In pretty much one fell swoop—in emulating Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA from an Major League Baseball farm team—CM Punk executed the same miraculous feat he did in 2012 when he read WWE the riot act: he made mainstream wrestling cool again.
Granted, AEW didn’t need too much help. Pro wrestling has experienced a renaissance of sorts, more accessible and media savvy and less … up its own ass? All Elite Wrestling capitalized on this and embraced diehard fans of independent and global wrestling scenes as well as American viewers long starved for an alternative to the often overproduced WWE.
He said wrestling needed a kick in the dick. He joined AEW after seven years away from the business; writing and acting and proving he had the guts to get his ass kicked in the Octagon. Upon his return, he jumped into the crowd. Adults wept openly. (So did I.) Wrestling is back. Sports entertainment took a knee to the balls.
Do I Still Have What It Takes?
Punk’s return match was augmented by a simple story. “Do I still have what it takes to keep up?” He challenged a young star named after Darby Crash, infamous frontman of the Germs, second only to Pat Smear in the running for best pseudonym in punk rock history. Also named after a man whose Christian name was literally Jesus Christ and fronted a group called the Murder Junkies. Punk said this kid would have been his favorite wrestler as a 15-year-old “rolling around the backyard.”
In Punk’s hometown of Chicago—where, let’s be clear, no wrestler has ever enjoyed a better home court advantage than—he and Allin had a patient, measured, mid-’80s NWA-style main event on a show where competitors were literally getting kicked in the face with thumbtacks. Darby was already a star, but his showing against Punk and getting the respect handshake afterward took him to a new level. After the foregone conclusion of Punk winning was reached, the question was, “What’s next?”
The victory lap was quickly derailed.
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After the “you still got it chants” subsided on a recent episode of Dynamite and Punk sufficiently hyped the show, he wondered aloud what was next for himself. Taz became fed up with Punk’s conversational flair and demanded a microphone. He cut in on Punk—who in turn became a little salty: “Out of respect, I’ll let you speak, but don’t ever interrupt me again.”—warning him to keep the the members of Team Taz’s names out of his mouth on social media and press scrums. As Hook and Powerhouse Hobbs made their way to Taz’s side, Punk basically issued an open challenge to their whole team.
“Beat me if you can, survive if I let you,” Punk said as he closed the segment, with Hook being very interested in the idea and Hobbs mouthing, “You don’t want it with me.” As fun as it was for most wrestling fans to see Punk engaged in a mutual respect-driven contest with one of AEW’s top young stars, conflict is what gets our gears going as admirers of pro wrestling. Respect only goes so far when you’re planted in the middle of an art form built around fighting.
CM Punk threw down the gauntlet and somebody in Team Taz had to shoot their shot.
Survive if I Let You
On the next week’s Dynamite, Punk was at the commentary desk for most of the first hour, offering insight as effectively as you’d expect from someone with his gift of gab. And his experience that led him to mention he was the best WWE had from the broadcast position in his infamous 2011 promo. Eventually, Taz came out and accused Punk of trying to steal his job. As no character in wrestling is quite as good as Taz at taking any perceived slight extremely personally. “I didn’t know they let trolls across the bridge,” Punk quipped before relieving himself of his headset and trying to confront Taz.
Hook, chewing a piece of gum with a twinkle in his eye, recognized this as the moment fans across the world have been waiting for. Ratings would be through the roof if Hook’s debut match was against Punk. Hook and Punk got into each other’s face. Within a matter of a second and a half, Powerhouse Hobbs clubbed Punk from behind and yelled at him to get his ass up. Punk tried to fight back but was locked in a Dragon Sleeper by Hook, leading Hobbs to chokeslam Punk into a table. A significant declaration of war, being as though the commentary position isn’t normally fighting grounds in AEW.
(Contrary to the company across the street, where the commentary table spot has become such a well-worn trope that they barely even bother to nail the desk together.)
As Punk held the back of his head and writhed in pain and surrounded by chairs, Hobbs sat cross-legged on the stage. Injury, meet insult.
Out of the vast expanse of AEW’s young talent, it was Hobbs—the sneering, brash Bay Area bludgeon artist, objectively the best member of Team Taz—who stepped up to be the first to really try to put CM Punk down. Hobbs, who gained a name for himself in AEW pummelling up-and-comers in the sport (mostly on Dark and Dark: Elevation, which is low key destination programming), wasn’t looking for a respectful wrestling contest in the biggest match of his career. He aimed to make his name by giving this generational talent the beating of his life.
Being the man who killed Jesse James doesn’t make you Jesse James. But putting a newly invigorated CM Punk on his ass to end his first television match, and second overall, in seven years? That’ll make you one bad motherfucker in wrestling folklore.
In front of a crowd of 20,000-plus on Grand Slam Dynamite, Punk came out to address getting jumped by Team Taz. Where I’m from, wearing a hoodie with no shirt means you’re ready to fight. He launches right into the chatter of people wanting the old CM Punk—the prickly, sometimes outright hostile, dude with a chip on his shoulder the size of Red Rocks Amphitheatre—and issues a warning: “Be careful what you wish for.” A Scorpio scorned is nothing to be trifled with.
For now, Punk counts his blessings. He’s a happy wifeguy with an adopted dog from a rescue shelter. He’s rekindled his love for performing in front of the red light on a television camera. Being a professional wrestler live on cable and pay-per-view. But Hobbs and Team Taz tried to pull something out of him they think they want. To make sure this is a short comeback, to take away the life force that hasn’t fueled him in a long time, the roar of the crowd.
Punk scolded Team Taz for not finishing the job, for sleeping on the legend of CM Punk; the moody asshole always looking for a fight. “And it’s not my job to wake you up,” Punk said on Dynamite Grand Slam. “It’s my job to tuck your ass in.”
As Hobbs’ music blared through Arthur Ashe Stadium, Powerhouse strode out of the tunnel very quickly, chomping at the bit to stride to the ring and taunt fans at ringside. With notable Buffalo rapper/fashion plate/pro wrestling enthusiast Westside Gunn at ringside, Hobbs would be a truly fitting wrestler to memorialize with a hard-as-bricks rap track crushing speakers with megaton drums. The entire tennis arena shouted Punk’s familiar battle cry along with him, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
Punk wasted no time taking the fight to Hobbs, the enforcer of Team Taz holding a significant size and weight advantage. Punk’s too smart not to strike first. Switching it up to the shortboys, he couldn’t help but bring back the hits like his Randy Savage tribute elbow drop. Hook served as an important component of the match, taking Punk off-focus (taking time to flip off the Son of Taz) and distracting referee Aubrey Edwards while Hobbs gained the advantage.
Hobbs dominated much of the match, as to be expected. He blocked the Go to Sleep and turned it into a spinebuster. The match was, unexpectedly, pretty brutal. With a mouthful of blood, Punk dropped Hobbs on his head with a hurricanrana. (Outside the context of the story, it appeared as though Hobbs landed wrong and got his bell rung.) Both men looked spent when the bell rang and Edwards raised Punk’s hand.
As a gesture of respect, Punk patted Hobbs on the chest. (After a barely perceptible conversation out of character, probably Punk making sure Hobbs was okay after that nasty spill.)
When Punk made his triumphant return last month, we knew the reunion tour would eventually conclude and he’d have to get back down to business. Out of all the young stars AEW has found a bountiful harvest with, Powerhouse Hobbs was the perfect opponent to step up, to help Punk really get back into the fray. He brought the old CM Punk back to the top of AEW’s competitive food chain.