Refusing to be Punk'd
How the Second-City Saviors return to professional wrestling is the biggest news we have had in 27 years.
August 20th, 2021. United Center, Chicago, IL. "The Return"
Where were you? It's a common question when discussing history. Anyone can remember where they were when something big happened. I was in the 2nd grade out on recess when I remember getting called in early to be told that we would be going home early on September 11th, 2001. I can remember working at an indoor ice cream stand, scooping up little ice cream dots when I found out that Michael Jackson had died suddenly on June 25th 2009. And, for the coming years, I fully expect to jaunt back to the night of August 20th, 2021 and recount how I was standing in my room mates kitchen, eating a nestle brand ice cream drum stick when I opened up my phone and saw that CM Punk had done what we all had wanted, but had grown skeptical we would see. Punk was back in a wrestling ring. As a wrestler. Talking about wrestling other superstars. He could of went out to the ring, smiled, sat Indian-style in the center of the ring, put the mic to his mouth, and not said a single fucking word and people would of eaten it up. The pop that came from 'Cult of Personality' blaring in the United Center was one of elation, pure joy and what I could overall describe as mania. Grown men cried at the site of this man strolling down the ramp. Why though? If you aren't a fan of professional wrestling, and I mean beyond WWE, than it may be hard to get. Let me break it down here a bit. Let's journey into the odyssey of on Phil "CM Punk" Brooks.
Let's see how far we've come
To understand where we are at, we have to understand how we got here. So let us go back to the beginning. Phil "CM Punk" Brooks was born in Chicago on October, 26th, 1978. Life for the young Brooks was not a pleasant one. His family dealt with a caveat of drug and alcohol issues growing up. The issues were so bad that he actually ran away from home as a you and made a pact to be straight-edge, or live without the influences of drugs and alcohol. It is a pact he has kept and a lifestyle he lives to this very day. As a young boy, CM Punk fell in love with professional wrestling. This is during arguably wrestling's biggest boom period in history. To set the slate, there were two major wrestling promotions in the WWF(World Wrestling Federation, now WWE) and WCW (World Championship Wrestling). On the side there were still several regional promotions along with a small upstart out of Philadelphia called ECW that attracted a fair amount of national attention and exposure. The competition and variety lead to "must-see" TV and a constant contest to one up each other on a weekly business. The fans benefited the most, especially young Phil Brooks. Starting in 1999, Brooks would forever change his life as he acquired the wrestling name "CM Punk" and started his journey in professional wrestling.
Punk made his way around several independent promotions in the Midwest before making the jump to Ring of Honor. The jet pack was then attached and Punk shot to the moon. He earned fame and credibility on the backs of Famous feuds with past star Raven and futures stars like Christopher Daniels and Samoa Joe. The episodic rivalries generated massive amounts of buzz and cemented all the participants, not just Punk, as bonafide stars capable of quality championship reigns. Around this time, circa 2004, the wrestling game had changed. Gone was WCW and 3rd wheel darling ECW. Acquired by WWE, we started to see wrestling take a more polished approach. Gone were the abundance of chair shots, ass and titties on our screen. Going forward we would see tactical and decisive promos. Along with hard hitting, fast paced matches that made your grandparents wrestling look like two grow man trying act like their fighting. The prototype of the tall, jacked and muscular meathead was slowly breaking down and we started seeing wrestlers who didn't fit the mold per se, getting their shot outside of the undercard and gimmick matches. Punk was a huge part of this as the biggest independent wrestling star in the world at the time was a pierced and tatted up punk-ass kid who wore basketball shorts to the ring and had a Pepsi tattoo on the side of his arm. We were slowly starting to see the phoenix of the future of wrestling rise from the ashes of WCW and ECW. However, on August 13th 2005, we would see Punk exit a non-WWE wrestling ring for what we thought would be the last time.
CM Punk would follow to sign a WWE contact and be placed in their developmental system. I am not going to in-depth dive into the career of CM Punk, but I do want to cover the impact this man has had on the industry. Because, well, I was there for it all. I remember his introduction promos in ECW, I remember his first match against actual ECW legend (not the WWE wannabe minor league program) Justin Credible. I remember the great feuds he had as his stock slowly started to rise. Still, we were at a time where you needed to have the beach body, tower over anyone and fake bake like south beach single mom to get over. Punk was a curt, tattoo covered alternative badass who didn't have 2 abs in the pack let alone 6. But that didn't matter. We as fans resonated with him. We too had felt left out, disenfranchised and felt like an outcast. He became the self-coined "Voice of the voiceless". He rose to the main roster amid a money in the bank match win, cashing in on at the time champion and future guardian of the galaxy, Batista. Following an underwhelming reign where he never was even pinned to lose it, Punk started to show the character prowess that earned him his own level of success in the independents. Projects such as the Straightedge Society and him becoming the new leader of the Nexus worked as well as Punk could do with them. He turned what was after thought projects in the creative room to tantalizing TV and would often steal either the best segment or best match of the evening. It still felt that Punk would be relegated to this B+ player status. He had all the tools, just not the look factor of bulk and brawn that WWE classically looks for. That would all change in one summer though.
Getting Punk'd out of the best summer ever.
There are only a few runs in professionally wrestling that we talk about when it comes to the best of the best. There's the Ultimate Warrior and his undefeated run through man, woman and child to meet with Hulk Hogan for a title v title match at WrestleMania 6. Stone Cold Steve Austin winning King of the Ring and ascending to the heavens of stardom. Sting changing to the crow-inspired character and his run to defeating Hulk Hogan at Starrcade. Then, in my own personal fond memory, there is the Summer of Punk. While this didn't have the storybook ending the other storylines I mentioned, this is different all together. The Summer of Punk made wrestling what it is today. It was an exhilarating time in wrestling when it felt like the lines between kayfabe and reality were blurred, and it all starts with a contract dispute.
Heading into the summer of 2011, CM Punk had gotten worn out. Forced to pack on weight to appear bigger, the grind of the WWE schedule was starting to get to the star who prided himself on being the best in the world. So going into his contact expiring on July 17th 2011. Punk had options. He could resign, take a break or continue on like nothing had happened. OR, he could take some time off, maybe even leave permanently, and halt what was starting to become a top tier career. To clarify, Punk had been a main eventer. But, the difference between someone who is in the main event and a superstar is a decent little space. Punk felt that he was a superstar but kept getting short changed due to his size and alternative style to professional wrestling. so he decided to use his status as leverage.
Entering into a WWE championship program with John Cena, Punk used his real-life situation as fuel for the company storyline. He started to threaten walking out of the company. Better yet, he would beat the golden boy John Cena and take the WWE title with him too. Punk was currently the on-screen leader of the Nexus (group of young stars that came out white hot but had all but fizzled out) and really felt that he was just being placed towards the top to satisfy him. He didn't believe that WWE saw him like a John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock. He would never headline WrestleMania at his current rate. So, he took a gamble. Keeping the contract open to expire and starting to feud more on-screen with owner Vince McMahon. It was during this feud, just weeks away from the eventual match, that we saw the 'Pipe Bomb' get dropped and wrestling change forever.
On June 27th, 2011, we saw the bomb drop. Following his interference in a R-Truth vs John Cena match, Punk walked from the ring as Cena lay against a broken table beaten and broken. Up the entrance way CM Punk went until he stopped at the top, turned around and sat down cross-legged. Over the next 6 minutes, Punk would blend kayfabe and reality as he talked about why he was leaving the WWE. He called out The Rock, Vince McMahon and Triple H for behind the scenes issues, breaking the proverbial fourth wall, one that is not to be broken in professional wrestling. His ranting of lack of opportunity in merchandising combined with his frustration over a part-time wrestler receiving better opportunities, Punk spoke openly and loudly about things that had been hidden in the wrestling industry. This one promo transformed the industry overnight. Leading into the Money in the Bank PPV, the eyes of the world were focused in on one thing, John Cena VS CM Punk. On July 17th 2011, the world would change. On that fateful night, the unthinkable happened. After a grueling 5-star back and forth contest, Punk cleanly beat Cena 1,2,3 to win the WWE Championship. The roof blew off of the United Center in Punk's hometown of Chicago, as follow up robbery attempts failed and CM Punk hopped a railing, blew a kiss to CEO Vince McMahon, and walked off into the sunset. The New, Undisputed, Unemployed, WWE Champion.
When the lightning escapes the bottle.
Hell of a story huh? I mean, it isn't over but this is the apex. Our hero escapes the kingdom with the crown jewel. He beat the crown prince and chased off by the king and his cronies. The follow-up however did not match the electric rise. WWE did as they do best and muddied the waters far too often instead of relying on great performers with solid storytelling. Let us be clear though, this shot Punk over the moon. The ice cream bars, collectors cups and programs that he complained about not being on before featured his face front and center. He held the WWE championship multiple times, once for over a year, between the Summer of Punk and his eventual exit from the company.
The issue that remains in a lot of our mouths though about the treatment of CM Punk, is the same one he has. Time after time, even after changing professional wrestling as we know it, Punk didn't feel like "The Guy" Constantly losing the main event of Pay-Per-View shows or just clearly given less time build storyline. Regardless if he was the champion or not. He seemed like a decent guy but not the long term horse that WWE wanted to hitch it's buggy too. Punk obviously knew that was the case he had a ceiling he was never to smash through (Ironic as it is infamously told that Vince McMahon has "smash through the glass ceiling and grab the brass ring" speech). Realizing there were no more rings to grab, and while he was no longer a B+ player, he would never be that guy who carried the company. So, on January 26th, 2014, CM Punk wrestled in his last match for the WWE. Entering that years Royal Rumble, at the like titled PPV, Punk was slated by the production team to have a lengthy run that would possibly lead to him having a big spot at WrestleMania. Plans changed as Punk would suffer a concussion early on in the match and plans were adjusted for him to be eliminated and be taken to the back for medical assistance.
What follows is dirty, ugly and was one of the worst break-ups in the history of wrestling. On or off screen. Punk would get an argument with medical staff, Triple H who is the real life CFO of WWE, and even CEO Vince McMahon. Punk stormed out of the building, and no showed the following nights Monday Night Raw episode. The world wonders as WWE slowly phased out Punk, but sending mixed signals as they continued to promote him on shows and the upcoming WWE video game. Finally, in June, we got our answer. On what would turn out to be CM Punks wedding day (WWE claims no knowledge of this, despite employing his wife, AJ Lee, at the time), WWE sent a Fedex to Punk officially firing him from the company. Next would be another moment in the history of wrestling, as CM Punk went on Independent Wrestler Colt Cabana's podcast and aired his side of the story and multiple grievances against his former employer. Lawsuits were shot back and forth during this time as Punk and Cabana fell out due to the legal action and complications with it. Fans waited, and hoped, that one day CM Punk would return. We would hear the hard static cut, followed by the opening guitar rift off Living Colour's Cult of Personality. He became the one that got away for every hardcore wrestling fan. Arena's still to this day filled with "CM Punk" chants. But, due to the rift with his former employer, that day seemed as if it would never come.....Thank God we were wrong.
Before we talk about return, we must talk about the time in between WWE and AEW a bit more. Following the initial activity of reveal-all podcasts, lawsuits and the juicy drama steaming from the Punk/WWE break-up, the drama quieted out. Punk would sign with the UFC and start training for his transition to MMA in late 2014. Besides making sporadic tv or convention signings, the spotlight would only come back to Punk during his few UFC bouts(all losses) and when he decided to bow out of the octagon, many thought Punk and wife April Mendez would just quietly enjoy their Post-WWE careers. Until, the first dominoes started to fall.
Throughout the years, Punk would still make appearances at wrestling conventions and the same question would remain. "Will you ever come back". This was a hard situation. WWE has been the only big show in town for professional wrestling for the past 20 years. There has never been a "real" competitive threat to the titan of the industry. So seemed that the decision to be made was either stay away from professional wrestling, or go back into the haunted grounds of the same company that ran this man through the ringer the first time around. There was even what you could call a "soft encounter" as Punk featured heavily on WWE's show on FS1 "WWE Backstage" and that started churning the rumor mill all over again. It had been over 5 years since his last appearance and a new crop of stars intrigued fans with possible feuds and matches. It was the dip in the water of the toes we had been waiting for. No, Punk wasn't employed by WWE technically but it meant that Fox got the blessing to hire him. The question more seemed like a "When" not so much of an "if". But, in the midst of this, an outside player began forming, in the form of All Elite Wrestling.
Being the Elite.
Now there are two factors of Punk's return that make it as momentous as it is. We just talked about the first one, being the man himself and his hiatus from professional wrestling. The second factor however, involves the son of "The son of a plumber", A billionaire fan, and a whole revolution that is changing the industry. I am talking about All Elite Wrestling. Announcing it's formation on January 1st, 2019, All Elite Wrestling is the brain child of a wrestling clique called "The Elite" which is headed by Cody Rhodes, son of Dusty Rhodes, along with 5-star machine Kenny Omega, arguably the greatest tag team in the world in the Young Bucks, and young rising star "Hangman" Adam Page.
This group has started to revolutionize and bring a ton of new eyes to independent wrestling during the late 2010's following Rhodes' releases from the WWE. Subjected to mid card booking and lack of creativity, Rhodes broke out from under the WWE banner. "The American Nightmare" and his gang of independent misfits started drawing more and more popularity from all types of fans, bringing more hype to the independents than ever before. It was during this time that they made connections with Tony Khan, son of Billionaire Shad Khan, and started forming a friendship. The younger Khan had grown up a fanatic of wresting, and arguably had the money to get in the ring and compete with Vince McMahon and the empire he had created. We hadn't seen a company with real potential to go up against the WWE in 20 years, the last being WCW which was bought and closed by WWE back in 2001. Finally, as wrestling fans we had something to look forward to that wasn't the same stale product that had slowly been fading many fans out slowly over the years.
Now, WCW, is a name that brings up a caveat of emotions. It harkens back memories of Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen. Sting, Harley Race, the nWo, and other southern brand mainstays still warm our hearts. Just as the memories of the final years of WCW are there to remind of the rapid fall we had only a few years removed from arguably professional wrestling's hottest time, having two major companies going to war with each other. See, WCW at one point was just like AEW. Young, full of talent and an owner who wanted to dive right in and compete with Ted Turner at the mantle. There was one pivot move though that sticks out when you look back in history. One signature signing that gave WCW credibility to really compete with the Titan brand up north. It was on June 11th,1994 that the world would change as Hulk Hogan would jump ship and sign with WCW.
The move of the Hulkster did a handful of momentous swings when he signed with the rival brand. First was it instantly put the biggest star of the past decade in WCW, which instantly raised their credibility as a competitor and organization. Second, it took away the star who, while having faded in recent years, still carried the WWE and was their flagship star. Finally, it signaled that there would be a war over professional wrestling in America and their were quickly becoming no rules to the madness. I think Punk has the potential to bring this to AEW. I don't think their is a single star in the world we wanted to see a return out of more than Punk. Stone Cold Steve Austin would be the only other name I could even think to associate but with his age and known neck injury, it doesn't even come close to the potential of what this means for Punk. He took 7 years off of the sport. He left beaten in spirit and body, with no joy or passion left for the sport he once broke himself in high school gymnasiums and army barracks for. Besides the fights in the UFC, and a one off appearance for a minor wrestling organization, Punk has been off getting himself right and healthy. He looks the part too. The smile is back, and we are to assume the ring work will follow. Ever the story teller, Punk wasted no time reminding us night one that he is still the best in the industry with a microphone in his hand.
This return just feels right for CM Punk though. WWE is hurting right now. Having shocked up with several big name releases in the last year, there are several yellow or even orange tinted flags coming out from the towers in Stanford. AEW seems to day by day gaining steady momentum. Their "for the boys" philosophy along with less traditional and more worker friendly schedule has made them the talk of the industry and a hot spot for all wrestling talent. The free flowing match style and non-child driven content has been attractive for the 18+ viewer and has been a breath of fresh air after watching the same style of wrestling for so long. The Industry now reflects the change that Punk initiated all those years ago. As he sat cross-legged, mic in hand, berating his current employer without malice, shattering the 4th wall that was protected like holy documents in wrestling. A bomb was dropped that fateful night, but in the fallout there was a domino effect. Punk leads to Daniel Bryan and his legendary run to the title. Punk leads to the Bullet Club's popularity, The Elite and their rise to fame. All of these events from the last decade that has brought us here. This is the most open ended wrestling has felt in a long time. Fans have options. Performers have options. When their is variety and competition, everyone wins. It's the best FOR the world. Funny, it all seems to stem from a man who calls himself the best IN the world. And.....