I know it has to have happened at some point in the history of wrestling, but I am drawing a blank: There has never been an event like CM Punk’s AEW debut, his return to professional wrestling after over seven years of retirement.
It’s weird: Everything and nothing was working against his return. In those seven years, Punk had a less-than-incredible turn as a UFC fighter, signing a contract that many said wasn’t earned, and he returned, in some capacity, to WWE as an analyst for WWE Backstage, signed by Fox to lend a marquee name to a doomed concept. He had legal issues stemming from his use of Colt Cabana’s podcast, The Art of Wrestling, as a confessional after WWE fired him. He’s a popular wrestling figure, unquestionably one of the most popular, but all of this, in addition to his admitted bitterness about wrestling—magnified, of course, by WWE when it suited them—and seven years of relentless, often intrusive, chanting of his name as a symbol of displeasure with the status quo, meant that he’s been consistently clowned upon for the duration of his absence.
But there has always been something about CM Punk, and, in being coy about the circumstances of his debut—not announcing him in advance, booking Chicago’s United Center, having Darby Allin make the occasional reference to “the best in the world”—tapped into that something. I’ll say it again: I have never seen anything like CM Punk’s return to professional wrestling.
More professional wrestling:
- A Pilgrimage to Scott Steiner’s Shoney’s
- Sublime Master Chef: Toru Yano’s Curry Reviewed
- The Missing Episode of The Sopranos Where Tony Goes to WWF Raw
I have rarely been so hyped for a match or a promo, either. I can think of three instances, actually: Seeing Sara Del Rey and Claudio Castagnoli at the ECW Arena, begging my mom to order Halloween Havoc 1997 for Randy Savage vs. Diamond Dallas Page because I thought one of them would die, and CM Punk vs. John Cena at Money In the Bank 2011. In each instance, the fate of something I deeply cared about was in the balance. Would Del Rey prove herself against the cruel leader of her stable? Would CM Punk prove everybody he worked with and for wrong and win the right to stash the WWE Championship in his fridge for awhile? Would one of my two favorite wrestlers murder the other in whatever a “Las Vegas Sudden Death Match” was supposed to be?
Last night was different, though, and not because of a promotion’s inability to see what they had in a once in a lifetime talent or the fogged lenses through which a child sees and interprets the world. Last night, even before “Cult of Personality” hit and I started to cry, it felt like wrestling was on the verge of seismic change. 20 minutes into Rampage, the United Center chomping into their CM Punk ice cream bars, it felt like change had come. Specifically the change CM Punk has been promising his entire career. I am going to get to all of that, but first…
September 4, 1995. The debut episode of WCW Monday Nitro on TNT, live from the Mall of America. Generally considered one of the most important nights in the history of American professional wrestling for obvious reasons, the biggest thing to come out of that show was the surprise debut of Lex Luger, who had been renegotiating his deal with the WWF until Eric Bischoff came in with a better one.
Now, look—I love Lex Luger, but I’m not going to pretend that he was some kind of magic bullet. He was a roleplayer, somewhat defeated by his WWF experience, and Bischoff was in the middle of one of wrestling’s all-time worst stretches so far booking goes with the Dungeon of Doom. But Luger, more so than even Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, was a symbol, a shot across the bow so to speak. What Bischoff did in signing Luger under Vince McMahon’s nose and debuting him on a show that was direct competition to Monday Night Raw was declare that he was coming for the king. And he did. And he was successful to an extent that nobody else in wrestling has been.
Until possibly now.
Even though the circumstances are different in that everybody knew Punk had signed with AEW, and even if Chicago being Punk’s hometown made it impossible to have him go on anything but first, Rampage is blessed/cursed with a 10pm Friday timeslot, meaning that it comes on the moment SmackDown ends on Fox. I liked the Reigns/Cena promo that ended SmackDown fine, but it was just wrestling—two of the medium’s most well-manicured characters interacting as you would expect while setting up a semi-obvious finish to their match to temper the excitement of their own historic moment, I guess. Imagine changing the channel to TNT after a WWE show and having the first thing you see and hear and feel be an explosion of people losing their goddamn minds.
AEW has always felt different than WWE. Without stating it too often, that’s kind of the point. They generally stayed away from calling themselves an alternative because that makes them look small. They’ve generally shied away from the word “competition” because that implies that the other company is their primary focus and not its fanbase. When Dynamite and NXT were head to head, the term “Wednesday Night War” was largely ginned up by people in my field (myself included) for the sake of clicks, and fans who took it up either mockingly or seriously.
Ginned up or not, AEW won that “war” in decisive fashion. NXT moved to Tuesdays. Vince McMahon and his executives have gutted the show and developmental, making a dozen or so personnel errors in their most recent round of cuts that will eventually come to haunt them. The way the company perceives the best use of the Performance Center has shifted, deemphasizing people with wrestling experience in order to return to their preference for Men and Women of Athletic Experience. WWE has never been so thoroughly routed in its existence under Vince McMahon, Jr.
I bring all of this up because it’s important to the story beneath the triumph of CM Punk’s return, which is to say this:
CM Punk is a declaration of war.
WWE is down right now, and CM Punk coming back to wrestling in this moment is a boot on their throat. Last night’s Rampage, which ceded a third of its airtime to Punk and rode the vibe of his return to the finish line, looked different. Punk’s entrance, “Cult of Personality” blaring, grown adults crying on camera, had the look and feel of a WrestleMania entrance. Scroll back to the top of the article: That’s a live screenshot, and it is immediately one of the most iconic images of this era of wrestling. Depending on how the third chapter of Punk’s tenure goes, it may very well become one of the most iconic images of any era in wrestling.
The First Dance was All Elite Wrestling showing off. We have the best wrestlers, we have the best promos, and if you thought we couldn’t frame them properly or fill a WWE-size venue, you’re wrong. It almost feels ridiculous to say less than 24-hours later, but CM Punk’s debut was as groundbreaking as his famous Pipebomb promo, Austin 3:16, or the formation of the new World order. The 20 minutes he spent in the ring last night were game changing for the medium in the sense that where wrestling goes from here is completely unknown outside of who CM Punk will wrestle first.
I love wrestling, but I feel as if I am not often excited for it. That happens when it’s your job to watch or play or read a thing and write something about it, but with wrestling that goes deeper. For one, the pandemic era made it nearly impossible for me to accept wrestling as a concept, let alone something that was happening. Running a sold out arena show while the Delta variant surges doesn’t help, but I reached my limit on finger-wagging a long time ago and frankly do need something to occupy my brain during the quieter hours of the night, only the largest wrestling promotion in the history of the world has been almost laughably toxic over the course of the pandemic, even when compared to other eras where the company could, at one’s most charitable, a pretty terrible place to work.
This was something CM Punk addressed directly. Not in a cheesy way, not in a mean way, but by referring to the toll his time in WWE had taken on his mental and physical health, how it took years to work through that and get to a place where he could finally stand in a wrestling ring and respond to seven years of chants for him to return. You know what the *something* about CM Punk is? Despite how great his heel work is, at the end of the day it’s how easily one can relate to him. A sad truth about capitalism is that it’s not enough to simply do what you love—the things you love are as easily beholden to capitalism’s worst impulses as anything else, and dream jobs are just as capable of being the site of long term trauma as a paycheck job. Speaking for myself, I felt my own experience in his words, in academia, in activism, and elsewhere. What other wrestlers do I feel seen by to that degree? Dusty Rhodes?
More than that, what that early bit did was establish two ways in which AEW was different than his previous employer. The first is that AEW has a better work environment, which actually does matter to a lot of people who watch professional wrestling. He elaborated on this more in the post-show media scrum, citing the way AEW handled Brodie Lee’s illness as making him more comfortable with the idea of returning to the ring. Second, he flat out stated that AEW would allow him to be the real CM Punk.
Let’s not mince words: CM Punk was extremely good in WWE. Regardless of what management thought at the time or suggested Roman Reigns say in the biggest gift of a soundbyte they could have handed AEW before Punk’s debut, he was the man there, from the moment the pipebomb dropped to the day he left. For a brief, shining moment that WWE ultimately squandered, he made wrestling seem fun, cool, and worthy of mainstream attention. A lot of what made WWE’s product great at the time was that Punk’s success shifted the perception of what a “superstar” was to allow for the likes of Bryan Danielson, the Wyatt Family, and Jon Moxley to break through on the main roster. He singlehandedly changed the largest, most stubborn wrestling company in the history of the medium.
For him to say that none of that counted for him is wild, but it felt like the truth. Not in the sense that he has something to prove—he does not—but in the sense that he wants to see what he’s capable of when he’s not fighting the tide and believes it will be better than what came before, for him and for the fans. As a fan, that’s terrifying. Were I the competition, I’d be hitting the phones and offering big paychecks to a lot of the people I just pissed off and motivated to chase their dreams a month ago, because there are dozens of CM Punk dream matches out there, and the ones on the AEW roster barely scratch the surface.
CM Punk Is Back. I Am Happy.
A couple months ago, a friend and I were talking about an artist we mutually like, and they said that something they’d noticed was that that artist seemed to be happy in photographs. My friend and I are certainly aware of the fact that photographs are curated slices of time, that most people don’t put selfies of themselves at their worst out in the world, and I am absolutely aware that the same is true of the time wrestlers spend in front of a camera, but CM Punk looked happy last night. Hugging fans, diving into piles, taking a moment to appreciate how much he clearly means not just to the fans at the United Center, but around the world.
Not to turn a piece called “CM Punk Is Back. I Am Happy.” into a personal essay, but just thinking about how one of my favorite artists looked legitimately joyful at the prospect of returning to his craft has me crying a little, which is a minor bummer considering how I did my makeup for the first time in months this morning. This is the first real essay that I have written since the end of May, when my mental health took a sharp dive. The way out of this has been long and painful and dangerous, but you can find your way back to life and what good things it sometimes contains.
As ridiculous as it might seem, CM Punk’s return is one of them, something I am still riding high on. I don’t know and don’t care to find out how bad things were beyond the peripheral details of his seven years away from wrestling, but none of the stuff he went through is easy to process and overcome. He repeatedly stated that he was never returning to the ring, I had every reason to believe him, and here he is. There is a way back to the things you love. Seeing a man whose work I have loved for years do just that goes beyond wrestling. I want to see him do well. I want to see him enjoy his work. I want to see him leave, eventually, on his own terms, having come to appreciate what he did in his career. That I am hardly alone in this is CM Punk’s power. I can’t wait to see what ends it is put towards.