Pro wrestling is built on secrecy. It has to be, in order to uphold the illusion. If audiences know what’s coming, it’s harder to be as emotionally affected by it. Something like Brock Lesnar breaking the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak is unforgettable, partly because of what it does to the fabric of the storyline, but mostly for all the stunned faces.
This weekend CM Punk returned to wrestling after seven-plus years away, in front of an exhilarated and packed hometown crowd, and altered the mainstream industry landscape with two words. “I’m back,” he said at All Elite Wrestling’s new Friday night show, Rampage, turning one of the worst-kept secrets in recent memory into a vivid reality.
The rumor mill started churning on July 21, when Fightful managing editor Sean Ross Sapp posted that Punk was close to a return to wrestling, with AEW as the lead choice. A week later, AEW gassed up the rumors when it announced that Rampage was going to be in Chicago on August 20. The company never mentioned Punk by name, but it surely didn’t shy away from hinting at his return. After the show announcement, Darby Allin—who will be Punk’s first opponent—claimed that he was looking to fight the “best in the world,” which was Punk’s catchphrase for years. A few more little teases here and there, including on Punk’s personal Instagram, and his debut on Friday felt inevitable.
Why does it matter that a 42-year-old wrestler returned after an extended hiatus (and a short-lived MMA career)? Ever since his pre-WWE days on the independent circuit, Punk managed to build a manic following through his preternatural understanding of how wrestling works. He’s an expert on the microphone, capable of selling whatever story he’s telling through sheer intensity and craft. He’s also a good enough technical wrestler, but his ability to push the plot forward with his movements is near-unparalleled.
Punk’s legacy was cemented back in the summer of 2011, when he delivered a scorching promo against WWE, one that blurred the lines between what is scripted and what is “shooting,” or going off book. He followed it up with a lengthy, narrative-heavy match in front of a raucous Chicago crowd, one that ended with him leaving through that same crowd with the WWE Championship. The “Pipe Bomb” speech and subsequent Money in the Bank match against John Cena combined to tell the platonic ideal of a wrestling story, and Punk followed it up with an epic reign as WWE Champion that ended in 2013 at the hands of The Rock. His last year in the company was hit-and-miss, as he took a backseat to Daniel Bryan’s own incredible story heading into WrestleMania 30. Punk would never get to that show, though.
Punk left the company abruptly and without warning in early 2014, a move that remained unexplained until November of that same year, when he recorded a podcast episode with fellow Chicago wrestler and close friend Colt Cabana. In that podcast, Punk railed against WWE, with special vitriol aimed at the medical treatment he received from Dr. Chris Amann, the company’s senior ringside physician, particularly related to what he claimed was an undiagnosed MRSA infection and a lump on his back that a different doctor later said could have killed him if he had left it untreated any longer. He said he was beaten down physically and pressured to wrestle anyway, and that wore away at his mental health until he no longer wanted to be a part of the industry that, by all accounts, he loved the most. And then, he got sued.
Specifically, Amann sued Punk and Cabana in 2015 for defamation, saying that the comments he shared on the podcast were “completely false,” stating he never treated Punk with antibiotics for an MRSA infection, as Punk claimed. He also sued them for invasion of privacy. The lawsuit went to trial, and it wasn’t until June 2018 that the courts ruled in favor of Punk and Cabana.
Given both his lengthy legal fight against WWE and his ill-fated foray into MMA, it looked like Punk was just done with professional wrestling as a whole. After all, he had ascended as high as he could in WWE—the only accolade he never collected was a WrestleMania main event—so it was hard to imagine him returning to the independent circuit grind. He also appeared to have no interest in going overseas to wrestle for New Japan Pro Wrestling, the other mega-promotion in the world. Then, AEW came around, and by his own admission after Friday’s show, Punk grew interested once again.
The timing for Punk’s debut couldn’t have been better, and that was by design. The company wanted there to be fans for his long-awaited return, and what better group of fans to give him a hero’s welcome than those in Chicago? Furthermore, his in-ring debut will happen at All Out in just two weeks; AEW’s Labor Day Weekend pay-per-view has been in that same city for both of its iterations to date. There is no wrestler more beloved in his hometown than CM Punk, perhaps ever, and the local crowd did not disappoint during his debut:
His return allowed this fan to reach pure bliss:
Punk soaked it all in, hugging a fan on his way to the ring before doing a dive into the crowd, Delta variant be damned:
AEW played his return perfectly, letting him open the show when the crowd was at its hottest, and using his iconic theme song, Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” The company appears to follow a pretty simple objective, as proven Friday by the pop accompanying Punk’s entrance: Make fans happy. That seems like it should be the standard for any wrestling company, but fans of mainstream wrestling in North America had been used to the whims of one Vince McMahon, who exists only to make himself happy.
AEW isn’t perfect, of course. The company has mangled its women’s division, and the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match at the first PPV of 2021 ended with a wet fart. The return of an industry veteran won’t fix all of AEW’s problems, nor should he fundamentally change how the company runs its shows, but if there’s someone who can help push AEW to the next level, it’s CM Punk. He’s now the biggest star in the company, and he’s slated to be around for a while:
What happened Friday night built a very promising path for the next era of AEW. Will Punk, at 42, be able to deliver five-star matches? That remains to be seen, but there is no wrestler on the planet better suited to crafting moments that stick in the memory of the audience. He makes wrestling feel like the greatest thing in the world. Even all of the rumors and leaks about his debut couldn’t diminish from the emotion at the heart of the moment. Secrets are all well and good, but AEW gave the people what they expected and what they desired.