“August 20th, 2021…I’M BACK!!“
Five words that will likely become the most shared, gif’d, and meme’d moment in the history of wrestling. With that short statement, CM Punk confirmed what we’d all thought, then knew, then kind of doubted, but hoped for, before learning it to be true all over again. Specifically, that Punk signed on the dotted line with Tony Khan and will perform for All Elite Wrestling. That is an amazing sentence to type (and read) now that it’s definitely true. Fantasy bookers are already setting up his best possible future matchups with the current and up-and-coming stars around his new home, and that is a lot of fun. But whatever he ends up doing, whomever is across the ring, tonight was about this moment. It was talked to death, with Twitter running rampant with variations “what will you do/say/feel if he’s not there?”, right up until the moment Cult of Personality hit. Now that’s it’s real, it’s worth taking a breath to really LIVE in this before we think of what’s next – how did it feel? What did it mean to actually get what we wanted?
As a self-acknowledged chronic over-thinker, I’ve had plenty of time to gin up some fears about reality not matching up with the sheer anticipation we all had. It’s an issue in all walks of life: you want something so bad, and imagine over and over how it will play it out with every detail smoothed out to perfection. Then there’s no way for a real job, moment, or person to live up to that with all the realities of earthly existence added in. All week long leading into AEW’s second-ever Rampage, subtitled “The First Dance,” I kept thinking about that and that once the crowd reaction faded, the music stopped, all that would be standing there was a man (the IRL Phil Brooks), and for that matter a man who had been very intentionally away from this business. His moniker had become a stand-in for gripes with creative, booking, talent management, styles of wrestling – was him and him alone enough to pay that off after seven years out of the ring? Luckily for everyone involved, the answer turned out to be a resounding yes.
Credit to the AEW staff, they knew enough to pay off the intrigue for anyone casually checking the start of Rampage hoping to see Punk. No beating around the bush or annoying them with an hour of vague teases; the show started, and then the tension and unknown was immediately turned into certain euphoria and excitement. That is how you grab people to stay tuned for what’s next. The crowd did its part as well, providing the loudest pop I’ve heard since, well before COVID took audiences away. They stayed electric as Punk dropped to his knees and soaked it all in. The commentary team stayed quiet, cameras stayed largely steady on the man of the hour, and it succeeded in FEELING like a huge deal after all.
As guarded against overhype as I was, I found myself welling up a bit unexpectedly. As someone who’d managed internal expectations and told myself I would be happy for more eyes on the product no matter what Punk actually did, I instead got just as swept up in it all. This goes down, I believe, to two things. Firstly, the sheer expressiveness we got from that steady close-up. The emotion written all over Punk’s face as he looked out over the audience, hugged them, and even dove the guardrail into a waiting throng of people, was engrossing. It backed up his later comment that he’s “one of you,” one of us, a fan of wrestling for whom this mattered. Knowing that HE was all in (no pun intended) for this told me it was ok for me to be, too.
But secondly, Punk’s absence had let me forget that he just has that intangible SOMETHING where what he says and does feels real. Real in a way that goes beyond the idea of kayfabe or suspending disbelief. Whether he’s cavorting with you or cutting you to shreds, it feels genuine and brings you within the tv show to feel like part of a deeper drama. Former AEW Champion Chris Jericho makes everything he says and does feel entertaining. Punk makes everything he says and does feel true. Roddy Piper had that, perhaps more than anyone. Kevin Owens has it today. But hearing Punk ask if he could “tell [us] a story” and sit cross-legged in the ring, just as he famously did on the RAW entrance ramp 10 years ago, I was leaning towards my screen and hanging on to every word more than I can recall in recent history.
The story he told, of passion worn away and re-discovered for the art of pro wrestling (without ever having to actually use the words “sports entertainment” implied as a contrast), reinforced what we knew and loved about him. The little things like the spark of zeal across his face as he acknowledged the less noble-sounding piece of business that “came back for me too;” the sly, confident grin when describing to Darby Allin how dangerous it is to wrestle him right there in Chicago; and the final “I’m back” tacked right onto the end, seemingly superfluous, as if he needed to remind himself too that the time had actually come. It was human, alive, and familiar not in the way of a wrestler repeating catchphrases, but in the wave of relief you get in coming across a friend you know you can trust in a time of need.
And ultimately, that was revealed to be the true point behind all the chants, rumors, anticipation, and overwrought prediction. As soon as CM Punk hit that ramp, I knew I was getting the straight truth right from the horse’s mouth again. Only through having it back again did I realize how much I’d truly missed it.