Welcome to the third edition of DraftKings Network’s The Three Count. We’re not even going to hold you this week. It’s all about CM Punk’s return to the WWE. Everybody is talking about it. Now, we’re talking about the surprise factor, his role in the current incarnation of WWE can be, and what Punk’s AEW overall legacy will entail.
How surprised were you to see CM Punk return at Survivor Series?
After Punk was terminated during his second AEW stint, I always thought it was a matter of when and not if he was returning to WWE. WWE thinks in one color, and that’s green. The door is open if it’s a money-maximizing opportunity and you haven’t done something absolutely horrid. The synergy between Chicago and Punk is there, and given the reaction on Saturday night, nobody is tired of the “let’s give this another whirl” homecomings Punk has had. (It’s three in three years now!)
I thought WWE was going to hold this until Royal Rumble. They had already sold the place out, had Randy Orton, and Survivor Series had considerable buzz without Roman Reigns. CM Punk was the “we can do this anytime we want” stamp. - Murjani Rawls, Culture Editor.
WWE played this perfectly, and I still have no idea how they pulled it off in 2023. Rhea Ripley bringing in the Money in the Bank briefcase was perfect because it raised questions on whether Randy was back and made you think about how cryptic Cody was during Raw. Then, when his music finally hit, you were pumped for that return and happy, especially seeing that huge RKO spot.
I very nearly turned off the PLE when the credit square popped up. Then Punk’s music hit, and I said, “No f***ing way.” I’ve always thought that Punk was overrated, but that music, pop, and the fact that he is back in WWE washed that all away. Because so many people predicted it, I can’t say it was a 10/10 surprise, but it was probably a 9/10, given they pulled it off and managed the Orton return beforehand. - Teddy Ricketson, Staff Writer
It caught me off guard because I bought into every report indicating that the WWE wouldn’t bring him back for Survivor Series. Saturday was a busy day for this website with college football, so I was flipping back and forth and missed the main event. I saw my Twitter timeline losing their minds, so I rushed back, rewinded the broadcast a few minutes, and sure enough, there he was. It's just absolutely stunning that they pulled this off. -Nick Simon, Staff Writer
Now that he’s back, what’s CM Punk’s ceiling in WWE?
CM Punk is a motivated 45-year-old. He’s not what he used to be and has had some considerable recent injuries that have caused him to miss time. With him returning to WWE, the beauty is that he doesn’t have to be the guy. Punk doesn’t have to be THE headlining attraction of a Saturday show. The WWE roster is stocked with people who already do that. All Punk has to do is fit in and do his thing.
I don’t expect him to be on the road for 200 days a year. In AEW, he was put in that position because he was one of the main draws. When they got the second main show, it was both to keep him away from the Elite and perhaps draw extra eyes. WWE will put in the right places with storytelling that works, matches that fit his strengths now, and placate to the fourth wall breaking he likes to do. It’s up to him to maximize that opportunity. - Murjani Rawls
I don’t know that I’m the best to answer this just because I’m not that big of a believer in him being able to wrestle like someone who is the face of the company he once was. I think most of the appeal is nostalgia over wanting something that seemingly was never going to happen. I’m split on how I feel about Rollins’ reaction after the show went off-air. On one hand, I think it automatically sets up Punk in the World Heavyweight Championship picture. On the other, with how many expletives Rollins was screaming combined with the single bird hand gestures, I’m nervous about the state of the locker room.
For now, let’s assume everyone can play nice and get along. The ceiling is that 2025’s Wrestlemania is headlined by CM Punk taking on Cody Rhodes, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, or a combo, and that is amazing to be able to say in 2023. The ceiling comes down to how long everyone can get along. Please don’t have him win the Royal Rumble in the short term. - Teddy Ricketson
I think CM Punk can become a Brock Lesnar-type unique attraction where he shows up every few months for a money feud. That way, you can protect him from overexposure and avoid getting injured regularly (something AEW failed to do). The company's landscape is drastically different from when he left a decade ago, and you can put him up against many interesting top opponents.
The two biggest guys he can have a program with are Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. Both were up-and-coming guys in the SHIELD when he walked out a decade ago and are now the company's top stars. Both guys have expressed absolute disdain for CM Punk in recent years, so there will be real-life animosity when they eventually feud. I don’t know if we’ll get a Reigns-Punk feud soon, considering that the company is already gearing up for Wrestlemania, and Reigns-Rhodes II is the precise destination for that show. But given Rollins’ various reactions to Punk’s return already, I think you can go ahead and pencil in Punk vs. Rollins for the Night 1 main event of Wrestlemania this April. - Nick Simon
What will we say when we look back at Punk’s AEW legacy?
A missed opportunity. AEW had the one guy WWE couldn’t touch. If The Elite and Cody were personifications of one instance of being successful out of the WWE universe, Punk was the spirit of that. He was the person who was the mouthpiece of the people who were disenchanted with the usual sports entertainment song-and-dance. It gave us a great moment. Perhaps a couple of great matches. Ultimately, it's an era of AEW that they are still trying to figure out.
Now, everybody wears some form of blame. Punk and The Elite for being stubborn and not figuring a way out. (There are also various leaks to the media that aren’t okay). It’s also not okay for Punk to allegedly put his hands on someone. Then there’s Tony Khan, who perhaps tried to make everybody happy and, thus, made nobody happy. His inability to sit everybody down and tell them the gravity of what they could have done set everything back. Now, we’ll always wonder what could have happened. - Murjani Rawls
I think Punk’s tenure in AEW will be belittled as just being a bridge to his getting back to WWE, and that’s okay. Punk could still return to AEW one day, even as the MJF’s Devil, but for now, he will be remembered for the locker room problems. I think without AEW, Punk won’t get back to WWE, but retrospective bias will hurt his tenure. - Teddy Ricketson
If there is ever a Rise and Fall of AEW documentary, CM Punk will be at the center of the cover. Punk’s return in 2021 was the most significant moment in the company’s history, and he brought tons of attention and eyeballs to the company by his mere presence. They gave him his own show even after he fought their EVPs! However, there was constant turmoil throughout his entire run there, and the situation that led to his firing was an embarrassment for all parties involved.
As Teddy said, we will look back at Punk’s run in AEW as the launching point for him getting back into wrestling and returning to the company that famously fired him on his wedding day. AEW’s ratings and interest in their product have plummeted since his firing, and I don’t know what they can do to drum up excitement as Punk did again. - Nick Simon