By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
I believe in gray.
That might be a bit of a contradiction because at the same time, I usually know within the first five minutes of meeting someone if I like the person or not – and, for that matter, I’m a big advocate for right vs. wrong or do this vs. let’s not do this, and other hard-line decisions of the like – but truth be told, I find life more honest and more compelling in the gray.
Besides: The gray exists. The gray is paramount. The gray is unavoidable. There are two sides to every story. Both should be considered with equal weight and consideration of each side provides nuance to such a complicated life. Without nuance, forgiveness would cease to exist and understanding would feel even more impossible than it already does.
So concludes my Ted Talk.
Anyway, in my mind, a gray shadow was cast over Saturday night’s Full Gear pay-per-view in two very different, but very glaring ways. And sadly, neither shadow eventually faded into a hopeful light. Let’s take the pure wrestling example first.
Saraya vs. Britt Baker. In theory, the story was easy to tell. Baker is AEW’s Villain Du Jour in the women’s division. Saraya is the comeback kid, a story that writes itself, as a woman who was once told she could never wrestle again was told … well … that she could wrestle again. She’s also the new girl. WWE’s former Paige granted so many fans their wish as she returned to the wrestling ring and after all the years of clamoring, begging and praying, Saraya was allowed to have a match.
It’s black and white, right? The miraculous return vs. the evil head of the table. Good vs. evil. The sunny story vs. The stormy weather. It’s the foundation on which pro wrestling was founded. Nary, is there a simpler, more effective tale to tell …
… Unless you’re AEW. On the final episode of Dynamite before Saturday’s Full Gear, Baker, the evil one, cut a hell of a promo. The problem? The promo wasn’t evil. Instead, the promo was a rallying cry for the AEW die-hards, the day-ones who live, die, smile, and cry with the company. It positioned herself as someone not necessarily evil, but someone who stood up for the relevance, growth and existence of AEW. She wasn’t so much a bad girl as she was a strong woman.
And because of it, a story so black and white became instantly – and somewhat surprisingly – gray.
Enter their match Saturday night. Saraya, who you have to think would have been given a hero’s welcome for her first match back if she chose to do this in WWE, received a less-than-impassioned response from the New Jersey AEW crowd. When she ultimately won after a fine-enough match against Baker, the reaction was … pedestrian? Call it what you want, but it wasn’t what it could have been.
It reminded me of an exchange I saw on Twitter earlier in the weekend when someone brought the murkiness of the situation to the forefront of Saraya’s attention. “Who’s the face and who’s the heel in this? It’s kinda confusing,” someone wrote. “Does it matter?” Saraya responded.
Well … yeah. Yeah, it actually does matter in this context. I understand wanting to tell layered stories and I understand the wrestling business has evolved since the purely black-and-white days, but the issue in this specific case is that the women didn’t have enough time to tell an intricate, nuanced, think-piece story.
And by the way. They didn’t have to. Sometimes, the simplest things are the correct things and with a story like this, there was no need to muddy the waters. Because Baker, Saraya, and the AEW masterminds did just that, Saturday’s match suffered from an emotional standpoint. I couldn’t help but think what could have been if they just played it straight. Would Saraya’s win be celebrated more fervently? Would the victory feel that much more powerful in the wake of all she’s been through? Would the comeback story feel more earned if she had more time to revel in it?
We’ll never know. Because instead of sticking to solid colors, everyone involved thought it best to mix up the template. It robbed Saraya of an even-better comeback moment and it robbed fans of feeling clear elation when the predictable result ultimately formulated. What’s so odd about how much support that confusing approach seemed to garner among some is that there was one other thing Saturday night that fell within the black-and-white debate – but in that instance, the gray should have been warranted.
At Full Gear 2021, CM Punk defeated Eddie Kingston after a few weeks of trading words that confused some and energized others. People were going gonzo for Punk, whose return to the ring was the story of the wrestling year. It wasn’t that people didn’t love Kingston back then; it was just that nothing could get in the way of the runaway train that was CM Punk’s comeback. No bad vibes were allowed and as long as he kept leaping into the crowd and cutting long, wink-and-nod promos, the AEW fanbase was fully in love.
One year later, at Full Gear 2022, Kingston now seemed like a prophet with his year-old words as we all know the situation that unfolded after All Out in September. The Elite and Punk had a confrontation backstage. People were stripped of their titles. Others were fired. And Punk not only seems to be gone for good from AEW, but he’s also the subject of the AEW fanbase’s consternation because he dared cross The Elite.
This was cemented during The Elite’s trios match Saturday night when, soon after the bell rang, the crowd broke into a vociferous “F— CM Punk” chant. So, just in case you thought there might be a crack in the door opening a gateway to the opportunity of CM Punk coming back to AEW … yeah, probably not.
What struck me the most was how committed the crowd – and, to be fair, most likely the majority of the AEW fanbase around the world – was to the stereotype. For as long as boots have been laced and bells have been rung, the notion of The Fickle Wrestling Fan has become a cliche. So much so, in fact, that I’ve both read and heard many a fan through the years proclaim that they aren’t fickle and it’s just a narrative that old, tired, washed-up wrestlers want to push.
I don’t know, man. We’ll never know the story of what happened backstage that night, and if we do, it will take many years and many more retirements for it to happen. To be so awed by a guy merely one year prior, only to so viciously turn on him no less than 12 months after the fact, due to reporting that can’t even really be entirely verified because of the nature of how AEW handled said backstage situation is certainly a choice. Whether or not it’s a right one, I can’t speak to; what I can speak to, however, is that it’s an unfair one to make.
The amount of gray in the situation surrounding the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, and CM Punk can be measured in tons, and yet the AEW fanbase is so persistent in its view that Punk did all the wrong and The Elite did all the right that it makes anyone with an objective mind say … well, now, can we slow down for a second?
Punk was a guy that people cried for when they saw him reappear in a wrestling arena. And it wasn’t like Hulk Hogan kissing babies and slamming giants making 12-year-olds lose their shit and tear their shirts in half. No, these were adults with fully grown minds who fell in love with a guy not just because they found him to be a good wrestler, but because they found him to stand for the things they stood for – subversion, attitude, resistance, standing up for what’s right in this world. Fans of CM Punk seemed so emotionally invested when he returned. This wasn’t a wrestling thing; this was a hero thing.
But I guess as the cliche goes, you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain and the immediate “F— CM Punk” chants revealed a couple things. One, maybe it would have been best if CM Punk had never returned? And two, AEW fans have loyalty to one thing and one thing only, and that thing is AEW itself. Omega and the Bucks were part of the group that founded the company. Jesus Christ himself could float down from the heavens to a rapturous reaction, but the second he proclaims Kenny Omega isn’t the best wrestler on the planet, the majority of the room will call for the devil (and no, I don’t mean MJF).
It’s disappointing because I’m not sure anyone involved in Brawl Out, as it’s so affectionately referred to these days, received a fair shake and that’s simply because the details are so flimsy. It’s almost as though Tony Khan and The Elite knew that the one thing that would serve their best interests moving forward would be to put a gag order on everyone involved because they knew if nobody knows exactly what happened, every AEW fan will align themselves with the OGs because they were the ones who built the house to begin with.
That in mind, Punk is obviously taking the biggest hit when it comes to fan perception, and I’m not so sure that’s the most productive way to go. Even if we assume we know everything and even if we assume every leaked detail about the night that trickled out was actually 100 percent accurate … well, so what? Things got heated. Punk didn’t look good, didn’t respond well, and also started digging his grave by undermining the company’s owner at a press conference. Should we never forgive him? Taking it further, should we hate him forever?
You’ll never be able to convince me that the answer is yes to either of those questions. People respond in different ways to different things and while actions have consequences, ownership and awareness should never be dismissed when calming down and stepping away from an argument. Maybe things happened after that night in September that led to Punk’s ultimate dismissal, but if they did, we don’t know about them now, and therefore jumping so quickly, so harshly, to bury someone who meant so much to so many people a single year ago ignores all the value a shade of gray can bring.
Most intriguing is that the circus moves to Chicago next as Dynamite will broadcast from Punk’s home field on Wednesday and the Elite will be in action. Will the Windy City add a gray paintbrush to a situation so many fans have decided is already just black and white? We’ll have to see. Until then, we can only hope that AEW picks up a fluorescent color or two as it continues to move forward with the canvas that is its future.
Because for as valuable as black and white can be sometimes – and especially in booking decisions for pro wrestling shows – gray is more often than not where the truth lies. And without truth, none of the colors matter, no matter which brush you use.