The Non-Wrestling Fan’s Guide To The Hype Around A (Maybe?) Returning CM Punk

Tonight marks All Elite Wrestling’s second episode of Rampage, their new, one-hour weekly show on Friday nights. This week’s edition, dubbed “The First Dance” will be live from the United Center in downtown Chicago – the home of the Bulls and Blackhawks and the largest arena in the Chicago market.

Rampage is AEW’s B-show, their wrestling-focused, quick jaunt on what can be a death spot on television. But if you don’t really even watch wrestling, you’ve probably seen an ad for or mention of this show, because it has been such a hugely promoted “big deal” in wrestling. Why, though?

Well, the hype of a single, as-of-yet unconfirmed returning wrestler.

AEW is cresting a wave right now into their big All Out pay-per-view show in just two weeks, but so much of that wave is based around and built on a rumor – the return of CM Punk to professional wrestling after 7 years and change away from the ring. It was around the increase of rumors about his signing that AEW trademarked the name and was rumored to be seeking the United Center for a show, it was around the announcement of said show that AEW started laying the hints on thick, and this week, it has built to a fever pitch with hints from CM Punk himself, AEW as an organization, and the knowing silence of people in the industry, eager to talk about “new eras” and such without naming what it is, exactly, that is changing on this second episode of a new show (and not, indeed, the first one).

But much the hype cannot be understood without a baseline of knowledge. So who, exactly, is CM Punk?

I could hit you with Wikipedia about his real name, Phil Brooks. I could tell you that CM once was an initial for “Chick Magnet” but became a part of his intrigue, in that he’d tell people something new for what it meant almost every time he was asked. But a simple summary of those facts wouldn’t be amusing, so I’ll do one better!

CM Punk was the disaffected wrestling fan’s ticket to watching wrestling, back in the day. Punk had a tremendous run on the independent scene in North America, with his biggest stint being Ring of Honor. When he was signed to WWE, they ran the first “Summer of Punk” as an angle, with spots like Punk signing his WWE contract on top of the ROH World Title (which he held at the time), and ultimately ended with him being sent off in an emotional match. He debuted in WWE in 2006, and was basically nobody on the roster for several years. He was a great performer and very charismatic, but nothing was quite getting him on the map in WWE, with him being presented and pushed in the WWE style – reading from a script, having basic matches with failed football players and bodybuilders. When he met with a good wrestler, they’d have a great match, and when he met with some creative freedom, he was always a stellar promo – but it took about 5 years for him to really find his groove, and much of that, I think, can be fairly attributed to the way the WWE machine works. At that time, it didn’t really get a talent like CM Punk, or many of the guys from ROH, who went to TNA Wrestling instead at that time.

In 2011, however, CM Punk’s contract was legitimately coming up. Eager to re-sign him, WWE gave him what seemed from the outside like a great deal. He was making more money, seemed to have some measure of creative freedom, and his re-signing was working into a feud with top WWE star John Cena, whom he beat at the Money in the Bank 2011 PPV in Chicago, presented in-storyline as him leaving the WWE with their top championship and a lapsed contract. I would say things like this never happen when lawyers are involved, but it happened infamously to WWE in the mid-90s with Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze, who signed to WCW while champ, brought the belt onto WCW Nitro, and threw it into a trash can.

For the second, WWE-version of the Summer of Punk, the company…let him cut exciting promos and have a single win before pushing him into a weird storyline and halting his momentum. They figured out it had failed before long, and by November 2011’s Survivor Series, Punk was again WWE Champion, having a then-record setting reign on top with a 434-day reign as champ, before being dethroned by The Rock at the Royal Rumble in 2013. From 2011 until 2014, CM Punk was must-watch TV and one of a few reasons why jaded wrestling fans (like myself) tuned back in and gave WWE another shot.

The day after the Royal Rumble in 2014, CM Punk walked out of WWE. Rumors swirled, but the company did not release him until that summer, FedExing him release paperwork on his wedding day. There are arguments that it was probably accidental and some that suggest otherwise, it’s not worth digging too much into but it is a fun factoid. Later that year, in a tell-all with his friend at the time Colt Cabana on Colt’s podcast “The Art of Wrestling,” Punk detailed the reasons he left WWE. To abridge it is simple enough, although the stories have weight worth hearing: he was fed up with the creative process at WWE, had been working injured with what turned out to be a life-threating staph infection on his lower back that the WWE medical staff had been treating through a constant diet of Z-packs, that he had been rushed back from multiple injuries including broken ribs, an injured knee, and that he had suffered a concussion in what ended up being his final night as a WWE performer. Without having reached the main event of Wrestlemania, despite being the WWE Champion at Wrestlemania XXVIII in 2012, he had deemed his wrestling career a failure, reached a legal settlement with WWE to handle his remaining merchandise inventory, and swore to never work for them again. He had been paid less than other headliners at Wrestlemania 29 in 2013, including his opponent the Undertaker, and had come to the conclusion that there were no long-term plans for anyone in the company except John Cena and that the company had completely drained his passion for pro wrestling.

In the time since, he went in to UFC to pursue MMA. Starting at the age of 37, he was bound for a rough start, and was largely seen as being signed for his name value, although he had expressed a genuine passion for MMA. He had two fights in UFC, both losses, one later overturned to a No Contest after his opponent tested positive for marijuana. He was urged publicly by Dana White, the UFC president, to “call it a wrap” on MMA, and went to commentating MMA for Cage Fury Fighting Championships, a UFC affiliate. He also made a brief return to wrestling in 2019 and 2020, but as an analyst for the show WWE Backstage. This was a show that was part of Fox’s pickup of Smackdown, and the staff on the show were employees of Fox, not WWE – which is how Punk justified the return and how it was made in spite of preferences that higher-ups at WWE would have had.

But Backstage was cancelled in June 2020, and Punk was free again.

AEW and Punk had a brief flirtation when the promotion opened its doors in 2019. Leading into that year’s All Out from Chicago, it had been making the rounds that Punk had been approached by AEW about signing a deal, but Punk stated publicly that the approach was not one he was interested in, and then within a few months was on WWE Backstage.

So what changed?

Well, the biggest thing is that AEW has proven market viability at this point. A lot of promotions have risen since WCW shut-down in 2001, offering an alternative to WWE and a challenge to the worldwide number 1 promotion. However, all of them have failed partially or completely. TNA is now Impact Wrestling and tapes in a warehouse in Tennessee with around 100 fans, never breaking a PPV buyrate in the 6 digits or reaching anything resembling mainstream awareness (a clip from it was on an episode of House though!). ROH has always been the wrestling snob’s promotion, rarely willing to step outside of their carefully-cultivated niche – and between their partnership with New Japan Pro Wrestling and the Elite stepping away to found All Elite Wrestling, ROH is arguably in a sort of weak position even compared to its weak history. AEW has worldwide TV distribution that is growing, and has a key demographic rating on TV in the US every week that is comparable to the much-longer running WWE Raw. Short of being a flash in the pan, the promotion has kept on growing, even through the pandemic when they had to nix a lot of plans and change their trajectory just as they were reaching a peak of momentum. Their perseverance paid off as they had built up a pretty good amount of momentum prior to resuming touring (with the exception of a few weak weeks prior to touring as they kept things building to shows with full houses).

AEW in 2021 is an established name with long-term contracts for US television, a growing list of international affiliates, and a run of quarterly PPV shows doing in excess of 100,000 buys. WarnerMedia in the US is paying AEW at this point for 2 weekly wrestling shows and, based on job listings, up to 5 non-wrestling shows built around AEW wrestlers, and AEW’s YouTube presence is large as well. In 2019, there was reason for everyone to be suspicious of AEW’s chance of survival, but in the post-pandemic (well, save for Delta…) era, they’ve proven resilience and built a larger roster of stars, including their existing roster, new additions like Malakai Black and wrestling veteran Sting (who is 62 years old and can still go!), and may end the year with Brian Danielson (the former Daniel Bryan in WWE) and Ric Flair on their roster.

So it makes a lot of sense that now is the moment for Punk to enter the stage, as the promotion has TV rights deal money increasing and is growing into a viable threat to even WWE’s main roster shows, when two years ago, WWE signed a deal with USA Network to put their developmental brand NXT on national TV opposite AEW. They lost that fight most of the time, and now NXT is on Tuesday nights (and being gutted of talent by the WWE management).

But why is it exciting for fans to see a 42-year old who hasn’t wrestled in 7 years?

Well, in a word – captivation. Punk as a performer is the closest the wrestling world has gotten since the 90s to a Stone Cold Steve Austin character – a breakout everyman with endless charisma and captivating performances. In an era where WWE was being sweetened to sell to kids and to sell a family-friendly product to advertisers, CM Punk was rough and edgy, but so skillful at taking his verbal barbs and bringing it back to selling a match, a show, a storyline. In the ring, Punk tells stories with his actions, his selling, and his physicality, and on the microphone he can be an adept face or heel, bringing fans along for the ride in a way that few modern performers can. At a time when a lot of us hated WWE, he was a face and voice for that distaste, and it made him instantly relatable. CM Punk is a world-class athlete, but he doesn’t look like an unobtainable action-figure physique, the way that John Cena, The Rock, or Hulk Hogan do. Arguably, he was one of the major breakouts of the “wrestling fan” wrestler – someone who watched wrestling growing up, wanted to do it, and knew what he liked personally and used that understanding to make his own performance better.

CM Punk is a captivating character, full of nuance, and able to be both a hero or a villain to fans. His run getting the best of the WWE during their imitation of the Summer of Punk story was so interesting and appealing that you couldn’t help but support it, and his best heel runs like Paul Heyman-managed CM Punk or the Charles Manson (hey, CM!) looking cult leader of the Straight Edge Society made him easy to boo and root against. Even when you know the backstage machinations, the rumors and rabble the dirt sheets of wrestling report, CM Punk is one of a small number of talents who can rise above that, weaponize that, and use it to draw you in to wrestling. His character, even in the overly-saccharine TV-PG WWE is one that never insults your intelligence or insinuates you can’t remember story events that happened more than 30 days ago – he always plays so well on his history and presents his character’s continuity in a really refreshing and rare way.

Him being teased for AEW means a lot of dream matches are possible with the top-end performers at AEW. He’s being setup already for an obvious feud with AEW’s reckless lightweight Darby Allin, on top of the possible big-ticket match of Punk vs. Kenny Omega.

For AEW, Punk signing with the company, especially after the nature of his earlier denial, confers a huge amount of legitimacy on the promotion. It puts them on par with WWE in the eyes of the mainstream, who may not know AEW but know CM Punk as one of the biggest faces of the last decade of WWE. Currently, CM Punk is acting, and while he’s in lower-budget and indie fare, he’s also in a role on Heels, the wrestling drama from Starz and was just recently publicly praised by fellow-wrestler and much-larger profile actor Dave Bautista, aka Drax of Guardians of the Galaxy. Punk’s biggest feuds were with John Cena, who just returned to WWE and has used his very bizarre Instagram to shout out Punk in his own way. Within wrestling, it shows that AEW has something that even a performer like CM Punk, who lost his passion in WWE, is willing to come back for.

But for a lost generation of wrestling fans, who similarly lost their passion for wrestling when WWE lost Punk (many of whom have already found their way to AEW), Punk coming back means that same level of giddy excitement, and both AEW and Punk himself have built everything so well such that everyone knows it is obviously happening, but also we doubt it so much that until he appears on AEW TV, nothing can be trusted.

Wrestling may never be cool again like it was in the 90s, but for the first time in a very long time, a lot of us are very excited to watch a weekly wrestling TV show again, and that is a pretty cool thing.

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