Pretty much every week in pro wrestling promises the biggest, the most important, the wildest something or other, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Jon Moxley vs. CM Punk, when it was announced last week for this Wednesday’s episode of AEW Dynamite, was the most significant television match in the history of the three-year-old All Elite Wrestling. On very short notice, what was presumed to be the main event for the company’s upcoming Labor Day weekend pay-per-view was instead moved to basic cable, pitting probably the most important star on the entire roster in Punk against a man who’s been a cornerstone since its first event in Moxley, to unify the world title.
Some quick plot summary: Punk, who ended a long layoff to delirious fanfare in August of last year, won AEW’s primary belt for the first time in Las Vegas at the Memorial Day weekend PPV. But in a tag match on the following episode of Dynamite, he suffered a legit foot injury, forcing him out of what was planned to be a “Summer of Punk.” Moxley, a former champ who carried AEW through the darkest days of the pandemic, won the interim belt by beating the legendary Japanese star Hiroshi Tanahashi, and he defended it again and again in awesome matches against a wide range of opponents.
Perhaps some people are annoyed by Mox’s propensity for bleeding or the affected drunken sway in his walk or some other thing about his work, but I’ve always loved him, and this year—his first full year sober, actually—has been his best yet, not just for the responsibility he’s shouldered in AEW but for the breadth of entertaining performances he’s had in smaller venues for other promotions, where he can be seen doing anything from holding a bunch of skewers in his forehead to making out with his male opponent. Punk meanwhile, for all the excitement he’s brought to AEW, is a more complicated figure. He took the belt away from a massive fan favorite in “Hangman” Adam Page, disappeared from TV for months, and then came back to publicly talk a lot of shit, directed specifically at Page, that reportedly wasn’t planned or scripted. Kind of a dick move, if true!
All of which is to say that you really had to pick A Guy coming into this match—the “heart and soul” as Mox described himself in the run-up, or the “dollars and cents,” as Punk coolly called himself in reply. Given that AEW consistently puts together spectacular main events, and values in-ring action more than any other aspect of a wrestling show, this had all the makings of an epic. When the entrances for the match started around 9 p.m. ET, an hour before Dynamite ends, it was an even louder indication that the fans should prepare for a long and drawn-out struggle.
Instead, AEW did something unprecedented and completely out of character for them: Moxley won emphatically, in under three minutes.
Punk went for a kick, kayfabe re-injured his foot, and got taken to the cleaners from there. As Jim Ross put it on commentary, “He got his ass whipped, is what happened to CM Punk.” And Mox, who all summer long bristled at the “interim” champion label both on television and, I think, in real life, got to celebrate as the company’s “undisputed” champ. Though the wise assumption would be that Punk wins it back in his hometown of Chicago in a rematch on the PPV, I was overjoyed to see that the company did not shortchange in the slightest the man who had carried them on his back for the last few months.
A lot of people didn’t like this. They felt screwed, or worked, because the advertised biggest match in the history of Dynamite was barely a match at all. I have no desire to cite all the angry people on Twitter, but you can see a snapshot of the polarized reaction on the wrestling nerd site Cagematch, where this episode’s ratings are distinctly more controversial than the last few editions of the show. While it’s understandable to be a little let down if you tuned in hoping for a five-star classic and got instead the shortest match of the entire card, what was gained by this segment is greater than what was lost. If you’re willing to seek them out, you can see a fantastic wrestling match, no exaggeration, at least 100 times a year. This kind of shocking, invigorating booking, however, needed the perfect storm of personalities, acts of God, and plain old guts to pull off. And just as the dust starts to clear, AEW can sell “the real match” for $50.
It’s a creative and commercial risk, but the company is going to need to take more of these if it wants to gain back some of the ground it’s ceded in 2022. It’d be a stretch to say that AEW is in trouble right now; judging from where they were two years ago, they’re doing pretty great. However, judging from where they were one year ago, when the return of Punk and the signing of Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan from WWE gave the company reason to hope it could challenge Raw as the most popular wrestling show on cable, the current state of the promotion is a bit of a disappointment.
Injuries to top stars—Punk, Danielson briefly, Kenny Omega, and Adam Cole, to name a few—lowered the company’s ceiling for 2022 and dampened anticipation for events like the New Japan crossover Forbidden Door. The women’s division, at a time when women’s wrestling is more widely respected and enjoyed than ever before, feels ignored to an almost spiteful degree. The company’s secondary show Rampage, launched last year, has become a lazy and skippable collection of deleted scenes from Dynamite. And the reported clashes of personalities in the back—Punk and Page, for one, but also rumored issues between top female star Britt Baker and current champ Thunder Rosa, who mysteriously announced an injury and subsequent time off in a footnote of a segment on Wednesday—are starting to distract from the actual product. Once idealistically pitched (by the since-departed Cody Rhodes) as “Ellis Island for a professional wrestler,” AEW president Tony Khan now seems to be struggling with the consequences of his own ambition.
“Right now there is a ton of backstage drama involving many of the top guys that has gotten much worse in recent weeks,” wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer wrote in his newsletter last week. “It feels like a number of people are close to their breaking point if things don’t get settled.”
What makes this all trickier to navigate for AEW is that the No. 1 promotion in the world, WWE, has done nothing but gain momentum over the past several months. Boosted, ironically, by the publicity of the Vince McMahon scandal and then the fresh coat of paint provided by Triple H’s new creative regime, the company is both more watchable and doing better live business than it has in quite some time. Personally, it only feels to me like they ditched their stupidest habits to bring the TV up from rancid to average—you still can’t do seven hours a week without lots of time-wasting—but you can’t deny the improvement. It reminds me of Prince Hal in Henry IV: “My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” WWE was such a slog for so long that even a decent product feels like a miracle.
Regardless, that puts the pressure on AEW, who in addition to stiffer competition also has to try and put on its best face as it enters TV contract renewal negotiations with the black hole that is post-merger Warner Bros. Discovery. It has to deliver its best possible segments involving its most popular stars in order to get the resources it needs to keep this promotional war going and not fall to an even more distant second place. And, especially now that it no longer has a complete monopoly on “good wrestling matches on easily accessible American TV,” it’s also going to need to have the courage, sometimes, to eschew the bread and butter that attracted its audience in the first place, in order to surprise them with something more memorable. Punk-Moxley may not have been the match it was hyped to be, but it accomplished the only trick that matters in the carny business of pro wrestling: It made me want to see what comes next.