EDITORIAL: C.M. Punk’s firing is a teachable moment for AEW, but some people are learning the wrong lesson

Details emerge on CM Punk altercation with The Elite at All Out
C.M. Punk and Tony Khan (image Denise Salcedo YouTube Channel)


C.M. Punk’s firing is a teachable moment, but some people are learning the wrong lessons from this tragedy.

The word “tragedy” is a dramatic word to use, but I don’t think it is overly dramatic, at least not in the way I mean to use it. While this isn’t tragic in the same way the death of Bray Wyatt or Terry Funk was tragic, it is tragic in the Shakespearean sense of the word.

My mother is an expert on Shakespeare. She has studied his life, written on his life, taught his works for decades, and flown to Stratford, England to visit his birthplace. Because of my mother, countless people know more about Shakespeare than they did before they met her, and I am proud of that fact. Bringing people closer to him is my mother’s gift to this world.

I tell you this because I don’t want you to judge me for instinctually comparing what happened with C.M. Punk to Shakespeare (because if I didn’t know where I was going with this, I would definitely judge me for it, too.) However, after this weekend, hearing the name C.M. Punk makes me think of the word “hamartia.”

Hamartia is a morally neutral Greek word used in reference to the fatal flaws that bring down tragic heroes. Shakespeare didn’t invent this concept; anyone who has read Aristotle’s “Poetics” is familiar with it. However, Shakespeare did use it prolifically. We see it in plays like King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello, and the reason its use is so effective in moving us is because a hamartic flaw is not a sign of someone’s immorality, nor is it a judgment on whether or not someone deserves the fate they received. It is simply an error that was unavoidable due to the internal constitution of the character making the error.

I do not believe C.M. Punk is a bad person. He is merely a human being who, like all of us, has inherent flaws he must work around in order to succeed, and in this instance, his flaw of grudgery was too big for a workaround to succeed. As a result, a comeback that seemed destined for glory became an inglorious date with destiny.

Punk’s initial actions after he acquired a broad degree of control over his own program all fit the pattern of a good man who wanted to do good things. He wanted to keep the peace, provide guidance to younger wrestlers, and make new stars to entertain new generations of fans. I believe the reason Punk tried to remove the people he begrudged from Collision’s locker room was not because he begrudged them but because, deep down, he knew it was necessary to avoid exactly what happened at All In 2023.

The fight at All In 2023 was inevitable.

Punk’s nature, life experiences, and the wariness those life experiences saddled him with made it impossible for anything else to have happened. There was no number of eggshells that could be carefully walked upon, there was no glass thick enough to patch the Overton window Tony Khan had moved due to his own hamartic flaws, and there was no ocean wet enough to temper the flames of the people Punk had burned in his attempts to prevent fires.

The people saying the incident at All In 2023 would not have happened but for Jack Perry are trying to make sense of what happened through their own worldviews rather than the worldviews of the players on Tony Khan’s proverbial stage.

For those of you who still think this could have been avoided, please step back and really, truly think about what happened. Try to remove any biases you have. Remove your fandom of Punk, Perry, or the Bucks; remove your knowledge of all the good things Tony Khan has done for this industry, and try to remove any beliefs about hierarchical statuses that have been bequeathed to us via peer pressure from dead people (a/k/a tradition).

I know it is hard to remove these things from our mind’s eye because these things are as deeply ingrained in us as Perry’s generational pride, Punk’s personal grievances, and Khan’s understandable admiration of the talents involved, but removing the blinders of your worldview is the only way to side-eye another’s. You cannot step into someone else’s shoes without first taking off your own.

With that in mind, I know if I were in The Young Bucks’ shoes, I would not have been able to fully forgive the things Punk said at that press conference. If someone had insulted your life’s work, your dreams, your ambitions, and the people you consider your closest friends, could you really get over it in a matter of months? If you can, you’re a saint.

I also know that if I were in Perry’s shoes, I would not believe I should suck up perceived bullying and disrespect from a veteran because that person was more likely to die soon. I would see that kind of mindset as “the old boy’s club” protecting “the old boy’s club,” and I would see it as the kind of mindset that allowed people like Bob Holly, JBL, and even Vince McMahon to do the things they’ve been alleged to do that will taint their legacies long after they have left this world.

I also know if I were Tony Khan, I would have been unable to immediately look past a lifetime of appreciation for someone’s art. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it as quickly as Khan’s detractors claim they could. I know this because I know how I felt when I met Terry Funk. If right after that meet and greet, someone had told me Funk had slashed their tires, I would not have ever believed them. But in a way, whether C.M. Punk meant to or not, that is exactly what he did. Punk’s media scrum outburst slashed the tires of All Out 2022, and AEW has never been the same since.

Last, but not least, I know if I were Punk, I could not have struggled against enough odds to fill a Vegas casino since 2004, come so close to dying for this business in 2013, and risked every last shred of my reputation to return to it several years later, only to then sit by silently as I watched people disrespect the business I gave my existence to. I am sure that lashing out was not Punk’s first choice.

I imagine that Punk, like all human beings, would have tried his easiest options first. When Punk first felt disrespected, I’m sure he tried to wait patiently for respect to come. Then, he probably tried to negotiate for that respect either openly or passively. When all else failed, I imagine he tried to demand respect. After all, if you ask for something and do not get it, the next easiest option is to demand it. However, unfortunately for Punk, respect is not something you can demand.

You can demand fear, and you can demand obedience, but you cannot demand respect because respect is a form of reverence, and reverence is an emotion. Respect cannot be given; it can only be earned, and it is up to the person giving that respect to decide if the person they are giving it to has earned it or not. Anything else would be “artificial respect,” and just like most artificial things, it will break down and be discarded sooner rather than later.

As much as you might think you’d prefer artificial respect to nothing, you do not want artificial respect — be it an artifice created through fear or force. Artificial respect is far more dangerous than apathy. If you don’t believe me, ask Mussolini’s body about what happened to it after his death. If you prefer video footage, ask Gaddafi. If you prefer Shakespeare, ask Richard III (and as dramatic as Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III’s death was, the reality was worse.)

So, in Punk’s eyes, he was the one being bullied, mistreated, and misunderstood all at the same time. Being bullied hurts; it hurts horribly, and it leaves scars. I know because, as someone who grew up both deaf and gay in a small southern town, I endured things I cannot write in an article meant for the general public, and I ended up in therapy for the rest of my life because of it. Given that Punk likely still had scars from past incidents, it was a lot easier for his old wounds to reopen, and when they did, he reacted appropriately to what he saw as a great injustice.

The reason his appropriate actions seem inappropriate to the rest of us is because while he genuinely believed he experienced great injustices, the alleged injustices he actually experienced do not currently appear to have been all that great.

Think about it. This is what we think we know happened:

Perry wanted to perform a glass bump because he was going to take a scheduled vacation to Hawaii and presumably wanted Hook to benefit from his absence via appearing so violent and vicious that he sidelined one of AEW’s pillars. Supposedly, Perry asked permission and was granted it. (Remember, this is what we THINK happened. None of us were there for any of this, and these beliefs may change as more information comes out. Always keep an open mind, no matter how sure you are in your side of the story.)

After being supposedly granted permission, Perry was told on a Wednesday to get a rental car and take it to AEW Collision on Saturday. Perry went to the trouble of doing this, but despite his troubles, despite believing he had gotten permission, and despite what he likely saw as a willingness to selflessly suffer in order to put someone else over, Punk stepped in after all of that effort and overrode the permissions Perry believed he had been previously given. If Perry is a human being, and I’m 99 percent sure he is (remember, these are all just allegations), he probably felt like his time had been wasted, and his dignity had been undermined by a colleague at work who was abusing the advantages his drawing power had given him.

Even still, it does not seem that Perry came forward with this information, and because of that, I think it is at least mildly reasonable to assume he was going to let what happened to him slide. That is until the story leaked and was reported in a way that made Perry believe Punk’s people had leaked it to make him look like he was trying to skip work rather than trying to put someone over before taking a pre-approved vacation. (I know I’ve said this already, but again, and not to belabor the point, I am simply relaying a possible narrative. Only the people who were present for these things know what happened.)

It seems Perry felt as if a veteran had disrespected him. (Remember, it is never okay to disrespect someone, regardless of how much money you make or how long you’ve been making it. A person does not become more of a person because they have made more money or because they have done something longer. That is not how personhood works, and a person is not defined by their job.) Feeling as if a veteran had disrespected him, Perry got permission to do the same spot on the PPV (I mean, do you really think Perry drove a car into Wembley Stadium without higher-ups knowing what was going to happen to it?) because it appears that Punk did not have the same veto-authority over PPV spots that he had over spots on AEW Collision.

During All In 2023’s Zero Hour pre-show, just as the director’s truck was cutting back from airing a replay, Perry tapped on the windshield of the car he had used to make his aforementioned entrance into Wembley Stadium and said, “Real glass; cry me a river,” which, in kayfabe, could have been aimed at Hook or Taz, but was, as we all know, clearly a response to the story that leaked about Punk thinking Perry wanted to skip work. (And Punk may have had legitimate and justified reasons for thinking that. Again, we do not know everything, and we should not assume that we know everything.)

To be clear, I would like to state for the record that, in my opinion, that short, two-second, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it side comment from Perry, much like Punk’s more loquacious comments of a similar nature, was unwise and unprofessional. However, those brief words do not justify Punk’s alleged response.

Speaking of Punk’s response, this is the point in the story where the word hamartia returns to the forefront.

Based on what has been reported about Punk’s life (because that is all we have to go on), Punk could not help his response to this moment of public bullying. I’m calling it public bullying here because I think that is how Punk perceived it. If that really is how Punk perceived it, ask yourself (and please keep your blinders off while you do it), would you not want to stand up for yourself if someone bullied you in front of more than 200,000 people? (That “more than 200,000 number” is based on the speculative buy-rate for All In 2023, as it was mentioned by Tony Khan during All Out 2023’s post-PPV media scrum.) I can’t speak for you, but I know that even if nothing else had happened to me beforehand, I would have exploded if someone had bullied me in front of 200,000 people. I am not saying that is the appropriate response, but I am saying that is the response I see myself having if I lived my life within the perimeters of Punk’s worldview.

Likewise, if I lived within the perimeters of Perry’s worldview, I could see myself thinking such a short, barely-mic’d line might be talked about on podcasts for a couple of days but that it would ultimately be forgotten within a week. After all, that is the standard that was set by Punk’s far lengthier and more prominent public receipts that he had directed toward Adam Page and The Young Bucks. It wasn’t like Perry called Punk names or held up an entire show! (Remember, the person who held up All In 2023 was C.M. Punk himself. Even if Punk’s reaction was second-nature to him, that doesn’t make Perry responsible for how extraordinary Punk’s reaction was.) In Perry’s eyes, all he had done was disregard a colleague’s personal advice. (Remember, advice is optional. Otherwise, it would be called an order.). Then Perry performed a glass spot he believed he had permission to perform, and followed Punk’s example by delivering a verbal receipt.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Perry “should have known better,” and maybe he should have known it wasn’t a wise idea, but I would not expect him or anyone to have known the full extent of what would happen.

Think about it this way: If before this incident occurred, someone told you that Jack Perry would say the exact words he said on PPV, and then that same person gave you a poll with a range of options asking what Punk’s response would be, many people would surely predict that Punk would approach Perry after their respective matches and scream his head off; some might predict Punk would try to convince Khan to fire Perry; and some might have predicted Punk would silently seethe and bide his time. Very few people, a minuscule amount of people, would have predicted that moments before Punk’s PPV match, Punk would approach Perry in front of his boss, put Perry in a headlock, beat the snot out of Perry until Samoa Joe pulled him off, cause monitors to get knocked into Tony Khan, and then lunge at Khan. If you predicted all of that, I would love to know what you were doing on Sept 1 2001.

Now, I want you to take a beat and put yourself in Tony Khan’s worldview. In the same way that it is unlikely most fans would predict that outrageous series of events, Tony Khan certainly could not have predicted that a disaster-piece of such mind-boggling proportions would take place during a live PPV. However, not being a soothsayer doesn’t make Tony Khan a bad leader. On the contrary, despite having what I believe to be the tragic flaw of admiring admirable people more than they deserve to be admired, Tony Khan is a good leader, and I’ll tell you why.

Tony Khan is not a bully; he is not a dictator; and he is not a black hole where compassion goes to die. Tony Khan is a solid leader in a hollow world full of impatient people who want everything solved in 60-minute increments via quick-fix prescriptions. Khan is smart enough to know that quick fixes lead to quick breakdowns. Vince McMahon knew this, too; however, to be honest, I think it took McMahon a little longer to come to that conclusion due to hamartic flaws of his own.

The people who insist Tony Khan is a hollow leader are well-intentioned, and many of them make good points, but I think they are looking at his leadership through a myopic worldview – they are only seeing the contemporaneous present that is in front of them, and they are wearing blinders that prevent them from seeing a past that is much further away and far less vivid. However, if those same people were to squint and look far enough into the past, they might realize the backstage drama of Khan’s early years wilt beneath the sunless shadow of the backstage drama of McMahon’s early years.

If you think it is only Khan whose early years are tumultuous, watch the television program “Dark Side of the Ring,” read the book “Sex, Lies, and Headlocks,” or check out Barry Blaustein’s film “Beyond the Mat.” Blaustein taught a one-day seminar at the UNC School of the Arts when I was a film student there. I attended that seminar and even spoke to him briefly. Given some of the things he said that day, I’m not exactly sure he would endorse McMahon’s early leadership as being anywhere near ideal.

That is not to say Tony Khan’s leadership is flawless because I’ve already established that it is not flawless because he is not flawless, but I have read and heard certain people talking about this man as if he were a rat king presiding over an endless dumpster fire, and the true dumpster fire is the flaming powder keg of ideas a select few people within the wrestling community have about what does and does not make a supposedly “solid” leader.

Since the incident at All In, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about “solid” leadership, but I’m not sure those people know what that term means. I am very sure they think they know what it means, and I’m sure they’d happily pepper their arguments with logical fallacies such as argumentum ab auctoritate and argumentum ad verecundiam to try to prove their points. However, calls for “solid” leadership ring hollow when those calls are hastily followed by a series of unsolid ideas.

Some of these ideas are so unsolid that I have literally heard people pine for the days when Jack Perry would have been beaten into a pulp for having angered the veteran class. I’ve heard people call Tony Khan a hollow leader because he does not run a dictatorial workplace (which is not the same as top-down leadership); I’ve heard people claim Tony Khan is a “mark” for being friendly towards his employees, and I’ve heard people question if Tony Khan’s leadership is flawed, as if asking that very question itself wasn’t a ridiculous thing to do.

Of course, Tony Khan’s leadership is flawed. Everyone’s leadership is flawed because everyone has flaws. That is the tragedy of humanity. However, his flaws in leadership are not the reason he failed to foresee the outcome of a windshield bump, and his flaws in leadership are not the reason he failed to predict a reaction so large the degree of its magnitude would be unimaginable to most rational people.

Most people could not predict what happened at All In 2023 because most people would never fathom flying off the handle to such an extreme point over such an innocuous comment – not Tony Khan, not Jack Perry, not The Young Bucks, not me, and very likely, not you, either. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been so shocking, would it? The only reason we “think” we would have known is because it seems inevitable in hindsight, even though it wasn’t inevitable in foresight. That is what makes this tragedy so Shakespearean, and that is what makes C.M. Punk’s downfall so tragic.

C.M. Punk’s worldview was tainted by a flaw that had been given to him via the unhealthy behavior of others in the wrestling industry, behavior that he had experienced over the course of a lifetime. Because of this, I truly believe Punk’s outsized reaction was caused by his past experiences and that Punk is not a flagitious villain who is trying to exhibit unhealthy behavior on purpose.

However, situations like what happened to C.M. Punk at All In 2023 – a situation that I believe was either tacitly or subconsciously made worse by Punk’s having to spend a lifetime navigating the toxic waters of an environment that is systemic to the wrestling industry – is exactly why we should all avoid passing on unhealthy behavior to future generations as often as possible.

The next time you think about the tragic story of the gifted artist, C.M. Punk, be reminded that it is not okay to discuss mistreatment by saying, “That is just how the world works,” without qualifying that statement by adding, “but that is not how it should work.”  It is not okay to just be “okay” with how things currently are. The words “apathy” and “responsibility” relate just as much as they rhyme. Hazing, workplace bullying, and paying dues is not a form of healthy bonding; it is a form of trauma bonding, similar to those who experience such unethical abuse in nursing homes, military training, and via abusive parents.

According to Mental Health America, dictatorial workplace environments produce bad outcomes for businesses. You can read more about that HERE.

According to Harvard Business Review, bullying in the workplace is neither “motivational” nor a form of “management,” but “rather, it can further hinder performance, creativity, collaboration, and delivering on business goals due to employee distress.” You can read more about that HERE.

According to BBC, “..the culture of ‘paying your dues’ – and even being hazed by elder staff along the way may be ubiquitous; it may not necessarily be the best way to bring new staff into the fold. This approach to entering a group’s ranks may be human nature to some extent, but it also may tip work cultures from taxing to toxic.” You can read more about that HERE.

You can also read more about why “paying dues” is a toxic mentality at Teen Vogue HERE and Battle For Business HERE.

A lot of articles and research papers on this topic discuss the dangers of “passing along” authoritative traditions and social hierarchies in the workplace and how those traditions can shape people’s worldviews and lead to explosive outcomes.

Now that we are armed with this knowledge, we should stop and ask ourselves what people are really calling for when they call for a feared “lock room leader” that nobody would ever cross. When we hear those calls, first, we should remind ourselves that not all versions of a “lock room leader” need to be feared to be effective, and second, we should remind ourselves that locker room violence produces hollow respect, and bullying is hollow leadership.

Finally, when looking back at All In 2023, before assigning unqualified blame for what happened at that event to C.M. Punk and only C.M. Punk, we should ask ourselves why Punk reacted the way he did, why Perry acted the way he did, and if, older locker room environments in wrestling ever fell into any of the deep dark pitfalls mentioned in the articles above.

Oh, and one more thing: For the people calling for Jack Perry to be fired rather than suspended, Perry’s punishment should not be on par with Punk’s because what Perry did was not on par with what Punk did. Unless there is a heaping helping of additional information that we are not privy to, firing Perry or sandbagging Perry’s career after his suspension is over would be an injustice meant to feed into the workplace toxicity mentioned throughout this column. Such an act would be an injustice that is not meant to make AEW better but to appease the “good old boys club” who still thinks it is okay to haze, boss around, bully, mistreat, or even brutalize younger workers because they don’t understand how time works.

Time always moves forward. It is a never-ending path that marches on from generation to generation, and real leaders are not gatekeepers erecting blockades along the path; real leaders are the pathfinders holding lanterns to light the way.

The most “alpha” thing a veteran wrestler can do is to protect younger wrestlers from inheriting their traumas. I believe, deep down, the vast majority of older wrestlers know this and agree with this. They know what a “real” locker room leader is because they have experienced what it isn’t. The only reason it may seem otherwise is because solid leaders don’t rattle as loudly as hollow ones.

(David Bryant writes the AEW Collision Hits & Misses column weekly for PWTorch.com. He has studied screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Broadcast and Cinema at UNC-Greensboro. David is an entertainer, promoter, and published author, as well as a former Mr. NC USofA, Mr. SC United States, Mr. KY EOY, and Mr. National Don’t H8. His Twitter, Instagram, and Threads accounts can be found at @IamDavidBryant.)

RECOMMENDED NEXT: AEW COLLISION HITS & MISSES (9/2): Moxley’s promo-class-grade promo, Ricky Steamboat-Ricky Starks, Orange Cassidy speaks more, Dark Order, The Acclaimed, Nick Wayne, more

OR CHECK THIS OUT AT PROWRESTLING.NET: McGuire’s Mondays: And just like that, AEW has a Collision problem

1 Comment on EDITORIAL: C.M. Punk’s firing is a teachable moment for AEW, but some people are learning the wrong lesson

  1. Amazing words. That is coming from someone who sided more with Punk in the original blow up because of how The Elite as a whole conducts themselves. They have a job where they should typically be the adults in the room and they don’t do that. That said, Punk could not control himself either. He also couldn’t be the adult in the room, at times. In the end, as a fan of wrestling outside WWE, I am just disappointed. Disappointed in the group that started AEW but also disappointed in one of my favorite wrestlers ever. Everyone lost here.

Leave a Reply