First and foremost, I want to take this time to thank you for clicking a link somewhere to read my thoughts this week. You saw the topic in the title, and you clicked it, anyway. There have been a million think pieces about this topic in the last several days, and there will undoubtedly be a million more to come. Some of you have already read a ton of them, and you’re still here. I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.
Hey, folks, I’m not 100% sure if you’re aware of this, but CM Punk is back. I know, I know… crazy, right?
After seven-and-a-half years away from a wrestling ring on television, Punk showed up on last week’s episode of AEW Rampage, making his debut for the promotion. It was one of those absolutely magical moments that pro wrestling, when done right, can deliver like nothing else can. From the moment the show came on the air, the United Center crowd in Chicago was already going apeshit for Punk, chanting his name as loud as we’ve ever heard his name repeated. When that familiar wrestling intro to Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” hit, though, the level of noise was unlike just about anything wrestling has ever been witness to.
Seeing Punk walk out onto the stage with tears welling up in his eyes was an incredible thing. There has been a ton of things that have happened in pro wrestling that we, as fans, never thought we would see. Punk’s return is right at, or near, the top of that list. His time with WWE ended so poorly, and he had distanced himself so far away from the business for so long, that it just didn’t seem realistic that he would ever return to the ring. It was shocking enough to see him as an analyst on the WWE Backstage studio show, but back to a wrestling capacity? I figured I had a better chance of showing up to wrestle than he did.
It’s worth noting here that I have been a fan of CM Punk since discovering his match trilogy with Samoa Joe in Ring Of Honor. At the same time, it’s also worth noting that I haven’t always been a huge fan of Phil Brooks. I’ve never met the guy, but I wasn’t a fan of the way he handled a lot of things in leaving WWE, dealing with friendships within the business, and the way he lashed out at people. The reason I bring that up is because Punk seemed to touch on people who felt the same as me when he started his promo. In his own way, he apologized to any and everyone… fellow wrestlers, friends, family, fans… that he may have “disappointed” or “let down” due to some of the “personal decisions” he has made since leaving WWE. He would then bring up the very valid point that he wouldn’t be able to get healthy… physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally… if he stayed in the same place that got him sick to begin with. It was an obvious shot at WWE without having to mention them by name. I will freely admit that my “disappointment” in Phil Brooks was based on a lot of my own selfish thoughts, based on me being a fan of his work and being sad that he left WWE. Thinking of his health, both physically and mentally, wasn’t the first thing on my mind. I was wrong for that, and I apologize to him for that. He’s right. If WWE was really and truly doing a number on him physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, then he shouldn’t have been there anymore. It doesn’t matter if I want to see him keep wrestling, or if Joe Blow thinks Punk should’ve waited until after WrestleMania to walk out the door.
Punk’s promo wasn’t all that long. From the time he uttered his first word until the time he uttered the last word, it only went about nine minutes. Considering how big the moment was, he could’ve went on for much, much longer. It took up about 20 minutes of air time when you factor in the show intro, Punk’s entrance, the commercial break before his promo, the promo itself, and the post-promo celebration with the fans. All in all, though, this could very well go down as the most important 20 minutes of air time in AEW history to this point. This was a BIG deal, people. Let’s look at some of the numbers really quick:
- The episode saw 1.129 million viewers tuned in, which represented a 52.57% increase from the debut episode of Rampage the week before.
- It saw a 0.53 rating in the key 18-49 demographic, which is a 76.6% increase from the previous week’s 0.30 rating. That demo represented 692,000 viewers in the 18-49 age range, which was a 74.75% increase from the week prior.
- The 0.53 key demo rating was higher than that demo scored for 98 episodes of Dynamite, the company’s flagship show. The only episode of Dynamite to pull in a higher 18-49 rating was the very first episode, all the way back in October 2019.
- As of the moment I type this sentence, the video of Punk’s debut that is on the official AEW YouTube account has almost 6.9 million views. The video of Punk’s promo itself has just over 4.8 million views as of this second.
- The Pro Wrestling Tees website crashed in the wake of the debut and the reveal of Punk’s brand-new shirt. That shirt would break PWT’s record for most shirts sold in the first 24 hours, and would then go on to become PWT’s all-time best seller. PWT has been around for over eight years now, and it took less than three days for Punk’s shirt to reach the top.
As I said, this is a BIG deal. CM Punk was the unobtainable star that nobody could touch, and AEW went out and brought him into the fold. I’ve talked about it in a previous column, but Punk is the beginning of what could be a huge signing spree over the next few months. Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan is rumored to be making his AEW on the September 22nd episode of Dynamite. Adam Cole’s WWE contract is reportedly set to expire on Friday, and he is rumored to be AEW-bound, too. Windham Rotunda/Bray Wyatt is another name that is rumored to be signing with the company soon. Those are all major acquisitions in their own way, but they signal a shift that shows WWE is no longer the be-all, end-all when it comes to wrestling in North America. Gone are the days when you had to go to a different country to get any major exposure if WWE didn’t want you. AEW is here, they’ve proven they aren’t a flash in the pan, and it doesn’t appear that they’re going anywhere at any point soon.
Let’s get back to Punk specifically, though. According to Punk himself, he is signing with AEW to be a full-time performer. This isn’t a “Summer Of Punk” deal where they get a couple matches out of him and then he’s gone. One thing that Punk and Tony Khan won’t reveal is the overall length of the contract. Punk turns 43 years old a few days before Halloween, but as we all know, age doesn’t matter as much in the modern wrestling scene. Chris Jericho is still a major part of AEW, and he’s approaching 51. Sting wrestles for them, and he’s 62! To put into perspective just how much things have changed in the wrestling business through the years, Punk is two months shy of his 43rd birthday, but is being viewed as a fresh, game-changing performer for a promotion on the rise. In 1996, Hulk Hogan was about a month shy of his 43rd birthday when he was revealed as the “third man” building the nWo, and he just spent the previous year being viciously mocked by the WWF for being old, washed up, and completely over-the-hill.
If Punk is back as a full-time wrestler, there’s a lot of “dream matches” that can happen at some point. Here’s a list of just some of the top names on the AEW roster that have never wrestled Punk at any level:
- Andrade El Idolo
- Brian Cage
- Darby Allin (until September 5th, of course)
- Eddie Kingston
- “Hangman” Adam Page
- Jungle Boy
- Kenny Omega
- Malakai Black
- Matt Jackson
- Nick Jackson
- Orange Cassidy
- Penta El Zero Miedo
- Rey Fenix
- Ricky Starks
- Sammy Guevara
Obviously, that isn’t counting people like Jon Moxley, Miro, Chris Jericho, Christian Cage and others that have wrestled Punk, but have seen the entire wrestling landscape since those matches happened. With all of these matches, what are you supposed to do with Punk? He’s a former three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion, two-time WWE Champion, one-time Ring Of Honor World Champion, one-time ECW Champion, one-time Intercontinental Champion, two-time RoH Tag Team Champion, and one-time WWE World Tag Team Champion. If he comes to AEW and loses to, say, Ricky Starks, what does that mean? Does that elevate Starks or “degrade” Punk? What happens if Punk is the one to end Miro’s rampage (no pun intended) through the AEW roster? Does that put Punk over as a major player or does that show that Miro is merely a “secondary” talent in AEW and is still beneath any “glass ceiling” that is there?
You have to be careful booking Punk, and that begins with his very first AEW match. Darby Allin is someone that is currently riding an eight-match win streak, lasting nearly three months now. He has defeated some of the bigger names in AEW, and has pushed others to their absolute limit before losing to them. Darby arguably gave Jon Moxley his toughest (successful) AEW World Title defense when they clashed on the August 5th, 2020 episode of Dynamite. If Darby loses to Punk, what does that do to his push? What if, bah gawd, Darby wins? The issue with bringing these WWE wrestlers to AEW is the “tier” thinking. When the average wrestling fan looks at a company’s roster, they view the roster in tiers. The first tier has all of the top wrestlers… the World Champions, the ones who can contend for World Titles at any point, etc. Then, there’s the second tier, featuring rising stars that are going to be World Champions one day but aren’t quite there yet, and maybe the grizzled veterans that are slowly moving their way back down the card. The next tier features the true midcard workers that aren’t jobbing in dark matches, but they also aren’t going to be in main events soon. Further tiers depend on how big the roster is, but then it goes all the way back down to the bottom tier that has those wrestlers who are healthy but haven’t been used in a while because the companies don’t have anything for them. With the big WWE/NXT names that are coming, or are rumored to be coming, to AEW, the average fan views them at, perhaps, a tier or two higher than a lot of the big AEW names. Whether or not those wrestlers truly are a tier or two higher is irrelevant here, because perception is king sometimes. Punk has been a main event guy everywhere he’s been. Darby has not. There’s a difference in their “tiers” in the eyes of many fans. Darby is expected to lose, but the aforementioned “glass ceiling” comes into play if he does, because then some people will look at him and not see him as a top talent.
Of course, most of that is fantasy booking, and that’s a different conversation for a different column.
This column is about that return. That we-knew-it-was-coming-but-we-still-had-our-doubts-it-was-coming return. The level of emotion in that building was rivaled by very few moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in all my years of being a wrestling fan. We heard it and we saw it, clear as day. That clarity was no more crystal clear than when “Cry Guy” was shown on camera, reacting to Punk’s arrival. You’ve all seen him by now. A random fan in the audience was shown with tears streaming down his face, overcome with the emotion of seeing CM Punk live and in person. Immediately, social media had a field day with the guy. He was getting made fun of left and right for crying over something as small and trivial as seeing a wrestler. My question is this… why? Why were people making fun of him? Sure, there are much “bigger” things to get emotional about, but this is what pro wrestling, when done right, does for us. It takes us on such a journey that pulls us into the story and the characters presented within the story. We cheer for people, and we jeer other people. Happiness, joy, anger, sadness, disgust… those emotions are all on full display when the product is good.
The key example of that to use here is Daniel Bryan’s roller coaster ride from losing the WWE World Heavyweight Title at WrestleMania 28 to winning the same title two years later at WrestleMania 30. Fans were upset at the treatment he was receiving, and they tried to “will” their guy back to the top. By SummerSlam 2013, those fans were sure their work was about to pay off, as Bryan was back in the main event, challenging John Cena for the WWE Title. He would win the match, but would then see his title reign last mere minutes. You know the deal… Special Guest Referee Triple H turned on him, allowing Money In The Bank winner Randy Orton to cash in and become the new champion. I’ve never seen such anger over a match result in all my years as a wrestling fan. People were PISSED. Vince McMahon was receiving death threats. People were burning their WWE merchandise. It was insane. These people just KNEW that it was more than a wrestling story. It was actually Vince McMahon screaming “FUCK YOU” with his middle fingers raised high. That anger turned into a line of thinking where people figured WWE was fucking with them, so now, it was time to fuck with WWE right back. That’s when fans all over the world began to “hijack” WWE shows, cheering and chanting for Daniel Bryan, even during matches and promos that he had no part in. You want to act like you don’t hear us, Vince?!? We’re going to FORCE you to hear us, you son of a bitch! It all ended, of course, with Bryan back on top of the wrestling world at WrestleMania 30, and all was right until he started having to deal with the injuries that would eventually force him to retire.
That’s wrestling. It does things to us that can’t be described to people that weren’t there to see it. Emotions are an incredibly complex thing. Look at happiness. When some of you get happy… I mean a true, honest-to-goodness happiness that you feel in your soul… you scream and shout. Some of you dance. Others… cry. Tears of joy. The type of tears that just come bursting out, and you might not even be thinking about it. That emotion just builds and builds, and it has nowhere else to go. Good for that guy. I’m glad that he was able to connect with something on such a primal level that it caused him to react with those tears.
Again… this is a BIG deal. I don’t care if you’re an AEW fanatic, a WWE diehard, or anything else on the scale… Punk’s return to pro wrestling is a monumental moment. The type of moment that we could be looking back on years from now as something that changed the wrestling business forever. As always, it’s all about the follow up for AEW. Yes, the viewership and ratings numbers for Rampage were impressive. Sure, the YouTube numbers look incredible. None of it matters if there’s not a good enough follow up to keep some of these fans involved and invested. It doesn’t matter if Punk comes in and stinks up the joint with his matches. A mere few hours after this column goes live, Punk will be making his Dynamite debut, so that follow up begins tonight. For now, you have to expect some more momentum for AEW. They’re hoping this will be one of the more highly-watched episodes of Dynamite, carried by the wonder about what Punk is going to say or do next. We got the first bite on Rampage, but can AEW, and CM Punk himself, continue to make the rest of the meal appetizing?
Let me talk to some of you WWE mega fans for a moment. You can be honest with me here. Everyone else has left the room. Even though you’re a huge fan of WWE, I know you’ve seen Punk’s AEW debut, either live or somewhere like YouTube. Admit it… when you watched it, there was a spark of magic in your eyes. Candyland appeared each time you smiled, huh? You never thought that fairy tales came true, but they came true when he was near you. He’s a genie in disguise, full of wonder and surprise.
What I meant to say was that it’s okay for people to admit they loved the return. Even if you hate AEW and/or CM Punk, you sat there, caught up in the rapture, and you were happy. Maybe not happy to see Punk again, or to see AEW thriving in the scene, but happy that this wacky sport we love so much could make people feel like that again. Be honest with me. Hell, be honest with yourselves.
It’s an exciting time.
Weekly Power Rankings
- CM Punk: Come on.
- WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov: The last time they faced each other in a singles contest, it was my pick for Match Of The Year. This time around, it might very well be my pick for Match Of The Year again. I’m not sure, as I don’t really start thinking about that kind of thing until Halloween rolls around, but it’s right up there, without a doubt.
- Becky Lynch: Let’s forget, for a minute, about the clusterfuck that led to Becky Lynch becoming the new Smackdown Women’s Champion. Instead, let’s merely focus on Becky Lynch being the new Smackdown Women’s Champion. It’s great to have her back, and she immediately provides a major boost to the women’s division on Smackdown. If the reports of WWE wanting her to be a heel moving forward are true… good luck with that. The company apparently doesn’t remember the last time they tried to make her a heel.
- Edge vs Seth Rollins: It was a match everyone knew would deliver, and it did just that.
- Roman Reigns vs John Cena: It was a match everyone knew would deliver, and it did just that. As a longtime Cena fan, however, I have to admit I’m a little sad we probably aren’t going to see him win his 17th World Title, but that’s neither here nor there.
- Samoa Joe: The brand new NXT Champion. It was a move that needed to be made. He already has a handful of challengers coming after him, so it will be fun to see how he handles it.
- Hit Row vs Legado Del Fantasma: The feud was already entertaining, but their match on NXT this week took it to another level. Now, with the addition of Elektra Lopez to the mix, it evens out both sides. There would need to be some rule tweaking a bit, but now, we can take the feud even further by having a match inside of… WAR GAMES. I’m just saying.
- Charlotte Flair: She’s a 12-time Women’s Champion in six years of being on the main roster, and a 14-time Women’s Champion in her eight year career with the company if you count the NXT Women’s Title. That’s entirely too many in such a brief period of time, but there’s no denying her star power. I eagerly anticipate her losing the title in a month or two, and then winning it back a few weeks later, but for now, congratulations are in order.
- R-K-Bro: Speaking of congratulations, they also go out to the brand new Raw Tag Team Champions. Maybe you’re surprised, and maybe you’re not, but their act has become one of the best and the most over in all of WWE, and they deserved the reward.
- Brock Lesnar: RAGNABROCK IS HERE.
- Jon Moxley: Another week, another great promo from Mox. He’s becoming grumpier all the time. Some assume it’s leading to a heel turn, but I’m wondering if it’s too soon after AEW paid for the rights to use “Wild Thing” as the man’s entrance music. His promo on Dynamite definitely showed that he has no problems crossing paths with anyone, heel or face. It just fits his character, though. He has a kindred spirit in Eddie Kingston, but Mox isn’t the type of guy who is going to go out and have a bunch of great buddies on television. I like his mention of people coming to AEW from everywhere, setting him up as a potential feud for the approximately 94 new signings that will debut for the company in the next month or so.
- John Morrison: Words could not tell you how much I hate this whole “Johnny Drip Drip” bullshit. For that matter, they could not tell you how much I have hated just about everything involving Morrison since he returned to WWE nearly 19 months ago. This is the chance to right what I feel are wrongs. Now that The Miz has attacked Morrison, ending their friendship, it’s time for a more serious version of Morrison to be on WWE television. We’re off to a good start, as he had a serious promo (albeit a very brief one) after the fact, conveying his anger. If your best friend turned his back on you, it would be hard to take you seriously if you spent all your time making lame ass puns and jokes about water and being moist.
- Kyle O’Reilly vs Adam Cole: In what was probably Cole’s last match for NXT, and possibly his last match as a WWE employee altogether, it was another good one between these two. Not their best, but still pretty good. With Cole probably out of the picture for good, I’m interested to see if NXT actually pulls the trigger on putting O’Reilly at the top of the NXT picture at some point.
- Sheamus vs Damian Priest: It was a match everyone knew would deliver, and it did just that.
- Carmelo Hayes: After an impressive run through the NXT Breakout Tournament, he now has a title shot against the champion of his choosing in NXT. He has an insanely bright future ahead of him, as evidenced by how quickly he has received this push, after only debuting for NXT less than three months ago.
- Kay Lee Ray: Long considered one of the best women’s wrestlers on the planet, she debuted for NXT after spending the last couple years working for NXT UK. After being the NXT UK Women’s Champion for a whopping 649 days, she has now set her sights on Raquel Gonzalez, looking for some more gold.
- LA Knight vs Cameron Grimes: As always, I am legally and contractually obligated to mention the fact that Grimes nearly broke my leg at an independent wrestling show a few years back. Outside of that, though, this was another good match between these two. They’ve built up a ton of in-ring chemistry. Grimes winning the Million Dollar Title was a good payoff to the story.
- The Young Bucks vs Jungle Boy & Luchasaurus: Jungle Boy is now 0-5 in any sort of title matches in AEW, including an 0-3 record in the last four months. He’s going to get over that hump at some point, but it’s been interesting to see him on that journey. This was a good match fueled by a hot crowd that really wanted to see the AEW Tag Team Titles change hands.
- Riddle vs AJ Styles: It was a match everyone knew would deliver, and it did just that.
- Rey Mysterio vs Jey Uso: It was a match everyone knew would deliver, and it did just that.
This Week’s Playlist: “One In A Million” by Aaliyah… “If Your Girl Only Knew” by Aaliyah… “Choosey Lover” by Aaliyah… “4 Page Letter” by Aaliyah… “The One I Gave My Heart To” by Aaliyah… “Hot Like Fire (Timabaland’s Groove Remix)” by Aaliyah, Missy Elliott & Timbaland… “Adrenaline” by Zero 9:36… “No Love In LA” by Palaye Royale… “Torch” by Black Veil Brides… “Teardrops” by Bring Me The Horizon… “Warrior” by Atreyu & Travis Barker… “Paralyzed” by Sueco… “Heartbreak Anniversary” by Giveon… “100 Bars Of Crack” by Ya Boy… “Hate Me” by Blue October… “Sober” by Tool… “I Gotta Be” by Jagged Edge… “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” by Journey… “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran… “Baller’s Prayer” by Boo-Yaa Tribe… “Swim Good” by Frank Ocean… “Ask Of You” by Raphael Saadiq… “Is This Love” by Bob Marley & The Wailers… “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers… “Gimme Back My Bullets” by Lynyrd Skynyrd