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Labor Day weekend proved pro wrestling is just fine without CM Punk

Welcome in to another edition of the Monday Tuesday Morning Gorilla Position here on Cageside Seats!

Hey, better late than never. It was a holiday weekend and I did way too much driving. Sue me.

This is my semi-regular blog that you can expect to be published after every major PLE or PPV that I attend in person. A collection of notes and stories from the cities I visit and the events they hosted.

If there is one thing you fine people cannot question, it is my commitment to going the extra mile(s) to cover this great sport. Now my sanity, that on the other hand, you can question. Especially after a weekend in which I drove from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to Chicago, and then back home to the Queen City Monday morning.

Rough estimates put me behind the wheel of a car for 18 hours, covering 1,050 miles this Labor Day weekend. Just so I could be there to soak in all that WWE Payback and AEW All Out had to offer.

Thankfully, I can honestly say it was all worth it.

Both shows far exceeded even the most optimistic of fan expectations and provided yours truly with lasting memories and experiences. I’ll forever be able to say that I was there when Becky Lynch and Trish Stratus tore the house down. I was one of the thousands of people chanting “slap that meat”! And I was there for the Final Countdown.

The biggest story of the weekend, however, did not emerge from either PPG Paints Arena or the United Center.

For the second consecutive weekend, CM Punk was the talk of the wrestling world. The fallout before All Out, as Tony Khan made the shocking announcement Saturday afternoon - just hours before AEW Collision went live on the air in his hometown of Chicago - that Phil Brooks had been terminated with cause as a result of his altercation with Jack Perry.

It was a move that the All Elite Wrestling CEO says he did not want to make, but that Punk’s alleged actions left him with no choice. Khan going as far to say that he felt his his own life was in danger backstage at All In.

Any concerns of a pro-Punk crowd hijacking All Out in response to his release were quickly quelled. Outside of some brief chants and rants prior to Zero Hour going live, the atmosphere inside the United Center was rather joyous from the time Renee Paquette and RJ City kicked-off the show, all the way until the second to last match of the night.

When the Young Bucks music hit for their big 8-man tag team match against Bullet Club Gold, that’s when the CM Punk faithful chirped up. On a night when Hangman Adam Page and Kenny Omega were hailed as heroes, Matt and Nick Jackson we’re public enemies No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

A bellowing chorus of boos and “CM Punk” chants flooded the United Center. Some of the fine upstanding citizens of the Windy City were letting the obscenities fly with impunity. I shouldn’t need to connect the dots for you, but just think of a certain word that rhymes with “buck” and use your imagination.

The Young Bucks might as well have changed their names to the Scape Goats on this night, because all the anger of the Chicago crowd was aimed directedly at the former AEW Tag Team Champions.

To their credit, the Bucks were not only unfazed by the response, but leaned into it early and often. Antagonizing the audience and drinking in the nuclear level heat that may have only been bested had Isiah Thomas walked down to the ring with the head of the Michael Jordan statue in his hands.

Not everyone in the arena was against Matt and Nick Jackson, however. They had their fair share of defenders pushing back against the vocal majority, and interactions became contentious. I was genuinely surprised that a fight or two didn’t break out near my section alone.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. But passions were undoubtedly high. As they always will be when the topic is CM Punk. He’s a polarizing figure. Where he goes, conflict follows. That’s part of what makes him such a compelling pro wrestler.

But regardless of whichever side of the discourse you find yourself on, can we all agree that this divorce is the best thing for all parties involved?

Based off of reports, CM Punk clearly did not want to be with AEW anymore. Much of the locker room didn’t want him there. And as long as Punk was with AEW, good or bad, any story involving his name was going to outshine what the company did as a whole.

AEW already has the talent in house, to not only survive his absence, but to continue to thrive and grow with him gone.

WWE meantime, is as hot as the company has ever been. Even if Punk was reportedly interested in returning earlier this year, do they need to bring him back? Once the Endeavor deal goes through, whose call will it be to sign him? Triple H? Nick Khan? Vince McMahon? Someone else entirely?

Will some media entity force WWE’s hands by signing over a huge check in the ongoing television rights negotiations?

Too many questions exist to even make an educated guess on a possible WWE return and what that would look like. Let alone what it would do to the locker room.

Chances are, CM Punk has wrestled his last match. At least for the top two promotions in the world.

And as much as I firmly believe that wrestling is better with CM Punk involved, on screen anyway, this weekend proved multiple times over that pro wrestling is going to be just fine if he doesn’t find his way back this time around.

All Elite Wrestling

Let’s dive into all my notes and observations from this long and exhausting holiday weekend:

• Admittedly, as a life long Cincinnatian, my expectations for my first ever trip to Pittsburgh were already low. NFL and MLB related bias aside, I was ready to give the Steel City an honest chance. I’ve always heard great things.

Much like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh starts off strong with a beautiful riverfront view. Looking over the connection point for the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers at sunset is something that I recommend everyone do at least once in their lifetime.

My experience, however, went down hill quickly. Within my first 10 minutes inside the city limits, I literally had to jump out of the way of police breaking up a fight downtown. And then unprovoked, some guy (who did not seem stable) got up in my face to call me a few choice words that I can honestly say I’ve never been called before.

I can only assume my “what the Hell” face was epic.

My night was capped off with several AirBnb-related issues that forced me to find a last minute alternative. What little bit of SmackDown I was able to watch, was pretty good.

Clearly, I choose a bad part of town. Saturday was a much better experience. Played a nice round of golf at Grand View Golf Club, which lived up to its name. Highly recommend it to the more experienced golfer, as you have to be on point with your aim or it’s going to be a rough day. Beautiful course nonetheless.

Also, shout out to my friend Daisy who recommended Milano’s Pizza downtown. Ordered the Hawaiian and made it spicy by adding jalapeños. Fantastic decision.

I’m willing to give Pittsburgh another chance. Sound off in the comments if you have any recommendations that would make my next visit a much more enjoyable experience all around.

• The lines to PPG Paints Arena we’re wrapped almost completely around the building and it took over an hour to get through security once the doors opened up. The wait did provide me with the opportunity to speak with a number of fans, including a nice young couple who drove down from St Marys, PA.

It was their first time ever attending a premium live event. We had a lengthy conversation about how their love for WWE was reinvigorated by Triple H taking over as Chief Content Officer. They’ve been enjoying the product on a much more regular basis over the past year plus, but did say that they’d like to see some improvement with the booking of the Women’s Division.

They will also be attending WrestleMania 40 in Philadelphia next year. They we’re among the fans to snatch up some of the 90,000 tickets that were sold on the first day of their availability.

• Corey Graves received a very loud ovation from his hometown crowd ahead of Payback going live on Peacock. More than 10,000 fans began chanting his name until he stood up and blew the audience a kiss. The crowd then began chanting Michael Cole’s name until he stood up and did the same to thunderous applause.

Becky Lynch and Trish Stratus stuck the landing

Storytelling 101 — the most important part is the ending. Without a rock solid ending, the rest of it falls apart. In regards to pro wrestling, the conclusion of a high profile feud tends to stick with the fans more than anything else.

And while missing the landing could sink the entire program, the inverse also holds true. A fantastic finish can turn a so-so feud, into a great one — in due time.

On paper, Becky Lynch and Trish Stratus had everything you could want in an all time classic rivalry. Two of the most accomplished female competitors in WWE history. One an icon and a Hall of Famer. The other ascended to heights never before reached in women’s wrestling. Heights that were once deemed to be “unrealistic”.

A battle of two generational talents.

There’s no sugarcoating it. The last several months of television haven’t been great. Much of that falls on the creative department, but speaking objectively, Becky and Trish just didn’t mesh as well as we all hoped they would.

They’re two of the all time greats, no doubt about it. But just because you can dance, and I’ve written this before, doesn’t mean you can dance well with someone else.

Becky and Trish did the damn dance on Saturday night. They opened up Payback and came out swinging. They wrestled motivated. They wrestled like they were out to prove a point. They beat the ever-loving crap out of one another.

Once again, speaking objectively, that was the best cage match I’ve ever watched in person — and I’ve seen my fair share. I’ll allow any recency bias to wash away before I declare it one of the greatest cage matches of all time.

The booking of it was flawless. Becky finally went over. Zoey Stark stood on her own two feet. And Trish finally got the admiration from the fans she greatly desired.

Years from now, I’m willing to bet that fans will look back on this Becky Lynch and Trish Stratus rivalry with great fondness. Remembering their spectacular cage fight in Pittsburgh in lieu of any lowlights these past few months.

• Consider the rocket strapped to L.A. Knight’s back. Chants of “YEAH” were echoing throughout the streets of Pittsburgh, and Chicago for the matter, this weekend and the WWE Universe is about to be rewarded with a mega-push for the Megastar.

Winning his PPV match over the Miz, that was to be expected. Having John Cena put Knight over even more by irritating The Miz with his catch phrase, refereeing his match and shaking his hand afterwards, was not. That’s a big damn deal if you’re L.A. Knight.

It may be time to start raising the expectations for how far up the WWE ladder Knight will climb in the months ahead. First Paul Heyman plants the seeds for a program with the Bloodline by mocking L.A. on SmackDown, and now he’s getting the rub from the man proclaimed by WWE as the greatest of all time.

• You could make the argument that Seth ‘Freakin’ Rollins is the most over he’s been in his entire career right now, and yet, the audience on Saturday night was split right down the middle.

Thousands of people wanted to see Shinsuke Nakamura win his first World Heavyweight Championship. That’s a true testament to his latest character developments. WWE has let Nakamura really tap into his sinister side and showcase his promo ability by allowing him to speak his native language - filling the audience in with subtitles.

While Shinsuke did not win the gold at Payback, I think it’ll happen in a few weeks at Fastlane in Indianapolis. A battered and beaten Rollins was willing to give Nakamura another Title shot on Raw Monday night, knowing it was the only way to exact revenge for the post match attack he suffered in Pittsburgh.

Much to the surprise of the fans, Shinsuke turned him down. Logically, it doesn’t make sense for him to do that. But Nakamura is not afraid to play the long game. He’s going to continue to manipulate and physically weaken his opponent, before finally taking that Title from around his waist. Breaking the Champion’s body and his spirit in the process.

Rollins is dead set on running himself into the ground, and Damian Priest just got a shiny new purple MITB briefcase. I think Señor Money in the Bank is going to hang onto the contract for a while longer, which to me signals that Shinsuke Nakamura’s time as World Heavyweight Champion is coming.

• Finn Balor will forever be my hero for stomping all over that Terrible Towel. [Editor’s note: You’d think a Cincinnatian would know there’s a karmic price to pay for disrespecting The Terrible Towel (proceeds for which have always gone to charity, btw)... Finn’s will come.]

• Despite the questionable finish, the Steel City Street Fight was an absolute blast. When Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens started swinging hockey sticks dressed in Pittsburgh Penguins garb, the roof almost blew off the arena. It was one of several spots in that match that just made you smile.

It seemed way too soon to take the Tag Team Titles off of Sami and KO, especially after WWE teased a showdown with the Street Profits the night before. But putting the gold on the Judgment Day elevates them even more as group and keeps Damian Priest occupied with something substantial until he’s ready to cash-in MITB and become World Champion.

There’s always the possibility that Sami and KO get the Tag Team Championships back in short order, they just someone else to watch their back and help even the odds. Could a former foe step into that role?

• Monday Night Raw has a new main event player in Jey Uso. Having Cody Rhodes cashing-in his political chips to bring Jey over to Raw after he ‘quit’ WWE was a genius move for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, as far as Payback was concerned, it made that edition of “The Grayson Waller Effect” mean something. It wasn’t just a typical WWE talk show segment booked purely to get Cody on the card. The American Nightmare made it known he requested the time to right something he believed to be wrong.

Secondly, the move keeps Jey and Jimmy separated on different brands. Allowing them to venture off into their own stories until their paths ultimately cross at Survivor Series, or maybe, even all the way down the road at WrestleMania 40.

Thirdly, it gives Roman Reigns a reason to be irritated with Cody Rhodes once again. You didn’t really think that Cody was just doing something nice for Jey Uso did you? Hell no. The Nightmare has ulterior motives. He knew he was meddling in Bloodline business.

This raft that Cody Rhodes has been floating on since his WrestleMania 39 loss, the one that has been drifting further and further out to sea, putting more distance between him and the end of his story - yea, the tide has turned. Cody is starting to drift back into the direction of the Island of Relevancy.

Grayson Waller is also a menace, by the way, and he’s going to be a big time player for years to come.

• Skye Blue received a nice pop from her hometown crowd in Chicago, and picked up the win for her team.

• There were reports that CM Punk signs were being confiscated and fans with Punk shirts on at All Out, were being told to change or flip them inside out. While I did not see a single CM Punk sign in the crowd, I did however see dozens upon dozens of CM Punk shirts across the arena. Just my personal observation.

• Babyface MJF is an absolute trip. During his entrance with Adam Cole on Sunday, this man chugged a fan’s beer (twice), ran around the ring with all the energy of my two-year old, made time to flip Dark Order the finger and still hit all his timed spots during his introduction.

Tony Khan has struck gold with this Adam Cole and MJF pairing. Cole told me during the AEW All Out Media scrum that this run with Max has been the most fun he’s had in his entire 15 year career and he’s thrilled that the fans have come along for the ride.

Khan then hopped in to say that he expected the pairing to be very well received, saying he had a ‘very good feeling about it.’ Their bond and chemistry together has really shown through on television, with Tony calling their connection ‘magical’.

• Samoa Joe continues to perform at an extremely high level, and with CM Punk now out the picture, Joe may be in line for a much bigger push in AEW. The ROH Television Champion provoked MJF Sunday by shoving him during his entrance at All Out, prompting a pull apart brawl.

It was a nice call back to the early days of MJF’s career when, then NXT Champion Samoa Joe, shoved him on his way to the ring. Max was dressed as building security during the segment. It’s a moment that will live on forever in meme and gif history.

• Long live Christian Cage! May his reign as the one and only, true, TNT Champion continue for all time!

• A year after the Chicago crowd sent the “Scissor me, Daddy” catch phrase flying into the upper stratosphere, the 10,000 strong at the United Center gave birth to the MEAT(!) division.

It was an absolutely surreal experience to witness that absolute hoss fight between Miro and Powerhouse Hobbs, turn into one of the greatest examples of audience participation, ever.

Hearing that fans chant “MEAT” in unison with every dueling blow, listening to them seamlessly weave the word meat into other popular chants - meat is awesome, meat forever, slap that meat - the words do not exist for me to accurately describe the joy it gave me.

God Bless Big E and his contributions to the wrestling industry. And for those of you who don’t understand the reference, or just want a refresher, here you go. You’re welcome.

ICYMI: I did ask Tony Khan about the All Elite Wrestling status of CJ Perry, FKA Lana in WWE, who showed up to confront Miro after the match Sunday:

“It’s not a long-term guaranteed thing or anything, but at least for tonight, it was great to have her appearing with us. And I thought it was a great surprise, it was a great show. Miro and Hobbs was a match I really believed would be great for All Out.”

Considering how Miro reacted to his wife assisting him at All Out, it would be very hard to imagine CJ’s appearance being a one off. But her run in AEW could very well be short-term. Sounds like the door is open either way.

• Kris Statlander and Ruby Soho had a good ol’ good one on Sunday. They are both spectacular in ring performers. Would love to see them, and more of the women’s roster, get additional opportunities on Collision with a large chunk of TV time now opening up.

• Also, men — not all men, but you know the type I’m talking about — wait until the women’s matches to shout the dumbest things inside their heads. Save it. You’re not funny. You’re disrespectful, and often times, disgusting.

• Not going to lie, I marked out for “Final Countdown”. Like many other people, I assumed Bryan Danielson entering the arena at Forbidden Door to Europe’s No. 1 hit was a one time thing. It was an extremely pleasant surprise to hear those familiar synthesizer chords once again.

Tony Khan did leave the door open for the song to be used again in the future, but made it sound like the band has yet to sign off on any further use. TK did mention that Final Countdown download numbers did see a jump after Forbidden Door. The potential exists that the same happened after All Out. That would only increase the likelihood of Danielson using his old Indie theme again one day.

Ricky Starks “carries” Bryan Danielson to an instant classic

If this weekend taught Tony Khan anything, or maybe just reminded him, it’s who he can count on in a tough spot. Bryan Danielson is one of those guys. Returning from a broken forearm a month or so early to take C.M Punk’s place against Ricky Starks.

Starks and Punk were originally set to close the show, and as far as last minute replacements are concerned, you could do a lot worse than brining in the GOAT out of the bullpen.

During the post All Out Media Scrum, Danielson was asked how he was able to return from that gruesome forearm injury he suffered against Okada at Forbidden Door, so fast - a week after he was unable to compete at All In.

Bryan gave credit to the great doctors at AEW, a match that was filled with a ton of ‘smoke and mirrors’ and most of all, he gave credit to Ricky Starks:

“I had an excellent opponent. Every time people see Ricky Starks, every time Ricky Starks gets an opportunity, he knocks it out of the park. I will be the first one to say, this is outside of our stories and what we do, he carried me through that match. I’m good at certain things. I’m good at a decent amount of things and I’m confident in saying that. I can fire up, I can do all these things, but he was the one who carried me through that match.”

That match with Starks was brutal, but at the same time, Danielson was able to play it safe. Saying he didn’t even throw a strike with his surgically repaired right arm.

Upon CM Punk’s departure from AEW, the obituaries for Collision we’re already being written. The Saturday night show that was built specifically around him.

While not 100% confirmed, Tony Khan and Bryan Danielson Sunday night sure made it sound like the American Dragon is going to be a central figure on Saturday’s moving forward.

Ricky Starks should be as well. Sunday night was a star-making performance, for a man many of us already knew was a star. Everyone knows it now.

As the All Out broadcast starting rolling the video package for the next match, I noticed Big Bill just give Starks a big ole “Atta boy” embrace at the top of the stage as they walked to gorilla. The crowd was chanting “Ricky, Ricky!” as he did it.

If Ricky wasn’t in line for a major push coming out of All Out, you can guarantee that he is now. And rightfully so.

• Orange Cassidy main-evented a major PPV. That’s a sentence that would have sounded like a joke just three years ago, but it’s a fact now, and no one should be laughing.

Orange Cassidy is a major player. His character evolution, from the guy who barely tries to the man who will die to keep his Championship, has been one of the best in all of wrestling these last few years.

He has proved all the doubters wrong and has now staked his claim at the top of the AEW card.

• Jon Moxley meantime... once again stepped up when CM Punk went down. The man has been the rock that Tony Khan desperately needed during this two year stretch of instability. There’s no question who the MVP of All Elite Wrestling has been and will continue to be moving forward.

You can follow Rick Ucchino on Twitter and subscribe to the Bleav in Pro Wrestling Podcast Channel for more of his work.

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