By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
So, it happened. After all the weeks of speculation, after the years of hope and after learning how to thread the needle between surprise and no surprise, CM Punk returned to professional wrestling on AEW’s Rampage.
So much — and I mean so much — has been written about that moment, both on websites and pretty much every social media platform known to mankind. That in mind, I’m not going to dwell too much on waxing poetic about Punk’s debut, but …
… I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least address it from an emotional side. On all ends, Punk’s arrival was perfect (shoot, even Jim Cornette said he loved it, which is akin to Spike Lee giving Reggie Miller props for scoring eight points in nine seconds to beat the Knicks). As I’ve said, I was awfully skeptical about how everything was going to play out going into Friday night.
“There should be a surprise attached to it,” I said. “This is a waste of a monumental debut.”
I was wrong. Actually, whatever’s worse than wrong — I was that. Because as it turned out, all you needed was Chicago and CM Punk. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was AEW, WWE, AAA, NJPW, WCW, NWA, ECW or any other company that’s ever existed. Punk is really that charismatic. Chicago is really that passionate. And that was perfection on every single level.
Now, of course, AEW does deserve some credit for the proceedings. If this would have happened in a WWE ring, Punk may have been cut off by Jinder Mahal three minutes into his speech and some nonsensical back and forth would have ensued. Then, for the next five weeks of Raw, the two would trade wins and losses over each other.
AEW doesn’t work like that, though, and God bless it for that. Punk is one of the most organic, honest characters wrestling has ever seen. It felt like Tony Khan said, “Here’s a mic, take all the time you need, I’ll make sure I can fit the other three matches in around you.” Which was brilliant, if that’s what happened. It gave Punk the opportunity to be Punk without being held back by any set of constrictions out there, be it time, message or anything in between.
You couldn’t scroll through a timeline on any app without being inundated by emotional messages from fans, writers, and wrestling personalities stating how affecting those 20-plus minutes were. It almost became redundant. We were all feeling the same things, even if it was a day later. I almost had to turn away from all the replaying of all the clips because I didn’t want to ruin it by watching it too much.
And so, at the end of the day, it reminded me of how transcending the return of a wrestler can be. It gets people talking, it reignites passion in fans, it gives us a sense of comfort, it can right a ship when it feels that ship is about to turn in the wrong direction. It’s kind of like a new lease on life for companies — bringing a fan favorite back after being away for so long.
That, of course, brings us to Saturday night.
BROCK AND BECKY
WWE’s SummerSlam emanated from Las Vegas Saturday night. We all knew Friday night would be a tough act to follow, and we were all pretty sure that WWE wasn’t going to be able to follow it. There had been rumors for months about the usual suspects making their grand return. Was this going to be the night Becky Lynch finally made her comeback? How about Brock Lesnar? And wait, isn’t The Rock supposed to be confronting his cousin soon?
Well, as it turned out, two of those three came to fruition Saturday night. The first came as a result of Sasha Banks not being able to compete against Bianca Belair. Sending Carmella out in Banks’s place was a fun way to troll the crowd because almost immediately, Becky Lynch’s music hit and back came The Man, causing a giant sigh of relief for all.
The second came after Roman Reigns dispatched of John Cena and an even bigger surprise emerged when Brock Lesnar’s music hit and he walked down to the ring, complete with a ponytail and some facial hair (which, let’s be honest, is the only Brock Lesnar anybody wants these days). He confronted Reigns, who bailed, and then, if post-show crowd videos are to be believed, gave Cena a million German Suplexes.
My immediate reaction? Well, if there’s one way you could try to follow CM Punk’s return on a rival network, bringing back Becky Lynch and Brock Lesnar in one night is probably the best thing you could do. Outside of The Rock, WWE hadn’t had any bigger names on the shelf for a longer period of time, and both Lesnar and Lynch are two bonafide stars. Their surprise returns should have warranted a significant response, right?
A DOUBLE STANDARD
Well, not really. That’s because instead of focusing on Lynch being back, pretty much everyone I see anywhere online — be it social media or other websites — is angry about the things surrounding the return. First, reportedly, WWE knew that Banks wouldn’t be able to perform at SummerSlam for eight days and why the company continued to falsely advertise the match is anybody’s guess. So, there’s that.
And secondly, WWE did Bianca Belair dirty. And make no mistake about it — they did. Much like Kofi Kingston, who was built by a career-affirming win at a WrestleMania, Belair took a move from Lynch, laid down, and that was it, 1-2-3. It barely took 20 seconds. All the good will that Belair worked up for months, all the work she put in, all the credibility she gained … well, it’s not gone (let’s not go crazy here), but it’s certainly damaged.
But, here’s the thing: Instead of focusing on Lynch’s return, so many people are focusing on the circumstances surrounding it, and I don’t agree with that. Becky Lynch was the hottest thing in wrestling at one time, and she was perhaps the company’s biggest star when she went on maternity leave. She, much like Punk, developed a grassroots, passionate following. We forget that because when she left, she was performing in front of nobody at the Performance Center due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reaction her return received is unfair, if to nobody else than her. It wasn’t her fault that she was thrust into the match and it wasn’t her fault that the booking called for a squash (though to be fair, she probably shouldn’t have said “Let’s tear the house down” or something like that, because that sort of gets expectations for an actual match pretty high). Her return should mean a lot to a lot of people and while she got a great pop, the cynicism around it circulating online feels unwarranted.
It’s not often that I buy into the whole “AEW vs. WWE bias” of which so many people accuse others, but this seems a tiny bit unjust. Nobody could ever compare to CM Punk’s AEW debut, this much we know for sure. But you don’t have to tear down the return of another superstar to build the other up. Shoot, Punk doesn’t need that help — he can’t possibly be built bigger than he is.
So, then …
WRESTLING FANS WIN
… Why can’t we just appreciate that Becky Lynch is back? Is it because we’re still living off the high of Friday night? Is it because CM Punk was so good that anyone else trying to return to wrestling this weekend was always going to get the shaft? Are people actively or subconsciously looking for reasons to dismiss everything else because … we just can’t find joy in all of wrestling and we are only allowed to focus on the parts that the cool kids say we need to focus on?
Plus, don’t forget about Brock Lesnar. Love him or hate him, his return creates a huge level of intrigue, if only because of the Paul Heyman factor. Will Heyman be working as a double agent for Lesnar? Or has Heyman cut all his ties with the Beast Incarnate? A Reigns/Lesnar showdown has potential due to the star power involved, but how long will they take to get there? And how does that match play out? If this is all leading to Rock/Reigns, how does Brock go out?
Those are just a quick handful of questions to consider after only seeing Lesnar in a ring, doing nothing, for about 40 seconds Saturday night. So don’t tell me Lesnar’s return isn’t headline-making. And don’t tell me Lynch’s return should be dismissed because of a few questionable booking calls. To look at those moments and think they are worthless because the opening act a night before was literally the best return of all time is ignorant at best, downright stupid at worst.
And when it comes to these returns, I’m struggling to see exactly where WWE went wrong, outside of the bad Belair booking. It was a classic case of shooting your shot. They had to have known about the Punk news, so what were they supposed to do? Lay down and produce an uneventful event — an event, by the way, that is second only to WrestleMania in that company? Say, “Nah, it’s cool. Here’s Damian Priest winning a title. We good? All right. Bye.”
That, of course, leads me to the ultimate point here. If WWE’s returns Saturday night were an indication that it’s woken up from a years-long slumber, then the only people who win are the fans. Us. You and me. As such, it’s on us to soak it in, appreciate it, and not refuse to give one side its proper due because … I don’t know … just because?
You’re depriving yourself of some fun moments if you refuse to see all companies equally. Sure, you can like more than others, and we all have our personal preferences. But no matter how you cut it, Brock Lesnar coming out to stare down Roman Reigns was fun and Becky Lynch finally walking through that curtain again was inspiring. It might not have been on a CM Punk level, but what is?
I mean, you can’t have perfection all the time. Plus, don’t forget: Settling for great doesn’t always have to be all that bad, either. And Becky and Brock, no matter how you cut it, are two of the greatest superstars that WWE has. So, while great ain’t perfect, great is better than so much of what Titan Towers can offer these days. And for that, more respect should be paid to Saturday night’s proceedings.