“I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been. I offered to relinquish the title and Tony told me that under no circumstances was I allowed to do that. It means a lot to me that this place as a whole believes in me enough to let me just go get fixed”
– CM Punk on AEW Road To Kansas after announcing his injury on Rampage
It is not often that CM Punk seems confused or unconfident, but he seemed that way when announcing not only his injury but also its implications for the AEW World Title less than one week after defeating Hangman Page at Double or Nothing. Despite his long association with mixed martial arts, he was decidedly uncomfortable with having to explain that whilst he wouldn’t be fulfilling his duties as champion for a while, he wouldn’t be relinquishing the championship.
Rather than boldly state that upon his return he would defend his title against whoever emerged from the pack chasing him, he instead stressed that he wanted to give up the title, as if AEW regularly featured World Title matches on television rather than save them for special occasions. When talking about Khan rejecting this offer, he chose to highlight the promoter’s faith in him, rather than use Sammy Guevara’s brief stint as Interim TNT Champion as the relevant precedent.
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Neither explanation makes much sense beyond the multi-decade game of telephone that is pro wrestling logic. Why having fought so hard to fight his way to become AEW World Champion would CM Punk voluntarily give up his championship for an injury that may not even stop him wrestling at All In? Surely, he cares enough about his hard-won prize to insist he be given time to recover and defend it, just like his shoot equivalents in boxing or mixed martial arts would. Likewise, Khan as the promoter should care about the lineage and credibility of the championship, rather than the feelings of the person currently holding it.
Instead, we got two(!) meta-promos primarily designed to get over CM Punk as a nice guy who cares about his fans, and Tony Khan as a nice guy who cares about his wrestlers, rather than the AEW World Championship as the premiere prize in this promotion.
And that is a shame because the shambolic handling of the announcement soured many people on the very idea of crowning an Interim Champion.
“You know what, man? I would love to fight Jon again, and hopefully beat Jon. But when they put that belt around my waist, I was the UFC champion”
– Daniel Cormier to Ariel Helwani after winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship
As the old saying goes, “to be the man, you have to beat the man.” Stripping CM Punk would render whoever claimed and defended his belt over the summer something of a paper titlist, with fans waiting for the lineal champion to return and reclaim his title.
We can see this in real life. Did anyone really think Joe Frazier was the true Heavyweight Champion of the World until he finally beat Muhammad Ali in the ring? Likewise, Daniel Cormier was dogged by the acquisition that he wasn’t the real champion when he won the official UFC Light Heavyweight Championship that had been stripped from Jon Jones due to reasons less noble than opposing the Vietnam War.
Even in pro wrestling we recently saw this play out, as Shingo Takagi never quite established himself as New Japan’s undisputed world champion due to fans knowledge that Will Ospreay was the lineal IWGP Heavyweight Champion, despite Takagi having a series of excellent matches as champion.
Given this, why force some poor patsy to pretend that they are anything other than what they are; the person fulfilling the injured champion’s contractual obligations until a unification match can be scheduled? Not only does this avoid the promotion lying to its audience, but it also places the emphasis on the Interim Champion defending their spot as the person at the head of the queue to welcome the lineal Champion back from injury. It’s both more honest and more captivating.
The alternative is a situation that often turns fans against the “undeserving” titlist. As a light heavyweight, Cormier could never escape the perception that he had been gifted Jon Jones’s belt. He was even booed in their unification fight, despite Cormier having been the fan favorite in their previous meeting, and Jones’s despicable behavior since. Cormier only received the credit he deserved when he moved to heavyweight and defeated the undisputed champion there, Stipe Miocic.
Since its television deal was announced, my main criticism of AEW has been that it has not moved far enough away from the way things have long been done in pro wrestling. Declaring injury replacements Interim Champions, is exactly the type of fresh thinking that they should be doing more of.
Running in Circles
”Make sure he hoards all that money so he can make sure and give it to all the new ex-WWE guys he keeps bringing in that can’t lace my goddamn boots! Hey boss, would you treat me better if I were an ex-WWE guy?”
– MJF on AEW Dynamite after being defeated by Wardlow
One has to imagine that AEW handled CM Punk’s injury in such a skittish manner partially due to their horror at how it juxtaposed with them increasingly allowing people to make digs at his and others previous tenure in WWE.
At its most basic, its undeniably embarrassing that having let first MJF and then Hangman Page draw attention to either Punk’s long absence from pro wrestling or his age, Punk would be seriously injured so soon after winning the title. What would otherwise look like an understandable misfortune for somebody who has been an absolute workhorse since debuting in-ring last September, is now now potentially makes him look flighty or old, due to this unforced error.
More generally, I vehemently disagree with using AEW storylines to give oxygen to idea that the promotion has been too quick to sign former WWE superstars. Not least for the fact that its inarguably true! Tony Khan has been a bit too ready to sign former WWE superstars, many of whom were previously doing next to nothing for the promotion.
The bigger issue is that so many popular and valuable members of the AEW roster came from WWE, and that one of the most exciting things about the promotion is that it allows talent held down by Vince McMahon to finally shine. AEW shouldn’t be encouraging fans to wish ill of ex-WWE wrestlers they sign, especially when Khan shows no sign on stopping signing them.
The great strength of AEW is the extent to which fans like the promotion and the people who run it are on the same wavelength, but that camaraderie is increasingly fraying as the promotion first tried to buck the fans by not turning Cody Rhodes, then taunt them by seemingly teasing that Punk or Khan are secret heels. It has led to a bitter and fractured atmosphere.
That’s why Khan is badly mistaken in playing it safe by (as seems certain) making Jon Moxley Interim Champion at Forbidden Door. It will further cement the idea that only former WWE superstars are considered for the top spot, an idea so toxic that it provoked MJF chants during Punk’s promo.
Worse, not only does Moxley gain nothing from holding a lesser version of the championship he defended throughout the pandemic, but such a retread will only add ammunition to the argument that AEW is running in circles. Instead, they should have been bold and place the title on someone who would not only restore the fan’s trust that AEW has not become a closed shop for ex-WWE superstars but also bring a new dynamism to the main event scene.
There would have been no better man for the job than Eddie Kingston. As the most authentic talker in today’s business, he would have been perfectly placed to persuade fans that for all the limitations of the situation he was the real deal, and they should care about his defenses. As a noted fan of puroresu, he would have been an apt opponent for Hiroshi Tanahashi at Forbidden Door, and afterwards would have had ready-made rivalries with Chris Jericho, Bryan Danielson, Miro, and Jon Moxley.
And of course, you would successfully set up the most heated title match in AEW history. What could be more captivating than after watching Kingston defend his title against all comers, having to see him be forced to listen to the man he hates the most not just belittle him, but belittle all he had achieved as Interim Champion. If CM Punk must turn heel let it not be because Tony Khan doesn’t realise that if MJF is Brian Pillman that makes him Eric Bischoff, but because the self-proclaimed ‘Best in the World’ was an arrogant jackass who came back from a summer off to destroy a man’s dreams.
What’s more, giving Eddie Kingston the Interim Championship wouldn’t take away from the moment of him winning the undisputed title, for the simple reason that unlike anyone else it would still be the first title he had ever won on national television. Even if it is secondary to the lineal world title, it would act as a secondary title reign should, giving Eddie a chance for him to prove beyond all doubt that he deserved to be considered for the real deal the next time the title became available.
And whatever the result of that audition was, for a few months Eddie Kingston would have gotten to tell his nephew that his uncle was a fuking champion.