CM Punk is back in pro wrestling.
But it isn’t with WWE.
Seven years after leaving WWE, Punk finally made his highly-anticipated return. He debuted on Friday night with AEW, bringing a rare presence to the company that is an equal blend of charisma and toughness.
Broadcast live on TNT, AEW Rampage opened with Living Colour’s “The Cult of Personality”, a song that has become synonymous with Punk, blasting throughout the United Center in Chicago. The response was electric, and Punk then cut a passionate promo in the ring. It felt as though Punk were speaking to old friends, reminiscing about his departure from Ring of Honor in 2005—which he described as the day he left professional wrestling—and officially declared this moment in AEW his return. Punk called out Darby Allin, who was watching beside Sting from the rafters, for a match on September 5 at the All Out pay per view back in Chicago. Then, in a fashion perfectly fitting Punk, he expressed his gratitude to the crowd by offering free ice cream bars at the end of the night as they leave the venue at the end of Rampage.
Punk–who is 42-year-old Phil Brooks–remains a unique entity in pro wrestling. He was an indie wrestling icon before elevating himself to a whole new tier of stardom in WWE. His promos are some of the most compelling in the history of the industry, with his “Pipe Bomb” promo from June 2011 standing the test time as a signature moment of Monday Night Raw.
Punk left WWE under especially acrimonious terms in 2014, which he attributed to legitimate concerns over his health. His termination was particularly galling, as he was fired in 2014 on his wedding day. Vince McMahon later publicly apologized for the poor timing during an interview with Steve Austin on the WWE Network, but the damage between the two parties was irrevocable. His relationship with WWE was further derailed after a tension-filled lawsuit in 2018, where a jury ruled in his favor in a defamation lawsuit filed by WWE doctor Chris Amann.
That lawsuit centered around Punk’s criticism of his WWE medical treatment, which he spoke of during a 2014 podcast with Colt Cabana. To say that the Punk/Cabana podcast went viral would be an understatement, as it was an interview that reverberated throughout the entire industry. It made sense that Punk did the interview with Cabana considering their long-standing friendship. That took a turn, however, in 2018, as Cabana sued Punk for legal fees stemming from the defamation suit. This was settled out of court, and has appeared to put an end to any type of positive rapport between Punk and Cabana. Interestingly, Cabana is also part of the AEW roster.
In his time away from pro wrestling, Punk competed in mixed martial arts, fighting for the UFC on two different occasions. He also dabbled in writing and acting, all while an overwhelming amount of wrestling fans impatiently chanted his name and demanded his return. He briefly returned to WWE programming in November of 2019 as part of the WWE Backstage show, where he was contracted through Fox and not WWE. Punk now has the potential to be a massive star for AEW, allowing the company to reach an even wider audience as it seeks to assert itself in a terrain long controlled by WWE.
Punk’s AEW debut took place a night before SummerSlam, a signature event for WWE. While parties from both sides often contend that WWE and AEW are not in direct competition, there is no mistaking that WWE officials are well aware that the Punk appearance takes headlines away from their weekend, while AEW is ecstatic to be the top overall story in a weekend traditionally dominated by WWE.
The future of wrestling has changed its direction. AEW’s newest acquisition helps place them on equal footing with WWE in terms of storylines, and, perhaps soon, ratings, as CM Punk is now All Elite.
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