When I post this column, it will be August 17th, 2022 here in Arizona. Three days later, it will be the one-year anniversary of CM Punk returning to the world of pro wrestling and making his debut for All Elite Wrestling. We’ve seen the ups and we’ve seen the downs of the last almost-365 days. Like all of you, I have a bunch of thoughts about the past year, so I figured I would put them all in one place for easy reading. I’m nice like that.
As always, these are just ten thoughts I have on a specific topic. They aren’t my TOP ten. They’re just ten things that fit into the theme, listed in no particular order. Simple as that. Let’s keep things moving and do this before I waste any more time.
That Was An All-Time Great Return/Debut: CM Punk is one of the most polarizing figures in the wrestling business over the last two decades. Hell, Phil Brooks is one of the most polarizing figures in the wrestling business over the last two decades. The one thing everyone can, and should, agree on is that his AEW arrival saw one of the biggest pops this era has ever witnessed. He had been gone for so long, and was so adamant about never returning, that it became a moment we never thought we would see, for AEW or any other company. When Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp first broke the news that Punk was in talks about a return, most of us were skeptical about it. Even when it was said that he had come to terms on a deal and would be showing up, people automatically began thinking it would be some sort of swerve that would get a heel (probably MJF) pure lava heat by coming out to Punk’s music. When he actually showed up, though… ho… ly… shit. The announced crowd in the United Center that night was 15,316 fans, but it sounded like a fucking WrestleMania crowd of 75,000+ for several minutes. It bordered on being surreal. A moment we never thought we would see again, but it was happening, right before our very eyes. If AEW is still around 100 years from now, this will still be talked about as one of the promotion’s biggest, and most defining, events.
He Has Helped To Make AJ Lee One Of The Top Free Agents In The Business: Two weeks after Punk arrived in AEW, Adam Cole made his debut for the company. When Cole debuted, one of the big talking points was that he was in the same company as his girlfriend, Dr. Britt Baker, DMD. People began talking about potential matches and storylines that the couple could be in one day. There was the obvious mixed-tag with Jungle Boy and Anna Jay, another real life couple on the roster, and many other possibilities. Inevitably, this talk turned to a possible mixed tag that would see Cole and Baker team up to take on Punk and his wife, former WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee. AJ has been away from the business for a while herself, with her last match taking place on March 30th, 2015. For a while, it seemed like Punk couldn’t do any sort of media interview without being asked about AJ and if she was going to be next to sign with AEW. In the beginning, he was pretty strong with his answers that she was retired, was enjoying retirement, and had zero intentions of coming out of retirement. After a while, though, his answers seemed to show a bit of a softened stance. His responses started to shift to how supportive he would be if she were to decide that she wanted to wrestle again. If there’s one thing the internet will do, it’s jump to a conclusion. Punk not saying “no” outright to AJ questions CLEARLY meant she was coming back. Obviously. A few weeks ago, he even “guessed” that women like Britt Baker and Jade Cargill could possibly draw AJ out of retirement based on how much she enjoys their work. A ton of interest remains in seeing her return, so we’ll have to see what happens.
There Has Been A Lot Of Ring Rust: Punk himself would be the first person to tell you that he was never the smoothest and most graceful athlete to ever step foot in a wrestling ring, and that was when he was in his physical prime. Coming out of retirement at the age of 42, with seven years between matches, meant that he was probably going to have some “growing pains” at first. He certainly has. There have been several spots that were outright missed, or at least looked really awkward, since he returned. It’s natural. You’ll see wrestlers have ring rust in their 20’s when they’re coming back from an injury that sidelined them for a few months. It’s natural. It happens. This isn’t meant as a knock, but that type of ring rust and awkwardness is almost part of the package when it comes to Punk’s matches. They’ve never been the type of overly scripted, choreographed dance routines that drive the old school wrestling fans nuts. Now that he has returned from an injury that has kept him out for over two months, don’t be surprised if we see more of those awkward spots.
He Has Built Up Quite The Win/Loss Record: As of this moment, Punk has wrestled 21 times for AEW, and he has a record of 20-1 in those matches. His only loss came on the February 2nd episode of Dynamite, when he lost to MJF in a 40-minute match that saw Wardlow slip the Dynamite Diamond Ring to MJF so that MJF could knock Punk out with it. Punk has defeated a wide variety of opponents that come from all over the proverbial ladder in AEW, from people that are usually only on the YouTube shows to people that are widely viewed as “main event” performers. Outside of some part-timers and new signings, that gives Punk the best win percentage of anyone on the AEW roster. He was a huge deal when he signed, and he has been treated as such from the start. On a related note…
It Is Tony Khan’s Fault, Not His, That He Hasn’t “Put Anyone Over” Yet: One of the main complaints about Punk’s first year in AEW is that he “hasn’t put anyone over” yet. When you’re not losing matches, it certainly does limit the amount that one can put an opponent over. Two things, though… one, there have been a million documented cases in wrestling history where someone got over without going over in a match. More importantly, though, none of that is Punk’s fault. Unless, of course, he has it written into his contract that he won’t lose unless he wants to. We’ll just have to assume that isn’t the case here. Any gripes you have about Punk’s wins and loss fall strictly at Tony Khan’s feet. He’s the man making all the booking decisions for the company. If you think Punk should’ve lost to, say, Eddie Kingston at Full Gear last November, it was Khan who made the decision for Punk to go over. There are a lot of legitimate complaints you can have about CM Punk/Phil Brooks, but being someone that holds young and/or deserving talent down isn’t one of them. That we know of. *Dun Dun DUNNNNN*
His Feud With MJF Goes Down As One Of My Favorites Of This Generation: Two of the better “talkers” in the business today, completely being free to do what they do on the mic. That type of freedom means the world to a lot of wrestlers, but far too often, it isn’t something they’re able to have. Punk and MJF were able to go out and cut some great promos that were full of reality. MJF was able to talk about how much he looked up to Punk growing up because he really did look up to Punk. Mentioning Punk’s very real issues with WWE and what caused him to “walk out” on the business, and in turn, all of his supporters, is something that many people can relate to because it’s exactly how they felt when Punk left. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong to feel that way. The fact of the matter is that people felt that way. Many still feel upset about it, almost “betrayed” by someone they felt they supported through some crazy times and accusations. MJF was really able to shine during this war of words, showcasing some great acting ability as he would dig down deep to bring out emotions that we were never able to see him display before. The promos were great enough, but they were able to deliver during their matches, as well. The aforementioned Dynamite match on February 2nd, as well as their Dog Collar Match at Revolution a month later, are easily two of the best matches AEW has seen in 2022. The throwbacks in that Dog Collar Match, with Punk sporting his old Ring Of Honor ring gear and coming out to his old Ring Of Honor entrance music (“Miseria Cantare: The Beginning” by AFI), were very special touches.
His Injury Has Placed AEW In A Very Difficult Spot, Booking-Wise, For All Out: Punk became the AEW World Champion on May 29th. Five days later, he would announce that he was injured and needed to take time off. This led to AEW deciding on an interim World Title, which would be won by Jon Moxley. Now, Punk is back, and we have our main event for All Out, which takes place 18 days after this column goes live to the world. Punk vs Moxley, with the winner becoming the undisputed AEW World Champion, is a huge match. Unfortunately, it comes with some wild booking decisions for the company. Moxley is putting out some of the best work of his career right now. He’s on an absolute roll, and has done a great job of “filling in” for the injured Punk. Do you reward him for the work he’s done? If so, that means, through no fault of his own, that Punk’s title reign ends without a single successful title defense. Do you thank Moxley for what he was able to do, but then say that it’s time to tell the story you were initially going to tell before Punk got injured? If we’re going to be honest, there wasn’t a need for an interim champion to be crowned at all, especially with Punk coming back so quickly. That’s booking yourself into a corner that you didn’t need to be up against. To make things a little more intriguing is the fact that All Out takes place in Chicago, where Punk is obviously viewed as a God-like entity. Does that mean Moxley is going to get a heel reaction? No. Well, probably not. Moxley is insanely popular, too. What would the crowd reaction be if Punk does lose the title, though? If Moxley was a lone wolf right now, and not a member of a super over face faction, you could make the case that a heel turn for him at All Out would be a fun option. As it is, we’re in a spot where people are going to be upset about the match outcome, no matter what happens. That’s something that absolutely, positively never happens with internet wrestling fans.
There Are Still Numerous Huge Matches He Could Have In Year Two: Bryan Danielson. Samoa Joe. Chris Jericho. Kenny Omega. Wheeler Yuta. Claudio Castagnoli. Swerve Strickland. Keith Lee. Malakai Black. Andrade El Idolo. Sting. Ricky Starks. Sammy Guevara. Rey Fenix. Pac. Orange Cassidy. Miro. Jungle Boy. Hook. Dante Martin. Christian Cage. Buddy Matthews. That’s a nowhere-near-complete list of people under contract to the company that Punk has yet to face over the last year. There’s a lot of potential for some great matches and feuds in there. That’s great news. There’s one problem…
I’m Just Not Sure How Much He Has Left In The Tank: This isn’t me saying he’s on retirement’s doorstep. It isn’t even based on any actual factual evidence. I’m just pointing out that he’s going to be 44 in October, and has a ton of miles on his body. That whole “not the most graceful athlete” thing I mentioned earlier? It’s precisely the type of thing that can, and often does, lead to more nagging injuries, especially when an athlete gets older. In no way, shape, or form am I saying that I want him to hit the road and fade away into retirement. He has been a great addition for AEW, and if he sticks around, he can do just about nothing but tremendous things for the company. I’m just saying that we’re at the point in his career that you’re almost better off planning month-by-month, instead of year-by-year. Who knows? Maybe Punk will be like Sting, diving off of balconies in 2041 when he’s 63 years old like Sting is now.
He Does Seem So Much Happier And Healthier: In his debut promo for AEW, Punk mentioned that he was never going to get healthy physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally if he stayed in the place that made him sick in the first place. Seven (now eight) years removed from leaving that place, it looks like he was right. I’m obviously not speaking in a literal sense, since he was just injured, but you can just see it on his face and in his eyes that he’s in a much better place now than he was when he was in his final months in WWE. The time away from WWE, and from the wrestling business, as a whole, did him a world of wonder. He seems to be in a great place, not just when it comes to wrestling, but hearing him speak about his life. Not only did he find all the right motivation in his life, but he seems to be happily in love and content with the decisions that he’s made over the last several years. Yes, even his UFC run, which certainly didn’t go well, but was one of those “I would’ve been haunted by it if I didn’t at least give it a try” type of things. Good for him. That’s the type of personal growth that many of us strive for.
What say you, ReaderLand? How do you feel about CM Punk’s first year in AEW? Not only that, but what do you see in his future with the company? As always, hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what’s on your mind.
Weekly Power Rankings
- Drew McIntyre & Kevin Owens: They had themselves quite the 30-ish minute stretch of Raw, starting with very strong promos and then having a banger of a match. It was a great character reset for Owens, going from working a silly storyline with Ezekiel to reverting back to his “Prizefighter” gimmick that worked so well for him in the beginning of his main roster run. I know some people were complaining about the finish of the match, but in a rare twist for WWE, a non-finish finish actually made sense. For a while, it seemed like every other televised WWE match ended in a disqualification, count-out, or no contest. In this instance, neither man should’ve taken a loss here. McIntyre needs to look as strong as possible heading into his Clash At The Castle match against Roman Reigns. Owens, with the “new” character, needs to look as strong as possible so that fans can fully buy into what the company is trying to sell when it comes to him.
- Gunther vs Shinsuke Nakamura: Yes, it was in a loss, but it didn’t take long for Triple H to get Shinsuke Nakamura looking like Shinsuke Nakamura again. We got to see the Nakamura of old, showing that he’s one of the rare few on the WWE roster that can realistically go strike-for-strike with a monster like Gunther. The Intercontinental Title gains more prestige. Gunther looks even stronger in a big-time win. Nakamura looks better than he has in a long, long time. Everyone wins, even when they aren’t winning. It really is amazing that this type of thing doesn’t happen more often.
- Jon Moxley vs Chris Jericho: Jericho was able to dig deep in the crates for a throwback “Lionheart” performance, all while Moxley continued one of the better hot streaks of his entire career. It was also your weekly dose of “Jon Moxley Bleeds Again.” This was a very important match for Jericho. The whole “sports entertainment” gimmick with the Jericho Appreciation Society hasn’t allowed him to fully showcase his in-ring skills, which is the entire point of it, but every now and then, he’s capable of defying Father Time and showing what he’s still capable of in the ring.
- Bobby Lashley vs AJ Styles: Are you starting to truly understand how strong a week this was for televised wrestling matches? Lashley continues to make the United States Title look, and feel, like a really big deal. As it should, really, especially with it being Raw’s “main event” title for the time being.
- Dolph Ziggler vs Theory: A weird choice to close Raw with everything else going on, but both men delivered strong performances here. Theory continues to get way too much negative reactions online, with people getting “I don’t like his gimmick” and “I don’t like his matches” confused. I don’t think his character is “top of the company” quality, but he proves, time and time again, that he is able to have really good matches against some of the biggest and best that WWE has to offer. I said Vince McMahon would see him as the “next John Cena” and that ended up becoming 100% true. Now that Vince is no longer the man in charge of things, I’m very interested to see what happens with Theory. This is a very early sign that Triple H is a big fan of his, too.
- Carmelo Hayes vs Giovanni Vinci: Like Theory, Giovanni Vinci is someone who isn’t exactly being helped by his gimmick, but whose in-ring work remains very strong. I’m not sure what Vinci’s “ceiling” is in NXT, and I still think he would benefit from getting back together with Gunther and Ludwig Kaiser, but hey, I’m not complaining here. Carmelo Hayes, on the other hand, continues to show that his future is as bright as just about anyone in wrestling right now. He’s main roster ready, for sure, but he might get a chance to be THE guy in NXT before that happens.
- Santos Escobar vs Tony D’Angelo: A very fitting end to this lengthy feud. While I certainly feel Santos Escobar could’ve accomplished more during his time in NXT, a main roster run appears to be in the cards now. I’ve been calling for that for a while now. Putting all of Legado Del Fantasma on Raw or Smackdown would benefit their show greatly. Escobar can be a very solid midcard title guy, with the possibility of becoming a main event guy at some point. While he’s doing that, Cruz Del Toro and Joaquin Wilde will be a great addition to the tag team ranks. Fresh matchups and feuds all around.
- Darby Allin vs Brody King: As I said, this was an INSANE week when it comes to the quality of matches on television. In a normal week, this could’ve been right up there in contention for my Match Of The Week. As it is, this comes in as my pick for the EIGHTH best match this week. Wild. Another performance by Darby Allin that leads people to say he’ll be stuck in a wheelchair by the time he’s 40 years old. He’s a few months away from his 30th birthday, so that might be a very generous timetable. He just seems determined to suffer a career-ending injury at some point. Crowds are still eating it all up, though.
- Penta Oscuro & Rey Fenix vs Andrade El Idolo & Rush: Your weekly AEW match that made me very happy and thankful that I don’t have to do play-by-play coverage. There’s just no way to keep up with the pace that matches like these have. They’re damn sure a ton of fun to watch, though.
- Bron Breakker vs JD McDonagh: It was every bit as enjoyable as I hoped it would be. Furthering the point I’ve been making here, though, it was only good enough to be my pick for the TENTH best match on television this week. I have no idea when the last time a week like this took place. Not only are the matches all good, but check the list… almost everything was very important and not just something randomly thrown together. Title matches up and down the line, and some feud-enders thrown in. Great stuff.
- CM Punk: It’s good to have him back, fully recovered from his injury. Now we officially begin the countdown to All Out.
- Asuka & Alexa Bliss vs Nikki ASH & Doudrop: It was pretty easy to figure out who was going to win this match, but it was still fun. Nikki and Doudrop show that they’re capable of a lot more than they’ve been able to show for a long time. Perhaps their stocks are going up with new management and decision-makers in charge. We’ll see.
- Riddle: It was good to see more of a serious tone for his character this week. The stoner bro has been able to win crowds over, but finding the right mixture of comedy and badassery is a recipe for his main event success in the future. It doesn’t even have to be a weekly thing. He doesn’t have to be SUPER CEREAL if he’s preparing to face Robert Roode in a random match on Raw. Bringing it out for this feud with Seth Rollins makes perfect sense, as did bringing it out for his feud with Roman Reigns and The Usos.
- NXT UK “Invasion” Of NXT 2.0: We’ve seen the likes of Jordan Devlin, Pretty Deadly, and A-Kid make their way to NXT 2.0 recently. Now, we got Gallus (Mark Coffey, Joe Coffey, and Wolfgang), Blair Davenport, and Tyler Bate showing up on the same episode of NXT for different feuds. It looks like we’re going to have a “When Worlds Collide” type of show coming up that will see NXT vs NXT UK. Shit, that works for me. It could also be more of a regular thing, as there have been rumors and speculation about the future of the NXT UK brand. Lord knows the NXT 2.0 roster could use the boost that would come with adding a bunch of NXT UK wrestlers. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
- Mustafa Ali & Cedric Alexander vs The Miz & Ciampa: Ciampa continues to drop little hints here and there about the return of Johnny Gargano. It might only be a matter of time. For now, Ciampa Mizanin and his father, Mike, continue their winning ways.
- Sonny Kiss: There were a lot of excited people when it was announced that Sonny Kiss was going to be wrestling on Rampage. It was her first match on AEW television since she lost to Kenny Omega on the October 21st, 2020 episode of Dynamite. That was 22 months ago! When she lost to Parker Boudreaux in about a minute, those excited folks were dejected all over again. Then came the end of the episode, when Sonny came out to help make the save for Orange Cassidy as he and Best Friends were being beaten down by the Trustbusters, only to reveal that it was a swerve. With one kick to Cassidy’s little oranges, Sonny Kiss became a heel and a new member of the Trustbusters. Ari Daivari, Slim J, Parker Boudreaux, and Sonny Kiss… that’s a wild lineup for a stable. It might present Sonny with her best opportunity at shining in AEW, though, so I’m more than willing to give it a chance.
- Mandy Rose vs Zoey Stark: Man, every single time you’re absolutely SURE this is going to be the match that Mandy Rose finally drops the NXT Women’s Title, she pulls out another victory. She is about to hit the 300-day mark as champion, which would make her the fourth woman to have a recognized reign of 300 days or more. She has come a long way since her days as pretty much nothing more than eye candy on the main roster.
- Paul Heyman: It was a lot of fun hearing him voice a video package for NXT Heatwave. The Heatwave name, of course, goes back to the days of ECW. Nice tie-in to have him involved here.
- Hit Row: When Hit Row was first formed, Isaiah “Swerve” Scott was clearly the star of the group and was going to help carry his stablemates as they got their feet wet. Well, with Swerve now a member of the AEW roster, Hit Row is back in WWE, and I am VERY interested to see how they do without him. They’re obviously favorites of Triple H, so they have that important figure in their corner, but their best in-ring performer and promo guy is gone, so things will be interesting. At the very least, the main roster tag scene continues to get deeper.
- WrestleMania 39 Ticket Sales: More than 90,000 tickets sold in the first 24 hours. That’s the type of number that has to make WWE ecstatic. 90,000+ is a 42% increase over the first-day ticket sales for WrestleMania 38, and is breaking all sorts of records for the sport. Not bad for a show that is nearly eight months away, with no matches announced, no special guests revealed, and not even a guarantee we’re getting the rumored match between Roman Reigns and The Rock.
This Week’s Playlist: “El Que Espera” by Anitta & Maluma… “Toxic” by YG… “I’m Good” by Royce Da 5’9″… “Burnin’ Checks” by The Game & Fivio Foreign… “Chrome Slugs & Harmony” by The Game, Lil Wayne & G Herbo… “Talk To Me Nice” by The Game, Meek Mill, Moneybagg Yo & Blxst… “Strangers” by Danger Mouse, Black Thought, A$AP Rocky & Run The Jewels… “Ticket” by Morray… “The Watcher” by Arch Enemy… “It Ends Tonight” by Hell Fire… “Dominion Day” by Osyron… “When Doves Cry” by Nonpoint… “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by KoRn & Yelawolf… “Enter Sandman” by Ghost… “Call Me Little Sunshine” by Ghost… “Hunter’s Moon” by Ghost… “Cirice” by Ghost… “How Deep Is Your Love” by Bee Gees… “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” by The Spinners… “I’ll Be Around” by The Spinners… “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince… “Sara Smile” by Hall & Oates… “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green… “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps… “What A Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers… “Back Stabbers” by The O’Jays… “After The Love Has Gone” by Earth, Wind & Fire… “Come Sail Away” by Styx… “Daniel” by Elton John… “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd