When CM Punk left WWE in June 2014 he had a connection with the wrestling fanbase that transcended his character. He was the voice of the voiceless; the conduit through which we vented our, and his own, frustrations with a constantly degrading product that no longer served our needs.
To varying degrees, we gravitated towards Kazuchika Okada, Daniel Bryan and Becky Lynch amongst others. However, nobody really had that ineffable connection CM Punk had with the fanbase – at least not in such numbers. It was reminiscent of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Probably because he also represented the societal anger and angst of that time.
So, when Punk could take no more and left our screens, he left a chasm nobody could fill. For seven years, people chanted his name. It was both a cry for his return and symbolic of frustration. That never went away. For seven long years.
Then CM Punk signed with AEW and, without ever actually announcing he’d signed, AEW sold out the United Center. A two-year-old company sold out Chicago’s biggest arena on the rumour that CM Punk had signed. That night was special.
CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!
From the moment the scratch of Cult of Personality hit, the crowd didn’t stop cheering. I don’t think I’ve heard a pop like that since Triple H returned at The Garden. It’s the loudest and most sustained cheer I’ve ever seen. Even if there have been louder cheers, there certainly haven’t been any that emotional.
People in the crowd were crying, as Punk fell to his knees taking minutes to compose himself, he was crying. We had waited seven long years to hear from CM Punk, and boy did he deliver. He immediately re-established the connection between him and the fans.
I haven’t watched a wrestling moment as much as I’ve watched his return. It was truly special. No other moment in wrestling has quite captured that mixture of explosive cathartic release of emotion, bottled expectation and jubilation. Seeing what it meant to Punk and the crowd was incredible. Even watching at home, it was an emotional watch that gave me goosebumps. I don’t think we’ll see a return like that again.
Despite efforts to the contrary, wrestling has become tribal. CM Punk returning represented a coup for AEW but, more importantly, it was validation for some that AEW fans had chosen the *right* company. CM Punk left WWE, after voicing our shared frustrations, when he could do or give no more, and little by little we left too. Whether we lapsed as wrestling fans or went searching for something else in the ever expanding world of pro-wrestling. It probably felt like validation to a lot of lapsed fans or AEW day-one fans who fully bought into the mission statement set out by Tony Khan and the EVPs.
CM Punk re-solidified himself as a great performer as he took us on a year-long journey, gradually transitioned more into the CM Punk of old, and lead us to another ill-fated “Summer of Punk”. The journey was great, and while we hoped the destination would be beautiful, some knew it would be ugly.
After All Out, CM Punk sat at a press table in the house that was built by Tony Khan and The Elite, and disrespected and undermined Tony Khan while he disrespected and dismissed the achievements of The Elite. He burned down the house, before scorching the earth upon which it was built and salted the earth as he left knowing he was departing for another protracted convalescence.
He spent 20 minutes venting his “Gripebomb” and exploiting his position of power to make journalists uneasy. Then had the temerity to express frustration at their unease.
Did he plan to go that far? Did he have a more measured take that was ultimately disregarded by his righteous anger and post-match adrenaline? Perhaps. But one thing is for certain, he’s created fissures in the fanbase, doubt in the company and, frankly, irreparable damage to the faith in Tony Khan. While there are numerous examples of his failures, this will be used as an example that Tony Khan is ill-equipped to lead a company for years to come.
For what it’s worth, I don’t know if Tony Khan really did anything wrong. He tried to interject on several occasions, but was resolutely dismissed by Punk each time. The only other option was to match Punk’s approach, which would have ultimately led to another public perception issue. It’s easy to say he should have done x, y or z; and I have said the same. In retrospect, however, I feel this situation was made unmanageable by Punk.
Quite simply, his actions brought the company into disrepute, and destroyed the credibility of the man who talked him into joining the company he’s professed his love for.
A few things have happened since Punk’s debut that, in retrospect, his arrival probably catalysed. AEW have drifted away from the quirky, character-driven product of the fondly remembered Daily’s Place/pandemic era. An era that constituted unrivalled growth, some hilarious character moments – Orange Cassidy ignoring a bathroom brawl, anyone? – and, in The Elite vs Hangman Page, the most emotionally complex and rewarding story I have ever seen a wrestling company produce.
Since Punk’s debut, a lot of that early Daily’s Place charm has dissipated. Star after established star have been signed. Consequently, they’ve not had to try and get characters over, thus removing the need for quirky character moments – no Orange Cassidy toilet antics or MJF musical skits. AEW have also transitioned from storytelling to matchmaking. Each Dynamite has become more and more like exhibition wrestling, rather than matches feeling like part of a grander story.
This isn’t Punk’s fault. It’s just that his arrival catalysed this transition by announcing AEW is also a place for stars. His signing was the first of a signing spree that has begun to feel like a gauntlet of debuts we have to overcome before we can get back to the storytelling that we once loved.
Punk’s debut has come at a cost for AEW fans. And now his long-dreaded destructive antics might have cost AEW, and their fans, more than Tony Khan could have imagined. They have TV contract renewals coming up in the next few months, which could absolutely be impacted by a perceived lack of talent control. More personally to Punk though, I think he’s lost that connection with the fans. Which is the result of our connection with the people he could have hurt.
Everyone knows what The Elite and Kenny Omega have given to this company, both mentally and physically. And for that, Omega is unconditionally loved. Similarly, Jon Moxley has reached that relationship with the fans and his promo on Dynamite highlighted why. He is every bit in touch with why we think AEW is special, and he will do what he can to protect that.
You could sense the anger emanating from Moxley, Jericho and Guevara’s promos on the All Out Fallout edition of Dynamite. Punk’s actions might have created a situation whereby their coexistence is untenable. It’s clear that Tony Khan looks at Punk in the way you hope your partner would, but, as you could tell from Omega’s return, the announcement of The Elite being stripped of their belts, and the reactions to those promos – that’s how AEW fans look at Mox and The Elite.
Can Punk recover that connection with the fans? Probably not.
Fans have a pretty good grasp of the bigger picture on this one. You can’t jeopardise the future of the wrestlers we love to protect your ego from imagined slights – that turned out to be, by all (reliable) reports, unfounded – and retain the perception that you care as much about this as we do. And that really is key to why we gravitated toward Punk way back when; he cared as much, or more, as we do. As Moxley does.
Where does this leave CM Punk? Well, bluntly; if one party has to go, for the sake of the fans and the sake of the company, CM Punk has to be the one to leave. The fans in attendance made that clear by celebrating Punk being stripped of the title. If The Elite feel compelled to leave the company that they were instrumental in creating, then Punk runs the real risk of not only losing his connection with the fans. He could remembered as another “that doesn’t work for me, brother” kind of guy. A cruel, ironic twist given everything we believed CM Punk once stood for.