By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
CM Punk was supposed to be the “never” – the second one – in “Never say never.”
WWE Chairman Vince McMahon has pulled off stunning reconciliations with Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Brock Lesnar, Bruno Sammartino, the Ultimate Warrior and the family of Randy Savage – though, notably, never with Savage himself. The rekindling of those working relationships, and others, produced the “never say never” mantra that allowed for the possibility that even the most embittered stars could return to the company.
Anyone but CM Punk, anyway.
Punk returned to WWE programming on Tuesday night as a surprise guest at the end of WWE Backstage of FS1. It wasn’t a full-fledged comeback because Fox dictates content for the show, but it’s difficult to imagine WWE not signing off on Punk’s appearances, which will continue sporadically starting with next week’s show. It’s just as difficult to envision Punk dipping his foot back into WWE’s waters without eventually taking a few laps in the pool.
Punk famously left WWE in 2014 and was subsequently sued by WWE physician Christopher Amann and, in a separate case, by his former best friend Colt Cabana. The fallout from Punk’s departure – he was officially fired on his wedding day in June 2014 – cost him a friendship and, so it seemed, any chance he would mend fences with McMahon and WWE.
I was ready to write a couple weeks ago that Punk owed it to himself never to return to WWE. But then reports of him auditioning for WWE Backstage seemed to fizzle and I assumed that his return was, at best, on hold. I wasn’t shocked to see him appear on FS1, nor will I be surprised if he wrestles a few big matches for WWE. If that happens, I will always be surprised that McMahon pulled it off.
It’s never easy to read Punk, who wears many of his emotions on his tattoo sleeves, but he seems to value personal growth and progress over almost everything. As he continued to stay away from WWE, it wasn’t necessarily because he was disillusioned or holding a grudge. I doubt Punk ever thought about WWE, aside from the lawsuit, especially after his wife AJ Lee retired from the company in 2015.
Punk moved on. He fought twice in UFC but was overmatched by low-end competitors. He wrote comic books and acted, walked his dog and made most of his public appearances at Chicago Cubs and Chicago Blackhawks games. He was going forward and, even though WWE will always be better with Punk in the company, it became increasingly implausible that the bridge could ever be rebuilt.
In recent media appearances to promote his turn as Don Koch in the film Girl on the Third Floor – and, just maybe, to set the stage for a WWE return – Punk seemed happy, certainly not conveying someone who missed his old gig. But he also was more willing to discuss wrestling than at any point in the recent past, frequently claiming that it would take “a big bag” – presumably of money – to get him to wrestle again.
Wrestling, though, always appeared in Punk’s rear view mirror. It didn’t match up with his desire for progress. Then again, neither did continuing his MMA career, because he would have to restart with a promotion on the bottom rung, a task daunting for any aspiring athlete and nearly impossible for one with limited experience and who turned 41 last month.
So what was he going to do? He could continue to dabble in side projects or he could re-enter the world that provided the name value he used to chase other dreams. He could once again walk toward a figurative embrace with McMahon, whose arms and checkbook are open for anyone as long as it’s good for business.
Before he wrestles, Punk will have to ask himself what will be different this time. Will he finally wrestle in the main event at WrestleMania? Will he control his schedule? (Probably.) Will his medical and emotional needs be taken seriously and addressed more immediately? Will he be immune from the scripted promos that hold back so many Type A personalities on the roster?
If Punk receives satisfactory answers to those questions, he should trust his instincts. I won’t begrudge his return, even though I know he doesn’t need it and I’m not even sure he wants it. If Punk comes back, I’ll respect his decision and enjoy his work. And I’ll marvel at McMahon, who will have pulled off yet another reunion for the ages.