So Long, and Thanks for the Fish, Man #084: Punk You!

Run a search of my musings here at Pop Culture Squad — and I admit there’s not as many as there should be — and one name will pop up more than anyone else. Phil Brooks, AKA CM Punk. If you’re new to this site, or new to me? He’s a professional wrestler. My favorite professional wrestler. Well, perhaps I admit here now, dejected, my former favorite professional wrestler. Let’s not dilly dally around the obvious.

Of course, I should give the requisite mansplanation of Punk 101 here, to spare you from beleaguered googling. Here’s the skinny, as svelte as I can make it:

CM Punk was an “indie darling” garnering small-but-growing fame by way of very small wrestling promotions across the country from 1999-2005. Eventually, the indie scene faded and Punk made way to Stamford to be with the biggest pro wrestling, er, sports entertainment company there was (and is): WWE. Punk worked in the WWE until 2014. He won the World Heavyweight title in one of the most memorable storylines in modern pro wrestling history — all stemming from his infamous Pipe Bomb promo. And after getting burnt out on the road, and due largely to the way WWE was run… Punk quit cold turkey.

Over the next seven years Punk dabbled in everything his heart desired. He wrote comic books. He made a horror movie. He got his clock cleaned in UFC. Twice. And he landed a little role on Steven Amell’s Heels on Starz.

And then? Phil unretired. I was over-the-moon. I wrote about it at great length. Here, read about it if you want.

To sum that article up though? I’ve loved Punk since the Pipe Bomb promo. He broke rules I’d never seen broken. He wasn’t a roided-up mass monster like most of the WWE roster. He was different in a literal sea of sameness. And he could be a good guy without being the pandering robot John Cena chose to be. No offense to John, but c’mon… Punk never felt the need to have “the orange shirt era”. But I digress. 

When Punk left? I stayed in tune to the product, and poured my love and attention to Bryan Danielson (at the time, as WWE’s aptly named Daniel Bryan). The bearded GOAT was not unlike the Punker — clean and straight-edged, talented on the mic and in-between the ropes, charming, and forever seen as a bit of an outsider. But I can’t lie, folks. When CM Punk entered Chicago’s United Center and declared “I’m back”, I’d not felt elation like that since Danielson won the title at Wrestlemania. But unlike ‘Mania? My earnest excitement came without that backbone of “smart-mark” behind-the-scenes snark that permeated my celebration of Daniel Bryan overcoming the entirely predictable odds

Punk coming back felt real.

And it was real! CM Punk returned to a full schedule with All Elite Wrestling. He cut some pretty OK promos. He’d lost a step or two in the ring, but was telling solid stories nonetheless. And then, and then, and then. Forgive all my snake-eating-its-own-tail with my linking here, but I figure if you’re not in the know this is the easiest way to catch up. 

So, Punk returns. He rises in the ranks. He wins the big championship. And chaos occurs shortly thereafter. As a fan? I wanted badly to give benefit of the doubt. AEW seems to have itself a leaky ship with the dirtsheets (pro wrestling tabloid websites all vying for sneaky backstage news), and I’m too old to believe everything I read on the internet. Except on Pop Culture Squad, natch.

When Punk was shelved due to injury and his thento-be-investigated backstage tomfoolery with the EVPs of the company (Matt and Nick Jackson, and Kenny Omega), I maintained my fandom — of both Phil Brooks and the AEW product. For Tony Khan and his All Elite Wrestling TV shows? There were plenty of great wrestlers to love. For Punk? I figured there were issues we the fans were not privy to. If there was truth to them? Then it made our Chicago-Made anti-hero a bit of a spoiled prick. If the tabloids were being fed a few too many juicy details? Well, I’d be apt to hand-wave the ire. For all we knew (know?) this was all a work. A ruse. A lie not unlike an Andy Kaufman-esque prank. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit in my heart that’s all I wanted this to be.

It’s quite likely the truth was somewhere in-between the lies on and off screen. 

Smash cut to June 17, 2023. AEW Collision debuts on TNT. As a second two-hour flagship show, it was meant to softly split the roster and start telling original stories and angles solely on Saturday nights. At the helm — without specific pomp and circumstance — was CM Punk (who would only appear on Collision per AEW announcement). Returning after a 9 month absence (part “house-arrest”, part triceps surgery and convalescence), Brooks enjoyed a raucous triple-tag-team bout with his real-life buddies FTR and defeated Bullet Club Gold and long-time rival Samoa Joe. 

A month later, Punk actually opened his mouth. With a new gimmick — “The Real World Champion” (which might make Mike Mizanin’s ears perk up, lol) — a grumpy-gus Phil Brooks played the hackneyed card of having never technically lost his World Title in 2022, he was going to go ahead and wear his old belt and defend it the same as if it was a legitimately recognized prize. AEW, I should note, utilized Tazz’s old ECW “FTW” championship as a curtain-jerker title for a good couple of years… so the whole “unsanctioned belt” thing isn’t that big of a stretch.

A month later, AEW produced the largest professional wrestling event ever (air quotes there, kiddos. The UK looked into it, and the event falls to #3 as all-time in terms of ticket sales) All In. At the All In pay-per-view, CM Punk defeated Samoa Joe to retain his “title” to a sea of cheer-boos.

What came after that? We’ll likely never know the full truth — which is ridiculously becoming a common thread. Seems Punxsutawney Phil once-again ruffled backstage feathers. An altercation with young wrestler Jack Perry (son of the late Luke Perry), and some form of physicality or the threat of it towards AEW’s founder (and paycheck writer) Tony Khan, lead Punk to a forced dismissal on September 2nd, 2023.

And now you’re all caught up. If you’re still here? I owe you a Pepsi.

I’m 41. Phil Brooks is 44. I don’t hero worship someone essentially of my generation anymore. The appeal of unchecked fandom is not appealing, especially in this world. Every morning seemingly unearths any number of content creators, that I have enjoyed at some point, getting properly outed as rapists, abusers, groomers, scabs, or just good-old-fashioned jerks. With Punk, the best I can say is I’m disappointed

First off? I don’t know the actual truth. For all I know, if all the facts were laid out in front of me, CM Punk could be 100% vindicated in his actions. It could be that Matt and Nick Jackson (alongside Kenny Omega) are not good EVPs. It could be that some of the younger talent were openly dismissive or disrespectful of CM Punk in the locker room (to whatever personal proclivity he has for showing-of-respect). It could be that Jack Perry’s barb at the camera (“Real glass. Cry my a river!”) was worthy of a receipt to Phil. (For the uninitiated, a ‘receipt’ in pro-wrestling is physical retribution for either hurting a guy physically, or breaking one of the 713,597 unwritten rules of backstage.

Occam’s razor exists for a reason. The simplest answer is often the right one. And if Punk seems to get into innumerous altercations — of the mouth, or the fists — eventually you’ll note that statistically he couldn’t have been in the right every single time. And during the downtimes when Punk was nursing injury? I don’t recall any backstage fights, blow-offs, or unsavory behavior in the same flavor. The common thread to all the chaos has been Phil Brooks. It hurts to write it. It hurts to say it. And in his silence — be it forced or voluntary — says more than a Pipe Bomb promo ever could.

Something that grinds my gears further still is seeing other seasoned veterans in the AEW locker room… thriving. Guys like Chris Jericho, Bryan Danielson, Jon Moxley, Billy Gunn, and the legend Sting have cavorted around the halls of All Elite Wrestling without so much as a single negative story attached to their name. And Chris Jericho is a self-aggrandizing conspiracy theorist! That those men have formed on-screen and off-screen bonds with the next generation while Punk was often regarded as having “his” people really hits me in the gut. It paints my favorite wrestler as a territorial, moody, pissy bitch behind the scenes. Either getting his way or pushing every button until he does. Again: it all could be lies, a story, a work, or some convoluted misheard happenings leaked improperly to any bloggers with a keyboard.

When CM Punk came back to wrestling, he told the crowd that he came back for the new generation. And for the bursts where he was healthy? He did. But rumors after rumors kept stacking. It may be unfair, but safe to say: in the seven years of Punk’s absence, perhaps the business changed enough that Punk himself could no longer recognize it. 

By staying at home, and mostly doing literally anything else, perhaps he missed little shifts in the backstage politicking and culture that were necessary for him to thrive in the 2020s. Or, sadly, it just might be that CM Punk has always been a bit of a self-serving doofus who made life miserable for others when he didn’t get his way. I don’t want to believe it! But the one thing Punk doesn’t care to do for his fans is offer his truth. We either defend him without pause… or we step on the other side of the line and waive the white flag as haters.

Except I’m a not a hater. I’m a fan. I was. I am. I will forever be. People are shades of gray. For every fickle foible that exists in Phil Brooks… there is an immutable spark that is shared by no other. Punk has always oozed authenticity. Even now, as an excommunicated veteran, he’s a mercurial livid id. Rumors of him landing in the WWE, or any other number of promotions have spiked. Is it for click-bait? Damn right it is. But CM Punk is no fool. Press is press. He’s not above working the masses to make a solid paycheck. You certainly can’t blame him for that. For shooting himself in the foot with a promotion literally built to present the best version of his character though… all the blame sits squarely on Phil Brooks’ shoulders.

His legacy is tarnished unless he course corrects. He doesn’t strike me the type to want that or care. I suppose the only way to end things — for now — is to appropriate a lyric from another Chicago Made punk…

One night and one more time // Thanks for the memories, even though they weren’t so great.