McGuire’s Mondays: And just like that, AEW has a Collision problem

By Colin McGuire, Staffer (@McGMondays)

I don’t doubt Tony Khan when he says that Warner Bros. Discovery wants more pro wrestling content on its networks. I also don’t doubt Tony Khan when he says the suits behind the scenes are beyond thrilled with the AEW product. I won’t even question this latest thing I saw that made the rounds online suggesting that AEW’s total valuation is somewhere around $2 billion. I am not and will not try to downplay the remarkable success Khan’s company has achieved in its very short history.

At the same time, I also believe this: AEW is at a crossroads.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written that and it’s certainly not the first time you’ve heard that. But things feel a little different this time and that’s because we are three months into AEW’s latest television offering, Collision. Having debuted all the way back on June 17, it already feels like it’s been living for a lot longer than that. Why?

CM Punk. With a wink and a nod, the Saturday night TNT two-hour block of pro wrestling was designed to work Punk back into the AEW fold after missing nearly a year with one unfortunate injury and one infamous suspension. We all know the story by now. The guy had backstage issues with the core group of wrestlers who helped launch the company and things were never quite the same after that. Insert a surprisingly mouthy Jack Perry and if The Internet is to be believed, Punk lost his temper yet again backstage at All In a few weeks ago and the writing displayed itself on the wall in baby blue and blood red colors: Punk was going to be out of a job.

And so it went. On the very show that was berthed to help rehabilitate Punk within the company’s seemingly polarizing political climate, Khan announced the firing of Phil Brooks. Ratings have since cratered – you can blame that on a WWE Premium Live Event as well as the influx of college football games that just so happened to begin right as this development unfolded – and what was once a promising shot of life into the AEW brand now feels like Rampage 2.0 … while Rampage 1.0 felt like AEW Dark 2.0 in the first place.

As a result, the company now has a Collision problem. I’m on record in this space saying that I quickly fell in love with the Collision show because it felt like AEW was offering something new for the first time in a long time. It also, for lack of a better term, felt like an actual true pro rasslin’ show. Stellar tag-team matches. Bouts that were allowed to breathe. Kevin Kelly and Nigel McGuinness bringing an old-school flavor to commentary. The show was the perfect yin to Dynamite’s yang, which meant if you didn’t like Wednesday nights, Saturday nights might have something worth watching. It felt like the AEW that so many of us hoped the company would be when it first began.

There’s no mistaking that part (if not the majority) of such an aura came from the presence of Punk. Love him or hate him, Punk has a style both in and out of the ring that has consistently run counter to the aesthetic that AEW has presented since its infancy. Punk has no problem being a loner, which is antithetical to the familial atmosphere for which AEW has been both lauded and criticized through the years. He also isn’t going to walk the length of a top rope to do a 450 splash onto two tables and then refuse to sell its effects no less than 10 seconds later. I’m not saying one is better than the other; I’m just saying that Punk provided light for the Miro’s of the world because he was always going to preach story and traditional ethos whereas so much of AEW’s identity has been new, forward-thinking and (young) bucking the trend.

These are all the reasons Collision felt like it had a shot at succeeding, even if it could be viewed as AEW’s island of misfit toys. Maybe there was a soft brand split while Punk was still around; maybe there wasn’t. All I know for sure is that without him in the fold, the last two weeks of Collision have felt like they’ve inched closer to whatever it is Wednesday nights have felt like for the last handful of years. I can appreciate telling the story of Bryan Danielson’s potential final year as a full-time wrestler each week on Collision. And you can’t find a bigger fan of Jay White and Juice Robinson than I.

But the edge, without Punk, is gone. And this comes from someone who didn’t even necessarily like everything Collision had been doing since its inception. The “Real World’s Title?” Yeah, that’s not going to work for me (brother). With little build and no true tease of a potential showdown with MJF to iron that whole heavyweight champion thing out, the gimmick felt tired before it even got out of bed. The never-ending conclusion of the Samoa Joe/CM Punk program? Eh. I have all the respect in the world for both guys and what they did in Ring of Honor a million years ago, but I felt both of them could have been used better, despite having one hell of a match at All In.

Yet while I can find personal gripes with the way things had been going, there was no denying that the Collision product felt fresh, different and intriguing. The ratings, while not necessarily a hit, also proved that AEW had a true second weekly show that mattered to a sizable portion of its fan base. Or, in other words, Collision was on track to not be Rampage. This was exciting if only for how long we were sold the lie that Rampage was never supposed to be viewed as a B-show … while Rampage kept putting out B-level shows after the shine wore off of its debut. Collision was fun not just because it provided hope, but also because it felt like it had staying power. CM Punk wasn’t going to allow Collision to become Rampage, damn it, and with the help of people like White, Robinson, FTR, Ricky Starks, and some others, that was one goal he was destined to accomplish.

Not anymore. And above all else, it’s frustrating to think about what could have been. I understand the arguments against Punk from those who are die-hard supporters of the AEW brand as well as the wrestlers who ostensibly started the company. But even if you feel the need to take sides and your side is that of the one that claims CM Punk is a locker room cancer, you can’t deny both his ability to draw eyeballs to a product and his ability to affect tone, both good and bad, whenever he’s on television. Think back to the days when he was on Dynamite. His feud with MJF felt darker than anything else on the show. His programs felt more real. His appearances felt authentic, be it during a match or with a microphone in his hand. He lended those attributes to Collision and for that, Collision thrived. Without them, it’s hard to imagine it not ending up as anything other than Rampage 2.0.

What’s more, part of the problem isn’t just Punk’s absence; it’s also the shadow he’ll cast on the show’s future. I have no doubt that centering a pro wrestling TV series around White or Starks or Danielson can work. But can it work in the way that Punk made it work? Can it work in a way that seems singular and exciting? Can it work without the thought of Punk leading his band of merry misfits on a journey separate from that of the one we’ve been seeing on Wednesday nights? For a good, long while, everything that happens on Collision will be compared to what would have happened on it had Punk been in the fold. It’s not fair, but it’s the reality. There’s only one CM Punk, which made Collision feel like there’s only one Collision.

Moving forward? Not so much. Or, at least the early returns suggest it’ll be not so much. Will that mean WBD will want to scale back its AEW programming? I seriously doubt that. Will Collision’s success (or lack thereof) affect AEW’s bottom line in any significant way? I doubt that even more. But the absence of CM Punk from the CM Punk show now puts AEW in the unenviable position of figuring out how to continue the roll Collision was on as a fresh product when no fresh names are available.

CJ Perry is a fine addition and it was great to see Jade Cargill return to the company, but neither figure has the presence of a needle-mover in the way that Punk radiated that very trait (and it’s not like Cargill couldn’t have been that person, but don’t get me started on the way the booking minds decided to present her in the months before her absence).

As for what’s next, only time can tell. Any and all backstage ruminations about leaders and culture and all that nonsense are for those who are actually living it. I can only speak as a viewer of pro wrestling television. And as a viewer of pro wrestling television, I’m inclined to say that Saturday nights on TNT aren’t appointment viewing for me anymore. It’s not an indictment on anybody or any company – decisions had to be made and I don’t think many people can deny that – it’s just that as I see these two hours trend toward the same two hours that show up on Wednesday nights on TBS, my enthusiasm for the product feels more deflated and far less curious than it once was.

I’m not saying CM Punk was The Answer for Collision, but I will say that he was An Answer. And just having that in your pocket, on a very basic level, is far better than having no answers to any of the questions that will inevitably pop up as Saturday nights insist they are alright for fighting.


Readers Comments (3)

  1. Tony Khan’s biggest problem is with locker room leaks. Everything that takes place in that locker room is all over the press nearly instantaneously.

  2. You can thank the ‘children’ who can’t draw a dime or sell a ticket … for those leads as well as Punk exiting. They set the trap and he played to their hands

  3. So Khan does what he should do and your response is, “Well, the egomaniac that was a cancer in the locker room is gone, so I don’t need to watch anymore.”
    Awesome. That’s why people like Punk exist. Sad

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