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CM Punk's return to wrestling in AEW is a battle cry for the industry

CM Punk Debuts in AEW
(Image credit: tvinsider.com)

On the night of August 20, 2021, the impossible happened. CM Punk debuted on All Elite Wrestling’s Friday night show, Rampage.

For years, wrestling fans have cried wolf about the return of CM Punk, the straight-edge wrestler that gained mainstream fame during his time in WWE from 2006 to 2014. Peaking in popularity shortly before being released by the company (infamously on his wedding day), Punk has a reputation for breaking the fourth wall, so to speak, in an industry built on fiction. He was the preacher to a fanbase that had grown tired of the formulaic storytelling and watered-down wrestling of WWE. Both on and offscreen, Punk dared to challenge a company set in its ways. When he was let go from the company in 2014, fans rebuked the idea that he was truly done with wrestling. Surely, his star shone too bright to be dimmed by WWE.

So after nearly a decade of false rumors of full-blown returns (as well as some sporadic appearances in the wrestling sphere) the stars realigned themselves for CM Punk to officially return with All Elite Wrestling. And boy, did he have some things to say!

Before discussing Punk’s return promo, it is important to consider the context for many of his points. Upon leaving WWE in 2014, Punk was rightfully bitter. He guested on fellow wrestler Colt Cabana’s podcast not long after his release, and testified about countless ethical transgressions he endured during his tenure. Namely, he was mistreated by a WWE doctor for a serious infection. (Punk was at the time pursuing legal action against the doctor.) He detailed not only his sketchy medical treatment, but also the company’s corporate response to Punk’s demands to take time off to heal the infection among several other nagging physical injuries. According to Punk, he was essentially told to work through any injuries for the sake of the company. An unsurprising suggestion made from a capitalist machine like WWE. Once done with the company, Punk discovered from other doctors that his infection could have killed him if untreated.

Outside of Punk’s specific qualms with WWE, the company’s malpractices have been well-documented. The Vice series Dark Side of the Ring explores the many twisted stories of the promotion’s past in depth, including stories of rampant abuse and addiction enabled by WWE decision makers. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver also did a segment detailing the exploitative business relationship the company has with its wrestlers, naming them as “independent contractors” but requiring exclusivity in employment from them.

Since the start of the pandemic, WWE has also been under fire for releasing hundreds of employees for “budgetary” reasons. The company left countless workers in limbo during a time where many promotions were not looking to hire — despite the reality of them making record profits in 2020. The “independent contractor” designation was questioned once again last year when WWE forbade their performers from having significant third party income streams (or side hustle money), going as far to release a wrestler for having a Twitch channel.

Put simply, WWE has for decades exploited, manipulated, and mistreated wrestlers like CM Punk. They’ve done so for the benefit of a TV product that, frankly, hasn’t seen quality in several years. In 2014, WWE’s toxic work environment had disillusioned Punk to pro wrestling altogether. So to see someone like Punk abandon his retirement to return to the industry with AEW is a huge deal. It says a lot about the quality of AEW’s product and work culture that Punk felt so magnetized to them.

In his promo to fans, Punk boldly asserted that from 2005 — right before joining WWE — to 2021, he left the pro wrestling industry. Thus, he implied that his time in WWE was not authentic wrestling. According to many of his contemporaries, he’s not wrong. In a trend that Punk arguably started, numerous wrestlers over the years have appeared on podcasts post-WWE to express their dissatisfaction with their tenures. Many of them cited a lack of creative freedom, while others have said that they lost their love for wrestling due to the company’s hyper-specific in-ring style. Even Daniel Bryan, former WWE darling, stated in 2015 that he considered WWE style to be a parody of pro wrestling.

To be fair, WWE has always considered itself to be “sports entertainment,” not wrestling. It is more story-forward, with a focus on the drama and pageantry of the presentation. That, and profit of course. AEW seems to be different. Their product has long-term storylines and pageantry, but the focus is more squarely on the ring action. The promotion appears to be less interested in coercing their wrestlers into fitting their mold, and more interested in allowing each wrestler to work in their own unique style. In AEW, the stories set up the matches, rather than the other way around as is typical in WWE.

It is that “wrestling first” ideology that Punk claimed drew him to AEW. He cited the primary reason for his return as wanting to work with younger talent to elevate them. He wasted no time in challenging promising star Darby Allin to a match at All Out on pay-per-view on September 5. If there was one thing that came across powerfully in Punk’s promo, it was his determination to give back to the industry by giving a rub to younger stars. He said that he wished he could have been surrounded by hungry upstarts during his time in WWE. Indeed, as much as the company pretends to care about creating new stars, WWE has shown repeatedly that they will go back to the well of older, established stars to make a quick buck. They have always been more interested in giving back to Vince McMahon’s pocketbook.

AEW, on the other hand, wants to give back to the industry. They do this in countless ways: by treating their wrestlers as true independent contractors who can wrestle in other promotions as they wish; by pairing wrestling legends with young talent to increase their stock; by collaborating with other wrestling companies to encourage cross-promotion. Punk understands the ethos of AEW, which is why he came running to join their army.

The list of ex-WWE talent in AEW continues to grow for a reason. In a media scrum after his debut, Punk said that wrestling doesn’t have to be complicated by having too many cooks in the kitchen. As a lifelong wrestling fan, I can confidently say he’s correct. Sometimes the expected thing can still be satisfying. Sometimes, less is more. But the bloated, out-of-touch creative output from WWE has created so many unnecessary rules for mainstream wrestling. Wrestlers who managed to escape their clutches have confirmed as much.  The new guard of AEW are writing their own rulebook.

Of all the things said, Punk's most poignant words were the following:

“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.”

With a new era dawning in AEW, so too does a new era dawn for the wrestling world. Fans and wrestlers alike are getting wise to WWE’s malignant growth on the industry, and CM Punk is back to serve as whistleblower. Imperfections be damned, AEW might just be creating the antidote for the future.

Allyssa Capri

Allyssa Capri is a Chicago-based culture writer. Her writing focuses on TV, film, music, internet culture, and politics through a social justice lens. Her former bylines include Screen Rant and the Professional Wrestling Studies Association. She has also been featured on panels at the MPCA and C2E2. Outside of writing, she loves food and wine culture, roller skating, astrology, herbalism, and her cat, Luna.