It’s been seven-plus years since we saw CM Punk get thrown out of the 2014 Royal Rumble by a “corporate” Kane and in retrospect, that elimination was abundant in symbolism wasn’t it?
According to Punk, the “First Dance” in Chicago marks just over 16 years since he left “pro-wrestling” as he knows it. For a lot of fans scorned by WWE’s corporate machinations, it’s hard to disagree with him, but it’s so satisfying to see him back, happy and re-energized. The best part about it? That feeling is contagious.
Punk’s return to pro-wrestling on Friday night signified so much for wrestling fans. For many, it felt like the return of a long-lost friend whom many believed moved on. Something that has always been so admirable about Punk has been his ability to embrace interests outside of wrestling. He relished in his love for hockey, for AJ and for his dog, Larry. He took on the challenges of MMA, comic writing and acting. People who dabble in interests outside of their career bubble know that doing such only enhances one’s ability to excel in their chosen profession, but fans thought CM Punk was done with the craft he became known for. That, in turn, felt tragic and heartbreaking. And what was rewarding for so many tuning into AEW Rampage was that couldn’t be further from the case. That friend was back and it wasn’t because of guilt-ridden obligation, but motivation and appreciation for all who missed him.
For others, Punk’s AEW debut signified a new beginning and a return to what was never broken about wrestling: the art of promotion. WWE has pavlovian trained fans to feel the earth move under their feet and disrupt the convention of good overcoming evil, while faces either lost or play the fool while the bully always triumphed. Therefore, a true payoff would never come and if it did, it would come limping across the finish line with glass-half-empty pessimism and the feigned promise of a resolution in sight.
On Friday, AEW and Tony Khan paid off on the fans’ “First Dance” investments. No rug was pulled, no smoke blown, but we got The Second City Saint showing up for his Second City fans, assuring them that he’s in for the long haul. The tongue-in-cheek teases that AEW dangled in front of everyone for weeks weren’t window dressing, but in fact, it was the Real McCoy that kicked the door down. Such a novel idea in wrestling was long lost, with some even wondering if this promise would go undelivered like many others before it elsewhere.
Also significant in CM Punk’s historic return was a return to authenticity. Punk’s brand has always been that there isn’t a brand with him. He’s CM Punk, who is also Phil Brooks, and he is also a guy who will shoot you straight, authority be damned. The outlaw going against the grain is what made a Dusty Rhodes or a Steve Austin someone fans dreamed to epitomize. From the time Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” erupted inside the United Center to when Punk dropped the mic 18 minutes later, the authenticity was as rich as the sugar in the long-dreamt ice cream bars delivered to the building. Punk organically crowd surfed, hugged fans and tearfully took in the packed house chanting his name, and Chicagoans on the other side of the barricade did the same. An unknown fan on Friday was made into a meme because of happy tears shed, but many in the business (and in his shoes) made an effort to built him up rather than break him down. On August 20, 2021, CM Punk brought a forgotten fanbase together, one that is ready for him to wrestle new stars and one that is ready for a return to pro-wrestling.
“I’m back” never packed a bigger punch.
Follow Dominic on Twitter @DominicDeAngelo and tune into his weekly AEW podcast with his brother, 2 Dynamite Dudes On A Rampage.