The biggest story coming out of AEW’s Double or Nothing weekend in Las Vegas was the future of its top heel, and arguably the top heel in all of pro wrestling, MJF.
In pro wrestling, reality and story line often mix. Usually, it’s pretty clear when real life is being used in a story line. But sometimes something happens where it’s not immediately known whether it’s real life or story line. What happened with MJF is an example of the latter.
Only two things are known for certain. MJF no-showed a fan fest on Saturday morning but did show up for his scheduled match on Sunday night. There are a million stories about what happened between the fan fest and the match. Depending upon your source, a flight was either legitimately booked out of Vegas or it wasn’t. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because he never flew home. Allegedly, MJF has privately voiced displeasure about his contract status with AEW and how much he’s being paid relative to other top stars and is hoping for a bidding war between AEW and WWE in 2024. But he’s also said these same things publicly as part of his heel character. Allegedly, he is greatly at odds with AEW promoter Tony Khan. But he’s also been known to be extremely close to Khan. If you privately ask around among those in AEW, either people aren’t talking (Khan on two occasions this weekend told us he wouldn’t be commenting on it) or they claim to have no idea what’s going on. Yet, despite that, somehow very detailed stories about MJF’s supposed issues are all over the internet.
Ultimately, given that MJF’s match was listed on the internal lineup all day Sunday, and his match was never pulled even though he didn’t show up at the building until literally right before his match (if he was really at odds with Khan and hadn ‘t showed up by, say, 3 pm or 4 pm, it’s inconceivable that AEW wouldn’t have publicly pulled the match), the evidence appears to point toward all of this being some sort of elaborate work.
The question is, what is the end game? If the goal is to get heat, it seems somewhat pointless, given that MJF is already the biggest heel in AEW by a wide margin, pretty much the only character on the roster who will never get cheered unless he’s pandering to his hometown crowd. In the mid-1990s, Brian Pillman created a “loose cannon” character where the intent was clear: to up his worth and sell to the highest bidder, whether that be WWF or WCW. But by creating a “worked shoot” story line that the company claimed was real, and in doing so lying to all of the wrestlers and WCW employees, promoter Eric Bischoff destroyed their trust in him to the detriment of his company. In the end, although Pillman convinced Bischoff that they were working together, the only person who benefited was Pillman, when — and this is true — he convinced Bischoff that in order to get the angle over Bischoff should give him a legitimate release from WCW, which Bischoff did, at which point Pillman went and signed with WWF. There’s one key difference between Bischoff and Khan, and that is that Khan isn’t telling everyone that this is all real — instead, it appears he’s just not telling anyone anything.
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Whether all of the rumors and such led to an increase in PPV buys is something that cannot be answered, but it doesn’t appear that it hurt interest in the show at all. Most likely it helped. But the one big negative is that it did very much take attention away from his loss to Wardlow, a loss literally two and a half years in the making. This was supposed to be Wardlow’s big day, the biggest win of his life and a star-making performance, but in the end, all people were talking about was MJF. Luckily, MJF was stretchered out in story line afterward, so at the very least they can strap the rocket to Wardlow beginning with this week’s Dynamite.
The other big story of the show was the crowning of CM Punk as AEW champion with a victory over “Hangman” Adam Page in the main event. Punk walked away from WWE in early 2014, chewed up and spit out by the wrestling business and seemingly done with it forever. He did acting, trained MMA and fought for the UFC. For years fans had been clamoring for his return, chanting his name at WWE events whenever they were irritated with whatever the company was presenting, but he always stood fast against the idea. Even when AEW kicked off, he was rightfully skeptical, since the story of “there is a new promoter who has a lot of money who is getting into the business and wants to compete with Vince!” is a story as old as time, and one after another after another has crashed and burned, sometimes spectacularly. But ultimately, he and Khan talked, they became friends, and eventually Punk signed with the company. At that point, it was probably only a matter of time before he became the champion, particularly since one of AEW’s hottest and most frequently visited markets is Punk’s hometown of Chicago.
In fact, Chicago ties into the MJF story. On Aug. 20, 2021, Punk debuted for AEW at a show called “The First Dance” at the United Center. The show sold out 15,000-plus tickets instantly, and the key is, the company never announced Punk was going to be there. There were teases here and there, but AEW never announced it. It never said his name, never leaked it to anyone to try to build up interest and, in fact, 99.99% of fans watching the show figured he HAD to be there, but they didn’t know for sure until his music, “Cult of Personality, ”hit. And the key to this story is that 15,000 fans managed to buy tickets to this sold-out show, and thousands and thousands more wanted to but were unable to, and they spent their money not knowing for sure that Punk was going to be there. And they did that because they trusted that AEW was going to deliver — you don’t spend that kind of money with the expectation you are going to be screwed. They trusted AEW to deliver, and AEW delivered, and it was one of the biggest pops and greatest moments in company history.
It is imperative that AEW not lose the trust of their fans or the wrestlers working for the company. If this MJF situation is an elaborate work, and quite frankly all evidence points in that direction, Khan will have to walk a very fine line to ensure that he does not destroy that trust, because we have seen it happen elsewhere in the past and things did not end well.
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