By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
One year ago this past Saturday, CM Punk returned to pro wrestling. The unthinkable became the thinkable. Chicago, the city where he returned, provided one of the loudest crowd reactions anyone in pro wrestling had heard in years. Grown men cried. Even me, someone who does not believe CM Punk is the second coming of Jesus Christ himself, wrote this during my live review of Rampage, the show at which he returned:
“‘Cult Of Personality’ hit and the crowd was so loud, you couldn’t hear the song. … Electric. Absolutely electric. It was the right call to have him come out to begin the night because the last thing you wanted was all the matches being overshadowed by CM Punk chants. And even though I’ve been critical about there being a lack of surprise with CM Punk’s arrival, I guess we didn’t need a surprise because that was perfection. There was just no denying Punk’s drawing power.”
It was and is perhaps the most memorable moment in AEW’s short history and it was, without doubt, the most important hour of television that company has produced throughout its nearly three years it’s been on the airwaves. From there …
THERE’S ONLY ONE
… Punk got to work. He defeated Darby Allin at last year’s All Out. It was the first time he had officially been in a ring since WWE’s 2014 Royal Rumble. Since that first AEW match, the guy went on to wrestle 20 other matches to date, according to Cagematch.net. Of those, he has one loss – it was to MJF on February 2 of this year on an episode of Dynamite. As we know by now, he’d avenge that defeat the next month in a dog collar match at Revolution.
Punk’s return wasn’t just an injection of inspiration for AEW; it was a shot of adrenaline for most wrestling fans, too. We all want what we can’t have and for so long, in so many ways, CM Punk had no problem reminding everybody that we were never going to have the ability to see him wrestle on a major platform ever again. Still, he knew how to flirt with it, and he made damn sure the general wrestling populace never forgot about him, be it through sporadic convention appearances or teasing tweets.
If nothing else, Punk represented the anti-establishment in pro wrestling and for years, he was the most recent superstar to make even the smartest of smart fans wonder what was real and what wasn’t with his infamous WWE pipe bomb promo. Since the second he took a seat on that stage, wrestlers have been trying to emulate the rawness and the realness of it. MJF took his shot a few months ago, the night after Double Or Nothing. He had varying degrees of success.
But, you see, that’s the thing …
Punk was able to cut the pipe bomb during the sweet spot in pro wrestling history: Right before Twitter ruled the land, scoops were had by the minute, and the notion of believability still felt like an obtainable goal to everyone from a casual fan to a newsletter subscriber. Ironically, in some ways, Punk’s comeback fell victim to precisely how far the backstage world of pro wrestling has come if only because his appearance on Rampage a year ago was the worst kept secret in all of wrestling before it happened.
That said, MJF, hard as he tried, didn’t really have a fair shot at making people think he was on the outs with AEW when he cut his post Double Or Nothing promo. Why? Because fast-forward to the current day and rumors of his imminent return are swirling. Turns out, not even calling the owner of the company a “f—ing mark” on live TV or reportedly refusing to communicate with anyone in AEW is enough to fool the fans. It’s a shame, really, because never knowing where the lines blur is half of what makes this stuff fun. When people talk about “sports entertainment,” I don’t think of food fights and hip-hop performances on wrestling shows; rather, I think about the ambiguity that festers around stories and characters some of us feel are more real than others.
Anymore, though, those things are hard to come by. Unless a company goes out of its way to fool not just those watching, but also the other wrestlers, backstage security, catering providers, lighting operators and countless members of the ring crew (among others), word of what’s really happening almost always gets out now. It’s a cycle that never ceases because we, as fans, are insatiable when it comes to getting the information and the information-providers are more than happy to beat out their competitors because Patreon and subscription services are the ways they make their money.
Or, in other words, I can’t imagine the jack going back in the box on this issue anytime soon.
And yet …
One year into CM Punk’s ridiculously anticipated return to pro wrestling, CM Punk has proven he’s still the outlier – he’s still the one that can keep us guessing.
On last week’s Dynamite, Punk had a microphone in his hands for the first time since he suffered a foot injury in May. During that time, AEW created an interim world title and Jon Moxley won it. Naturally, with Punk being the real world champion and Moxley despising the word “interim,” those two were always going to be on a collision course to meet and unify the titles. Last week’s Dynamite opened with the two of them throwing verbal jabs, desperately seeing who could outwit the other with insults that had potential to cut deeper than us fans expected.
Still, it wasn’t necessarily their specific confrontation that left a lot of us second-guessing what we think we know and don’t know when it comes to AEW. Instead, it was the way Punk opened the segment by calling out Hangman Page, laying the belt down in the middle of the ring and inviting Page to come out and fight him. Page didn’t do that, of course, and the ink was barely dry on all the recaps of the show before those in the know reported that the Page stuff wasn’t supposed to happen.
Complicating matters more was the announcement that the title unification match between Punk and Moxley would actually happen on this coming week’s edition of Dynamite and, presumably, not at All Out, AEW’s September pay-per-view. Why rush the title match, we all wondered. Does this mean there’s something else in store for All Out? Is something going awry backstage?
Those questions combined with Punk seemingly going off script to open last week’s show led to a flurry of reports in the following days. Punk isn’t happy, some said. There was speculation as to whether the guy was even going to show up to the arena last Wednesday, others relayed. Morale in the locker room is bad, reports claimed. Colt Cabana, the guy with whom Punk has a contentiously checkered past, may or may not be at the center of this strife, websites noted.
And you want to know what we know for sure about any of those things?
A PROBLEM GENIUS?
Nothing. The answer is nothing. We know nothing.
Unless it turns out that Punk spits a disgusting mouthful of snot into Page’s eye while Page is standing outside the ring after a match, a la Vince McMahon and Bret Hart, I’m having a really hard time putting much stock into all this drama (and for the love of all things good in the universe, if I never read the words “work” or “shoot” in a wrestling context online again, it’ll still be too soon). I say that not because I don’t believe it or I do believe it.
I say that because I think both these things could be true:
One, there’s plenty of evidence that Punk can be a problem child and while it’s great to root for a guy who’s seemingly out of shits to give, it can also become tiresome once the bit isn’t cute anymore. If we are to believe specific sides of the discourse surrounding his history are true, then Punk is someone who alienates people, he has the ability to be selfish and if he feels wronged, he’s not going to stay quiet about it. That’s easy to admire from afar, like so many of those in AEW including Tony Khan did for so long; it’s not really that easy to admire if it’s something you have to mitigate or put up with on a consistent basis.
Two, Punk, along with Tony Khan, has figured out the way to evolve in the year 2022 the practice of keeping fans guessing about what’s real and what’s not. And to do so isn’t just going off-script (or at least telling people Punk went off-script). To do so is to limp around Comic-Con with the explicit intent to make people believe you’re far away from recovering from your injury and then show up at next week’s TV. To do so is to potentially lie to people who view you as a trusted source. To do so is to never share the plan, thus making those around you insistent that it’s real because they thought they would be told if it wasn’t. To do so is to use parts of a publicized past and play off the reputations and assumptions already built.
Such is why I have a tiny dose of apathy when I begin to think about this stuff. I could see either one of those things being completely true. I was ten feet from Punk when he sobbed about Tony Khan buying Ring Of Honor and expressed how happy he was that his legacy would be protected. He came off like the sweetest, most humble guy … and yet I also know that sweet, humble guys can channel that wave of emotion into other acts that make them considerably less sweet and less humble. Nobody’s great all the time. Nobody’s awful all the time. In the case of Punk, the strife can be true right along with the compassion. Those things are not binary.
But that’s not why I’m apathetic. Instead …
TALK, TALK, TALK
… I’m apathetic because of the second hypothesis I stated. If this has become little more than a game of who can out-smart everyone else as a means to create some elaborate heel turn, I have little to no interest in what the outcome is going to be. I say this, especially in the case of AEW because AEW doesn’t need this type of bullshit to be a successful company. They have an incredible roster and a rabid fanbase that would do anything short of die for the brand. They have a TV deal, successful shows and they’ve made inroads into the mainstream in the three short years they’ve been operating. But something tells me trying to get one over on all those who think they know a thing or two about a thing or two isn’t beneath Khan or Punk.
To be fair, maybe they’re hypothetically looking for ways to re-energize the conversation about both the company and the wrestler, and they want to create the magic of the pipe bomb or even the NWO for the fans who remember and romanticize those moments in wrestling history. That’s a very innocent way to view it, but even if you choose to look at the scenario through those forgiving eyes, that tableau can’t be without a healthy dose of cynicism, or, at the very least, the question of why someone would go to these lengths to do these things.
That said, tricking the world could not be part of this at all, and every negative report we’ve read of every unfortunate event that’s happened backstage at AEW shows in the last week is 100 percent accurate. Who knows? Whatever the reality is, though, can’t be considered without the fans’ reaction so far. The time it took for some people to pull up that old Triple H promo on Punk as a means to illustrate how much of a jerk Punk can be was quicker than a Jade Cargill match on Rampage. Jeez, guys. A year ago, you were lauding this dude’s return to the ring like Bret Hart was gearing up for one last match and the second it seems he’s a little pissy, the gloves come off.
Which, of course, leads us to the only thing that needs to be said about CM Punk’s first year in AEW: I don’t care what Tony Khan is paying him, but whatever it is, the guy is worth more than what he’s getting because wherever he goes and however he goes about it, he’ll be damned if he’s not making sure people are talking about him. Real. Fake. It doesn’t matter. He’s the only guy in wrestling who can play in the gray area these days and get away with it. He’ll flash that Cheshire grin and maybe even offer a half-wink just to make everyone feel they’re in on the joke. But at the end of the day, he’s always going to be a name about which people can’t stop talking.
Such is his legacy in AEW so far, 12 months into the journey. For better, for worse, for everything in between. Before us stands a man who doesn’t need to worry about work rates – because he’s a man who can foster a cult of personality like no one else who’s ever done it.
If you mean the fat fingered twinkie molestors of the IWC, sure nobody else makes them “buzz.”
If you mean actual pro wrestling fans, Phil hasn’t meant anything for almost a decade now and he wasn’t as big a deal back then as people pretend he was.
You’re a fan of Sports Entertainment.
I feel like the first night back was really hot
Since then Punk has just been dull. I suspect it’s mostly because Happy Punk is just uninteresting.
I’m slightly interested in the developments with Hangman because it’s either a clever work or Punk is back to being a pain in the ass
Either way. Kahn probably opened the vault for Punk and the results ratings wise just haven’t panned out. They will this week for the hot shot booking but overall (just like on that FS1 show that was created for him) Punk just didn’t deliver
To @THEGREATESTONE, big THANK YOU! Thank you so very much for saying what you did. Finally somebody sees and says the same thing I’ve been saying for years now. Finally somebody is not a fan because of the guy that got over by quitting. Thank you so very much. He got more attention milking his so called pipe bomb than he ever did as an actual talent. And still the most overrated sports entertainment talent to ever attempt the big leagues… mr phil brooks everybody. Can’t get the replies to work so that’s why it’s a separate comment
Guess what punk kool-aid drinkers for all these years, he’s just not that good. Can he talk? Sure. He can ramble nonsense and so called edgy stuff with the average of them. Can he somewhat go in a ring and not be carried by whoever has to put him over? Absolutely not, poor sapp wasn’t that talented before and now he’s just washed up trying to cash in on the thirsty supporters while he can. They ate up him supposedly quitting and made him what he is today, nows he’s gotta convince em to stick around for his boring no talent ass. But they will, that’s what the cool kids do.
“That’s easy to admire from afar, like so many of those in AEW including Tony Khan did for so long; it’s not really that easy to admire if it’s something you have to mitigate or put up with on a consistent basis.”
That’s true, like the toxic personality in your workplace that is always looking for any reason to ignite into an outburst of grievances and butt heads with others.
Punk is certainly not a magnetic or somebody who is going to carry a company by himself like others who have done so. Yes he had the lightning in a bottle match against John Cena in front of his home crowd, but that tapered down significantly when he came back and over the course of the following few months.
Try getting the crowd reactions where the crowd roars in unison upon your introduction like Hulk Hogan managed throughout the 80’s. Maybe the defiant outburst of crowd approval of Steve Austin during the late nineties. Those were sustained crowd support and carried over no matter which city or country events were held in. Punk doesn’t manage that and he never has, he’s just not that type of character that people want to rally behind in unity, and I think that there is kind of a hard ceiling on how much interest he is able to bring to whatever federation he is with.
“Try getting the crowd reactions where the crowd roars in unison upon your introduction like Hulk Hogan managed throughout the 80’s. Maybe the defiant outburst of crowd approval of Steve Austin during the late nineties.”
I see the point you’re trying to make, but both examples are from over 22 years ago. It’s unfair to ask ANYONE in ANY company to get those reactions now as those days are gone, never to return again.
Well damn…The Punk hate kind of turned on overnight huh? What’s everybody going to say if they find out this was a work? If this was happening in the WWE everybody would be shouting support for Punk from the rooftops…