The Biggest Controversies To Hit AEW So Far

As the second biggest wrestling promotion in the United States, AEW has managed to get heads turning for its variety of in-ring styles and sports-oriented presentation. In spite of its highs, the organization has also experienced many lows. Company management has mishandled situations, with Tony Khan being a promoter in his infancy still having much to learn about running a territory. There's the talent aspect as well, as a stable locker room is dependent on the civil coexistence amongst its wrestlers. With this in mind, performers will inevitably butt heads with management having to pick up the pieces and maintain order. This is apparent as the roster bloats with the acquisition of new talent, who are all vying for a spot on television. It's also worth noting that wrestlers are celebrities, expected to preserve an image that fits in line with the company. As public figures, they are subject to scrutiny for present and even past actions.

2022 in particular has seen several problems in the company's booking structure and corporate hierarchy coming to light, with claims of "backstage chaos" causing discourse among the online wrestling community. That's not to say all hope is lost for Khan and the EVPs, as they'll hopefully learn from their mistakes and use them to improve the young company as it continues growing. Nonetheless, AEW has survived many obstacles and will have to endure more as time goes on. Here are 15 of AEW's biggest controversies to date.

Speaking Out

In June 2020, indie darling David Starr was accused of sexual assault. In the following weeks, associates of the wrestling sphere spoke out on their experiences of sexual misconduct perpetuated by colleagues. Rebecca Crow, ex-girlfriend of Jimmy Havoc, accused him of abuse and sexually assaulting another person. PROGRESS's David Lloyd accused Havoc of punching him at a bar after an event. In a public statement issued by AEW, they announced that Havoc was released from his contract and receiving mental health and substance abuse counseling. Hawlee Cromwell accused Darby Allin of emotional and sexual abuse during their relationship between 2016 and 2017. While he was still with ROH, Jay Lethal denied claims of harassment by Kelly Klein, a few years after Taeler Hendrix made similar accusations in 2018. NJPW's Will Osperay was accused of having independent wrestler Pollyanna blacklisted for making accusations towards a friend of Ospreay, which he has denied.

Havoc makes a living as a delivery driver in Kent, England and hasn't wrestled since. Allin wasn't disciplined for the controversy and has become a staple of the company as one of the promotion's Four Pillars. Lethal became All Elite at Full Gear 2021, his signing being met with interest and criticism from commentators. NJPW pushed Ospreay in that summer's G1 tournament in spite of the accusations, forming the United Empire and debuting for AEW in May 2022. Ospreay's debut was met with similar mixed emotions.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Guevara-Banks Podcast Comments

As a part of the Speaking Out movement, past comments made by Sammy Guevara on the "Raw's 4th Hour" podcast came to light. Discussing his tryout with WWE in a January 2016 episode, he commented on Sasha Banks' appearance and said he wanted to sexually assault her. The news was met with massive outcry, with Guevara issuing a public apology in a now-deleted YouTube video. AEW released a statement on their Twitter page, condemning the comments and suspending Guevara indefinitely without pay. Conditions of the suspension included mandatory sensitivity training and his salary being donated to the Women's Center of Jacksonville. Banks and Guevara had a private discussion, with Guevara apologizing and The Boss issuing a statement on her Twitter page. Condemning Sammy's words and holding him accountable, Banks' statement closed with "We all have to do better, not just for ourselves, but for generations to come."

Guevara served a 30 day suspension and returned to television alongside his Inner Circle stablemates. Tony Khan spoke to Sports Illustrated, optimistic that Guevara was able "to use that time to try and become a better person." Speaking to talkSPORT, Guevara reflected on the incident saying "they were bad comments ... just immaturity and I've grown since then."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

MJF's Walkout

In 2022,  Reports of MJF's dissatisfaction and a heated meeting with Tony Khan hit the dirt sheets, stemming from inequitable pay. He no-showed a meet-and-greet and his "Double or Nothing" match against former henchman Wardlow was jeopardized. MJF opened the PPV, imitating an airplane during his entrance and lampooning reports of him buying a plane ticket to skip the booking. Wardlow won after landing 10 powerbombs. 

On the following "Dynamite," a furious MJF ranted about his payouts being dwarfed by newly-signed "WWE guys" and called Khan a "f***g mark." During the commercial break, CM Punk limped down the aisle and MJF exited through the crowd. WarnerMedia executives were present for the promo, reportedly rendering MJF persona non-grata and scrubbing him from AEW promotional material. Fans speculated on whether the angle was a shoot or work as MJF was absent from television throughout the summer. 

At "All Out," MJF returned to confront Punk who had just won the AEW World Championship. Khan granted Friedman a raise, reportedly in the ballpark of a million dollars, without extending his original contract. His deal is still set to run until 2024, but once his contract expires, MJF's future lies with whoever is "willing to pay me the most amount of money," as he told "KFC Radio."

Brian Kendrick's Canceled Debut

News broke of Brian Kendrick's release from WWE in February 2022, with AEW's Twitter page announcing later that day that Kendrick would face Jon Moxley on the next episode of "Dynamite." Later in the week, past comments made by Kendrick were publicized and his appearance was shelved. An avid conspiracy theorist, Kendrick's comments included denying Holocaust fatality statistics and claiming the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax.

TMZ reports that the motive behind Kendrick's comments was to "create a buzz," to get bookings. Speaking to Post Wrestling in June, Kendrick expressed regret for his comments and reminisced about being prepped for the match but being pulled before they went live. Former tag team partner Paul London remembered Kendrick's off-putting backstage etiquette and commented on the controversy saying "I hope he understands the weight of what he's said." 

Currently without a contract with a major promotion, Kendrick performs at indie shows and has expressed no interest in signing with WWE or AEW.

Excalibur's Slur Usage

In 2020, Forbes reported of a controversial promo that was unearthed from color commentator's Excalibur's time in PWG, leading to backlash on social media. The promo in question features former WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens (then Kevin Steen) and Excalibur calling The Human Tornado the N-word, as well as using a slur aimed at Latin-descended people. Another promo found on YouTube features Excalibur calling out future AEW signee Scorpio Sky among others, using the N-word at the end. While no public statement was made by AEW, WWE, PWG, or any of the individuals involved in the angle, Dave Meltzer reported that the performers have expressed regret for partaking.

Excalibur reported to that week's "Dynamite" taping but Heel by Nature claims he insisted on being kept off camera to avoid causing a stir. No official reason was given for his absence with Jim Ross, Taz and Tony Schiavone manning the commentary booth. The Human Tornado seems to hold no animosity towards his former colleagues, with 411Mania showing tweets made by him in support of Excalibur and Owens. Excalibur returned to television on the September 2, 2020 episode of "Dynamite."

Max Caster's Tasteless Rap

"Platinum" Max Caster and Anthony Bowens began wrestling as The Acclaimed after signing five-year contracts with the company. A notable aspect of their gimmick is Caster's entrance raps, where he intertwines trash-talking his opponents with events in the news cycle. On the 100th episode of "Dark," Caster made a series of scathing raps referencing Simone Biles' mental health crisis, the Duke lacrosse team case, fake COVID-9 PCR tests, and a sexual reference to the then 19-year-old Julia Hart. The segment was included in the initial live broadcast, but was cut in the edit currently available on YouTube. Caster and Bowens were put "on ice" with their match on the August 10, 2021 episode of "Dark" being axed from the final cut. Caster made his return on the September 1 tapings of "Dark: Elevation." The Acclaimed parodied their disciplining with an "overly-scripted" promo praising the Jacksonville Jaguars on an episode of "Dark."

Tony Khan called the raps "terrible" and said they shouldn't have made it to air. As a result of the incident, Khan has taken more responsibility in the editing lab for future episodes. Caster's raps are screened for approval before being aired, as Tony Schiavone told "The Rob Brown Show" (via Fightful). In an interview with ESPN, a nervous Caster remembered being greeted to the locker room by CM Punk after facing his punishment. In a rap battle during Grand Slam 2021, where Khan jokingly threatened to suspend The Acclaimed for another 30 days.

Willie Urbina's Racist Accent

Willie Urbina is a Spanish-language commentator with work in several promotions in the US and abroad, including Impact Wrestling. Urbina joined AEW where he, Alex Abrahantes, Thunder Rosa, and Dasha Kuret manned the announcer's booth for the March 28, 2021 episode of "Dynamite." Urbina received criticism after online reports claimed that he did a racist accent at the expense of then-Women's World Champion Hikaru Shida. Spanish wrestling analyst Miguel Uceda tweeted a clip of the conversation, with Abrahantes requesting Urbina to translate Shida's upcoming promo. Urbina responded by speaking gibberish with a stereotypical Asian dialect, causing Rosa to laugh and Kuret asking him to stop (translation provided by Fightful). While American viewers didn't catch the exchange, it aired on international feeds for viewers subscribed to AEW Plus on FITE TV.

Due to fan backlash, Urbina was fired from the company only hours after the broadcast concluded. Tony Khan personally apologized to Shida, as he revealed at the "Double or Nothing" post-show media scrum. Shida took to Twitter to provide her take on the situation, saying "I don't give a s**t what other people say about my race because I love it and I proud of it." Hugo Savinovich gave a response from his Lucha Libre Online Twitter account. In the now-deleted post, he tweeted "A friendly reminder to our friends at the Spanish commentary table ... all the private conversation they are having is heard on FITE TV" (translation provided by Fightful).

Guevara-Kingston Promo Dispute

Sammy Guevara and Eddie Kingston were booked to face each other at the 2022 "All Out" event. Implicated in a wider feud between The Jericho Appreciation Society and The Blackpool Combat Club, the two had encounters both in AEW and the independents. Weeks before the pay-per-view, the two cut a promo on a taping of "Rampage" where Guevara called Kingston a "fat piece of s**t." Guevara claims that upon arriving backstage, Kingston made a big scene and got physical with him. The segment was cut from the episode and the match was quietly shelved with Kingston serving a short-term suspension while Guevara wasn't disciplined. In the "All Out" pre-show opener, Guevara and Tay Melo successfully defended the AAA World Mixed Tag Team Championships against Santana and Ruby Soho. Meanwhile, Kingston defeated NJPW's Tomohiro Ishii.

Kingston has owned up to the incident, telling PWInsider "I was wrong for being unprofessional ... the public can judge that but I know for a fact I was wrong." Guevara issued a statement, saying "Eddie did not do the professional thing and communicate ...the last thing I want to do is hurt someone for real." The two have reportedly squashed their beef and wrestled at "AEW Rampage: Grand Slam."

Domino's Deathmatch Commercial

At the 2021 edition of Fight for the Fallen, Chris Jericho took on deathmatch legend Nick Gage in a No Rules match. One of MJF's 'Five Labors' for the Demo God, Gage's matches are known for their gratuitous violence and liberal use of weaponry. Gage unveiled his signature pizza cutter and sliced into Jericho's forehead, causing the former world champion to bleed. As the show went into picture-in-picture, an advert for Domino's Pizza played featuring employees slicing a pizza with a similar cutter. Jericho eventually won the match with a Judas Effect following a hurricanrana through a sheet of glass.

Variety reports that AEW's advertising relationship with Domino's was put in precarity due to the segment. Domino's issued a statement stating they had no knowledge of the spot beforehand and refused to endorse the "gory scene." Gage tweeted an apology, telling the fast food chain "didnt mean to offend you guess im too ultraviolent for tv." Jericho reflected on the controversy with humor on his "Talk is Jericho" podcast, calling it "hilarious." Jon Moxley gave a lax take on the situation, telling Cincy 3:60 that Domino's "needs to chill out ... It was a coincidence."

Matt Hardy's Fall

The Sammy Guevara-Matt Hardy feud was littered with hurdles leading to All Out 2019, with Guevara's aforementioned suspension and Hardy being accidentally busted open taking a chair thrown at him face-first, but things got worse at the event. The two competitors brawled backstage and positioned themselves on an elevated scissor lift. Taking a spear from the platform, Hardy cleared the tables and landed on the concrete, hitting his head on the ground. Hardy was unresponsive but allowed to continue, working in a daze and stumbling even with Guevara's assistance. Officials tried to create distance for the two and buy time, leading the match to ringside. Hardy won after pushing Guevara off the scaffolding to the stage below.

Fans critiqued the pay-per-view as AEW's first major flop, much of the negativity aimed towards holes in their concussion protocol. In the post-show media scrum, Tony Khan cited ringside physician Dr. Michael Sampson's approval as giving him the green light to continue the match. Sports Illustrated described the accident as "frightening," and their entire program as "doomed." Matt's wife Reby took to Twitter to shame AEW for their mishandling of the situation, screencapping several panicked messages she sent to Hardy. Fightful reports that after multiple brain scans, Hardy wasn't diagnosed with a concussion and returned on "Dynamite." AEW has improved their handling of in-ring head trauma, which was put on display after Hangman Page's collapse during a "Dynamite" main event versus Jon Moxley.

Big Swole's Departure

Big Swole debuted in the Casino Battle Royal at All Out 2019 and soon signed with the promotion. An AEW original, she was a notable presence in the women's division's early days and feuded with Britt Baker. In November 2021, she announced her departure from the company on Twitter. Swole divulged the details of her leaving on her "Swole World" podcast, criticizing the company's hierarchy and lack of diversity. She critiqued the company's rare instances of diversity as "not come across in the Black community as genuine." Tony Khan responded to Swole's comments in a Twitter post, deflecting any wrongdoing by listing off POC wrestlers who won matches on television that month. He described the bracket of TBS Championship Tournament as "very diverse," and claimed to have let Swole's contract expire as "her wrestling wasn't good enough." Afterwards, he promoted the airing of that evening's "Rampage" episode.

The Sportster reports that Lio Rush called out Khan in a series of now deleted tweets, demanding an apology. Rush spoke to Khan and Chief Legal Council Megha Parekh, tweeting that he is "proud to work for a boss and company that try to make these strides in social equality." Rush left the promotion the following February. Meanwhile, Powerhouse Hobbs went to bat for Khan, saying "AEW is a young company led by people of color heading in the right direction."

Ivelisse's Release

Ivelisse Vélez debuted for AEW at All Out 2019, appearing at the Women's Casino Battle Royal on the pre-show. Nearly a year later, Ivelisse returned to AEW and eventually took on NWA World Women's Champion Thunder Rosa, but was unsuccessful at capturing the gold. Fans noted Ivelisse's conduct during the match, refusing to cooperate and no-selling Rosa's offense. Reports indicate that tensions mounted between the two while they prepared for the match, exchanging shoot strikes at one point. Ivelisse continued wrestling for the promotion on episodes of "Dark" until they parted ways the following April, with Ivelisse posting a cryptic tweet hinting at her release.

Ivelisse issued a statement on social media, accusing a coach of mistreatment (similar to her exit from WWE) and that Rosa had slandered her name. The two crossed paths in "Lucha Underground," where Ivelisse was a marquee performer while Rosa worked under a mask as Kobra Moon of the Reptile Tribe. When asked about the match by Hannibal, Rosa refused to comment on the situation. Chris Van Vliet interviewed Ivelisse where she described her situation with Rosa as a "culmination" of personal and professional problems. Ivelisse accused Rosa of not showing her respect during their time in the Temple, carrying over to their matches in the indies and AEW.

Cody Rhodes' Patriotic Promo

Once one of AEW's figureheads, Cody Rhodes used the TNT Championship as a vehicle to bring himself and other talent to prominence. Feuding with the traitorous QT Marshall and The Factory, Rhodes was set to face a debuting Anthony Ogogo, an Englishman and former Olympic boxer. Building up to their match at Double or Nothing 2021, Cody gave a promo criticizing Ogogo's anti-American beliefs. Cody championed the birth of his biracial baby with Brandi Rhodes as a success of the American experiment, even though Ogogo himself is of mixed heritage. It felt like a relic of the 1980s, using dated nationalist sentiment to get Cody over as a patriotic babyface to the indifference of fans. The segment came off as tone-deaf in a racially-sensitive political climate of civil demonstrations across the country.

Publications like The Sportster criticized the feud, describing Cody's approach to "Ogogo's unbridled jingoism was more jingoism." Cody went on the record with "Barstool Rasslin'," saying he regrets "almost everything" about the angle. While his intentions were in the right place, Rhodes realizes how "a white guy ... who has an American flag tattoo on his neck" talking about race relations could be seen as tone-deaf. In a sit-down with Chris Van Vliet, Ogogo praised Cody as a "great coach" who "has an amazing mind," but buried the entire feud, including the infamous weigh-in.

Guevara-Andrade Twitter Altercation

In October, Sammy Guevara began trading barbs with Andrade El Idolo on Twitter. The two had worked previously in a TNT Championship match on a February 2022 episode of "Rampage" with Guevara retaining. Tensions began in an interview with "Más Lucha," as Andrade stated that Guevara complained of his stiff in-ring work to their colleagues but denied having any problems once approached (translation provided by Fightful). F4WOnline reports Sammy took to Twitter, calling Andrade "A favor hire," and telling him to "go back to Wwe. [sic]" Later at that week's "Dynamite," Guevara and Andrade had a physical altercation before airtime. Sports Illustrated reports that Andrade was sent home, canceling a mask-versus-career match with Preston Vance booked on the post-show "Rampage" taping. Meanwhile, Sammy teamed with Chris Jericho in the main event against Bryan Danielson and Daniel Garcia. Guevara was treated with hostility from the crowd, who booed him out of the building until he scored the pinfall victory over Garcia.

Guevara has remained silent on the matter, reportedly saying on his vlog "I'm done focusing on the negativity ... I'm not going to comment on any of the b******t."

Brawl Out

At the 2022 All Out press junket, newly-crowned World Champion CM Punk made multiple scathing remarks about several wrestlers. Punk spoke of his falling out with Colt Cabana, denying rumors of strong-arming him out of the promotion. Punk referred to EVP's Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks as "irresponsible people" who "couldn't f*****g manage a Target." He accused Hangman Page of going off-script during their program and claimed Page has "never done anything in the business." 

Details of what followed are scarce, pending an internal investigation. The narrative is that Omega and the Bucks tried to approach Punk in his locker room, leading to a physical altercation. Punk's cornerman Ace Steel bit Omega in the arm leading to both groups being separated. No official statement by company management has been made. All participating parties were suspended including agents and other wrestlers.

In a special announcement on that week's "Dynamite," Tony Khan vacated the World and Trios Championships. Omega has taken sabbatical in Japan, with the bite mark visible in a livestream appearance. Steel, already on thin ice after dropping an F-bomb on a hot mic, was fired in October. Steel has seemingly denied the accusations. Dave Meltzer (via Bleacher Report) revealed that Punk suffered a triceps injury during his match and will recover in eight months time. Punk's future with the company is uncertain, with fans and journalists believing his contract will be bought out.

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