Better Than The Best: MJF & The Shadow Of CM Punk
By: Bruce Lord
As the current chapter of CM Punk’s career seems to be drawing to a close, the question of how much has changed in the past year for both Punk and the wrestling world’s perception of him has been inescapable. “How did we get from The First Dance that match with Darby Allin…to this?” is a refrain I’ve heard time and again these past weeks, as a picture emerges of Punk’s contract being bought out and a good portion of the AEW locker room content to see him leave and never darken its doors again.
Much like the Montreal Screwjob, the specific machinations, motivations, and blow-by-blow details of the All Out media scrum and the ensuing fight will be debated for years and will ultimately be a key part of the major figures’ lasting legacies, whether they like it or not. But in all of the dissection of the chaos which followed All Out, a turmoil in which the likes of Nick Hausman, Ace Steel’s wife, Mindy’s Bakery, and even Larry the dog became accidental players, one person’s name has been largely overlooked, and that’s somewhat surprising given how much Punk’s outburst affected (or at least could have affected) his career. When the reductive and somewhat juvenile question is raised of who I “side” with within the conflict between Punk and the Elite, I put forward that name instead.
I’m talking, of course, about MJF.
It seems difficult to remember even though it was just two months ago, but All Out was engineered to be MJF’s night, front to back. Even though he wasn’t formally announced for the pay-per-view, months of storylines, television time, and interwoven matches (not to mention whatever the cost of licensing “Sympathy For The Devil” might be) had led to a mystery man winning the Casino Ladder match at the top of the card, prompting nearly four hours of anticipation and Twitter sleuthing during the PPV, only for MJF to reveal his face and challenge Punk just seconds after the latter had regained the AEW World Championship in his hometown.
That return, you’ll remember, was preceded by an apparently legitimate dispute between MJF and Tony Khan over the former’s contract, a meet-and-greet absence, and a mysterious plane ticket (the full truth of which we’ll likely never know). The question of whether MJF would even show up at Double Or Nothing to do the honors for Wardlow was even woven into the storyline, followed by an incendiary worked shoot promo on the June 1st episode of Dynamite (the irony of MJF being accused of stealing Wardlow’s thunder with non-kayfabe drama shortly before the same fate befell MJF shouldn’t go ignored). Then, with a hot angle on its hands that perfectly blurred the line between reality and story, AEW gambled by exiling MJF for three months, during which his image was stripped from montages and his name conspicuously avoided on commentary. Apart from Sting’s time spent in the rafters, I’m having a difficult time remembering when a wrestler’s absence had as much presence as MJF’s.
In short, a tremendous amount of AEW’s time and energy went into ensuring that at the end of All Out, MJF would be all anyone would be talking about. It took CM Punk just twenty minutes to ensure that he’d be nothing but an afterthought the next day. For a rant partially rooted in anger at Hangman Page going into business for himself and in which Punk claimed to be in AEW to “elevate everybody”, Punk’s diatribe revealed someone wholly disinterested in the collateral damage to the AEW roster his words might cause. Were it not for a question at the scrum directly asking Punk about MJF, which yielded only a brief comment about being “tired of wrestling these kids who know everything,” MJF’s name would never have passed Punk’s lips.
Of course, Punk’s real-life torn triceps injury meant that even if he hadn’t elected to verbally open fire on a good portion of the AEW roster and indirectly insult its president sitting just to his left, the short-term plans for the ongoing Punk/MJF feud would have had to have been scrapped. It’s obviously impossible as of now to guess how long it would have been before Punk returned to an AEW ring (or will take for him to land in a WWE one should that occur), but between both parties’ mic skills it would have been easy as pie to keep the feud simmering, with or without the World Championship involved.
Timing and injuries aside, the intended direction of the program remains a tantalizing mystery with plenty of possibilities. As MJF himself intimated with a “hustle, loyalty, and respect” line nearly a full year ago, this was a feud primed to recreate Punk’s celebrated one with John Cena, with Punk now in the role of the former hero who’d become everything he claimed to hate: a politicking veteran working to preserve his spot at the expense of hungry young talent fans were keen to believe in. To paraphrase Punk himself, he’d become everything he hated: the St. Louis Cardinals. What percentage of AEW’s audience, still riding high on Punk’s return, would look forward to the gritty veteran shutting the whining rich kid up for good? How many would sympathize with the angry young man looking to overthrow his false former idol? Would that ratio change from night to night, from town to town, as Cena/Punk’s did?
It’s in this delicate balancing act that the raw charisma of MJF comes into focus. Like Ric Flair in his prime, it takes concerted booking and a delicate touch to keep MJF from being turned de facto face by crowds every time he speaks (and we’re admittedly in a gray area in terms of MJF’s heel/face alignment as of this writing). Revisit any of his major promos over the past twelve months, both before and after the All Out debacle and you can see this in action. For every humanizing promo which draws upon MJF’s disillusionment with heroes and experiences with anti-semitism which seemed to point to a face turn, there needed to be a cowardly and brutal attack that kept MJF squarely positioned as the villain. Hell, some nights mere seconds separate the tease and retraction of a face turn, with crowds hanging on every word.
As I said, the unrealized potential of the second act of this feud leads even the best of us to indulge in fantasy booking (and if you need a refresher on the first act, you can’t do better than Brian Mann’s masterfully edited “Better Than You“). It could have led to a heel MJF sending Punk to the injured list with some act of brutality which would have made Wardlow’s involvement in their previous battles look like a tea party. It could have ended with MJF, either in victory or defeat, earning Punk’s respect before moving on to other battles. Or, it could have resulted (as I believe it would have) in a double turn recalling Austin/Hart, with MJF in Austin’s position as the outlaw babyface railing against ex-WWE vets protecting their spots rather than Vince McMahon, and an embittered and broken-down Punk in the Bret role.
To underscore my earlier point: the Punk/MJF feud was not designed for the short term. It was not simply meant to fill up stadiums or deliver buy rates or TV numbers for as long as the two men fought. Regardless of detail and means, it was being engineered to pass the baton from the company’s biggest established star to its most undeniable emerging talent, the only person capable of packing as much or more explosive force into a microphone as CM Punk. And it never came to pass. Not like it was supposed to, however, that might have been.
This brings us to today.
MJF has yet to really offer comment on the Punk debacle, either on AEW television or in interviews. Whether that’s for legal reasons, storyline reasons, or personal preference, I can’t say. But it’s hard to imagine that he, or at least the version of MJF we see on television, wouldn’t feel let down by it, be it personally or professionally. Having the rug pulled out from underneath him just as he was set to resume a career-defining feud, I imagine MJF felt not unlike he felt in 2014 when Punk first left wrestling. But eight years on, Punk is MJF’s peer, not his hero, and rather than despairing or shadowboxing with a now absent rival, MJF pivoted.
Say what you will about AEW’s casino chip as a gimmick, but it’s given MJF some much-needed flexibility. Perched in the catbird seat, MJF lorded over the Tournament Of Champions in the weeks after All Out, “working smart, not hard” as he put it, and watched Chris Jericho, Sammy Guevara, Bryan Danielson, and ultimate tournament winner Jon Moxley slug it out. After shaking off some ring rust in a brief program with Wheeler Yuta which helped set off some internecine Blackpool Combat Club strife, MJF returned his focus to where it was the night of All Out: on the AEW World Champion.
Jon Moxley is not CM Punk. While both have undeniable charisma and are more than capable of establishing an engaging feud with nearly any dance partner on any roster, it’s much harder for MJF to position himself as the righteous and wronged party (as he did with Punk, like many great heels before him) in opposition to the man who carried AEW through the pandemic, jumped back into the champion’s position after Punk’s previous injury, and recently delayed vacation plans and family time to yet again lend the company stability during its most recent crisis…all while becoming a father and tackling addiction head-on. As the foil to Moxley, MJF has had to tell a different story than the one he was weaving with Punk.
Preying on Moxley’s accounts of his own rough upbringing, MJF resumed his role as the cowardly yet superior heel set to leave AEW for greener pastures in 2024 and brought The Firm on as a temporary replacement for his previous muscle in The Pinnacle. But along the way, a sense of self-doubt began to creep in, with MJF questioning whether he could actually call himself the best if he couldn’t beat Moxley clean. We might know that he’s better than us…but does he? And if MJF couldn’t find in Moxley the same target for his venom and disappointment that he had in Punk, he found a more than suitable proxy. Enter William Regal.
There’s little point in rehashing MJF’s segment with Regal at this point; if you’ve read this much of a column about MJF you’ll likely have watched it several times, just like I have, and apart from saying that I believe it to be MJF’s best promo to date (and that’s saying something) and arguably the best non-wrestling segment in AEW history, I’ll just say this. More than any barb or painful memory dredged up by MJF, the image I’ll always hold with me from that segment is the odd, reptilian grin that spreads across Regal’s face as MJF itemizes the slings and arrows he’s endured from Regal and other industry brass. Sure, in the storyline William Regal is a sadistic veteran who’s enjoying watching a young whippersnapper get bent out of shape over an e-mail. But I have to believe that in that smile Darren Matthews is marveling at how the naked emotion emanating from MJF is whipping the Cincinnati crowd into a frenzy, causing them to forget arbitrary moral roles and drawing them through sheer force of personality into the passion of the very strange yet very powerful cultural form that is professional wrestling. It’s that preternatural ability that earned MJF his spot at the top opposite Punk, and which has kept him there, now opposite Moxley heading into Full Gear in two weeks.
The history of pro wrestling is riddled with what-ifs and should’ve-beens. Like Hogan vs Flair and Sting vs The NWO, MJF’s feud with CM Punk didn’t play out the way anyone hoped it would have, likely MJF least of all, though he’s yet to let any disappointment show. If his return was ultimately lost amidst the chaos and in-fighting after All Out, MJF hasn’t complained; he’s gone to work. I hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone, given the nature of his character. The man no one was talking about on September 5th has wrested the spotlight back and seems unlikely to yield it, whether as a face or a heel, as champ or eternal contender. All Out might well prove to be the last chapter in the book on Punk’s career, but I’ll bet it’ll only end up as a footnote in the one on MJFs.