It is often said to never say never in professional wrestling, but there is no question that at Survivor Series, hell indeed froze over.
For almost a decade, CM Punk has been gone from WWE and considering how bad the relationship ended it appeared that neither side was willing to reconcile as the years went by it looked less and less likely that Punk was even remotely interested in returning to wrestling. He left the industry behind with his last appearance at the 2014 Royal Rumble and became the black sheep of the WWE.
There was a glimmer of hope after almost six years in November 2019, Punk surprisingly agreed to an analyst job on WWE Backstage. The fact that Punk would even agree to come back for a show under the WWE banner at all was shocking even though he was technically under a Fox contract not WWE. From the WWE side them even agreeing to have Punk on the show was big deal in itself because of the history of bad blood, despite being a Fox employee it is reasonable to assume that WWE was asked and signed off on his inclusion.
It did not lead to a WWE return like many fans had wait until August 2021 for them to truly get his return to the wrestling world, but it wasn’t for WWE. AEW made arguably their biggest blockbuster signing as they landed the biggest free agent in the market.
CM Punk’s Return To Wrestling
In his hometown of Chicago, at AEW Rampage at an event tag lined as “The First Dance”, the worst kept secret in wrestling was revealed that the lightning rod of controversy, the voice of the voiceless and straight edge star, CM Punk had returned to the world of pro wrestling.
Punk received the hero’s welcome back and fans around the world rejoiced that he was back. Fans would no longer have to chant his name begging for his return. I wrote a piece detailing my thoughts and feelings at the time of his return. I like so many fans only saw the upside here and none of us could have foreseen or envisioned that this relationship would turn sour as quickly as it did.
The Honeymoon Is Over Already
CM Punk on screen was doing all the right things and driving AEW’s business in the right direction as they were doing record numbers and there is no questioning that CM Punk was a huge reason why. However, behind the scenes was a whole other animal as there was clearly a very contentious relationship brewing between Punk and in particular members of the Elite. These issues finally came to a head at what fans have come to call the Brawl Out press conference.
CM Punk unleashed anger and venom that he apparently had been feeling for a while and now he exploded as his boss sat there like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. Punk eviscerated Hangman Page and EVPs the Young Bucks. Telling the world that they couldn’t run a Target let alone a wrestling company. This would get worse for the company as there was an apparent brawl between Team Punk and the Elite in Punk’s locker room following the press conference further giving the company a PR black eye.
At the time, I wrote a piece on the matter, I felt than as I still do that Punk’s behavior at that press conference was unacceptable. As time has gone on, in my opinion although Punk was in the wrong, he wasn’t the only one in the wrong in this situation. I’m not going to get into it here, but this is something that should have never gotten to the point of a press conference meltdown and should have been dealt with professionally well before that point.
That falls on Punk, the Elite and Tony Khan to make sure that what happened at Brawl Out should have never gotten to that point.
The AEW Collision Return Was Destined To Fail
I wrote a piece at the time giving my thoughts on Punk’s AEW return on the new show, Collision. The reason I say it was destined to fail is that the root cause of Brawl Out was never addressed. There was still lingering hatred and animosity towards each other and instead of trying to work those real-life issues out and turn this into an angle to make money off of it. It appears the individuals involved refused to do so.
I don’t know if it was all the parties or just some of them unwilling to put their egos aside, but if I was just speculating, I’d say I don’t think it was Punk. I could be completely wrong in that speculation, I wasn’t there, but I feel this way based on the fact Punk has used real life issues to make money before in this business.
Whether it was bringing up his own father’s history of alcoholism in a feud with Jericho or playing up his real-life animosity with Triple H and Vince to make memorable moments and money off of them. I said on WR’s Take It To The Table podcast, I questioned is Tony Khan’s plan just to split the rosters between those that are Team Elite that refuse to work with Punk on Dynamite and Team Punk on Collision with people that are friends with him or don’t mind working with him?
Based on how it played out that’s how it appeared to be with the Elite and Punk kept away from each other on separate shows. This was only going to work for so long before it came to a head and honestly, I don’t think anyone thought it would fall apart as quickly as it did.
Just about two months and there was allegedly another backstage altercation this time with Punk and Jack Perry. Tony Khan in his words “feared for his life” and terminated Punk for cause shortly after.
Fans thought this was going to be the last image in the wrestling world we would see of CM Punk as he walked out carrying the “Real” AEW World Championship after successfully defending against one of his best friends in Samoa Joe at AEW All In in London.
I personally never thought that was the end of the road for CM Punk, I said it on air and even wrote about it that I believed that CM Punk was returning to WWE. The comment section of our Instagram page made it clear that many fans thought I was crazy or pipe dreaming, and that WWE would never bring him back. None of that negativity or the dirt sheets insisting it wasn’t happening deterred my belief that he was WWE bound to be a part of WrestleMania 40 in Philadelphia.
Why was I so confident? A couple reasons, the first reason is WWE has capitalized on real life issues to make money on them better than any other promotion in the history of the business. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart couldn’t stand one another, yet they worked matches together. Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch legitimately couldn’t stand each other leading into their Survivor Series 2021 match, guess what they worked the match. The love triangle of Matt Hardy/Lita/Edge, when Lita cheated on Matt Hardy with his friend, Edge. They literally fired Matt and then brought him back to not only work an angle feud with Edge based on this real-life issue, but Edge actually won the feud. There were other instances of taking real life situations and making them into angles as well, this was just to name a few.
All of these situations have one major thing in common, no one took liberties on the other when they had the chance to seriously hurt the other. Yes, the results are predetermined but you are trusting your opponent with your body in that ring, so you have to put ego and anger aside to do the job. That’s called professionalism, I don’t have to like you to work with you. Anyone that has worked a job in their lives knows you won’t be friends with all your co-workers, but sometimes you have to put your dislike aside in order to get the job done and collect a paycheck. Wrestling is no different.
The second reason, a couple months back before Punk made his Collision return it was reported he was backstage at a WWE show and reportedly made peace with Miz and shock Triple H’s hand. If you still hated these people, you wouldn’t be backstage let alone shaking people’s hands.
The final reason, a few weeks back someone spotted that WWE had updated Punk’s bio, why would you update a bio for a guy that has been gone for a decade and was supposedly blacklisted? The answer is you normally wouldn’t update it unless he passed away or was coming back.
The Black Sheep Returns Home
As the show closed and the little graphic popped up in the corner, my buddy, Chris, who I was watching the show with turns to me and goes they still have like 12 minutes left and I literally went “wait…could they actually be…”, I couldn’t even finish the thought as Punk’s music hit and like fans all over the world we were marking out.
This business is built on stars, storytelling and moments, those are the things that are the true lifeblood of this business. We see a lot of bad or boring stuff in wrestling, but those lows cannot touch the high you get when a moment like CM Punk returning home to WWE after almost a decade away. Make no mistake about it, we likely do not get a CM Punk return if the AEW run doesn’t happen.
I firmly believe that CM Punk went to AEW with all the best intentions. To get back what he felt that he was forced to walk away from in 2014, he loved this business that was never in question. He wanted to give back to the next generation by helping them to get over and offer advice and lastly probably to spite WWE. He likely quickly realized like many seasoned workers today in all walks of life there are those young talent that will gladly accept advice and those that get offended and think they already know everything.
I think it speaks volumes that Punk lasted almost 9 years with WWE the first run, but less than two years in AEW when you subtract the injury time away from the ring. To those that are calling Punk a hypocrite to go back, it is a business and at the end of the day he wants to make his money in the business and perform on the grandest stage. Whether you like him or not, Punk generates interest and money in this business, and he has earned a chance to go out the way he wants to. Who are you to judge him for where he chooses to work.
When Punk left in 2014, he felt he had no choice he was physically hurt and mentally burned out. The wrestling grind is no joke and Punk was running non-stop during not only his WWE run but his independent run prior to WWE as well. He likely felt the company took him for granted and he wasn’t happy with his spot and Punk had enough money saved up to be able to take his ball and go home. I didn’t agree at the time with how he handled it, but I wasn’t in his position, and either were any of you unless Phil Brooks is reading this, so who are we to judge his decisions based on dirt sheet gossip?
From the WWE standpoint, they didn’t grasp how burned out he was and thought he was just another spoke in the wheel and kept right on moving along. It is often said you don’t know what you have until it is gone, and I think that was the case for both Punk and WWE.
They needed that time apart to cool off and let the resentment from both sides to simmer down. Even when Punk left, I distinctly remember saying to buddies of mine at the time, that he will one day return they pretty much all do. Bret Hart was screwed over on TV and punched Vince McMahon out backstage because of it…he came back. Ultimate Warrior, who buried and sued the company in the past…came back. Hulk Hogan jumped to the competition and testified at the steroid trial…he came back. Bruno Sammartino the longest reigning champion in the company’s history buried Vince and WWE for years…he came back. Stone Cold Steve Austin literally walked out of the company just like CM Punk did…guess what? He came back.
The point is, Vince McMahon has a philosophy that still exists without him in charge and that is the willingness to put ego and personal grudges aside if they can give the fans something that they want and most importantly make money from it. No bridge is too burnt that can’t be rebuilt.
One of the best put answers by Triple H during the press conference was that we grow and are not the same people that we were ten years ago. He said Punk is home where he belongs.
This statement was echoed by Punk when he made his first comments since his return on Raw. Yes, WWE scripts their promos, but I also think Punk is the type of talent that is given bullet points instead of a line-by-line speech. Whether Punk saying he was home was genuine or a line that WWE asked for, I don’t know, but what I do know is that it came off as genuine. It is a sentiment that Cody Rhodes expressed on his WWE documentary as well that WWE is his home.
The home line wasn’t the only one that made me make the Cody connection as well. Punk stated which I believe is the first time this was revealed that Heyman advised him ten years ago that you need to leave this place and then come back to get what you want since they don’t appreciate what they have in you. It is interesting because Dusty told Cody to do the same thing and neither Cody nor Punk wanted to leave but felt they didn’t have a choice. Another connection is Heyman was a disciple of Dusty’s and learned a lot from him.
I found it interesting that Punk didn’t take any shots at AEW or the Elite, which I get maybe disappointing to fans as we were all expecting a pipebomb for the ages. However, sitting back and thinking about it, him taking shots is more likely to lead to a lawsuit than it is for a storyline payoff for a match, and it is almost more a shot at them by pretending that they don’t even exist to him and that the AEW run never happened. Just like his mentor, Rowdy Roddy Piper used to say just when they think they have all the answers I go and change the questions. Punk zigged when everyone thought he’d zag.
So, where is this all headed? I think the seeds were very clearly planted for a WrestleMania 40 showdown between Seth Rollins and CM Punk unless they can get Austin for Punk like I suggested in my previous piece, if that’s the case then Punk vs Seth gets moved to the Rumble. As Punk was taking in the love from the fans of Chicago, Seth was going berserk at cursing and flipping off and threatening Punk from the ringside area. First let me assure anyone that thinks this was real, it wasn’t. Even if Rollins legitimately hates Punk, he is a professional and can work with someone he really doesn’t like. His feud with Cody was a masterpiece trilogy and we didn’t know until it was over that they weren’t friends.
Rollins was likely not blindsided that Punk was coming in and Rollins knew fans would pull out their phones and record his reaction and immediately post it to social media. As Seth sits there burning a hole in Punk with his eyes. Blurring the lines between real and storyline is something that creates compelling TV. Both men know this is a money storyline and unlike AEW, it appears that they are willing to put these issues behind them in order to make money with each other.
These men have history as Seth was in NXT when they first crossed paths in WWE and then would be involved in one of Punk’s last WWE stories as Seth would come to the main roster as part of the Shield, which were bodyguards for Punk.
Seth called Punk a hypocrite during his promo on Raw and made it clear that he wants nothing to do with him. It is smart to play into a sentiment that some fans have towards Punk and Seth has said whether as a shoot or working an angle in hopes that they would cross paths down the road by calling him a cancer when he was asked about him.
Could Seth be playing the heel in this feud or could Punk’s I’m a changed man and I’m home all be an act for an eventual heel run? Time will tell in the meantime it appears that Punk appears happy to be back both on and off screen.
To those that don’t think this will end any better than his AEW run, I just want to say I get your concerns. Right now, we are totally in the honeymoon phase, but I don’t believe Triple H and Nick Khan would have brought Punk in if they felt that he would be cancer and that this wouldn’t work. Financially, so far this seems to be a success for the company, and this will likely give Punk the one thing that has alluded him a WrestleMania main event which is in Philly, which is like a second home for him as he did live there when he ran the ROH school. WWE has the one thing that AEW didn’t and that is the Punk whisperer in Paul Heyman.
For now, Punk looks genuinely happy to be back in WWE, as he said he isn’t there to make friends, but to make money which is interesting to say the least as he leans into the I’m a changed man and knowing how bad his AEW run was for him personally.
However, long this will last, I’m sure this will be memorable no matter how long it is. As fans, just try to enjoy the ride.