By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
A few weeks ago, after AEW’s All Out, we had what will now forever live in infamy as “Brawl Out.” Everyone knows the story by now – CM Punk, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega headlined the show, which featured a backstage fight (allegedly) and it was precipitated, most believe, by comments Punk made at the post-All Out press conference.
Among the many subplots that fateful night brought us wrestling fans was the narrative that Tony Khan had officially allowed the inmates to run the asylum. Khan, the owner of the company, sat a handful of feet away from Punk at the press conference, and watched as Punk eviscerated some of the most prominent people who call AEW home. Khan just sat there and listened rather than intervene and attempt some form of damage control.
That meant Khan was a pushover, argued some people. The “All Friends Wrestling” moniker had gone too far and he should have had the backbone to do something – anything – in the moment. Instead, he watched as his biggest star angrily explained that he worked with children and he ostensibly had enough. If there was ever a time Khan could have looked like a boss, this was it. The inactivity was like catnip to those eagerly ready to pounce on AEW whenever something questionable arises.
Me? Who knows. I can’t tell you how I’d respond if I was in Khan’s shoes and I don’t think it’d be fair if you tried to outline how you would respond, either. Uncomfortable, unexpected situations develop constantly in daily life and our responses are never perfect. Sure, it probably would have been a good idea to shut the press conference down at a certain point, but that night was going to turn out to be a shit show one way or another. You live. You learn. Sometimes, you get it right. Sometimes, you don’t.
Still, I couldn’t help but have that argument in my mind as I thought about the recent rumors and/or stories regarding talent that want to leave AEW (again, allegedly). By my count – and if the internet is to be believed – we’ve had websites report that Malakai Black is stepping away from AEW and Buddy Matthews wants to follow his House Of Black running mate out the door. Meanwhile, Andrade El Idolo cryptically tweeted out an hourglass Monday morning and if memory serves, his name has come up in the past when people leaving AEW is discussed. Then there’s Miro, who’s either perpetually unhappy with the wrestling business or simply just over it as a whole.
As for what’s real … well, how the hell would I know? It’s become big business for wrestling websites to report on talent situations and then have said talent throw up some gif on their social media pages that’s aimed at somewhat cryptically suggesting the media does nothing but lie (throw on any Conrad Thompson podcast and you’ll get more of the same from those who aren’t even active performers these days, but I digress). It’s a weird circle of life thing. The more the wrestlers dismiss “the dirt,” the more dirt the fans want to hear. More than one beast is being fed in the process.
Regardless of what you believe, what you don’t believe, what’s true and what’s not true, there’s no denying that the majority of the reports surrounding people leaving AEW all add a coda to the information by throwing WWE’s name in there, too. With the exception of Black, who is said to have personal issues going on, the consensus on those potentially leaving AEW is that they want to return to WWE.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque is in charge now, so it’s gotta be better than it was, right? There’s no tearing up scripts at the last minute and there’s no more feeling like you’re being destined for a life of Hulu-streamed WWE Main Event matches because Papa Paul is there to save the day. Plus, most of the names out there currently in AEW have romantic partners in WWE. “I want to spend more time with my wife/girlfriend and working in opposite companies on opposite schedules makes spending time with my wife/girlfriend hard,” seems like a reasonable position to take. I don’t think anyone can blame anyone for that.
Are those the thoughts that the talents in question are having right now? I do not know because I do not reside in their heads. What I do know, however, is this: There is no way on any level, no matter who is in charge at WWE – be it Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, Nick Khan, Triple H or anyone else you want to throw in there – that I could envision a talent who had signed a multiyear deal and was in the early stages of that multiyear deal going to the leadership in WWE, saying, “I’d like my release because I want to go to AEW,” and then receive said release.
Sure, there were times similar things went down (at least according to wrestling lore) that Vince McMahon supposedly told certain talent they could head to WCW for more money – but that was because his company was (again allegedly) struggling financially. True or not, that was supposedly predicated on money, not a handshake and a “I hope you do well and make them millions of dollars over there, pal.” And with all the petty things WWE has done over the decades whenever competition arises on any level, you gotta know there isn’t a chance in hell the WWE leadership would gladly grant a talent a release presumably to head to the competition as that talent was only one year into a five-year deal while the talent bases its request on … seeing that the competition is better than it used to be?
This, to me, is where the backbone conversation really does start with Tony Khan. If these wrestlers really do feel the need to get away from the business because of personal reasons about which we’ll never truly know, that’s reasonable. Some people have speculated that Black could be done with wrestling forever, and if that’s the case, I hope he finds peace and happiness and all the good things in life as he walks away from AEW. The same goes for anyone else, really. Never could I begrudge anyone trying to get better at a time they feel getting better should be the biggest priority.
But if someone like Andrade whines and complains about not wanting to be in AEW and forces his way out of that company only to show up on Raw next Monday … I don’t know, man. This is a chance for Khan to step up and establish himself as an authority figure at a time when, at least publicly, he’s not necessarily viewed as the most authoritarian guy. It’s a fine line to walk, of course. You don’t want to be an asshole, but you also don’t want people openly talking about leaving your company to go to work for your direct competition. Not only is it embarrassing, but it also doesn’t do much for your ability to lead a company.
And then there’s this: What the hell’s up with wrestlers working somewhere for a year or so, reportedly “not liking how they’re being used,” or whatever form of that idea you want to take, and then saying, “Hey I want out?” Assuming there wasn’t some type of verbal agreement from Khan that he would let talent out if they were unhappy, just how bratty and petulant can some of these people be? Yeah, I don’t like my job some days, too, guys. And yeah, I sometimes think maybe I deserve a better position or more money than what I’m making. But does that mean I go to my boss and ask him to fire me? Whatever happened to signing a contract, working through the dates and then seeing what you want to do next? Why is the notion of requesting a release so prominent in this business these days?
I understand that wrestling is an art and more so now than ever, wrestlers feel like artists rather than brawlers. But take a guy like Mustafa Ali and look at how that situation played out with WWE. He wanted his release even though he had a bunch of time left on his deal. They sent him home. Days went by. Months went by. He just kept hanging out at home, occasionally releasing training videos on Twitter. Did WWE release him? Nope. Is he still there? Yep. Did the news about his hope for a release change his position in WWE? Other than a tiny push when he initially returned to television, nope.
His frustration has to be so intense, it’s almost nonexistent anymore. That’s never fun for anyone. But he also signed the deal and he has a job working for the biggest wrestling company in the world. It could be worse. Still, his story underlines the precise difference between AEW and WWE. The latter will keep you on the payroll even if it’s done only in spite. Then, on a random Friday in April, they’ll fire your best friends because they claim they need to free up budget space. AEW, on the other hand, will allow its world champion to verbally undress its EVPs in a room full of reporters and (allegedly, remember) consider allowing their wrestlers to renege on their deals before those deals are over and maybe even pop up on their competition’s television programs.
And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Tony Khan is a good boss, a bad boss, a great leader, a terrible leader … I’m not there, so I don’t know. And, speaking on an official level at least, nothing has been announced from the company about any one of these people allegedly trying to get out of their deals. But for as much as Khan took a hit as a result of that All Out press conference, I think the next three to six months ought to be the true barometer of how us fans can judge his leadership (from the outside looking in, of course).
As for CM Punk having an outburst, that’s barely a test in this context because CM Punk having an outburst was always going to be mildly inevitable because CM Punk is going to be CM Punk. Dealing with wrestlers who want to jump ship as WWE has its resurgence and becomes a good product again is where things get a little more dicey and a lot more nuanced. Can Tony Khan navigate those waters and make sure his ship stays afloat as it continues to travel in the most prosperous direction?
He’s going to have to if he wants to be the type of captain that can lead his crew safely to land.