As cliche as it sounds, never say never in the wrestling business.
For the past five years, I would shake my head any time a crowd chanted “CM Punk” or the rumors of his return trended on Twitter. As much as I’ve read about Roswell or the grassy knoll, I’m not a conspiracy theorist (No, the earth isn’t flat) so usually, even in sports entertainment, there isn’t some grand plan waiting to unfold to shock an audience. I looked at the CM Punk situation for the basic scenario that it was, Punk thought he was being underutilized and made enough money that he had the power to walk away without much consequence. In the five years since the former world heavyweight champion has been away from the squared circle, much of the paradigm of the industry has shifted, as some of the decisions made to promote the corporate agenda have yielded mixed results for the WWE.
A wrestler that disagrees with the office over a push or even walking out because of it isn’t anything new. In fact, the biggest star in the history of the sport, Stone Cold Steve Austin infamously left in 2002 because he disagreed with a Raw booking. Still, the public way that Punk exited, mostly fueled by the reach of social media, made the story a much bigger story than it would’ve been otherwise. As he lamented on the Colt Cabana podcast that eventually resulted in a lengthy lawsuit, Punk thought he deserved a Wrestlemania main event, and an objective look at his status at the time would probably see that as the right decision. At the same time, when The Rock returned from Hollywood to challenge John Cena in a “once in a lifetime” match that happened twice, it set a pay-per-view buy rate record so from a purely business perspective, it’s tough to argue that Cena/Rock wasn’t the correct call. Was it fair that a part-timer showed up for a big payday and took the spot that could’ve been used to elevate one of the full-time performers? No, but the harsh reality of the situation is that it doesn’t have to be fair because it was Vince McMahon’s decision to make so he has the right to take his company in that direction.
When Punk left the company the day after the Royal Rumble in 2014, he was very ill from a staph infection and stated publicly that he thought he wasn’t given proper medical care from WWE staff, another factor in the previously mentioned lawsuit. His rejection of pro wrestling as a whole and his later transition to a stint in the UFC garnered varying opinions from fans about him. Some see him as a folk hero that stood up against the corporate machine while others will call him a whiny former wrestler that left because he didn’t get what he wanted after the sports gave him much notoriety. As with most things, the most objective view point is probably somewhere in the middle on the subject. From what many have said in interviews over the years, Punk is notoriously difficult to work with, but at the same time, his run in 2011 was one of the most memorable title reigns in the modern era.
Despite the one million dollars total that he made for two one-sided losses in the UFC, I don’t think he did it strictly for the money, but rather a way to start another avenue in his career, which lead to the broadcasting that he does for smaller cards that air on UFC’s streaming service. In the mist of the training for his second MMA fight, a defeat via unanimous decision against Mike Jackson in 2018, he won a trial where WWE doctor, Chris Amann claimed defamation of character based on Punk’s claims of lack of medical treatment. With the victory, Punk had to pay no damages, but sadly, his longtime friend Colt Cabana was dragged into the situation and has since filed a lawsuit against Punk in an attempt to recover legal fees from the original trial. Ironically, even lawsuits haven’t prevented returns to the company, as Sable, who had about as much talent as a broom stick, sued the WWE in 1999 before she settled out of court and eventually returned on Smackdown in 2003.
Up until this point, I would’ve dismissed a WWE return for Punk, mostly because he’s a very unique individual and I wouldn’t want to attempt to speculate on his opinion at any particular point for a career move. But, according to The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, Punk recently auditioned for the Fox Sports 1 WWE show, which will be similar to the UFC Tonight show that reviews the action and promotes upcoming events. The indication here is that Punk is at least willing to work in pro wrestling again in some form because he opted to take the audition for a show based on WWE, even though it’s a hire from Fox, not the WWE directly. If nothing else, this could open the lines of communication and test the waters for everyone involved. Five years have passed since Punk left and while there was a lot of chirping between the two sides on podcast or in interviews, this audition is something that might allow for enough water under the bridge for both sides to do business again. Keep in mind, one of the many reasons that Vince McMahon is a billionaire today is because he didn’t let personal disagreements get in the way of business when money was on the line. Bret Hart KO’ed Vince in the dressing room after the Montreal incident, and not only did Vince welcome him back, but put him over in a match at Wrestlemania in 2010.
With the audition a possible way into the world of pro wrestling again, the current status of the industry might actually set up for his eventual return to the ring. With All Elite Wrestling’s historic debut on TNT just days away, McMahon’s empire has potential competition for the first time in nearly two decades. Obviously, McMahon isn’t taking this lightly since he moved one of his staples of the WWE Network, NXT to USA to air head-to-head with the TNT show. If AEW gets off the ground remains to be seen, but right now the potential is certainly there for the upstart group to become a national commodity in an unprecedented fashion as they will become a weekly touring company with live TV after just a few shows to set up the foundation of the promotion.
Naturally, there were rumblings of CM Punk’s potential arrival in AEW because Punk’s mindset was an alternative to the WWE corporate agenda much the same way that AEW as an organization is set to be an alternative to WWE’s perceived corporate product. This speculation was further fueled when Punk was announced for Starrcast, the convention that was run in association with the All Out pay-per-view last month. However, in an ESPN article to promote that appearance, Punk seemed to brush off and even criticize some of AEW management, claiming he received an offer via text message from the group. The details of those discussions remain murky, but if Punk was going to debut for AEW, he would’ve done it at All Out because he was literally right next to the venue for the convention and the reaction for it in his hometown of Chicago would’ve been a memorable moment.
The less than complimentary things he said about management doesn’t exactly set up for a productive contract discussion and those comments might sour the audience on him if he showed up at an event. Remember, much of the momentum that AEW has is the goodwill that management has built with fans through social media and autograph signings so fans want the company to be successful. Anyone that doesn’t seem to be on board with that might get a hostile reaction from the crowd.
If AEW picks up momentum, and more importantly garners ratings that are close or better than NXT’s show then you can bet that Vince McMahon will find a way to try to maintain his dominant place in the industry. Granted, a lot of pieces of the puzzle would have to fall into place for that to happen, but it’s not impossible. Take a look at Nitro on TNT in 1995 when Hulk Hogan was beating an endless goon squad of the Dungeon of Doom compared to when The Outsiders made the product cool in 1997. Where the industry is now and where it will be in two years might be vastly different if AEW finds success. If All Elite makes headlines and progress as a company within the next year or two, how does WWE halt that momentum? If CM Punk walks onto the stage on USA or Fox, the conversation of sports entertainment shifts from what AEW is doing to what will CM Punk do in WWE?
Obviously, these are hypothetical scenarios, but considering how the audition for a WWE-based show could provide some insight into Punk’s willingness to work in wrestling, and the fact that with the new TV contracts, the company undoubtedly has enough money to make Punk an offer he might not refuse, it’s at least possible that he returns to the WWE. If he does lace up the boots again, I don’t think it would or should be another full-time contract, but rather a Goldberg type deal where Punk shows up for a major run over the course of a few key events and gets paid big money to do it. This would effectively put him on good terms with the company and allows for more money to be made for everyone involved with merchandise or other appearances for next few years. So, will CM Punk return to the WWE?
Never say never in the wrestling business.
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Until next week
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