They Believe Because He Believes: How CM Punk Changed AEW

“They believe because he believes.”

Maybe it’s strange to begin an article about CM Punk’s return to wrestling with a line Mick Foley said while The Sandman drank his first beer during his entrance at ECW One Night Stand 2005, but that’s where I’m starting. I would not be writing this piece without that entrance, The Sandman chugging beer as he swaggered/staggered through a Hammerstein Ballroom that would have screamed their lungs out singing “Enter Sandman” even if the WWE hadn’t paid to license the song, so where else can I begin?

Until CM Punk’s return two weeks ago, I thought a scene like The Sandman’s One Night Stand entrance would be impossible in this country for the same reasons that it happened: We—wrestling fans—are a justifiably jaded and cynical bunch, the easiest means of accessing the kind of art we like controlled by a family who has never had the best interests of its audience at heart, and it is difficult—impossible, even—to believe that we only have to go so far as a basic cable subscription to encounter something that will make us Happy.

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Those two entrances are for wildly different people, but they are spiritually the same. When The Sandman’s music hits—his music—it’s like the final confirmation that, yes, this event got it, that for one night, ECW was well and truly alive. There is a time element to its poignancy, four-and-a-half-years since the last show under the ECW banner. Arenas full of WWE fans chanting the promotion’s acronym, its talent taking spots up and down the card, a best selling DVD—real hunger for not just the man, but what he represented. So when Foley says “They believe because he believes,” it’s not The Sandman they believe in—it’s ECW.

You can say the same thing about CM Punk. Cult following. Cool. Weird, Edgy. Sometimes problematic. Treated like he didn’t belong in the mainstream. Thrived despite a culture that would have loved to put it down. Seven and a half years of chants. That’s a long time for people to chant the name of one guy, but that’s real hunger. Not just for the man, but for what he represented. It wasn’t WWE that CM Punk represented back then. It was something much, much bigger: change.

Emotion

One of my favorite things about Dusty Rhodes is the way he said the word “emotion” sometimes. Every syllable had so much weight. EE-MOW-SHUN. He was always talking about his emotions, the fans emotions, the passions stirred by the great sport of professional wrestling, but when he dropped the word, you knew it was real. Roger Ebert once called the movies a machine that generates empathy. Wrestling doesn’t have time for empathy. It is much dirtier, much more base. Empathy’s fine if you’re capable of it, but all wrestling wants you to feel is some emotion, baby.

All Out was like being drowned in emotion. I mentioned crying during CM Punk’s return weeks ago. When Minoru Suzuki appeared and I suddenly found myself in a sea of thousands of people singing his theme music, I wept. Full on, chin quivering sobbing, something I had to put away so I could scream “KAZE NI NARE” with everyone else. When I told the guy next to me this later, he left and bought me a CM Punk ice cream bar. We felt something together, you know? Emotion.

AEW

Ed Blair’s review of the ice cream bar pulls on the thread that made All Out what it was, I think, when they talk about how unusual it is to find oneself satisfied with something that comes out of the world of pro wrestling. “How could anyone be blamed for expecting the worst on August 20th,” they wrote, “conditioned by years of contempt?”

Hatred. That’s an emotion, and it’s often the easiest one to feel as a wrestling fan, as it’s consistently projected at us by the world’s largest wrestling company, which is a nice way of saying “the world’s largest machine that generates contempt.” Beyond Ed’s listed examples (Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus, Kofi Kingston vs. Brock Lesnar, and Bianca Belair vs. Becky Lynch), there are hundreds of matches, thousands of moments, and an uncountable number of things seen and unseen that would have—should have—killed the medium, but has instead seen that major company live to become too big to fail, even as it bleeds viewers and talent.

We call the people who stop watching wrestling “lapsed fans,” but most people who describe themselves as lapsed something-or-others do so because they maintain a sense of belief in the thing itself, but not the dogma surrounding it, and there is simply too much variety in wrestling, too much access, for me to treat the notion of someone who doesn’t watch wrestling like they’re a Catholic who doesn’t go to church. Those fans felt the contempt, didn’t want it anymore, and walked away. Maybe they came back at some point, as I have at several times in my life, and maybe they didn’t, but there aren’t lapsed music fans or lapsed fans of the novel. You engage with the thing or you don’t. In wrestling there’s often a reason beyond taste, and that reason is contempt. Too much of one emotion and not enough of the good ones wrestling is capable of. When the only release you can expect from your hobby is the eventual relief of not doing it anymore, you walk.

CM Punk walked due to that contempt, and he was a wrestler who loved wrestling. He couldn’t take it anymore, nor should he have, and it was easy to believe that he’d never come back, would never regard an industry he had changed so much with anything more than justifiable, earned bitterness. Chants? Questions from the media about what it would take to get him to return? Rumors and speculation? All pretty worthless when the button that presses, when the emotion it stirs is pain. He didn’t leave for something else, he didn’t quit; he walked, and people who walk from something they love don’t often walk back.

But he did. And that changed everything.

More than a one night stand.

CM Punk’s August 20th return changed everything by confirming what its fans and wrestlers had said about All Elite Wrestling from day one: that it was different, from its makeup to its roster to its presentation; that it was worth the risk; that it was fun. Flawed though AEW is, all of those things were true before Punk’s return, but that they were true enough to deliver one of its most legitimately wounded-by-the-industry wrestlers back to a medium he seemed born to create in? That’s one hell of an advertisement, not just to fans, but to talent.

From the moment Punk hit the ramp on August 20, the mood changed. I called it a declaration of war when I initially wrote about it, and I was right to do so. In one night, AEW debuted Minoru Suzuki, Ruby Soho, Adam Cole, and Bryan Danielson. They delivered on the most highly anticipated match of the past seven years, giving us a CM Punk who was happy, excited, and motivated to wrestle a style, to wrestle a wrestler in Darby Allin, who was outside the bounds of what was traditionally available to him in the main event echelon of WWE. There was joy, there was laughter, there was singing. Man, the singing. From the pre-show karaoke of Pixie and Baltimora to a crowd full of wrestling fans unsurprisingly knowing every word to Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” to a kind of flubbed version of “Judas” to, of course, the “damn, the congregation was really feeling it last night” delivery of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” a song that identifies a wrestler to his fans on a level similar to The Road Warriors’ “Iron Man” at this point in Punk’s career. People weren’t just watching wrestling on Sunday, they were having fun.

Let me say that again: People. Were. Having. Fun.

AEW

To return to Ed’s review of CM Punk’s ice cream bars, it isn’t just that WWE had been sowing the seeds of discontent for over 20 years, but that the bars themselves represented a fulfillment of Punk’s stated and unstated promise to change the professional wrestling industry. And here we are. WWE is reaping the crop of what they’ve sown, and CM Punk is elsewhere having fun. WWE is bleeding talent. Fans are jumping onto the AEW bandwagon. Wrestlers look visibly moved by a crowd that is interested in everything from insane steel cage matches to Tall Paul. I try to avoid using how long I’ve been watching wrestling to make sweeping declarations about historic significance, so let me say this for myself: I have never seen, felt, or experienced anything like All Out 2021 in my life, and I’m not sure I will again.

Which brings me back to ECW One Night Stand 2005, the original “I have not seen, felt, or experienced” event of my (at the time still young) wrestling life. Is it possible to see, hear, smell, touch, and somehow taste that kind of excitement again? Probably. But there are the senses, and then there is the spiritual, and these two events went for and achieved the spiritual.

The difference is this, though. One Night Stand was a celebration of ECW. More specifically, it was a celebration of what ECW was. When Mick Foley goes into his “They believe because he believes” line, it’s impossible not to notice that The Sandman has spent much of the past four-and-a-half years drinking beer, you know? That show was meant to be a party, but the party was not meant to last forever, and it did not.

AEW is not a party. It is an active, thriving professional wrestling company that is in the business of making it seem like you’re at a party, and right now it feels like that party has no end in sight. What that party celebrates is not itself, but the ideals of what it promotes, wrestling and what wrestling is capable of doing. That started long before CM Punk, but his signing, debut, and successful return to the ring are the points where what AEW said they are and what AEW is became undeniable. They’re fun. Imperfect, but fun.

And that’s a great position to be in, because Punk’s return, the debuts of Soho, Cole, and Danielson, and the continued success of many of its ex-WWE signings, along with how they’ve been integrated with AEW’s day one roster, creates a ton of chaos in the world of professional wrestling, rather than the dire certainty of one wrestling company’s unchecked, unending dominance over the field. It feels like anything is capable of happening from one week to the next, and I haven’t felt that way since I was a literal child. You know what wrestling was when I was a child? It was fun. What a gift this sea change is, then, to make something I love into something I can have fun with again.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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