“CM PUNK! CM PUNK! CM PUNK!” In many ways, CM Punk has been more important for what he symbolizes than for what he has done. For years after Punk left WWE in 2014, fans chanted his name during WWE shows as a way to demonstrate grievances with the direction of the company’s product. While Punk has had many excellent matches throughout his career, he became one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling by tapping into fan discontent, making himself the avatar for a particular kind of jaded wrestling follower.
Now that Punk is likely on his way back to AEW, he will be entering a more fraught political environment than when he debuted for the company in August 2021. After Punk lashed out during the post–All Out media scrum in September 2022—which led to a backstage brawl involving Punk, Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, and others—Punk finds himself on the opposite side of wrestlers who have amassed fervent and passionate fan bases of their own. Reports have stated that there are wrestlers in the AEW locker room who would not welcome a Punk return. In September, Punk had surgery on his torn left triceps, an injury he suffered during his match with Jon Moxley at All Out; if there are no further issues aggravating that injury, recovery on that alone is said to take eight months. With no official statement from AEW, Punk, or anyone else involved, the story about Punk’s return to AEW has played out almost exclusively in leaks that are posted by wrestling journalists, deleted Instagram posts, and Twitter likes. In professional wrestling, it can be difficult to figure out where legitimate beef stops and the pro wrestling angle starts.
Punk has leveraged uncertainty about his status within a promotion in service of a wrestling angle before. He had been one of Ring of Honor’s biggest stars in the early 2000s; his feud with Raven and legendary trilogy with Samoa Joe were some of the most memorable highlights of the early days of that promotion. Despite those moments, Punk had never held ROH’s world title; after he signed with WWE, Punk was booked in a title match against then-champion Austin Aries at Death Before Dishonor in June 2005 in what was announced as Punk’s last match in ROH. Shockingly, rather than your typical “losing on the way out” pro wrestling finish, Punk defeated Aries to win the title, then proceeded to turn heel on the audience, cutting a promo that involved a story about a snake and an old man. Punk then claimed he would take the ROH title with him to WWE. He spent the summer defending the ROH title as a hated heel, a period that was known as the (first) Summer of Punk. This was the polar opposite of the role Punk would later play in WWE; in ROH, he was the antagonist of the “smart” fan, bragging about taking the money and running while mocking fans for believing in him and the sanctity of pro wrestling.
The second Summer of Punk came six years later, in June 2011. After a back-and-forth start in WWE, Punk had ascended to the top of the card, winning the world championship and having acclaimed feuds with Jeff Hardy and Rey Mysterio. Before the fight, Punk announced that his contract would end on the same night in July as the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, and that he would defeat John Cena and walk out the door with the world title. The week after he made the announcement about his contract, Punk dropped his famous “pipebomb” promo on Raw: He sat cross-legged at the top of a ramp while venting his frustrations with the direction of WWE, calling out his lack of promotional opportunities, shouting out personae non gratae (at the time) Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman, and taking shots at Vince McMahon, calling him “a millionaire who should be a billionaire.” It has always been a bit unclear how much of the promo was preapproved and how much Punk may have gone off script, just as it was always a bit unclear what Punk’s contract status was at the time. (While the claim on TV was that Punk won the WWE championship title without being under contract with WWE, it’s hard to believe that noted control freak McMahon would put the title on someone who could legitimately walk away.)
After winning the title at Money in the Bank, Punk walked out, waving goodbye to the fans. As in ROH, however, his absence was an illusion. Punk spent a week showing up at indie shows and comic book conventions with the belt. He had technically been suspended after the pipebomb promo a few weeks earlier, and with his contract now “expired,” WWE set up a tournament to decide a new world champion. Cena ended up with a version of the world title a week later on Raw after defeating Rey Mysterio (who had won the title during a tournament held earlier that night). Punk returned that night to confront Cena after his win, and a unification bout was set up for SummerSlam.
Punk would leave WWE in 2014 and ended up embroiled in a lawsuit with WWE and its doctor Chris Amann over a claim that the company failed to diagnose a near-fatal staph infection. The ordeal would lead to a fracturing of Punk’s relationship with longtime friend Colt Cabana, which became a large part of his grievance with the Bucks and Omega during his portion of the All Out media scrum, when he claimed they had been telling reporters that he had blackballed Cabana and kept him off AEW TV.
After the All Out backstage confrontation, when Punk and Ace Steel brawled with the Young Bucks and Omega, Steel (Punk’s longtime friend and trainer) was fired from his backstage agent position. Punk, Omega, and the Young Bucks were all stripped of their various titles (the AEW World title that Punk held and the AEW World Trios titles that the Elite had just won at All Out), although no explanation why was given on television. Omega and the Bucks remained off television for six weeks before returning to AEW TV (and regaining the Trios titles after a best-of-seven series with PAC and the Lucha Bros). Punk has not been mentioned on television since All Out, and AEW has pointedly refused to answer any questions about his status or the backstage fight.
In the absence of any official response from Punk, the Elite, or AEW, the story has been told in a sort of proxy war spilling out into the wrestling media. The word from Punk’s camp seems to be that he wants to return to AEW and is willing to work with the Elite. Punk’s friend and ally Dax Harwood, one-half of the AEW tag champions FTR, stated on his podcast that the main event of the upcoming All In show at Wembley Stadium in August should feature FTR and Punk taking on Omega and the Young Bucks. Rumblings from the Elite group seem to suggest that they don’t want anything to do with Punk. Bucks cornerman Brandon Cutler reportedly quote-tweeted (then deleted) a recent Deadspin article looking at the negative side of Punk’s situation in AEW. Amid all these reports is talk of a meeting to be held with a pay-per-view-worthy guest list—Punk, Chris Jericho, and FTR, along with Tony Khan, although other reports mention that there “may be others” in attendance. They would discuss how Punk’s return would work and, more important, who would work with him.
The most recent rumor is that AEW will be launching a new two-hour Saturday night show on TNT—potentially titled Collision, a name it reportedly trademarked back in February—which may serve as a way to separate wrestlers who don’t want to work with one another. With the Elite currently occupying Wednesday nights on Dynamite, Punk could become the top star of Saturday night’s Collision.
In addition to all of the heat between Punk and the Elite, there seemed to be another front in the war that opened up at the end of March. Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer claimed in a message board post that Punk and Jon Moxley didn’t work together as smoothly as people had believed. Punk took to Instagram Stories to respond to Meltzer and explain himself. Punk also called Meltzer a liar and Jericho a liar and a stooge. And while the assumption would be that these kinds of posts may hinder Punk’s progress in returning to AEW, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Since Punk has twice before turned contract disputes into wrestling angles, it will be tempting to see whether some of the online postering and sniping could be a possible setup for an in-ring feud. Wrestling has a long and storied history of turning real-life rancor into in-ring story lines. AEW will be attempting to fill the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium in August for All In; the current AEW attendance record is for its 2021 Grand Slam event at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City. It will clearly need to pull out all the stops to justify running a show in a stadium that big. Punk taking on the Elite in some form would be one of the biggest cards it could play, and I imagine the money and history they can make together could paper over a lot of hurt feelings.
Punk was met with a rapturous response when he returned to wrestling in August 2021 in his hometown of Chicago (in an event AEW dubbed The First Dance). He was clearly AEW’s biggest star and merchandise mover during that first run. However, if an upcoming return is going to happen, it is unlikely that Punk will be greeted with the same universally positive response from AEW fans. When the Elite returned after the backstage brawl, they were serenaded with loud “Fuck CM Punk” chants (which they highlighted on Being the Elite). The Bucks, Omega, and Adam Page have established their own passionate fan base similar to the one Punk had during his 2011 WWE run. With Being the Elite, they have given fans a peek into their backstage lives, and Page’s own struggles with mental health have resonated with fans who have dealt with similar issues.
Fans see the Elite as representatives of the common man who helped start and build a company that Punk joined after they’d already made it a success. In many ways, they view Punk the same way Punk fans viewed Triple H and McMahon in 2011: as an out-of-touch representative of a wrestling establishment. The current rumor is that Punk will return on June 21 for the episode of Dynamite at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. While he will surely get the hometown reaction there, it would probably be best for him to lean into the mixed reaction he will likely receive in other AEW arenas. Punk hasn’t been a full-blown heel in AEW yet, and a return of the snake might be the best way to reintegrate him into a promotion that will not be embracing him with open arms.
Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.