Fans of traditional sports know how one unexpected injury can torpedo a promising year. It’s no different in pro wrestling, where both AEW and WWE have had the injury bug strike top performers at the worst possible time.
CM Punk had literally just won the AEW World Championship when he hurt his foot during Dynamite last week. That led to an appearance on Rampage on June 3, when he revealed he would be out of the picture for a while while he has surgery.
Cody Rhodes hadn’t won a title yet since returning to WWE at WrestleMania, but he was repaying the company’s faith in him as a top star and looked like he was on the path to contending for championships sooner rather than later. Then he tore his pec, which led to a legendary Hell in a Cell performance before he, too, announced that surgery was in his immediate future.
The situations aren’t exactly the same, but they’re eerily parallel in some respects and the injuries struck just days apart. In AEW’s case, we already know how it plans to pivot — the promotion is holding a mini tournament to crown an interim champion — but the absence of both Punk and Rhodes will be acutely felt.
The silver lining in both cases is that there are opportunities for other talent to step up and claim more of the spotlight while they are away. Who’s in the best possible position to take a step forward over the next few months? Let’s take a look at a few possibilities.
Who could fill in as Raw’s top babyface with Cody Rhodes out?
The King of Bros has been rumored to be the next championship contender for Roman Reigns, but his alliance with Shinsuke Nakamura and ongoing issues with The Usos put at least a little doubt on that plan. The most recent episode of Raw made it appear Riddle has his sights set on Reigns again, and the timing couldn’t be better.
Riddle is arguably as popular as he’s ever been in WWE right now, and has shown he has the knack for balancing an edgier side to his persona with his unmatched comic stylings. Pursuing Reigns means he’ll likely appear on both shows over the next month, but he has the potential to stay Raw’s top face even after Money in the Bank.
Speaking of performers who are as over as they’ve ever been, we’re living in the time of Peak Good Guy Bobby Lashley if recent crowd reactions are any indication. Putting him up against the larger Omos helped him as he wasn’t able to win just by being bigger and stronger, but still looked impressive in overcoming the odds.
The only hiccup here is that Lashley just started a program with Theory, so his ascension to top dog on Raw could be more of a medium-term play if Rhodes ends up out until almost the end of 2022.
Yes, Edge has just spent the last little bit recruiting other wrestlers to be part of The Judgment Day, definitely not a face faction. But then Finn Balor joined and the group turned on him, so he’s going to be a good guy by default.
The 48-year-old WWE Hall of Famer is playing with house money at this point in his illustrious career, but if the company wanted to give him one final babyface run, this is now the ideal chance to do it.
Not to quite the same degree as Edge, but Styles is headed toward the end of his time as a main event caliber attraction too. It’ll be interesting to see if he joins forces with Edge in an “enemy of my enemy” sense, but why couldn’t WWE push him to the very top of the card right after they deal with The Judgment Day?
Styles has faced Reigns in championship matches before, but not for years, so a program between the two of them could still feel fresh. With Money in the Bank on the horizon, it’s easy to imagine him winning the briefcase and then turning his attention to the Tribal Chief.
John Cena or Brock Lesnar
These are names mentioned somewhat in jest, but if WWE feels this is a “break glass in case of emergency” situation, it’s already announced that John Cena is returning to Raw in a few weeks. And Brock Lesnar is presumably just a phone call away.
Who will emerge as AEW Interim World Champion while CM Punk is on the shelf?
He’s got a leg up already in narrative terms since he is guaranteed a spot in the main event on Dynamite to determine who will go on to fight for the interim title at Forbidden Door. And since he’s held the real title before, people know what they’re getting from a Jon Moxley reign.
That’s the downside though, too. The AEW World Championship hasn’t been around all that long, as Mox already held it for some time. Pushing him more right now might feel like something fans have already seen, and not as effective as elevating someone new. The Punk-Moxley unification bout at the end of the rainbow would be sweet, however.
Now that Wardlow has freed himself from the machinations of MJF and become a legitimate star, why not just strap a rocket to him? It’s almost certainly not what the promotion was planning, but injuries have a way of changing plans, and this could be a change that pans out.
His path to the interim championship would also afford AEW a chance to put him over even more, as it would mean winning a battle royale, then defeating Moxley and someone at Forbidden Door, likely Hiroshi Tanahashi. That’s earning it, for sure. Plus it would be easy to turn Punk heel to play off him for their showdown when the current champ returns.
Anyone who has followed Eddie Kingston during his career in the indies is probably already in favor of this idea, and people who only discovered him through AEW TV have to be impressed with him by now. In terms of building a story and selling it with promo work, Kingston could have one hell of a feud with Punk when he returns.
Does AEW view him as a top guy? It would be interesting to know, but if Eddie gets a chance to run with the ball right now, that would go a long way to answering that question in the affirmative.
Just a quick note that while Bryan Danielson had a shot at the AEW World Championship while Hangman Adam Page held it, he wasn’t successful in winning it. The American Dragon has an unlimited amount of goodwill with the fans and would be easy to accept as the interim champ.
He and Punk wouldn’t be a brand new program, of course, but it’s been a decade since they faced each other with gold on the line. Both men shift effortlessly between face and heel roles, so it would be a showdown that can go any direction the creative team envisions once Punk is healthy again.
Hiroshi Tanahashi (or Kazuchika Okada, or anyone from NJPW)
Even in the Forbidden Door era, it seems unlikely that AEW would let someone from another promotion hold its main championship for any length of time. An interim title, though? That’s another story altogether.
Tanahashi was getting ready to face Punk later this month before the injury, and has already invited Punk to face him at Wrestle Kingdom next January. That could be to unify the regular and interim championships if so desired. Or Tanahashi could defend the interim strap in NJPW for the rest of 2022, opening up the possibility of dropping it to Kazuchika Okada or another top NJPW talent. The sky is really the limit should AEW choose to go in this direction.