POLLOCK’S UPDATE: The Return of CM Punk

Photo Courtesy: WWE

POST SCHEDULE

Tonight: Rewind-A-Raw with John Pollock & Wai Ting (Live Link)
Tuesday: upNXT with Davie Portman & Braden Herrington
Wednesday: Pollock & Thurston
Wednesday: Rewind-A-Dynamite
Thursday: Rewind-A-Wai #144 – ECW December to Dismember
Friday: POST Puroresu with WH Park & Karen Peterson
Friday: Rewind-A-SmackDown with John & Wai
Saturday: Collision Course with John Siino & Kate from MTL

THE RETURN OF CM PUNK

CM Punk’s return to WWE elicited one of the biggest reactions in years and a celebratory note to end the 37th Survivor Series event in front of a raucous Chicago audience.

It was hard not to compare to the same scene in Chicago just over two years ago when Punk walked into the United Center and by extension, AEW. If you could inject Tony Khan with truth serum, it would be a fascinating answer if he would do it all over again for the business generated by Punk coupled with the litany of problems, suspensions, and eventual firing.

For the WWE audience, it’s August 2021 and everything is perfect, it’s a homecoming for the prodigal son with endless matches, feuds, and potential as the company rides a wave of popularity. In eighteen months, this return will be afforded the proper context and will either be a stroke of genius where credit will be given to Nick Khan and Paul Levesque for going out on a limb and it playing off masterfully, or it fails and will further strengthen the argument that Punk is unmanageable.

While it feels unfair to paint such extremes, it feels like it’s either one or the other. Bringing Punk and making him ‘just another guy’ seems pointless and not worth the investment or aggravation it could open itself up to. The value of Punk is putting him into a position as a difference-maker during a period where the domestic television rights for WWE Raw are of great priority and finding as many suitors as can fit at the negotiating table. Punk’s return occurred one week after one of the most impressive Raw figures of the year – its largest 18-49 audience through this year’s NFL season – against the Chiefs vs. Eagles game that attracted 29 million viewers. Punk’s first appearance on Raw in nearly a decade should topple last week’s audience and stands to be one of the biggest episodes of Raw in years.

While reigning at the helm for over a year with varying levels of input from Vince McMahon throughout, Paul Levesque is truly steering the creative ship, and this experiment with Punk will give us a lot of insight into the style of management he can execute. This is not the same as brokering a deal with Bruno Sammartino where the heat existed with Vince McMahon, Levesque had no shortage of problems with Punk directly as both a performer and an executive.

In 2011, during the explosion of Punk’s popularity after the promo in Las Vegas and the Money in the Bank title win, Punk infamously entered a program with Kevin Nash. Due to a legitimate health issue, Triple H replaced Nash and faced Punk at the Night of Champions pay-per-view in a No Disqualification match. The match was won by Triple H and was a grudge Punk harbored and by his description, brought up to Hunter the night he walked out in January 2014.

In 2014, the two were set to wrestle at WrestleMania 30 when Punk left the company, and the domino effect of his departure allowed for the re-booking of the show and led to Bryan Danielson being the focal point. It was Punk’s belief that Hunter had more to gain wrestling Punk at ‘Mania than vice versa, those words coming from Punk when he shared his side in the 2014 interview with Colt Cabana.

Both Levesque and Punk will need to swallow past grudges for this relationship to work, but it isn’t as simple as ‘we all grow’ as Levesque mentioned at the press conference, and they aren’t the same people as they were ten years ago. The vast majority of the audience isn’t questioning whether Punk is the same person who left WWE ten years ago, they are asking if this is the same guy who was fired thirteen weeks ago over his actions in AEW and the perception, right or wrong, that he left a company in disarray due to his actions.

Punk has been the most outspoken of any past talents over the past years. This has included damning remarks on the Art of Wrestling podcast the year he left, attacking The Miz for participating in shows in Saudi Arabia and equating the revenues as “blood money” while condemning WWE’s system and way of management that drove him to hate professional wrestling. It’s not to say one can’t adjust their opinions or revisit past criticisms, but getting into the head of Punk would suggest he’s doing this both for his own legacy and continuation in pro wrestling while also fueled by a chip on his shoulder after his AEW firing.

The AEW equation is hard to skip over. If Punk is a smashing success in WWE and replicates the surge of momentum Cody Rhodes brought over, then AEW will be looked at as the company that fumbled CM Punk and will be a public win for Paul Levesque and his ability to manage. AEW was in a no-win position and firing Punk was the only choice. Many stars would have been fired for a whole lot less given Punk’s public call out of Hangman Page on live television, his actions at the press conference at All Out, returning to television and immediately firing a shot at the Young Bucks (and later Hangman Page over his merch sales), and then climaxing with the disaster at All In with Tony Khan and Jack Perry. Bringing back Punk a third time would have to hand your biggest star a loaded gun and turn your back. The relationship was dead after All In and his leaving the company cannot be compared to Cody Rhodes in 2022, or Eric Bischoff releasing Steve Austin in 1995.

You could equate Punk’s signing to that of Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall in 2002 when the three were lightning rods after the fall of WCW and considered key contributors in its downfall. But they were stars, and unlike 2023, WWE needed an injection and the same narrative was at play that WWE would not tolerate their past actions. It was a very polarizing decision to bring those three in. Hall was a disaster and gone within three months, Nash was injured for much of the run and at best was an ‘incomplete’ and Hogan had a surprisingly good run in 2002 with programs against The Rock, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesnar.

From a practical standpoint, putting Punk on the road for all the live events doesn’t seem logical. At best, you would want to cherry-pick big live events for Punk to appear on but it’s a television industry, and preserving him for big matches and done sparingly will produce the best mileage. Given the nature of the industry, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be resentment if Punk, as outspoken as they come, enters the company with a reduced schedule and a great contract when business is booming. It would be easy to see the mindset of the current crop of WWE stars enjoying the biggest business boom of their careers and feeling like they are pulling the wagon and don’t need any assistance – especially if that person is painted as a malcontent. It’s this same mentality that had to have contributed to Steve Austin’s burnout in 2002 when he saw business decline after carrying the load for the previous three years and seeing business hit such peaks.

The upside with Punk is there is far more potential given where he is popularity-wise and at 45 years old, can still go at a high level as we saw in AEW despite some serious injuries since coming back two years ago. According to Dave Meltzer, it’s a multi-year deal and whether Punk sees the end of it or not, the objective should be the short-term getting him to WrestleMania and maximizing while the iron is hot. Basic indicators would suggest Seth Rollins being his first major program but there are endless possibilities with Roman Reigns being the biggest through their legitimate history and the Paul Heyman connection, Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, Brock Lesnar, and you can’t dismiss the potential of the elusive Steve Austin match that was teased over a decade ago.

It’s very easy to fall into the story of the comeback and the feel-good nature of the prodigal son returning but also becomes easy to erase the circumstances of his departure. Punk’s relationship with WWE and by extension, professional wrestling, in 2014 was fractured. The man was completely burnt out and fearful for his life – something he reiterated several times and classifying himself as being ‘sick’ while in WWE. His last run with the company did an untold amount of damage to him both physically and mentally, so it would be hard to ignore those issues and question the man’s ability to withstand the politics, physical grind, and mental anguish this business has placed on him.

AEW was supposed to be a respite for him and was anything but. While the good will be glossed over, it’s impossible to watch CM Punk’s introductory press conference in AEW and contrast to the same setting at All Out 2022 and not conclude that it was two different people – the everyday Phil Brooks and the wrestling-consumed CM Punk. Regardless of your opinion of Punk, pro wrestling never came off as ‘just a job’ to him and that passion was rekindled in AEW and evident on camera especially throughout the first year with his construction of matches, odes to Bret Hart, working with younger talent, and felt like he was a legitimate difference-maker, which he was. The politics and the paranoia doomed that relationship and the cracks formed throughout 2022, climaxing at All Out and leading to a year of suspensions, rumors, reports, cryptic comments, public call-outs, separate dressing rooms, and an untenable situation that resulted in the company’s biggest star being fired.

For all the concerns, WWE has insulated itself where the risk-reward quotient is skewed to the latter. If this is a home run, they get plenty of big matches, an automatic boost of CM Punk in a fresh environment, and the momentum continues for the company. Coupled with the strengthening of Raw, Punk can bring a lot to the table. Conversely, it doesn’t work, Punk gets injured, Punk doesn’t shift business, has a fallout out, or any other reasons and WWE can walk away from the Punk business and it’s unlikely to send them spiraling in disarray. It’s not like Punk is coming in and captaining the ship nor would he be naïve to believe he is above the company.

The first step is tonight’s Raw in Nashville which should attract a large audience for Punk’s first words inside of a WWE ring and setting the path for his first program. It’s a long time to hold off his first match until the Royal Rumble but it can be done. Raw had held up exceptionally well against Monday Night Football this year and having him wrestle on television against someone the level of Shinsuke Nakamura as a precursor to a bigger opponent at the Royal Rumble would be one way to go about things. In the old era, you’d be incentivized to wait until the pay-per-view, but this is a different landscape and television is a major priority. Punk could also mean a lot on the post-Christmas week of live events if we’re going with the idea of cherry-picking select live events on the calendar.

Over the next months, there will be endless debate and discussion with a microscope on every move and word by CM Punk. It’s the attention he commands that has made him a transformative star in an industry that could have moved on without him but instead hangs on his every action. It’s a testament to the belief that a star will always have another opportunity to ‘make right’ and Saturday’s reaction in Chicago was confirmation that there will always be an audience extending its arms to welcome that star back.

*****
COLLISION COURSE
John Siino and Kate From MTL review AEW Collision & Rampage featuring Continental Classic Blue League matches and Katsuyori Shibata vs. Wheeler Yuta for the ROH Pure Championship.
*****
WWE Survivor Series 2023 Review
John Pollock and Wai Ting review WWE Survivor Series 2023 featuring Men’s & Women’s WarGames matches and the WWE return of CM Punk.
*****
REWIND-A-SMACKDOWN
John Pollock and Wai Ting review WWE SmackDown featuring Becky Lynch & Charlotte Flair in tag team action as they attempt to put their past differences aside ahead of War Games.
*****
ASK-A-WAI: Ask Us Anything! (November 2023)
John Pollock and Wai Ting answer their patrons’ questions about anything and everything in the November 2023 edition of Ask-A-Wai.
*****
REWIND-A-DYNAMITE
John Pollock and Wai Ting review the final AEW Dynamite featuring the start of the Continental Classic from the Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
*****
POLLOCK & THURSTON
John Pollock and Brandon Thurston are joined by Nick Hausman of Haus of Wrestling to discuss WWE & AEW coming to Chicago for Thanksgiving week.
*****

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About John Pollock 5598 Articles
Born on a Friday, John Pollock is a reporter, editor & podcaster at POST Wrestling. He runs and owns POST Wrestling alongside Wai Ting.