Ten years later, CM Punk and wrestling fans finally got their ice cream bars.
It’s such a small trifle, maybe even meaningless in the bigger picture but it bridges the gap between what was, what could have been and what now “is” with unbridled sincerity. That hallmark sincerity, whether you’re a fan or detractor, whether you love him or believe he’s a pathological dick, is what has defined CM Punk multi-generationally. It’s both unifying and divisive, and is a driver toward following him devoutly or hating him.
CM Punk’s story is as close to a folk tale at this point that we have, far beyond the parameters of his gimmicks, his catchphrases and how even after 7 years through which his name was chanted passionately as both a means to call for his return as much as it was used to undercut what some view as a “lesser” form of wrestling, he has endured — anchored by his wrestling legacy, his courage to step into the Octagon (ill-fatedly so) and pursue passions outside the wrestling sphere as part of his journey. There’s something relatable in that.
“It’s about the journey and not the destination.” – Frank Mir
MMA fighter-turned-boxer Mir recently reused that phrase after his recent Triller effort in the boxing ring, but I first heard it years ago during a UFC broadcast where commentator Mike Goldberg used the same line, attributing it to Mir during his title fight with Tim Sylvia, and then paraphrasing that failure will test one’s mettle more than any success. The line sums up Punk’s journey: he had to leave in order to find himself again. He had to rise before he could fall, he had to leave and pursue parts of himself he felt were missing, or things he simply wanted to do without ever knowing where it was going to lead. It just so happened that journey led him back to where he started — not ROH, WWE or AEW, but to that point in his life where he fell in love with wrestling. And along the way, be it through WWE Backstage or his work on the Heels TV show, he found it again.
It’s anyone’s guess why he’s truly endured, and it’s anyone’s guess how this will track for AEW long term, but for nearly 20 minutes on Friday that moment was as close to perfection as we can get in wrestling. The anticipation, the moment of the arrival, the crowd and the promo and its substance from start to finish. At the heart of it — and in much of what Punk has ever done from the moment he first wrestled — is passion. For the business, for the fans, for the craft and above all for the fulfillment it brought to him personally up to a point.
Keeping quiet most of last week on it, amid groups of people on Twitter either cheering it on, tearing it down, or hoping he showed up at SummerSlam just to watch the IWC’s consequent meltdown, I just started watching old stuff. Matches, promos, segments, interviews from his time both in ROH and WWE. While everyone has a moment they attract to, often promos and title wins, I gravitate always to his final night in ROH which he referenced Friday on Rampage. I just really love it because of its raw sincerity: it’s the build, the anticipation, the crowd chanting his name, the arrival through the curtain, Cabana holding the ropes open for him and then as he knelt down in the centre of the ring, it’s his being utterly showered in streamers as a show of respect. It’s a perfect moment in wrestling, rooted in — and a consequence of — his own emotion and relationship with fans.
That’s why ever since the stories and rumours began circulating over the past month, excitement grew, blossomed and transformed into this unkempt glee. It’s why once again, when he stepped onto the stage Friday, you could see it in his eyes that he felt like he was home and the next part of his journey was beginning.
Perhaps that’s the lynchpin in why people still care about Punk after all this time, why he’s endured in some wrestling fans’ hearts despite him undercutting WWE at every turn, despite WWE undercutting him and despite failures like those in his two UFC fights. In some ways he embodies each of his most well-known entrance songs, but most of all it’s very much a cult of personality dynamic between him and his fans (dare I say followers?). You can’t explain the devotion, it just “is,” reminiscent of the most passionate, exciting times in wrestling. Yet oddly enough, sticking with that musical theme, “This Fire” and “Miseria Cantare” oddly resonate for him:
“Nevermore to be held down
By the waves against me
Nevermore to be cast aside
This day is mine.”
There’s more to the song obviously, but this passage highlights the perception of fashioning a destiny for yourself, how you perceive that path and then ultimately how it clashes with reality and the resulting struggle born out of it; moreover dealing with that struggle each day while trying to maintain the passion and conviction that set you on the path in the first place. It’s a struggle he obviously gave ground to in 2014, because he isn’t immune to it. Not one person is, and that’s relatable — easy to identify with.
“Nothing from nowhere, I’m no one at all
Radiate, recognize one silent call
As we all form one dark flame
Punk has always had a unique relationship with fans, but I think the reason why we congregated around him is because in contrast to the “larger than life” stylistic attitudes that have dominated wrestling for most of its history, while they have their place, there’s a difference in tone between looking up to something and relating to something in a way that appeals to an “everyman” type of mentality. Punk said it in his promo Friday – he’s one of us, and us in many ways, are him. Maybe that’s why his feuds with John Cena are so captivating because at their core they’re sides of the same coin as contrasting archetypes of a generation.
All of this is important because in examining their pops on their returns, there’s nothing like them and you need to stop and ask why that is, and I think the answer lays in the truth of their characters, their personas and the people behind both. That’s why fans exploded for Cena, and why fans supported Punk blindly for seven years without a shred of hope for a return. Yet, as with Cena weeks prior, the anticipation was well worth it. But similarly so, the next questions veer toward what happens now that we’ve finally caught wrestling’s “white whale” of legend?
The simple answer is to enjoy the ride. We don’t know how long we have him, we don’t know how it will unfold, but what we do have to grasp is the raw power of Friday night. Much like his return itself, we now have the anticipation of what’s to come tonight, which itself brings us closer to an exciting series of moments in professional wrestling over the next weeks and months. And much like not knowing when or if he’d ever set foot back in a wrestling ring, the idea of “possibility” in terms of what may be coming down the pike ignites our collective excitement amongst one another.
Punk walked the path he chose with no regrets, and most of us followed him on that journey to this moment. In some ways, he’s the literal embodiment of what AEW is at its core, born out of defiance and a counter-culture mentality synonymous with how he always carried himself. In that, I’d argue he has more in common with All In’s spirit, what AEW is and what it will be 5-10 years into the future than the EVPs themselves. Punk, even when working in WWE, was always the antithesis to what WWE typically marketed (they didn’t even want him on the WWE ’13 cover if you’ll recall). Now, seven years removed from his last known match, 16 years removed from that night he said “goodbye” to professional wrestling and ROH, we find ourselves at a nexus between the prologue of yesterday and the path that’s being cleared ahead. There’s no telling how this will shake out, whether Punk will be more “Jordan 45” than “Jordan 23,” but the fun part is watching it all unfold.