So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #076: “I’m Back.”

“August 13, 2005, I left professional wrestling. August 20th, 2021… I’M BACK.”

Buckle up. I’m not holding back the words this week, kiddos.

When the rumor mill said Phil Brooks, known as CM Punk, was coming to All Elite Wrestling… I snickered. You see, 7 years ago, Punk went to his best friend’s apartment and recorded a scathing indictment of sports entertainment. Over the course of his tenure at WWE, under Vince McMahon, Punk was ground into a nub of a human. His body? Broken down. By several infections treated by a blitzkrieg of Z-packs (Azithromycin) which shredded his insides. His mind? Mush. Fighting the powers that be for everything he earned as one of the top performers of the company. Never given anything without heavy-handed control by the writers’ room and ineffective bookers. His spirit? On life-support. Forced to endure idiocy like being literally fired on his wedding day, needing to sue the WWE and lose a best friend over it, as well watching part-timers be brought in to spike ratings and take championships needlessly. This was CM Punk 7 years ago.

For those that followed his career from there? He made it clearer than clear that his time in the squared circle was done. He wrote a few comic books (that generally were enjoyed by the masses, far as I heard). He trained to become an MMA fighter. He lost* two professional bouts and most die-hard combat sport enthusiasts snarked at his work. “He’s too old. Too small. Not trained right.” Punk dabbled in some acting — and even now you can catch him on the Starz show “Heels”. And at every point a microphone was shoved in front of his face? Phil Brooks scoffed. “I’m done wrestling.”

I listened to that podcast. Twice. I watched those interviews. Every time. As a fan of his, I accepted and understood fully. He was forcibly burnt out. It sucks. But hey. At least we had his infamous Pipe Bomb promo, and the Summer of Punk. And given how potent the machine of the WWE had become? Perhaps this was all we ever were to get.

Of course, as those who follow my (intermittent, I apologize) writings, know when AEW was debuting, I, like many, had dreams of grandeur. Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and the Young Bucks were building a company that truly sounded like the Field of Dreams for a guy like CM Punk. And the world showed up at his door, staring and waiting for a sign. Punk sheepishly demurred. “Yeah, Cody texted me once or twice. And I’m like… that’s what you’ve got?” I’m paraphrasing, of course. But in short: Punk made it sound like he wasn’t treated professionally enough for his liking, and while he was very happy for what AEW was setting out to do… he was still ensconced deeply in his “I’m not a wrestler anymore…” position.

So… when the rumors began to pile up that Punk was coming back? I didn’t believe it. At all. No real signs were apparent save only for the wresting journalists citing all their subterfuge sources. Did I want to believe it? You’re damn right I did. But did I? No. Only one person was ever going to truly make it known. On August 17th, on his Instagram story, Punk dropped a cryptic message. “05 11 21” was all it read. Sleuths didn’t take long to offer a simple deduction. 2005 was the year Punk signed with Ring of Honor (an up-and-coming independent professional wrestling promotion run in Chicago at the time). In 2011, Punk signed to the WWE. And… well… 2021 would be now.

Maybe I got a little excited. But I guarded those emotions hard. I wasn’t about to get my hopes up. Punk on all media outlets was promoting “Heels”. Nothing more. He smirked and joked. But really wasn’t leaking more than those cryptic numbers. AEW’s new Friday night show, Rampage was taking place in Chicago on Friday, August 20th. It was given the title “The First Dance” — a reference clearly to the Chicago Bulls / Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance”. AEW wrestlers started getting… cheeky with references. Kenny Omega — the current heavyweight champion— wore a Cookie Monster shirt (CM Punk has often joked “CM” stands for Cookie Monster. And Chick Magnet. And Chicago Made.). Darby Allen — resident daredevil and beloved babyface of the roster — boasted on a promo he was “the best in the world”… one of Punk’s well-known catchphrases.

Maybe I got a little more excited. But I held steadfast. Don’t believe it until you literally see it happen. He very easily could be toying with us all.

If I can derail myself for a tangent at this moment, would you indulge me?

I used to love professional wrestling. It was one of the few things my dad and I would enjoy together as I grew up. Eventually in college, now with access to cable TV, I watched WWE Raw and Smackdown regularly. I found a few friends who shared in their marking out for the product. We watched pay per views regularly at Hooters (honestly, I could care less about boobs and booty shorts. The curly fries, wings, key lime pie, and not paying $60 for a wrestling show was the appeal, I promise). And I even went to a handful of shows. Over time though, the Ruthless Aggression era began to snuff out my love for wrestling. Repetitive characters, dull storylines, and in-ring work that didn’t captivate so much as go through the motions became the par. Eventually, I realized I grew out of love for it, and I moved on. Flash forward to a job in downtown Chicago, around 2012. A salesman on the floor of the company was a major mark for the WWE. When I told him of my lapsed fandom, he got irate. “Dude! You need to come back. Watch it for a week. If you hate it, I’ll leave you alone.”

I flipped on “Raw” that night with my eyebrow pre-raised. But out came CM Punk, and my snark subsided for the moment. Punk was something different. He wasn’t a roided-out mass monster like the traditional WWE superstar. He was tattooed like a biker. He had (at the time) amazing sideburns. On the microphone he was smart, sharp, and poignant. In the ring, he told stories that made sense. Moves led to other moves that created a narrative bout instead of the normal predictable signature moves leading to signature moves that other roster members seemed to phone in. I went to YouTube, and searched for more on Punk. And there at the top of the heap… the infamous pipe bomb promo.

6 minutes of off-the-cuff snark, hurled from the top of the ramp by a seated CM Punk. He broke the fourth wall. He called Vince McMahon an idiot. He called Paul Leveque, “Triple H”, a doofus. And right as he alluded to the well-known backstage bullying we internet fans were apt to discuss — in light of the WWE’s self-aggrandizing “Be a Star” anti-bullying campaign… the microphone is cut to a now smiling Punk. He laid bare every unsaid thing a smart-mark such as myself had never thought be dared mentioned on an actual WWE broadcast.

From there, Punk (and nearly equally, the well-bearded Daniel Bryan) became my favorite wrestler. And over the course of the next two years or so… I watched as WWE ground Punk to dust. Every angle worse than the last. Every glimmer of hope power-bombed by idiotic writing. Punk left. I sighed and hoped he’d find something worthy of his talent to do. I doubled-down on my love for Daniel Bryan. I followed DB through his meteoric ride to the top of the mountain at Wrestlemania 30. And I cried when Bryan eventually was forced to retire due to injury (like, you know… real medical issues, not some convoluted storyline). Eventually, Daniel Bryan found his way back to the ring. But by then, the machine was far too powerful. The underdog was given dumb idea after dumb idea. He turned heel. He turned babyface. He faded into the crowd of the middle-card. It barely registered to me by then. Clearly I was ready to give up the ghost. I cancelled my WWE network account, and began to enjoy other content far far away from the squared circle.

I’ve been following AEW since they debuted. I’ve enjoyed their product quite a bit. I’ve since turned off my DVR recordings of the WWE in lieu of the Tony Khan-led promotion. But would I say I was in love with the product? Nah. I like it, sure. But certainly no more or less than my enjoyment of other shows — most currently Barry, and Crashing from HBO, Dave and What We Do In the Shadows on FX, and a handful of other things here and there.

On Friday, August 20th, I DVR’ed “AEW Rampage”. I shut my social media down early just in case. I did my normal night work. At midnight, I went to my basement (The Nerfatorium, don’t you know?), and flipped on Rampage. After the opening of the show credits, they went inside Chicago’s sold-out United Center. The announcers welcomed us to the show. The audience was deafening in their cheers for CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk! — which itself has morphed into an audience cheer over the last 7 years to represent the anger of the smart fans dissatisfied with whatever schlock was being shucked at them. The screens at the top of the ramp went black, and then emblazed on them a pair of white-taped fists with red X’s adorning them. Cult of Personality” blared on the speakers. And outwalked CM Punk to a crowd so loud, the closed captioning couldn’t make out the announcers.

Punk was visibly shaken. The crowd did not dissipate in their fevered chants. He leapt into the front row for some hugs. He met personal friends (and I’m guessing some family?) around ringside. He grabbed a microphone and took to the ring. “Cult of Personality” finished being drowned out by cheers, and CM Punk began.

I need not detail his address to the crowd point-by-point. Suffice it to say? Watch it yourself if you care. What mattered to me were Punk’s nuanced messages interwoven into his promo. He put over young talent. He addressed his leaving the world of pro-wrestling. He buried the WWE without ever specifically mentioning them by name once. He made clear he was back, and it wasn’t part-time. He laughed. He cried a little. He set up his return match at the upcoming All Out pay-per-view (in Chicago, baby!) while talking up his opponent Darby Allen.

And there I sat, in the middle of my basement, vibrating in elation. I cried. I stood up and silently cheered. I thumped my chest like a complete buffoon. And I did it nearly involuntarily. I’ve not felt this hyped, this excited, this enthralled since Daniel Bryan won the WWE Championship. Suddenly possibilities exist. My favorite wrestler declared clearly for the thousands in attendance and the hundreds of thousands watching at home… “I’m back.”

7 years was worth the wait to see the weight off your shoulders, CM Punk. For the first time in a long time… I’m optimistic and ready for the future. This isn’t sports entertainment. No. This, by Pepsi, is pro-wrestling.