Keep It Simple, Stupid – Comparing Two “Surprise” Returns in Wrestling Over 24 Hours

So rarely in media do you get the chance to directly compare two events within a short span of time, but both All Elite Wrestling and WWE did something similar within a 24 hour window over this weekend, and I wanted to discuss them, because they mark interesting polar opposites in approach. Also yes, this is another wrestling post! – but I have another in the hopper for Blaugust anyways, so this is a freebie for me!

On Friday night, AEW’s second episode of their new show Rampage aired. Subtitled “The First Dance,” this hour-long show featured AEW’s largest live attendance to date and featured 20 minutes dedicated to CM Punk’s return to wrestling after 7+ years away, leaving WWE in a firestorm of controversy in 2014. Then, on Saturday, WWE’s annual summer event and steady #2 PPV Summerslam aired, with a large crowd in attendance in Las Vegas’ new Allegiant Stadium. On that show, the surprise return of Becky Lynch happened. One of these returns was handled really well and done in a way that built fans up, while the other was done in a way that got a great initial reaction and then soured fans on it immediately. Let’s start chronologically with AEW and make clear which reference belongs to which return.

AEW – CM Punk Returns After 7 Years Away

In July, rumors were swirling that CM Punk had been in talks with AEW to return to pro wrestling. There were signs that the two parties had agreed to terms and that something thought unlikely was happening. AEW rode this wave with innuendo and cheeky references, not ever directly confirming (or denying) that they had CM Punk signed and ready, but instead making small moves to “confirm” it. The second episode of Rampage had been planned for taping and was not supposed to be live, but now there are rumors it will be live, AEW trademarked “The First Dance” as a reference to Michael Jordan’s documentary “The Last Dance” (since Punk is a Chicago-native) and then came the rumor they had booked the United Center in downtown Chicago, instead of their normal Chicagoland venue the NOW Center in Hoffman Estates. They announced the show on short notice in late July on an episode of Dynamite, and then had Darby Allin cut a promo clearly referencing AEW as the place to be “even if you think you’re the Best in the World” (CM Punk’s self-appointed title).

The time from there up to the debut was done perfectly. Kenny Omega would come out wearing different shirts that referenced things that Punk had jokingly said the “CM” in his name stood for, like Cookie Monster or Chick Magnet. CM Punk joined in with Instagram stories full of easter eggs like a reference to Darby Allin’s most famous tattoo. AEW would make a point of focusing on fan reactions that made clear they knew what was happening – like when Allin referenced the “best in the world,” fans were chanting CM Punk and there was a lingering camera shot on the crowd as they did that with no one saying anything on commentary, just letting the moment happen.

On Friday itself, the show kicked off without any real confirmation that a debut was happening short of hints and interviews about “big changes to the landscape of professional wrestling,” and the like. The show kicked off immediately with CM Punk chants and his debut, coming out, getting his moment with the crowd, and then rolling into a commercial before he got to cut his first wrestling promo in over 7 years. AEW doesn’t tend to script promos like WWE, so it was emotional, with CM Punk talking about his departure from WWE as necessary for his mental health, but he spent most of his time putting over AEW and the competition he could now face, and met Darby Allin’s tongue-in-cheek challenge with a match at the upcoming All Out PPV. No one interrupted him, he didn’t get jumped or end up in a brawl, just a pure promo that played-up Punk’s skills as a performer.

Wrestling tends to think about segments like this in a convoluted and overcomplicated fashion – that fans are stupid and you have to beat them over the head with references, have them immediately have a feud opponent who comes out and banters with them before some sort of brawl, and while segments like that have a place, it wasn’t here and the crew at AEW rightly identified that and pulled off an excellent return that sold the significance of Punk coming to AEW, set him on a path towards an opponent, and had no physicality, so you want to see more.

But surely if it is so easy as just “show up, cut promo, make challenge, leave” then anyone could do it, including the world leader in wrestling, right?

Well…

WWE – Becky Lynch – The Man Comes Around (And Ruins Some Goodwill)

Becky Lynch is one of WWE’s best breakout stars. Entering the WWE system in 2014, she had some interesting matches but lacked a strong character and languished in the midcard of WWE for years. Finally, in 2018, she found what clicked – calling herself “The Man,” she would cut great promos on her opponents with a sharpened anti-hero edge, keeping up her excellent standards in the ring and that was the recipe that brought fans firmly behind her. She got so popular that, coupled with the WWE debut of MMA star Ronda Rousey, WWE was basically forced to make the main event of Wrestlemania 35 in 2019 a women’s match for the first time ever.

In 2020, Becky was losing some momentum, but still a solid face and very popular when COVID hit. However, by May that year, she had confirmed that she was pregnant, and had to step away. She has been gone since then. Her return has been a hot rumor for months, as after a brief break for the birth of their child, her husband Seth Rollins had been back at shows, and Instagram photos posted by Lynch showed that she was making a hell of a recovery from childbirth and was actively working out as she had as an active performer. She teased returning at Wrestlemania this year, only to not do so. She had teased returning at the first PPV with fans back since then, last month’s Money in the Bank, with a photo outside the arena. She did not return then either. Most rumors had indicated she was in the company’s creative plans for the fall, with a return around October.

Over the last two weeks, the plans for the Smackdown Women’s Championship match had seemed to be in disarray. The advertised match was champion Bianca Belair versus Sasha Banks, who recently returned and was the person Belair beat at Wrestlemania this year to win the championship in the first place. However, the house shows prior to Summerslam, which were advertised with a Belair/Banks matchup, had that match cancelled. Sasha was supposedly backstage at TV for the last two weeks but was not featured on the show. Rumors were swirling – Sasha has been posting and liking COVIDiot memes and pseudoscience on social media, and people speculated that maybe she fell ill with COVID. However, WWE kept advertising the match, even cutting a video package for it that aired on Summerslam, despite having known 8 days prior to the event that the match would not take place.

The night of the show, Belair comes out, everyone cheers. The ring announcer tells everyone right there, at the final moment, that Banks is not cleared to compete. They announce heel Carmella will take her place, creating raucous boos – it sucks because they’ve had this match recently and isn’t what was advertised for the show, including during the show. Carmella makes her entrance with everyone booing, and gets in the ring. Bianca, obviously displeased (in character or reality, who knows), and then Becky Lynch’s music hits and out she strolls, her first time on WWE programming in over a year.

Fans love Becky Lynch, it is important to note here. Her stuff is great, and she’s really found a character that suits her and makes her easy to get behind. She’s a solid wrestler, fantastic promo, and has a fantastic story of grinding her way all the way up from the indies to the main event of Wrestlemania, for the first time ever as a woman. It would take a lot, a LOT of effort, to get Becky Lynch booed.

Becky takes over, tossing Carmella aside, and the match is now Becky Lynch vs Bianca Belair. This is a match a lot of people want to see, awesome! – let’s see it.

The bell rings.

Becky elbows Bianca, hits her with a single slam, 1-2-3, the match is over in under 30 seconds, Lynch is the new Smackdown Women’s Champion, and the fans in attendance are booing (from fancams I’ve seen, because the official feed just sweetens over the crowd audio).

So, like, what the hell happened here? Well, everything I mentioned above about simplicity in CM Punk’s debut in AEW is because the opposite was done here. Instead of building fans up for Becky, it was pulled out last minute as a complete surprise – there were only murmurs of her returning the day of the event. WWE misled fans with a match they knew wasn’t going to happen, told them at the last minute to thunderous disapproval, made a substitution with a heel specifically to get more boos and piss people off more (Carmella is great, just…not this way!), and then they pull out the surprise, get the momentary mood reversal before pissing fans off AGAIN and making the whole thing come across as amateurish and petty (oh yeah, AEW had a big return, well WE can do that too!). It raises a lot of questions in the fictional hierarchy of wrestling – if Bianca has been champion for over four months, tackling every challenger including two dominant Smackdown Women’s Champions in Sasha Banks and Bayley, what does it mean about the whole women’s roster on that show that a returning Lynch can beat a fighting champion in under 30 seconds? What chance is anyone supposed to stand in that case? There are times when that works (Brock Lesnar, who also returned on Saturday, makes sense in that type of role because even without steroids he’s a freak of nature one in a thousand athlete who has dominated combat sports all over) but Becky Lynch’s character is the polar opposite of that – she’s always been shown as a scrappy fighter doing her absolute best to overcome adversity.

So everything about this was handled pretty poorly – you misled fans, held their hope until the last second, snuffed it out specifically to reignite it moments later, and then left them confused and pissed away at least some measurable amount of their goodwill for Becky Lynch as a character because the manner of that match was bullshit and it makes everyone on that roster look like doofuses who couldn’t beat a loser, who herself got beat by someone coming back from the physically demanding act of childbirth in under 30 seconds. That’s why it reeks. On the same show, Brock Lesnar’s return was done well – a surprise that was genuine, that logically continued one of his most storied feuds of his second WWE tenure, and left fans wanting more. Ironically, for Lesnar, such a return would make sense with his characterization on the show, for him to do what Lynch did, while it likewise would have made sense for Becky to do as Brock did. But instead, they threw out what made Lynch a compelling character in order to do…that. That’s without even discussing how WWE has a history in recent times of having feel-good Wrestlemania title wins for black talent that later get taken away in humiliating fashion – I find that argument interesting and valid, and sports writer Andreas Hale had a lot to say on Twitter about how that feels in terms of representation. It just all feels bad, you know?

AEW on Friday night showed grown men crying, feeling something deeper in return, representation, and healing – and yes, that might sound dramatic, but that’s pro wrestling at its best – a story about the human condition and overcoming the challenges we all face. CM Punk’s return was so substantially good even just as that single event because it represents a journey we can all relate to – finding one’s way back to a passion after the light it held for you was brutally crushed. Becky Lynch’s return could have been the same thing – the joining of “The Man” and a mother, returning from something so physically demanding by grit and determination and putting forward an honest challenge. Instead, the joy and relatability of that moment was squashed and turned into a textbook example of bad pro wrestling writing – overdone to death, ignorant of the show’s own continuity and presentation, and leaving you as the viewer feeling like paying attention to anything in the show’s presentation is a waste of time.

In closing, I should say this – I know there are still Becky fans who are very excited she’s back, who watch WWE for her and will be excited even if she kicked a basket of kittens into the audience on her way to the ring. I’ll also note that I’m not a WWE fan and I am very much an AEW fan, but I think the perspective I can offer is this – I have my preference because WWE chased me off with years of unfulfilling, bland storytelling and a lack of serious interest in telling relatable, compelling stories that don’t insult my intelligence. AEW has goofed up a fair amount of things on their own, and I’m not fully convinced they’ll execute everything about CM Punk perfectly either. But I know that I came away from Friday very interested to see what he does and how things develop, while I came away from watching the Becky return at Summerslam wondering who the hell thought that was a good idea.

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