FanPost

Hikaru Shida, AEW’s CM Punk Without a Pipe Bomb

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CM Punk’s infamous "Pipe Bomb" promo (which celebrated its decade anniversary last month) covered a hell of a lot of ground in under six minutes. Some of what the man said is still shocking in its rawness, some of it has been rendered trite by the ensuing "Reality Era" it helped usher in, but ignore the now-slightly-embarrassing shoutout to Colt Cabana and edgy McMahon family jabs, and the crux of Punk’s complaint was simple – he wanted his achievements to matter. He wanted his championship wins, memorable matches and promos, and proven ability to manipulate the crowd to matter materially to him when the cameras shut off, and none of it did, because he wasn’t John Cena. He wasn’t The Man. He wasn’t the Measuring Stick. All his achievements were just "Vince McMahon’s imaginary brass rings."

That never changed. The excitement generated by the Pipe Bomb led to a 434-day WWE Title reign, but for most of that run Punk defended the belt in the middle of the card, while whatever nonsense Cena, Triple H, and the other real stars happened to be doing took precedent. Punk would ultimately leave WWE under a dark cloud, ground down and spiteful toward a business he once loved.

Now, some will say that Punk’s demands were childish. Who cares if you won a championship in a fake wrestling match? Who cares if that match moved the audience? Who cares about the moments you create? John Cena looks marginally better on a Slurpee cup. That’s all that matters, right? Maybe it is if maximizing profits in the next fiscal quarter is all you care about, but if you want a healthy wrestling promotion fans can actually invest in, the brass rings have to actually be real sometimes.

The blending of scripted drama and sports reality is one of the keys to pro wrestling’s unique appeal. When Thor beats the villains in his latest movie, it’s a purely fictional victory. Sure, Chris Hemsworth may get paid more if the movie does well at the box office or spurs merchandise sales, but he doesn’t directly get anything by punching out Loki, so you can only invest in the moment to a certain degree. In a traditional well-run wrestling company, big wins and moments actually do mean something. A major title win means a wrestler is getting a push, is going to make more money, and get more opportunities. When Randy Savage, Shawn Michaels, or Stone Cold won the title for the first time, you were seeing their lives transform in real time. It’s why wrestling fans can get so invested in the product and its backstage workings even though they know the finishes are predetermined. If you cheer hard enough for someone like Daniel Bryan, you can help them move into a bigger house. In that sense, the business is "real."

Unfortunately, that thread between what you see on TV and the real lives of the performers has become more tenuous in modern WWE, and was all but severed in the early 2010s. Punk could become World Champion or guys like Zack Ryder would make a name for themselves by thinking outside of the box, and it didn’t seem to mean anything. The criteria for success was "Who presents the best face on Good Morning America?" The result was a product that felt unsatisfying and empty. WWE really was just surface-level entertainment, and often not particularly good entertainment at that. And as WWE continues to make it abundantly clear that the opinion of its elderly owner is all that really matters, the company’s ratings, attendance, and cultural relevancy has steadily declined. CM Punk sounded the alarm a decade ago and nobody listened.

The Voiceless Champion

During its relatively short existence All Elite Wrestling has done a commendable job of making its brass rings matter. In AEW champions are usually portrayed as the most important people on the show with title chases and wins often timed to coincide with the new champ’s growth as a wrestler so they feel like a breakthrough. At the very least, they’re presented as redemption for talent who’s been unappreciated or faced some sort of adversity. When guys like Darby Allin or Miro won their titles, it felt like a genuine moment for them. When someone like Hangman Adam Page finally wins the belt, I fully believe that will be a life-changing event.

Sadly, there’s one area of AEW where those brass rings still seem to be very much imaginary, namely, its Women’s Division. AEW prides itself on being an alternative to WWE’s worst tendencies, and yet its Women’s Division is booked like early-2010s era Raw, complete with ineffective paper champions, wins and losses that don’t matter, and yes, its very own John Cena.

Before I go on, I should say that I do think folks are often too hard on the AEW Women’s Division. Between injuries, talent being cut off by the pandemic, and other issues, the division has suffered a lot of setbacks that weren’t really anybody’s fault. I don’t believe, as some seem eager to imply, that AEW management have any bias against women’s wrestling or want the division to fail. I think they just have certain booking blind spots as it relates to the women that, unfortunately, results in a division that can sometimes be frustrating to follow.

The Women’s Division got off to a solid start in 2019 with inaugural champion Riho, an inherently sympathetic talent audiences connected to (despite what some reactionary voices will say) but from day one all AEW Women’s Champs have labored with an asterisks next to their reigns. Before Dynamite even existed, back when AEW wasn’t much more than a concept, the company clearly already wanted Britt Baker be their star. The Woman. The female John Cena. They heavily promoted the fact that she was their first female signee and showcased her more heavily than anybody else in the division, including the champ. Once she turned heel in early 2020 she began declaring herself "The Face of the AEW Women’s Division," an arrogant boast even AEW’s face commentators seemed reluctant to dispute. AEW sent the message in a million little ways that Britt could get away with saying she was the female face of AEW, because she was the female face of AEW.

But Baker wasn’t the champ. I’m not sure if AEW would have transitioned the belt to Baker sooner if she had stayed healthy, but in May 2020 she suffered a knee injury that would keep her out of regular action for most of the rest of the year. The Women’s Division was a shambles in general at the time, with injuries taking out other high-profile wrestlers like Kris Statlander, most of the company’s joshi talent being unavailable due to the pandemic, and then champ Nyla Rose not exactly lighting the world on fire.

Enter Hikaru Shida. I really don’t believe Shida was supposed to be AEW Women’s Champion. When AEW began she was arguably the third-ranked joshi talent in the company, behind Riho and possibly Yuka Sakazaki. Add Western talent like Baker, Rose, and Statlander into the mix, and she wasn’t in the top 5. That said, in early 2020, as the division crumbled around her, Shida remained a rock, turning in memorable matches during the early empty-arena pandemic era (including a banger with Britt Baker that ended with the doctor’s nose a bloody mess – an image she continues to milk to this day). Maybe Shida wasn’t the original plan, but she stepped up during a difficult time, and at Double or Nothing 2020 she defeated Nyla Rose for the AEW Women’s Championship.

Shida would go on to hold the AEW Women’s Champ for over a year during one of the most difficult periods in the history of pro wrestling. For that challenging year she caried the belt with dignity and delivered quality matches with a diverse array of opponents, from Nyla Rose, to Abadon, to Ryo Mizunami. And yet, no matter how long Shida held the championship, no matter how much she exceeded expectations, three letters loomed over her reign – D.M.D. Even when injured Britt Baker was given weekly promo and vignette time and I don’t believe she ever dropped out of the top 5 in the rankings. Once she was ready to return to the ring she was given a talk show and a feud with hot free agent Thunder Rosa, which culminated in the first female main event in Dynamite history. And throughout it all, she took every opportunity to declare herself the true Face of AEW while Tony Schiavone and the rest of the announce crew nodded approvingly.

And how did the champ respond to this ongoing disrespect? Well, she didn’t. Shida was rarely given promo time, and when she was, she largely ignored the elephant in the room focused on the challenger directly ahead of her. Maybe AEW didn’t have confidence in Shida’s speaking ability. Maybe she didn’t have confidence in herself. Neither is a good excuse for not giving your champion a voice. Give her a manager or hire her an English coach (honestly, she doesn’t need the latter – anybody who watches Shida’s YouTube channel knows she’s perfectly fluent).

At this point, I’m sure some Britt Baker fans have already rushed to the comments section to accuse me of being a hater, but I really have nothing against the current champ. I think she’s an excellent talker and is nearly in the same league as greats like Becky Lynch or Sasha Banks in terms of having confidence in her character and presentation. Her in-ring game has come a long way over the past two years and she’s willing to put her body on the line to a degree few female wrestlers are. Britt Baker deserves the belt, but Shida also deserved the belt and to be treated like the top woman in the company when she held it. I want AEW’s brass rings to be real in all its divisions. I want to be able to invest in upcoming female stars like Thunder Rosa and Tay Conti winning the strap without dreading Britt Baker’s "Who cares if I lost? I’m still the Face of AEW!" promo on the next show.

And hey, moving away from booking Britt Baker as the female John Cena, benefits Britt Baker. The impact of the good doctor’s long-awaited title win was muted, because Shida wasn’t properly built up as a star. It seemed like a foregone conclusion. Baker’s reign thus far has felt directionless, because she has no decent challengers. How could she when she’s been depicted as so far above the rest of the division? But perhaps most crucially, we really need to remember -- nobody fucking liked John Cena. Nobody liked the arrogance. Nobody liked his insistence that he was the only star that mattered. People want to like Britt Baker, they recognize her talent and immense potential, but it’s pretty hard to root for her current character. She should be confident, she should be passionate, she should bleed a quart of blood and be piledriven into thumbtacks if she wants, but she should also have some basic respect for her opponents and put the division and title above her own interests – that’s a champ I’ll cheer without hesitation.

Still a chance for a happy ending…

CM Punk’s story in wrestling didn’t have a happy ending, but nobody could take his voice from him. Nearly a decade after the industry chewed him up and spit him out, CM Punk is still a subject of fascination, debate, and reverence, because his mouth plus a mic will always be a deadly weapon. Hikaru Shida was never given a chance to let her voice be heard. Like all too many wrestlers throughout history, she weathered unfair treatment in silence. Maybe she wouldn’t have said anything given the chance. You get impression Shida is a gracious person who probably wouldn’t want to complain, but then, she shouldn’t have to. If Tony Kahn and the AEW brass are serious about promoting a different, kinder brand of wrestling that’s more supportive of its talent, then Shida should never have been in the position she was put in. She should have been supported, given a voice, and any help she needed to become the best champion she could be. Thankfully, It can still be done.

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The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Cageside Seats readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cageside Seats editors or staff.