Illustration by Michael Pantaleon.
Despite CM Punk’s undeniable love for professional wrestling, seeing him return to a WWE ring, or any ring seemed like a pipe dream.
But that pipe dream became a reality on Aug. 20, 2021 and the crowd roared. Punk officially returns to action in his AEW Debut on Sept. 5 in a pay-per-view event against Darby Allin in Chicago. His return and announced debut showcased the genuine love and admiration a lot of people have for him — it boosted ratings, crashed websites and social media.
“When I heard rumors of CM Punk returning to wrestling I told myself ‘finally,’” Edwin Velez told Slice of Culture.
Velez, 23, was 9-years-old when he first found out about CM Punk. He said Punk was “so much different” from other wrestlers and has been a fan ever since.
Punk returned on AEW “Rampage,” which took place in Chicago. The name of the episode was “The First Dance,” referring to “The Last Dance,” which was an ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The episode starts with deafening “CM Punk!” chants in the United Center, where Michael Jordan and the Bulls won six NBA Championships together.
“Look in my eyes, what do you see? The cult of personality,” the lyrics to Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” a song synonymous with CM Punk.
The pop from the crowd for CM Punk's return to the ring will give you CHILLS 😱
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 21, 2021
Punk would address the crowd, delivering his “pipe bomb,” which was his infamous way of verbally attacking the WWE.
News of CM Punk’s return to wrestling sent shockwaves through the wrestling industry.
It boosted “Rampage’s” ratings by 52 percent. The shirts, made specifically for that night, had resale prices at $200, and the ice cream bars from that night had the wrappers selling for $70 or more. The Pro Wrestling Tees website crashed, also Punk’s shirt that he debuted that same night, became the all-time best selling shirt on the website.
News of CM Punk’s return was also all over social media.
CM Punk is back with a mic in his hand 👀 pic.twitter.com/A2pAIf8qux
— ESPN (@espn) August 21, 2021
People that had not watched wrestling for years, tuned in to see CM Punk. It was not just wrestling outlets that were covering his returns, as sports sites were also reporting on him.
“I personally would watch AEW every now and then, but now that CM Punk is there I can’t help but watch every second of the show to see what segments he’s in,” Velez said.
The hype around CM Punk’s return had not been seen, maybe since his historic 2011 summer. His path to superstardom was unique than most of WWE’s roster at the time.
The Making of CM Punk
CM Punk made a name for himself at indy wrestling promotion Ring of Honor. The wrestling style is vastly different to the one that is used in WWE.
His gimmick is also what made him stand out.
His real life persona is “Straight Edge” meaning he does not partake in drugs or alcohol. His numerous tattoos and piercings gave him a look that had not been seen before. There’s also his promo skills, many of which blur the lines of what is real, and what is part of the storyline.
As CM Punk made a name for himself, WWE had signed him, so he was preparing to leave Ring of Honor.
During this time, Punk would openly talk about defending the Ring of Honor World Championship in WWE. Punk would eventually lose his championship as he headed to WWE.
Many people at WWE did not believe in CM Punk, his talent or untapped potential. One of the few people in the company that saw CM Punk’s worth was Paul Heyman, an entertainment executive signed to the wrestling company.
CM Punk would go on to have decent success capturing multiple championships. But by July 2011 his contract with WWE was set to expire at the “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view in Chicago.
On June 27, 2011, CM Punk got a microphone and delivered a “pipe bomb” where he aired his grievances with the company.
He took shots at the face of WWE at the time, John Cena. Punk stated he was the “Best Wrestler in the World” and hated the idea that Cena was considered the best, only because of his championship.
On July 17, 2011, he defeated Cena in Chicago, to become the WWE Champion and left the arena through the crowd. The next night on Raw, Cena defeated Rey Mysterio to win the vacated WWE Championship.
As the show closed, Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” plays as a confused Cena sees that Punk had re-signed with the WWE, and was still WWE Champion.
Three Years Later
Jan. 26, 2014 was the last time CM Punk was seen by a lot of wrestling fans. It was the 2014 “Royal Rumble”, where he was eliminated by Kane.
The next night on “Raw” he was not mentioned at all during the telecast. “CM Punk!” chants could clearly be heard through the TV, as the WWE tried to ignore what had happened.
The March 3rd, 2014 episode of “Raw” took place in Punk’s hometown of Chicago. His entrance was played as fans were disappointed to see Heyman, who had worked with Punk since he began in WWE.
Paul sat down, à la Punk, and delivered a “pipe bomb.”
Heyman had just informed the WWE Universe that CM Punk had walked out of the WWE. It would later be revealed that CM Punk was fired the day he married fellow WWE superstar AJ Lee.
In a podcast with friend and fellow wrestler Colt Cabana, CM Punk explained why he left WWE, citing injuries he had to work through, and the neglect of WWE Doctor Chris Amann.
Amann would later sue Punk and Cabana for defamation, which was ultimately won by Punk & Cabana. Subsequently, Colt Cabana would sue CM Punk based on the legal fees of the previous case, they would ultimately settle the case.
Fast forward to Aug. 20, Punk told the sold-out crowd he left professional wrestling on Aug. 13, 2005, his last day on independent wrestling promotion Ring of Honor.
According to his comments, he lost his love for professional wrestling by wrestling in WWE.
He ended his segment by giving the sold-out crowd ice cream bars that he paid for himself. The ice cream bars was a nod to a segment in WWE, when WWE CEO Vince McMahon was trying to re-sign CM Punk, and one of his requests was the return of the discontinued WWE ice cream bars.
The Legacy of CM Punk
“CM Punk returning to professional wrestling creates a much more competitive environment in professional wrestling,” Velez said. “This benefits the fans.”
Velez added that many people weren’t that invested in AEW because they don’t know the young faces of the company. But now, more people are bound to tune in, he added.
Punk does not look like your typical WWE wrestler.
He did not look like Hulk Hogan, who at one point in time was the most iconic wrestler in professional wrestling.
He did not have the look of current Hollywood actors The Rock, Batista or Cena. He didn’t have the look of The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
He did not look like Brock Lesnar, who left WWE & became UFC Champion, legitimizing Brock as a fighter that could win a match that was not scripted.
“CM Punk knows the star he is, and he is at the point where he no longer needs to be made into one,” Velez said. “His star power and expertise will be used to help younger talent reach their full potential.”