Backstage drama can be the fuel for memorable pro wrestling storylines, but is the level of it in AEW simply too much?
In one of the calmer moments of the now infamous media scrum after AEW All Out, AEW CEO, GM and head of creative Tony Khan was asked if he thought successes like the show that had just taken place outside Chicago would be able to galvanize the company and help it move forward despite any tensions behind the scenes.
“There’s a lot of conversation about people not getting along, not liking each other,” Khan said. “I definitely think that it’s probably more apparent than ever that there’s a lot of that.”
Khan didn’t have much choice but to admit as much. Not after CM Punk, the company’s newly crowned world champion, unleashed a curse-filled rant during his time at the media scrum that did all but call out the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega by name. Later reports suggested that Punk and trainer/friend Ace Steel started throwing hands with those three, who not only are some of AEW’s top stars, but also its executive vice presidents.
In most professions, berating company executives by name and allegedly getting into fights with them is grounds for immediate termination, typically followed by lawsuits or criminal charges. While it remains to be seen what consequences may await for Punk (and everyone involved, for that matter), he remains, at least for now, AEW’s number one champion and arguably its highest profile star.
It’s no shock that some of the biggest personalities in AEW don’t particularly like each other, and it’s amusing when fans react with surprise that everyone in a young, growing business isn’t just hanging out enjoying each other’s company when they aren’t wrestling. Personality conflicts are inevitable in any workplace, in any industry, and the highly competitive, often cutthroat nature of pro wrestling only exacerbates the tendencies so common in other walks of life.
The difference is that in wrestling, those differences of opinion can be turned into the fuel for memorable feuds, the kind of stuff that fans remember years later. Khan is nothing if not a student of the business, and he has hammered home this point repeatedly. Even as some of his top stars were possibly scrapping elsewhere in the building early Monday morning, he took a glass half-full view of the tensions and talked about how they can be be turned into a positive.
“There are a lot of matches between people who probably don’t get along and don’t like each other, and it’s not always an easy road to get people in the ring,” Khan said. “But when you can get people in the ring to settle their differences … it can be really exciting.”
So far, AEW has done a masterful job taking real world grievances and turning them into storylines, the kind of angles that obliterate the lines between fantasy and reality. Take MJF, who made his return at All Out. Most observers agree now that he had very legitimate gripes about his place in the company, but AEW incorporated them into his character in such a way that his eventual reappearance was guaranteed to be red hot.
But the fact that MJF’s return was overshadowed this weekend by the explosion of other real world drama only underscores how narrow a tightrope it is that Khan and AEW are walking. What happens when talent simply refuses to work with each other? Already, it’s hard to imagine Punk working with Omega in any kind of meaningful program, despite being two top tier talents who would figure to be in the main event mix now that both are healthy.
What if the Young Bucks, two of the people who helped build AEW from a concept to a reality in the first place, decide the soap opera isn’t worth it and leave the company? Khan recently said he felt the AEW roster would be at its strongest point to date now that so many of its wrestlers are healthy, but that means nothing if he’s handcuffed by talent that doesn’t want to compete with each other, or worse still, doesn’t want to be there any more.
(It’s worth mentioning too, that a newly revitalized WWE surely looks like a much more attractive proposition to AEW wrestlers, even some who fled it at one point, than it did just a few months ago.)
On top of all that, what happens may force AEW fans to take sides in an unhealthy way. If Punk is suspended, as many seem to agree is warranted, it risks alienating his supporters and reinforces the perception that because the Bucks and Omega are executives as well as performers that they receive preferential treatment. If nothing happens, fans who are loyal to The Elite have reason to think that Punk is untouchable because he’s the company’s biggest current draw.
Maybe Khan is right, and everyone involved will calm down and realize that there’s more money to be made by sucking it up, accepting that there are people in the company that will never be their friends, and moving forward.
Maybe this is just another entry in the lengthy annals of backstage drama in pro wrestling, and will end up a footnote in the story of AEW’s success.
Right this second, though, those feel like big “maybes,” the kind you wouldn’t want to bank on.
“Sometimes you just have to take it and move on with business, and that’s a part of it,” Khan said.
For AEW’s sake, he’d better be right.