If you’re a wrestling fan you remember where you were during First Dance when CM Punk returned to professional wrestling under the AEW banner inside Chicago’s United Center. Unless you were unfortunate enough to not be near a television or smart device that night, you remember the anticipation at the beginning of the show. You remember the chanting, the promo, and for some of you… the ice cream bar.
That night enhanced the mystique of Punk, reiterating every counterpoint to what we considered mainstream wrestling at the time. Summarily, what we considered anti-WWE. And considering AEW’s foundation was born out of a counter movement, it’s everything that contingent thought, felt, and experienced wrapped up into one mission statement.
It was many things in hindsight, but akin to one of Punk’s hallmarks, it was exceptionally honest. It was a moment in time, much like his return to WWE at Survivor Series last month. Several years prior that would have been unthinkable considering his very public history with the company and its brass, yet 10 years later, an AEW run with two short world title reigns and a very public falling out with members of the AEW roster later and here we are. Hell has frozen over.
Upon his first Raw appearance the night after Survivor Series he delivered a very honest, arguably safe promo refurbishing much of the content from his First Dance promo, but adding that he “was home.” That’s a bit of an odd statement from someone who two years prior said he was sad to leave professional wrestling but he knew he couldn’t stay as he left for WWE the first time around from Ring of Honor. Fast forward some time and now we’re seeing history replay itself with some odd parallels between his first and second arrivals in WWE, namely his leaving “professional wrestling” behind, leaving an arguably lower tier 1B or number two company behind for the brighter lights of the grander stage. Is it slightly hypocritical perceptively? That’s up to you. Is it wrong to have returned? No.
If he didn’t, what was the real alternative if he wanted to continue wrestling, and should we have denied him that courtesy when both good and bad he’s made a career out of being a talking point everywhere he’s worked. Could he have worked NJPW, or taken that rumoured TNA deal? Probably. But would it have made the most sense given the fractional amount of time he has left to work a wrestling match? No.
Presuppose you’re in the same position, what are you going to do? Hold a grudge, or make amends if it means doing what you were built for and mentally and physically trained to do. Therefore if we take his character at its heart, the one that speaks truth to power, then the answer is simply no to the first question.
A couple of months back I said something to the effect of how we attach ourselves to personalities, wrestling included, can become an odd fixation if we don’t separate the fiction from reality. While in this case they’re very much closely related, but contradiction and hypocrisy are not the same thing here. Is CM Punk’s return contrary to his statements in the years that followed his very timely firing, up to and including a number of comments he made while working in AEW? Certainly, but what’s important with anything we do is to grow and I’d rather ere on the side of a positive outlook and assume that fences have been mended in the wake of a very public fallout with AEW and the perspective gained from being several years removed from the WWE stimuli that “made him sick.”
If we don’t grow up, what’s the point?
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and what it means for WWE and even more at the personal level. For me, I think both he and the Young Bucks specifically couldn’t have acted more childish over the last year. It was actually pretty pathetic on both ends, but what’s clear to me are two things.
- CM Punk still very much loves wrestling
- His continued association with AEW was very volatile and was not going to end amicably.
With the first point in mind, if we cut out tribalism or odd fixations on the pathways of people we don’t know, the conclusion I think we need to acknowledge is that WWE was always going to be the best fit for him. Maybe it took the ill-fated AEW run to crystallize that for him, ergo his “home” promo, but the second coming of Punk in WWE under the TKO banner is a natural fit. For as much as he positioned himself as a “pro wrestler,” while true in a sense if we accept that wrestling is many things fashioned in many ways, WWE’s tone fits his character and style better than the more wrestling focused AEW and harder hitting style of NJPW. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The only question to then ask, if any of you have gripes with his return, is whether or not that will stand in the way of enjoying the work he’s about to put forward with a mostly fresh contingent of WWE wrestlers. If we did learn anything from his AEW run, it’s that aside from injuries he still has plenty left in his gas tank, and has more to offer fans, WWE and the kids coming up in NXT. That needs to be the focus, because if there’s anything to be gained from his path and road back to WWE, it’s that growing is an essential step forward, and that was never going to happen in AEW after a point.
Consider that, and appreciate what we’re about to witness.