“You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?” — Pete Campbell, Mad Men (“New Business,” 2015)
If you’re the type of person who believes people are incapable of change, you knew it was only a matter of time before we saw the old CM Punk show up to the party. As we celebrated Punk’s long-awaited, barely concealed return to pro wrestling—through a wall of tears and over deafening shouts—we saw a version of the generational star we’d never seen before. He seemed like one of those “happy to be here” types he would have probably ridiculed back when his look was “Steve Corino in baggy basketball shorts.”
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Aside from Powerhouse Hobbs bowing up to him and young mercenary Daniel Garcia looking to notch his proverbial gun, Punk’s run in AEW has been marked with matches heavy on mutual respect and light in emotional stakes. Enter an old peer from his days of Spitfire logos and $75 Ian Rotten paydays.
Not long ago on AEW Rampage, Eddie Kingston wrestled a typically punishing encounter against Bryan Danielson for the opportunity to advance to the finals of the World Title Eliminator tournament. Kingston, as is his wont, fought until his body gave out, eventually losing consciousness and his championship hopes in the clutches of a triangle choke. As a woozy Kingston staggered backstage, a jovial CM Punk was in the middle of an interview, and it was the spark which lit his famously short fuse.
In the fracas, Punk threatened to put Kingston to sleep just as Danielson had moments before, and that was enough to dig into his skin and open an old wound from nearly two decades ago.
On the following Dynamite, after emotionally intimate musings on the bravery of Jon Moxley for his big step in a battle against alcoholism, Punk diverted his focus to Eddie Kingston. He lamented having to embarrass Kingston by talking about this on live television, “but you embarrassed yourself.” What was the charge? Interrupting a CM Punk interview—as Punk having a hard time with people stepping on his airtime has been as notable a character trait as he’s had since debuting for AEW.
Punk obliquely referred to a “fabricated beef” from deep in their past, one anonymously confirmed to Dave Meltzer about an accidental injury at an IWA Mid-South show, Punk laying into Kingston for being “fat, lazy, and unmotivated,” and both men—neither of whom are strangers to holding grudges—barely speaking since.
A lot of chatter ensued about the conflict between Punk and Kingston being derived from real-life events, but that’s hardly necessary in the world of pro wrestling, where the kernel of truth is almost always more interesting than the whole bowl of popcorn. The things that could be true are uniformly better in art than the things that are. Regardless, Punk summoning Kingston to a face-to-face airing of grievances is enough to set off sparks for anybody tapped into the pro wrestling landscape over the past decade-plus.
The very short argument regarding the best orator of a generation essentially comes down to Kingston and Punk. It would have been hard to fathom even three years ago that these two would square off in a duel of the iron mic on a major network.
Kingston didn’t waste any time coming down to the ring after Punk came back from commercial on Rampage; Kingston’s music starting and stopping, him storming to the ring to the sound of cheers. He scoffed at the idea of offering an apology to Punk for interrupting him—and gave a half-hearted one to the fans because he was sick and afraid he had COVID. He launched into an impassioned anecdote about dashed hero worship, scene politics, and the fact that Punk judged him when he sought to be a part of the brotherhood of pro wrestling.
Eddie Kingston is peerless on the mic when his promos come from the pit of his stomach, practically spitting bile on the pop guard, and here, he unloaded years and years of resentment onto Punk—back in the day, a locker room leader by sheer force of will and infamous lack of diplomacy.
Taking offense to being the sole culprit of locker room judgement, Punk retorted by telling Kingston it was also the doing of the other heroes he listed, names like Samoa Joe, Homicide, and his opponent from the other night, Bryan Danielson. Danielson also referred to Kingston as lazy, to which he replied he has to take a Zoloft every day to stop himself from hurting people.
The past year and change of Kingston’s career has seen him take stock of his mental health. Sometimes in the throes of depression, success is merely being able to get up in the morning, forget putting in extra time at the gym. As Kingston sweats and veins nearly protrude through his forehead, Punk recounted Kingston’s failure to live up to his potential and called him a “bum.” Like trying to put out a forest fire with the contents of the gas can in your trunk, Punk seemed comfortable egging Kingston on with an erroneous observation of Kingston’s career.
This is indicative of that old CM Punk we’ve been talking about for the past three months: wrathful, emotionally manipulative, ready to cut anybody down to size whether it’s honest or not. Kingston, never one to give his rival the dignity of the high road, strikes right back, saying that people are too afraid to say they don’t want Punk back. He laid down a challenge for Full Gear. Punk continued down the low road, saying, “Full Gear? A little bit high a bar for you. I was thinking something like Elevation or Dark. Something more your speed.” Kingston let out a genuine laugh. Kingston threatened to send Punk on another seven-year hiatus, which caused Punk to headbutt him and start a brawl it took nearly a dozen people to separate.
This led to Punk and Kingston trying to get at each other in parking lots, a dream of a snail crawling across the edge of a razorblade, Punk’s trademark smirk haunting Kingston. Kingston proclaimed himself as the agent of karma for every person Punk disrespected just because he was in a bad mood or someone did something he didn’t like. The road to change for CM Punk—to become the universally respected locker room leader he’s always seen himself as—will go through Kingston. A road of hellfire for all the people who has been on the receiving end of his spite.
There was no pomp and circumstance as Punk made his way to the ring in Minneapolis, no rallying cry of “It’s clobbering time!” He peeled his shirt off and threw it down as he stormed to the ring. As Bryce Remsburg tried to separate Kingston and Punk, Punk was immediately waffled by a spinning backfist before the match even started. Kingston let out a howl of laughter as a woozy Punk tried to turn off of dream street. A middle finger from Punk to Kingston was the go-ahead to ring the bell.
The bout started off nasty and didn’t let up. Not much in the way of grappling and sly reversals. Early in the match, Kingston sent Punk face first into the ring post, leaving him blinking a stream of blood out of his eyes and Kingston literally washing his face in Punk’s blood. Punk teased a signature move from another rival from his past, John Cena, as he paid attention to the boos peppered throughout the very pro-Kingston Minneapolis crowd.
Hard strikes and suplexes. Birds being flipped at every turn. The Takayama/Frye spot. Punk’s fight shorts being ever so slightly speckled with blood. Both men exhausted in the heat of combat. Several knee strikes followed by a Go to Sleep and that was all she wrote. Punk fell to the mat after his hand was raised. A grueling eleven minutes.
Punk wondered in the leadup how Kingston was going to beat himself, a nod to his opponent’s penchant for self-destruction. But Kingston stuck to his plan, to beat up Punk without consideration that this was a sanctioned wrestling contest.
After the match—whether purely genuine or kind or condescending—Punk offered a handshake to Kingston, which he wordlessly rejected and shoved a cameraperson upon leaving the ring. As Punk struggles a bit to change, Kingston defiantly remained himself to the end, stubbornly holding onto his grudges, among his most prized possessions.