The hottest rumor swirling around the wrestling world is the arrival of former WWE world champions CM Punk and Bryan Danielson (aka Daniel Bryan) in All Elite Wrestling.
The rumor has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks, picking up steam with each additional tease and tweet on social media.
There’s little doubt the acquisition of such sought-after free agents would be a tremendous boon to a company that is on an upward trajectory, not to mention the quality matches that the two could provide.
AEW champion Kenny Omega said he was looking forward to the possibility of working with both men during an interview on Wrestling Observer Radio.
“Two very different athletes, two very different performers. I respect both of them in similar but also very different ways,” said Omega.
“It was a system that was not created for them there, and they were able to break every ceiling that was placed in front of them and emerge as an actual legend that will never be forgotten. So it’s cool for me to think that I’m going to be able to be in the ring with these two – possibly. But I think because they were so prominent in the WWE, and a lot of that is featured with segments, angles, character work. You know, for me, as exciting as the wrestling part is, the ability to tell a story is more exciting for me.”
Two of the biggest stars in the industry, Punk (Phil Brooks) and Danielson initially were rumored to be making their debuts on a Sept. 22 AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam show at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, although nothing has been confirmed. It’s also possible that Punk could debut on one of several shows in late August and early September in his hometown of Chicago, including an AEW Rampage event on Aug. 20 at the spacious United Center or on Sept. 5 at AWE’s All Out pay-per-view at the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
“I have no comment on those,” AEW president Tony Khan recently told the New York Post when asked about the rumors of Punk and Danielson joining the AEW roster. “Those are good questions but I can’t comment on those.”
Punk, 42, who was the WWE champion for an amazing 434 days, hasn’t wrestled since taking part in the 2014 Royal Rumble. At the time of his bittersweet departure, he said he had “zero passion” left for professional wrestling and that he would “never” return to the WWE again.
But even with seven years off, it’s hard to imagine that Punk wouldn’t have an immediate impact in AEW.
“Punk can work, but more importantly, Punk can talk. I believe he’s one that could probably stir that audience up to violence,” Jim Cornette said on a recent podcast.
As for potential AEW opponents, Punk “could cut them up like gutted fish, verbally,” added Cornette, who said Punk could be a heel, but “he’s going to be a natural babyface because he’s a star coming in and AEW got the guy that Vince McMahon couldn’t get to come back. So they’re gonna like him, but he might not want to be liked. He might see an opportunity to go in here and create more stir than anyone else is by actually making them genuinely dislike him.”
Since leaving wrestling, Punk has fought twice for the UFC, written for Marvel Comics and done MMA commentary. He also served as an analyst on WWE’s now-defunct Backstage show on Fox Sports.
The 40-year-old Danielson, who has been with WWE since 2009, last wrestled in the main event of Wrestlemania 37 when Roman Reigns successfully defended his Universal championship against Danielson (Bryan) and Edge in a triple threat match.
Danielson’s WWE deal expired on April 30. Like AEW star Jon Moxley, he would be given the freedom to do events that wouldn’t conflict with his AEW schedule, most notably with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
With AEW Dynamite, the company’s flagship show, pulling in bigger demographic numbers than Raw in some key categories, the acquisition of Punk and Bryan could tighten up those margins even more.
“Could really help wash off the ‘minor league’ perception some people still have for it,” one fan tweeted.
Bloody AEW action
One of the major differences that has emerged between WWE and AEW is the latter’s occasional use of blood. Nowhere was that more evident than on a recent edition of AEW Dynamite on TNT that featured a particularly bloody “No Disqualification” match between Chris Jericho and hardcore performer Nick Gage involving a pizza slicer, baseball bats, fluorescent light tubes and panes of glass.
Gage, who was the subject of a “Dark Side of the Ring” episode this season, used the pizza cutter to carve up the 50-year-old Jericho’s forehead as the network cut to a picture-in-picture commercial break that aired a Domino’s commercial featuring an image of a pizza being sliced for a delivery.
“I don’t know if anything more perfect has ever been on television than a Domino’s Pizza ad running while Nick Gage uses a pizza cutter on Chris Jericho’s face in the picture in picture,” one fan tweeted regarding the product placement.
“This is officially the best picture in picture commercial in professional wrestling history,” added another.
The pizza chain, though, didn’t find the ill-timed stunt very amusing, instead issuing a statement to Front Office Sports disavowing any involvement or knowledge of the promotion.
It was noted that the family-friendly pizza brand might also pull its advertising schedule from AEW programming.
“We share the concerns expressed about this incident and the content of this TV-14 rated program, and are assessing our advertising presence on it going forward,” said Domino’s spokeswoman Jenny Fouracre-Petko.
The rumors regarding Punk and Danielson heading to AEW have spread like wildfire on wrestling websites and on social media, and a number of readers of this column have weighed in with their thoughts on the subject.
“They have Vince’s attention,” wrote Brad Fisher of Mullins. “I think Vince realizes that his product is sinking and that competition will bring out the best in both. Hoping for one hell of a ride!”
“I would love to see it!” said Amy Elliott Vaughn of Mayfield, Ky.
Dayv Duncan of North Charleston said he’s also sold.
“This has caught my attention for sure. I feel like AEW has more water color attention than WWE. Just a matter of time before they pass them in my opinion. AEW has all of these big names, and all we get from WWE is Roman (Reigns) forced down our throats week in and week out the same way it’s been since 2014.”
“Significant event and milestone,” wrote Greg Tingle of Sydney, Australia. “Then, all going well, who will be next? One more huge name may seal the deal and get AEW the mega international coverage and flow into the global pop culture scene.”
“It's a game changer on so many levels. Both guys have prolific stories going in; their reputation precedes them. I think this will reignite their passion for wrestling,” said Sarah Hirsch of Douglas, Ga.
“With President Joe Biden eliminating the non-compete clause, this should make Vince McMahon very nervous,” posted Brian Westcott of Meridian, Idaho. “Both men feel they have something more to offer. They can work less dates, work in other places such as Japan, and have more creative control with their characters and storylines. I only watch ROH on television.”
Jack Hunter of Washington, D.C., opined that any decision to test the waters in AEW will be based on their belief that the company offers a chance to do something special.
“I think Punk and Bryan understand this too, and it was no small factor in their decision … They might make a buck or two as well!”
“When AEW goes on TV live or recorded at the same time with WWE Raw, then the true competition starts and a winner will be declared accordingly. I haven't watched WWE in 15 years it’s gone so bad,” wrote Brian Braddish of Limerick, Ireland.
“This is something that will get his attention and also give pro wrestling the rejuvenation that it desperately needs!” said Mark Walters of Muskogee, Okla.
“I think Punk and Danielson will bring in fans who haven’t tried AEW before, and I believe many will stay after they see the match quality of the AEW roster,” posted John Pearson of Muskogee, Okla.
No tipping point
Vince McMahon publicly isn’t sweating the upstart competition, declaring at his company’s second-quarter earnings call, “I don’t consider them competition in the way that I would consider WCW back in the day, not anywhere near close to that.”
WCW gave the company a run for its money in the late 1990s when Nitro beat Raw in the television ratings for 83 consecutive weeks.
Based on those recent comments, AEW’s impending acquisition of Punk and Danielson isn’t likely to cause much concern for the WWE owner, wrote Chip Collins of Columbia.
“It is clear that Vince does not care so much about professional wrestling except to the extent that he can break out additional programming that has sports entertainment as its base. As far as ratings are concerned, it will not be a concern until his programming partners (USA, FOX) become concerned and basically mandate an emphasis on better storytelling/wrestling that will bring back the viewers that are slowly leaking away.”
“I don’t think the signings would be a tipping point — WWE is still the untouchable giant of the industry,” wrote John Adam Petree of Winston-Salem, N.C. “That being said, AEW is definitely doing something right. The hot crowd in Charlotte seemed like a crowd for a JCP event in the ‘80s or a WCW Nitro in the ‘90s. It’s like AEW is definitely catering to pro wrestling fans and not those of sports entertainment. I’m impressed with their production, the actual wrestling, the reverence and respect for prior wrestlers. AEW has rekindled interest from fans that might have quit watching wrestling over the years and have found a wrestling home to come back to. I hope they sign both!”
“Vince’s Q2 earnings call had him quoted as saying that AEW isn’t as big a threat as WCW ever was. He’d better reconsider. AEW is taking no prisoners. That being said, you can’t kill WWE,” posted Stuart Monroe of Justin, Texas.
“Even if they do beat them in the ratings, AEW is an American product, while WWE is a global brand. It will take them a long time to actually match the reach that WWE has,” said Jack Lord of Gadsden, Ala.
Steve Worrell of Wilmington, N.C., noted that “stunts” like the recent pizza-cutter bloodbath do AEW no favors.
“Domino’s Pizza is currently reconsidering their sponsorship, as they don’t want to be identified with that dreck in any shape, form or fashion. And nobody blames them,” wrote Worrell.
“If AEW is going to be taken seriously as TNT cable network programming, that kind of garbage has got to go. And nobody would blame CM Punk or Daniel Bryan for now having second thoughts about lending their tremendous hard-won A+ player credibility to AEW as the promotion now exists. Last time this controversy happened with network sponsors, it ended up with Dusty Rhodes himself getting fired from the company from Turner-owned network television. Punk and Bryan may reconsider.”
“It’s good for the business in general,” said Padin W. Rojan. “Now the New York folks are gonna make some changes and the fact that they have endured everything and have the experience, they will end up with the advantage in this game of madness that is pro wrestling. The new kids on the block with a chip on their shoulder will no longer be the flavor of the month in the near future and the other folks (WWE) will be around to remind everyone that they are the brand you can trust.”
Jonathan Lyon Schwartz of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, said he doesn’t think it’s a fight for viewers and that many fans are just grateful to have alternatives and be able to watch a different show with its own approach every night of the week.
“At this point, other than The Rock (maybe), I don’t think any talent moving changes things substantially. WWE’s big project since Hogan left for WCW was to make the brand bigger than any individual talent … and they’ve succeeded, whether you like their shows or not. Pre-COVID they had long since stopped advertising who would appear on live cards in advance. Ratings don’t matter the same way either compared to the late 1990s. WWE has its own distribution channels, and at least two other ‘competing’ promotions are owned by networks outright, and aren’t big enough to be a threat.”
“The question is will AEW finally figure out how to properly book angles, talents and feuds,” said Tarron Coalson of Clemmons, N.C. “Not exactly their strong point. If they don’t, it will be reminiscent of WCW. Signing a bunch of guaranteed high-price contracts until finally TNT and Tony Khan gets tired of losing money.”
“Once the shiny newness wears off, Kahn is stuck with high-dollar, old recycled talent that people won't care about in another year. Talent development, i.e. TNA pre-Hogan, would have been the smarter move. How long will daddy continue to let son lose hundreds of millions is the question,” wrote Eric Buddy Burke of Columbia.
“AEW is like putting lipstick on a pig. Looking forward to Brock Lesnar signing so he can job out to Marko Stunt,” commented Rick Bauer of Barrington, N.J.
‘Great No. 2’
“My hope is less blood and honestly, I haven’t been able to watch hardcore things post-Benoit,” wrote Kirk Campbell of Hanover, Pa. “That Gage episode of Dark Side of the Ring was disturbing. If AEW firms up and has less of the BS and more reasons to watch feuds play out, they'll do great. I get the sense those guys are doing their own promos without scripts which is a step in the right direction. They just have to be a great No. 2 and they’ll do great.”
“Depends on how they are booked, how they pull off that booking, and a few other variables. Nothing is a given,” said Jonathan Bolick of Taylors.
“WCW signed some big names back in the day, but they were all well past their prime. AEW is adding names that still have a few good years left. Although the gap is still huge, it’s slowly closing,” noted Terry Jackson of Goose Creek.
Buddy Griner of Savannah, Ga., remarked that a recent edition of AEW Dynamite marked the first time in a couple years that he enjoyed an entire show.
“The stories were good. The work was solid. The cinematography and lighting was just well done. Such a breath of fresh air. The addition of Punk and Bryan (Danielson) will only make things better. Great talents that will up the bar a few spots and I believe all the talent in that locker room will rise to the occasion. Personally, I am eagerly awaiting!”
Moving the needle
Wrestling great Bobby Fulton, formerly of The Fantastics, agreed with McMahon’s statement that WWE wasn’t in a race.
Organizations who try to “beat Vince McMahon” instead of focusing on the product, said Fulton, “have sparklers while Vince has cannons.”
“Years ago I ran lots of shows in smaller towns. Guys like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, JYD and so many I would feature would pack small towns. In the big markets they had been seen for years. Vince had them run their course for him. Yet in small markets they were hot. Vince won’t let anyone go he hasn’t felt has anything left for him. WWE is light years ahead of everyone. He was able to change the marquee from Professional Wrestling to just say WWE. I personally don’t think WWE will ever be in trouble. Although some of the booking/writing could be lots better, they have too many revenue streams. The WWE will always be the leader.”
At the very least, said David Mabry of Altavista, Va., AEW has moved the needle.
“To me the big differences are that WWE is so pasteurized and homogenized by comedy writers and Vince’s insistence on WWE-made characters. AEW lets the wrestlers be themselves. AEW has stuff I do not like (death matches, comedy, gymnastics), but they offer wrestlers that I do like (Thunder Rosa, Serena Deeb, Britt Baker, Ricky Starks, Willie Hobbs, Sammy Guevara, etc.). All in all the product to me is better. I just fast-forward through what’s not my cup of tea. I can’t watch WWE period (and I enjoy Charlotte Flair). Even if Punk and Danielson do not go to AEW, it has already moved the needle due to internet buzz and talk. We all compare the wrestling we watched when we were younger to today’s product and talk about how it was better. It was nostalgic and simple, but it was still staged fights with silliness thrown in that a lot of us outgrew as it got sillier. For me, wrestling has always been a mixed bag, we are just at an age that we yell at the clouds a lot!”
Barry Cain of Knoxville, Tenn., doesn’t think Vince McMahon and company are concerned … yet.
“CM Punk has been out of the wrestling biz for a while and has a few MMA losses as well. But he’ll create initial buzz. Love the addition of Daniel Bryan for them! I still watch Raw more out of habit than anything. Really started becoming more of a fan of AEW because it has more of that ‘old’ rasslin feel. Although I am not a fan of the death matches or the overused high flying spots. To me, it’s going to take a John Cena/The Rock type of a signing for VKM to really take notice of AEW.”
John Serati of Caldwell, N.J., admitted he’s pining for the past.
“I just don’t get excited watching today’s product like I did 30 or 40 years ago. I can remember going to the Garden with my dad, and the atmosphere was just so tremendous. And when Bruno or Andre would start walking down the aisle, the place would just explode. I guess it was just so real to me then. Wrestling just hasn’t given me that level of excitement anymore.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com
Did you know …
There is a misconception that David Sammartino, son of the legendary Bruno Sammartino, broke into the business in 1984 with the WWF. In fact, the younger Sammartino spent portions of the early 1980s working for assorted NWA wrestling groups such as the Mid-South, Georgia Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions in the Mid-Atlantic region. He was also active on the independent circuit, squaring off versus former Bruno disciple and nemesis Larry Zbyszko on multiple occasions. David was even billed as “Bruno Sammartino Jr.” during several runs before making his way to the Connecticut-based company where he was part of the first Wrestlemania in 1985.
— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite
Blast from the Past
At 6-7 and over 450 pounds, Canadian athlete John Tenta seemed well-suited for a career in professional wrestling after competing on an amateur level at Louisiana State University. But he turned instead to sumo wrestling where he became quite successful and was known as Kototenzan. Tenta grew frustrated with the sport and enlisted in All-Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion overseen by the legendary Shohei “Giant” Baba, by mid-1987. After a few years, the WWF offered him a prime spot as a main-event villain challenging the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. The angle introducing Tenta as Earthquake was cleverly done, portraying him as a simple spectator summoned to the ring to participate in a strength contest between Warrior and Dino Bravo. The heels proceeded to double-team Warrior, establishing that Tenta allied himself with manager Jimmy Hart.
Using the “Avalanche” finisher, Earthquake fought many fan favorites like Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Ron Garvin, largely staying unbeaten until his initial series with Hogan. He remained in high profile bouts on WWF cards through early 1991. For his volatile program with Jake Roberts that year, a faux graphic storyline aired where Tenta appeared to use the Avalanche to squash Jake’s python Damien, then proceeded to gloat about it. In actuality, there was no snake in the bag Tenta destroyed, but the illusion was convincing. Following that feud, Earthquake was paired with Typhoon (formerly Tugboat) to form The Natural Disasters team. The duo held the tag belts for a time, and battled the Legion of Doom before changing loyalties, becoming crowd-pleasers versus dastardly Money, Inc., and dumping Hart. The Disasters split in 1993, and Earthquake was booked against Yokozuna, the new top heel who used, ironically, a sumo gimmick. However, late in 1994, Tenta decided to sign with WCW.
There were complications. Tenta would experience an ongoing identity crisis during his WCW tenure. Billed originally as Avalanche, he joined the Dungeon of Doom faction. But he fell short in confrontations during 1995 against Sting and Randy Savage. Meanwhile, the WWF reportedly sought legal action due to Avalanche’s similarity to the Earthquake character of whom they maintained the rights. So, Tenta’s new name was The Shark. His main adversary became Big Bubba Rogers, previously known as the Big Bossman. Though Tenta emerged victorious in many matches, his fortunes with the company appeared to reach a dead end by 1997. In 1998, he resurfaced with the WWF as the masked Golga, a member of the Oddities alliance. This anonymous run was limited and not particularly satisfying.
After trying the independent circuit for a while, Tenta returned to work briefly for All-Japan. But, in 2004, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Two years later, just weeks short of his 43rd birthday, the illness, which had spread, finally took his life.
— Kenneth Mihalik, a retired educator living in Charleston, can be reached on Twitter @HoldBackTheNite