“I’m back!” CM Punk proclaimed to a sold-out AEW crowd at Chicago’s United Center in August 2021. The First Dance feels like a lifetime ago, given all that’s transpired since then. For Punk’s seven-year retirement to be broken with a significant competitor to WWE felt like a seismic shift. All Elite Wrestling managed to get the man behind the “pipebomb” promo and seemingly helped fuel the counterculture spirit that molded itself within the ethos of wrestling’s number two promotion.
But the honeymoon period quickly disintegrated. I’m sure you’re already well-versed in the issues by now. The infamous Hangman Page promo, Punk’s “burn it all down” post-event scrum, and subsequent backstage brouhaha with members of the Elite that led to suspensions. There was even a second dance in the summer of this year on a Saturday show – which looks like it was created for him and his compatriots and had a different feel from the standard pace of AEW programming. After AEW’s biggest show to date, CM Punk was terminated with cause and many questions, hurt feelings, another suspension, concerns, and what-ifs along the way.
Did the WWE have to bring CM Punk back? Not necessarily. The company is as hot as it’s been with interest and attendance. Survivor Series at the Allstate Arena in Illinois was sold out as early as late July when Punk was still with the competing company. Things continued to move along even with the top star, Roman Reigns, not on the card. Randy Orton’s return from a year and a half absence could have been enough to send the crowd home happy. Then, “Cult of Personality” hits, and things come to light. First, there’s the realization of all the money AEW left on the table with a potential Punk vs. Elite feud.
If you don’t want to work with someone, that’s your prerogative. However, when various WWE superstars were asked about a potential CM Punk return, some said yes because when it comes to wrestling, you have to do what’s best for business. Not that Punk is the easiest person to work with (reportedly banning people from Collision doesn’t help matters), but you have it make to work. Now, AEW is still picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild after losing that story. Tony Khan and the Elite have chosen a particular route, but at what cost?
After the initial shock of “this guy came back” wore off, other things made sense. First off, the WWE door is rarely closed to anybody. Look at Bret Hart and The Ultimate Warrior’s returns as examples. When it comes to making money, unless you do something so egregious, you will be welcomed back with open arms. Punk is still a name that draws, considering the rousing ovation of the crowd Saturday – no matter how polarizing he is. (It’s a little ironic that Punk returns on the night of Collision.) The resigning of Punk was a heat check—another shiny coin at a company with an embarrassment of riches.
Punk doesn’t have to work full time nor carry anything. WWE has enough talent to do that and a structure that won’t adhere to many things that went down at AEW. He just has to be. be humble, and fit in. That’s an insane thing to think about when you consider RAW is still looking at a lucrative television rights deal. Imagine showing you have CM Punk join the likes of Seth Rollins, The Judgement Day, etc., with creative working as well as it is.
In July 2014, Punk stated that he would never return to the WWE with the state of everything surrounding his termination. Time heals all wounds, and money can give you many things to treat them with. His unexpected visit to WWE RAW in April gave hints that Punk felt that the grass perhaps wasn’t greener on the other side. With this third act, he and the WWE are counting on seeing green in another way.