Devil of Reality, Devil of Fantasy, Devil of AEW
Last night at All Elite Wrestling’s All Out in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, CM Punk defeated Jon Moxley to become a two time AEW World Heavyweight champion. Instead of getting the chance to celebrate, he had to meet the devil.
Maxwell Jacob Friedman made his long awaited return to AEW, having been gone since the Dynamite after Double or Nothing where he was suspended for a profanity laced promo in front of Warner Discovery executives.
Max actually made his return earlier, winning the Casino Ladder Match under a demon mask as a member of Stokely Hathaway’s crew of W. Morrissey, Ethan Page, Lee Moriarty, and the Gunn Club. AEW must have spent a good amount of money on the “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones entrance music. The finish wasn’t great but MJF masked walking exactly how he always walks giving away his identity but refusing to unmask was good theatre. What was even better theatre was after Punk defeated Moxley, the screen went black to play a voice recording of Tony Khan convincing MJF to return, ROH footage of CM Punk’s, “The greatest trick” promo after he won the ROH World Heavyweight championship, and the masked MJF taking off the disguise and throwing on his Burberry scarf.
Yet the highlight of the whole night was what happened on this clip around the 2:55 mark. Just outside of Chicago, CM Punk dedicating the entire match to the city of Chicago, wearing the flag of Chicago, Chicago’s best known pro wrestler held up his newly won AEW World championship in his confrontation with MJF, only to hear the crowd express sympathy… for the devil.
The look CM Punk gives of the crowd chanting MJF’s name is one of the most incredible moments of the year. Everything built up to make the fans hate MJF and yet? They celebrate his return. They celebrate his return in CM Punk’s house, in CM Punk’s city, after he climbed back to the top of the mountain in All Elite Wrestling.
For some, this feels obviously a reaction to Punk’s recent actions. Soon after the pay per view at the press conference (where journalists end up part of the show by trying to ask questions for wrestlers and Tony Khan to answer when in reality this is just more theatre for the company) CM Punk would go off about Scott “Colt Cabana” Colton, the EVP’s (Kenny Omega, Nick Jackson, and Matt Jackson), Hangman Page, pretty much anyone except Danhausen (who loaned him his boots) and Adam Cole (who he called a sweetheart because he probably is) while Tony Khan watched on realizing he just booked a loose cannon as his World champion. It reminded me of Vince McMahon holding the microphone for the Ultimate Warrior in a hat questioning his judgment of putting everything behind a crazy man. Of course, CM Punk as a human being is saintly compared to Jim Hellwig, but there’s no doubt that Warrior was the apple in Vince McMahon’s eye, and that Tony Khan originally wanted to start his wrestling company around CM Punk.
AEW has of course been building to this. Eddie Kingston talked about the real CM Punk. MJF talked about the real CM Punk. Hangman Page talked about the real CM Punk and seemed to set Punk off when talking about “Worker’s Rights” which was his way of talking about Colt Cabana without saying his name. Jon Moxley talked about the real CM Punk. Three babyfaces and a heel. It feels like this is part of the plan. CM Punk is an extremely popular wrestler with a lot of baggage, and his popularity will make him a better heel than a babyface. If CM Punk is Hulk Hogan (PUNK STILL RULES), and AEW is the successor of WCW, then you need to build your Hollywood Hogan.
That’s of course the problems with the mixing of fantasy and reality. A lot of this animosity might be real. AEW President Tony Khan has to figure out how to get these guys to work together towards the common goal of uplifting AEW and not taking it down with jealousy and bitterness backstage. The ultimate goal of any pro wrestling company should be to tell stories that get people returning for years to come. Whether you use real life situations, real life fighting, worked situations, or worked fighting, ultimately your goal is to convince people to return.
There are a lot of day one All Elite Wrestling fans who don’t know if this is the company they originally invested in back in 2019. The backstage issues and unhappy talent isn’t what they thought “All Friends Wrestling” would end up turning into. But that’s what happens when you bring in major stars from another company who have an expectation for how they are to be treated and how the company treats pro wrestling. CM Punk has talked about in the press conference, “Guys who haven’t done shit” and all he meant was guys who didn’t work in WWE like he did. He was gone for seven years. The wrestling landscape has changed considerably in that time. He wasn’t watching these guys main event major shows in Japan. Punk left WWE just right before the ratings began to crash in the WWE, and right before house show attendance crashed. His perspective on the business isn’t of someone who was around for the 2010s. And AEW is built on the superstars and draws of the 2010s industry.
So now a lot of fans are feeling this tug of war between those who feel AEW lost its way and others who see this as the natural progression of pro wrestling companies. The mixing of fantasy and reality can sometimes remind one of WCW when they tried blurring the line in the Eric Bischoff vs Ric Flair feud, or all of the terrible stories Vince Russo tried to tell. But it’s really something that goes on all over pro wrestling. WWE is trying to blur the lines right now between Seth Rollins and Matt Riddle. Tetsuya Naito is always blurring the lines in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the disgruntled superstar.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what’s reality or fantasy. It frustrates me when all pro wrestling fans care about is if something was a work or a shoot. All you should care about is if this is a good story.
Is it a good story that AEW just built up a weekend in Chicago where CM Punk wins the AEW World championship and now everyone believes he’s ruining the locker room? Is it a good story that MJF returns as the devil but the fans celebrate him? Is it a good story that CM Punk is constantly calling out the former AEW World champion Hangman Page and he never responds? Is it a good story that all of this is out of CM Punk’s hatred for a former best friend in Colt Cabana who has stayed out of all of this?
My answer to most of this is no. But MJF returning as the devil and the devil is praised? That one I right now feel is a good thing. And it comes back to the fact that All Elite Wrestling fans celebrate their own. If they feel you’re homegrown, made on AEW soil, or accepted as one of their own? They will praise you and love you more than someone who is a better competitor. Swerve In Our Glory last night put in considerable work to make The Acclaimed look like a formidable number one contender, to the point where the crowd wanted nothing more than for The Acclaimed to win. They weren’t paying attention to what Keith Lee and Swerve Strickland were doing to help elevate The Acclaimed. They cared about a homegrown tag team winning the AEW Tag Championship. So when MJF returns to confront CM Punk, he isn’t the devil. He’s *their* devil.
MJF is their devil. Hangman is their devil. Moxley is their devil. Eddie is their devil. Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks are their devils. CM Punk may be their favourite wrestler, he might be the biggest draw (debatable), biggest merchandise seller, any of that. But he isn’t their own. And with the way his AEW career has gone, starting out defeating all of the fan favourite’s, the guys who felt like AEW homegrowns or AEW claimed? That might have been the plan from the start.
The devils of reality and fantasy? In the end they are all one in the same. It’s all about making you believe.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game