance with the lighting bolts threatening every time the thunder of Phil from Chicago was rumbling. Questions of how the two parties of Punk and The Elite could co-exist would quickly dominate the airwaves of many a podcast. Every so often a “scoop” would appear behind a paywall with details that felt like it came from one side and while yes, The Elite got a receipt in during a “road game” in Chicago during the Best of 7 trios series (the story of when an old school crush popped by my place and was met by my television showing Kenny Omega biting another man with only be known by a select few) the truth is the conversation was dominated by one guy, leading people to treat it as truth until the facts were too blinding (and even then, PunkAnon still can’t handle the truth)

As the speculation on what would happen next regarding the “civil war” it seemed a compromise was being set. WBD showed their faith in AEW with a commissioning of a second 2hr show and the request for WBD to be the exclusive home of AEW therefore eliminating the YouTube shows of Dark and Elevation and with the second show to come, it was a solution to the question of how to deal with the Elite/Punk problem. By making the Saturday show to be called Collision a Punk exclusive show and keeping the Elite on Wednesdays and with talk of whether it was a soft or hard split changing by the week (or was it by every Punk call to the “five dollar man”) the difference of rosters was either the attempt to keep everyone happy therefore putting no-one in a good mood or an attempt at a brand extension that was necessary by one man's actions. Either way, neither was ever going to work out

While people were clamouring for The Elite to work with CMFTR (including Tony if you look at the buildings he booked in the summer of 23) 

The Elite with a __ days since Punk has had an incident counter on their desk were working with BCC, showing people what a story which included talking of which ideology was best for AEW would look like if they worked with grown ups.

An attempt at a “brand extension” or roster split if you're not obsessed with jargon just felt very WWE and sports entertainmenty and such an idea would be a sign of things to come regarding the furthering loss of religion of AEW.

The countdown to Collision would be fraught with chaos revolving around the WBD upfronts, which was already subject to rumours that it would be the place that a 5 year, One Billion dollar TV deal that had been agreed with WBD would be announced (take a guess who that story originated from) and the announcement that Punk was to be the focal character of Collision which had to be delayed after Chicago's finest no-showed a WBD photoshoot and an Instagram Stories controversy which was coincidentally timed with the angle of The Elite reforming but once cooler heads prevailed (I know) Collision and Punk were officially under the green flag.

CM Punk was not only the face of Collision but he was the brain of it as per his admission on the Ariel Helwani’s show and when you look at his time as the booker of Collision, he was more Andres Villas-Boas than he was Jurgen Klopp in his run as head of Collision.

With Punk acting like Senator Joseph McCarthy at times, hunting and banning people from Collision for their association with the Superkick Party and using journalists and wrestling twitter personalities to his advantage, which considering he used the way the locker kept the news of Brodie Lee’s ill health a secret as per Amanda Huber’s wishes as a reason for joining AEW tells you the hypocrisy of Mr. Punk, Banned From Collision became a meme but in amongst the banter on social media, the bad faith that Punk had amassed was not going away. People were branding themselves "Colliders" which is a big as red flag as saying you liked the third Ant Man movie and people were delighting in the dwindling ratings as each episode's numbers were coming out every Monday. If you had told me in 2020 that diehard AEW fans would be finding joy in a AEW show doing meh ratings, I'd thought you'd gone crazy but this was the divide set after the past 12 months.

In the ten live episodes of Punk’s Collision, he kept a small squad of wrestlers. Of the Top 12 babyfaces in AEW, only three were “Colliders” (I need to take a cold shower now I used that term) Those wrestlers being Darby Allin, working both shows and not being Collision exclusive and FTR because FTR. 

A deep dive on Cagematch and CM Punk’s Collision sees nine wrestlers appearing on 50%+ of the 10 Collisions shows that were on exclusive nights away from Dynamite compared to the six wrestlers that wrestled on 50%+ of Dynamites between 14/6 to 23/8 with Collision using 51 AEW contracted wrestlers to Dynamite's 69, which is a rather nice number if you ask me.

Punk's Collision was the All Friends Wrestling that the Elite critics claim AEW was in 2019. Seven of the eleven main events went longer than 20 minutes. There were 13 squash matches in the first 11 episodes of the Saturday show,  24% of the total matches on those Collision shows combined. Dynamite had 2 squash matches in that time (both of them woman's matches for the record) Fans of the show were comparing Collision to 80's JCP. Problem was it was more 1988 Jim Crockett Promotions than 1986.

Punk’s main program in the Bummer of Punk would be Ricky Starks but as that feud progressed Punk had his sights on Wembley Stadium. On July 29th, CM gave a promo which looking back is fascinating.

It was the promo that the “real World’s Championship” belt was unveiled. It was also the promo that Punk talked about wrestlers “not making their dates". The reason for that attack never became clear. I’ve heard theories that it was a veiled attack on Malakai Black, the obvious thought was that it was yet another dig at The Young Bucks, who didn’t appear on the episode of Dynamite three days before. My theory at the time was that it was a lash out at finding out that he wasn’t going to be in the main event of All In and that the unveiling of the belt with an X on it was a last chance to get the relevant people to change their mind on the All In headliner. If Punk’s ultimate wrestling wish of headlining a stadium show, which was part of the reason for the deterioration of relations between him and WWE 10 years before, not being realised put Punk in a bad mood, the announcement 4 days later that The Elite had signed an extension with AEW made it worse.

Upon releasing that AEW was big enough for the two factions of The Elite and The Punk Camp,  Punk’s behaviour escalated backstage and with MJF vs Adam Cole confirmed on the back of a segment on the 29/7 that saw the highest rating after Episode 1 an achievement from visitors from Dynamite that must have irked Punk, Punk vs Starks was booked for All Out and Punk vs Joe at Wembley was a go and with a finish that saw Punk finally climb a Everest in beating his long time rival with a finisher he could never get Joe with in ROH in the Pepsi Plunge. It was the perfect end for the fourth high profile match of their rivalry (if you ignore the Coventry match) and their match in 2003 before the three world title matches.......

What do you mean they wrestled 7 weeks earlier in the semi-finals of The Owen?

Booking himself to beat Joe in the final four of a tournament with a field so weak you’d think it was the 2021 Eliminator Tournament all over again, when you had a potential very interesting story staring him in the face shows that Punk should have the prime favourite for Worst Booker of 2023 in The Observer Awards had such an award still going, which is saying something with Court Bauer still around.

We all know what happened in the tunnel area of Wembley and the Thrilla in Gorilla (it is quite weird to watch Jude Bellingham stand in the spot where Jack Perry escaped a choke from Punk) and the conclusions from the disciplinary committee but as the curtain folded on one saga, another problem was arising and this one wasn't contained in “AEW smart fans bubble”

MJF along with Hangman Page were the two prime examples of the argument to counter the claim from people that AEW haven't made stars. While Page went from ROH/NJPW mid-card guy to being the soul of AEW, MJF went from independent wrestling hotshot to the main event of Wembley. I'll make a confession, the story canon of MJF one of my favourites if not my absolute favourite story. From the Punk rivalry, which delved into what turned Maxwell from ordinary teenage wrestling fan into the monster he became to his appearances in Long Island where he always got the hometown hero treatment and MJF’s reactions to them. 

The story of MJF has always been a captivating one. Even with Triple B round his waist and the on the nose “2024” story which did AEW no favors, the road to Revolution and the Ironman Match vs Bryan Danielson brought a look at MJF lore and the story of a man who deep down wanted to be Danielson and maybe just not the “best in the world” moniker that Bryan had carried with him for almost two decades with talk of MJF’s personal life and comparing it to Bryan’s content life away from the ring.

The match itself with it's 9.62 on Cagematch (39th highest of all time) and *****3/4 from Meltzer  shows not only how great it is but the Cagematch rating being the 3rd best of 2023 and 4th in the VOW MOTY poll shows how stacked the year of 2023 was not just with Will Ospreay around and it was also remind people of how good of a wrestler Maxwell is. This reminder would come around in the Four Pillars World Title Match at Double or Nothing but for quite a few, the build up showed the cracks in the booking of Tony Khan. FWIW I didn't dislike the build to the Four Way as much as most did, same with the build up to second next PPV after Double or Nothing, but for many the build up to All In's main event and the actual match itself was the very moment AEW lost its identity.

For MJF lore lovers like myself, the story of Max finally finding a person who made Maxwell like himself and what it takes to be a good person would always going to make good television for yours truly and even if the Better Than You BayBay vignettes felt very NXT it's overall impact, it worked with the tag title match that BTYBB had earned being the highest rated match on Collision during the 11 weeks Punk had the pencil for that show. While the buyrate could be chalked up to curiosity of watching one of the world's grandest stadiums hold a wrestling event, what actually looked like a house show card with strawberry icing on top was elevated by an intriguing main event which on personal evidence was the main conversation in a wine bar in Stratford after the Rev Pro Anniversary show with strangers at the bar giving what they thought would happen in Cole/MJF II. What did happen divided the audience.

While the end of All In was the happiest ending at Wembley Stadium since the Women's Euro 2022 (unless you're German I guess), some people were not satisfied. The last visual of MJF and Adam Cole embracing with the idea that friendship does win out was a further identifier for some that the religion of AEW was misplaced. The next few months suggested to even those like myself who were interested in MJF/Cole that said religion wasn't just down the back of the sofa, it was getting tougher to find with each Dynamite.

What Q4 of AEW Dynamite looks like if Adam Cole doesn't have his ankle explode at Arthur Ashe Stadium with the eventual heel turn from Cole will never been known but what we got post Grand Slam was a progression to MJFism that made Dynamite it's toughest watch since December 2019.

While the Devil storyline showed off one of the the major weaknesses in Tony Khan booking with his inability to pivot, MJF with a major say in his program brought his idea of what a headlining babyface should look like to AEW television but it looked out of place to what AEW had served up in the 4 years before. Reviews were bad, ratings were decreasing but yet the conclusion of storyline did in fact draw with Worlds End with it's buy rate of 135,000 the best number since All In  with people presuming that the Devil would show how he was.     

But with the Continental Classic dominating the month of December 2023, it made the MJF and the Devil Mask story look like the delinquent member at the family get-together and when Adam was revealed as the mastermind that was “ruining” MJF’s life (actually, wasn't it Maxwell's wrestling ideology that was ruining his own life) and Max went home to heal his injuries, it felt like that Max and the base of AEW support needed to take a break. 

As the calendar turned to 2024, major changes were happening in professional wrestling and attention would be on AEW in their final year of their deal with the new owners of Time Warner, WBD, to see how they would adapt to the changing scope of wrestling after a 2023 to forget.


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