There were two words on the tip of every wrestling fan’s tongue last weekend: CM Punk.
Punk, one of the biggest names in wrestling, made his shock return to the company he swore to never come back to this past Saturday at Survivor Series: WarGames, as he appeared in front of his hometown Chicago crowd to a thunderous ovation.
It’s one of the biggest moments in WWE history, simply because not a single professional wrestling fan thought they’d actually live to see the day.
Let’s go back to Jan. 26, 2014. The Royal Rumble just ended, Punk was chokeslammed through the announcers table by Kane, and sustained a concussion. The next day on Monday Night Raw, reports sprouted that Punk had walked out the arena.
Many thought his hiatus would be temporary as Punk healed from his injury, and would make his return on Mar. 3, 2014, in Chicago, IL. The show started with “CM Punk” chants, and his iconic “Cult of Personality” theme hit, but it was not Punk who was walking to the ring; it was Paul Heyman, his previous manager who he feuded with a year prior.
This would be the last time CM Punk would be formally mentioned on a WWE TV production for nine-years.
In a now infamous ‘Art of Wrestling Podcast’ episode from November of 2014, hosted by Punk’s friend and fellow wrestler Colt Cabana, Punk spent nearly two-hours airing his grievances about the way the big company handled his exit from the company.
Punk said a multitude of factors caused him to leave the company, including build-up of creative frustrations surrounding his 434-day WWE Championship reign from November, 2011 to January, 2013, and not getting the opportunity to main event a WrestleMania, a mounting of injuries from a misdiagnosed staph infection, and his deuterating mental health at the time.
He was fired from the company on the day he tied the knot with his wife.
“The day of my wedding I got a FedEx in the mail. It was my termination papers. I was fired,” said Punk, in the podcast. “I was fired, on my wedding day. Very calculated, very deliberate. As much as I chuckled at it and didn’t let it affect my day, I was like once again … you pushed the wrong guy.
“The letter was ridiculous. It was like ‘Your contract is terminated, you forfeit all of your royalty rights, you’re in breach of contract as of Jan. 27’ … If I was in breach of contract on January 27 on January 28 they had to be like ‘You’re in breach of contract, we’re not giving you your royalties.’
“And I would have been like great, fine, I’m going to go home because I have this staph infection that you refuse to treat and diagnose. Plus, I have this concussion and I’ve needed time off for at least a year and you won’t give it to me. So, I just kind of laughed at that.”
The controversial podcast not only caused an uproar in the wrestling world, but entered the legal system as well.
Due to Punk’s comments about WWE’s handling of his injuries, a lawsuit was filed by WWE Dr. Chris Amann. Amann claimed the podcast that Punk recorded with Cabana defamed him, a lawsuit that was later won by the wrestlers.
The lawsuit, however, tore through Punk and Cabana’s relationship, which led to both men suing each other for legal fees and representation charges. Both eventually filed for the case to be dismissed, but their fractured friendship, and the repercussions of the podcast changed Punk’s narrative forever, shaping the events to come.
Punk’s name never left the wrestling fans’ minds; for years at various WWE events, his name would be chanted when the crowd was bored, and fans couldn’t help but raise possibilities about a return to the company.
But as time went on, Punk did everything but wrestling. He had a brief stint in UFC, became a writer for Marvel Comics, and even gave his go at being a lead actor in the 2019 horror film ‘Girl on the Third Floor’.
It wasn’t until Punk made his return to a wrestling promotion in 2019 … sort of.
WWE Backstage, a now defunct Fox Sports 1 studio show, was a weekly show that discussed the biggest news in WWE. It was there that Punk made his return to the wrestling world on the Nov. 12 edition of the show.
He reiterated very quickly that he was not interested in wrestling any time soon, but hoped it would be the first step to him returning to the wrestling world.
“I’ve stated I work for Fox. I haven’t talked to anybody in WWE,” said Punk. “It’s nothing that I’m actively pursuing or interested in, but I’m 41-years-old and I’ve experienced life where I know to not say ‘no’.
“But that’s going to be a bridge that is gonna have to be built and it might take as long as building the Great Wall of China because there are hurdles there.”
The show production was subsequently halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was cancelled in 2021, and with no mending of the fences with the WWE, Punk’s return to a wrestling ring still seemed nowhere in sight.
In comes All Elite Wrestling.
AEW, a company that was formed in 2019 as an alternative to WWE by CEO Tony Khan, EVP’s Cody Rhodes, and The Elite members Kenny Omega, Matt and Nick Jackson. The company has been viewed as the biggest up-and-coming wrestling promotion since WCW in the 1990s.
Rumours began to swirl about the possibility that CM Punk could sign onto AEW as their newest star in early 2021, and it wasn’t too long until those rumours became reality. AEW debuted “AEW Rampage: The First Dance”, emanating from a sold-out United Centre in Chicago on Aug. 20, 2021. Without even associating his name with the event, fans knew and witnessed one of the biggest moments in professional wrestling history: CM Punk’s official return to wrestling.
Punk made it very clear in his first promo back from his extended hiatus that those burnt bridges with WWE have yet to be mended.
When talking about why he left wrestling, Punk stated that “If any of my personal choices or decisions relating to my life made you feel disappointed or let down, let me just say I understand if you all try to understand that I was never going to get healthy, physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally staying in the same place that got me sick in the first place.
“August 15, 2005… I left professional wrestling. August 20, 2021 … I’m back.”
Punk’s first year in AEW saw a lot of dream matches take place. He had matches with fresh faces like Darby Allin, Eddie Kingston, but the biggest highlight was his hellacious feud with Maxwell Jacob Friedman, which many fans consider to be some of the finest work of either man’s career.
Punk and MJF’s feud received critical acclaim, as it took various parts of each man’s life and were able to blend it into their storytelling. Two major cruxes of the storyline was Punk being MJF’s idol as a kid, and when Punk left the WWE, MJF lost his idol and turned to the dark side to deal with the pain of his real life.
In one of their promos, after weeks of MJF threatening to leave AEW to go to WWE once his contract was up, to which Punk responded back with a critical shot at WWE.
“If you think the grass is greener on the other side, be my guest. Go ahead, leave. Main event night four of a buy-one-get one free extravaganza … and get released. When you come back, I’ll still be here.”
Once their feud ended, Punk turned his eyes to the then AEW World Champion ‘Hangman’ Adam Page, where a typical feud very quickly turned into being the first steps of Punk’s falling out. On the final show before AEW’s next pay-per-view, Page took to the mic and went off-script in his comments.
“You talk a big game about workers’ rights,” said Page during his promo “Well, you’ve shown the exact opposite since you got here. I love this place; I care about this place. This is my home. And this Sunday at Double or Nothing, I will not be defending this championship against you. No, for the first time in my life, I’ll be defending All Elite Wrestling from you.”
In an interview with ESPN in Jun. 2023, Punk explained that this moment infuriated him to the point where he considered not continuing with the match in fear that Page could try to hurt him.
“I proceed to have what I think is a garbage match because I’m trying to protect myself on stuff instead of actually just working and trying to put on the best performance I can,” said Punk. “I’m keeping an eye out. He chopped me in the mouth one time, and I’m just like, ‘Okay, did you do that on purpose?’ You chip my tooth, and I’m like, ‘All right, should I give him a receipt?’
“It changes the dynamic. It poisoned everything for me, and it made it all really, really ugly, and that was what set all of this off.”
Many reported during this time that the comments said by Page were in reference to his public falling out with Colt Cabana, the man he did his tell-all podcast about his WWE exit with. Cabana had been employed by AEW prior to Punk’s arrival, and had been a staple on their programing, until March 2022, when he was suddenly removed.
He has made just one appearance since on AEW television.
Per ESPN, The Elite and various AEW wrestlers believed Punk tried to get Cabana fired from the company, which both Punk and Khan denied. Meanwhile, Punk won the title from Page at Double or Nothing and broke his foot three days later while diving into the crowd.
After being out of action for months, things continued to spiral after Punk returned on Aug. 17 and immediately went off-script on his promo after calling out Page.
Shortly after, on Sept. 4, Punk beat Jon Moxley to regain his AEW World Championship, and took to the post-event press conference, and begun a complete undressing of AEW’s locker room, all while Khan was sitting directly beside him.
Punk spent over twenty minutes ripping into both Cabana and Page, as well as the Jacksons and Omega for stepping into something that “was none of their business.”
“I haven’t been friends with this guy since at least 2014, late 2013, and the fact that I have to sit up here because we have irresponsible people who call themselves EVPs yet they couldn’t manage a f—– Target and they spread lies and bulls— and put into the media that I got somebody fired when I have f— all to do with him. “I want nothing to do with him. I do not care where he works or where he doesn’t work, where he eats, where he sleeps. The fact that I have to get up here and do this in 2022 is f—– embarrassing.
“I’m old, I’m tired, and I work with f—- children.”
After the press conference, there was a brawl backstage between Punk, Omega and the Jacksons, along with Ace Steel, Punk’s long-time friend and AEW trainer.
The Elite and Punk were stripped of their titles and were suspended indefinitely. Omega and the Jacksons returned three months later; Punk was still inactive to nurse another injury he sustained from his match at All Out.
During this period, The Elite mocked Punk in his hometown of Chicago, by purposefully failing to execute on various moves Punk did in his match with Page from Double or Nothing, mimicking his finishing move, and even biting their opponents arm, something that was widely speculated to have happened during the All Out backstage brawl.
After a nine-month period, Punk officially made his return on the Jun. 17, 2023 inaugural episode of AEW Collision, a brand-new show that was created in lieu of the events at All Out a year prior to keep Punk away from The Elite. The show was molded in his vision, as Punk oversaw many creative decisions and decided who could appear both on the show and backstage on the dates of the events.
This, very clearly, would not last long.
According to Bryan Alverez of the Wrestling Observer, Punk and wrestler Jack Perry got into a backstage argument about using real glass in a wrestling match. Punk was against the spot, but Perry believed he already had it cleared by AEW management, and was being stopped by Punk.
It all came to ahead when Perry used the real glass in his FTW match against HOOK, where he turned to the camera and said:
“You know what this is right here? Real glass. Go cry me a river.”
Punk and Perry got into a physical altercation after the match was over, and the rest was history. Tony Khan made the decision to release CM Punk from AEW on Sept. 2, 2023, just days after he wrestled the opening match of All In, and AEW made the official statement on the opening of Collision that night.
“The incident was regrettable and it endangered people backstage … my security, my safety, and my life was in danger at a wrestling show.” said Khan.
Would this be the end of CM Punk’s wrestling career?
Flash forward to the present; Nov. 25, 2023, and CM Punk has official returned to WWE TV.
“A lot of time has gone by, almost ten years. And if you’re the same person you were ten years ago, ten years later, you messed up,” said Triple H at a press conference after Survivor Series. “Everybody grows, everybody changes … he’s a different person, and this is a different company. We’re all on the same even starting ground.”
When Punk finally had a chance to address the WWE Universe this past Monday at Raw, he echoed two sentiments to the fans:
“’I’ve changed … I’m home.”
Would Punk have ever returned home to the company that made him famous if he never stepped foot in AEW? Who’s to say. Perhaps the re-marriage between Punk and WWE will calm any of the history that has followed Punk for nearly a decade.
For the biggest of Punk fans, however, who’ve been with the superstar every step of the way, they know that the change that both WWE and Punk are selling you on needs more time to prove that it’s happened. One thing is for certain: he isn’t done being the “controversial, polarizing” figure that WWE called him all Monday long.
After all, Punk did end his promo saying, “He’s not here to make friends, he’s here to make money.”