August 13, 2005, I left Professional Wrestling. August 20, 2021… I’m Back
These words reverberated through the United Center in Chicago, as CM Punk made his return to professional wrestling. I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling for about as long as I can remember, but the weeks and days leading up to the reveal of “wrestling’s worst kept secret” had me in anticipation in a way that hardly ever occurs.
It has been a tough year and a half of being mostly locked down and under pressure, and professional wrestling has been an oasis of respite against the unrelenting despair of our times. A silly and magical pantomime with over-the-top characters and choreographed violence. Most people think of it as a childish diversion that you’re supposed to grow out of, but for those who are willing to suspend their disbelief, to believe in the magic – it is home to some of the greatest moments in entertainment.
Of course, the de-facto standard-bearer in most of the history of televised wrestling has been the WWE, formerly known as the WWF. It’s what almost every layperson thinks of when you say the words “Wrestling” or “Pro Wrestling”. I remember watching WWE growing up- I caught the end of the “Attitude Era”, a defining moment in Wrestling history, in the late 90s and early 2000s. A lot of the subject matter doesn’t translate well into today’s sensitivities, but what people remember the most about that time in wrestling, are the characters, the moments, and how loud and involved the crowds used to be.
As time went on, wrestling, or at least what the WWE put out, changed, as the world changed as well. In 2021, wrestling occupies a very small slice of the media pie- we have streaming services, movies, videogames…the list goes on. In my personal experience- wrestling has a dual identity- most of the people I interact with don’t watch it at all, but have heard about it, but on the other hand, wrestling parlance and references have permeated every bit of mainstream media. People use “inside” terms like saying “faces and heels” instead of “good guys and bad guys” or “heroes and villains”, for example. As another example, you’ll see a mural of wrestlers from the 80s and 90s in street art.
Wrestling has seeped into the mainstream culture more than you might think. You might even go as far as to say that it is one of America’s most influential cultural exports of the last few decades. The WWE had a huge part in spreading that influence. Influence, however, waxes and wanes, and the WWE’s brand of wrestling which they prefer to call “Sports entertainment” hasn’t really captured the hearts and minds of diehard wrestling fans in a long, long time.
This is where we come back to CM Punk. He saw this undercurrent of discontent, and in 2011, used it as a part of a storyline, blending reality and fiction in a way that can only happen in professional wrestling. In his now-prescient “promo” (A speech given by a wrestler to advance a storyline) called the pipebomb, he aired his grievances with the way WWE was run, how he felt mistreated, and so on. He talked about how the company was out of touch with its fans – a sentiment that a lot of disenfranchised fans agreed with at the time.
In the next few years, CM Punk continued to be in or around top billing on the card. The only thing that eluded him, however, was the top spot. The privilege of being “the top guy” usually comes with more than bragging rights. Creative freedom within the WWE’s structure is one of those privileges. In the “attitude era” I mentioned earlier, the biggest stars were larger-than-life individuals. In the modern era of the WWE, there are no stars bigger than the WWE itself. The company controls its performers to ensure that they don’t become bigger than the WWE brand. Every word and every action of every performer is scripted and controlled to the utmost extent. In a way, they do what’s best for business- they are a publicly-traded company, and their focus is on family-friendly entertainment, and more recently, towards generating content for multiple platforms. The only performers that get a modicum of control over their characters are the ones topmost on the card.
CM Punk used the undercurrent of discontent among the fans as fuel to propel himself to the top. Despite not fitting the mold of a traditional “WWE superstar” – generally tall and bulky behemoths that could convey a larger-than-life persona. In a way, he helped usher in an era of performers that weren’t as big or as tall as the WWE’s formulae dictated, but captured the imagination of the fans on the basis of their technique and charisma. The WWE had to grudgingly push him to the top of the card, but even then, the incessant pressure and friction between Punk and the WWE seemed to wear on him.
Looking back towards the end of his WWE run, it’s clear that he was neither in the best of health nor was he mentally fulfilled. There was a lot of drama and litigation surrounding his exit from WWE which is well documented- but in the 7 years since he left the company, he tried his best to follow his passions, to find joy in new beginnings. He found himself in the world of MMA- in the UFC, no less. I remember watching his UFC debut, wondering how he got there, and knowing in my heart that he’d end up like Jon Favreau’s character in “FRIENDS”. He ended up with 2 losses in 2 matches before he was let go- something that will live with him for the rest of his life. What I am in awe of though- is that he followed through with that commitment, in his relentless passion to find a new beginning, to go out of his comfort zone. Did he deserve the spot that he got? Maybe, and maybe not. Did he tarnish his reputation forever? Some say so.
None of that mattered on the night of August 20, 2021. It was not WWE, but a new company called AEW, built on the promise to bring the magic back to professional wrestling. The internet was abuzz with rumors of CM Punk being signed. In the weeks leading up to this day, AEW had leaned very heavily into rumors, putting small references like Easter eggs into their programming. They’d announced a show in Chicago and labeled it “the first dance” – possibly a reference to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. The stage was set, but fans all over the world were cautiously optimistic. Wrestling companies, especially the WWE, had a habit of trying to elicit reactions from the fans by subverting their expectations- I remember seeing how people expected this to be some elaborate ruse to get “heat” from the crowd- a dangerous gamble to play with the goodwill and buzz that AEW had generated.
Luckily, AEW handled it as simply and directly as they could. At the beginning of the show, the crowd was already chanting “CM Punk” in anticipation of his arrival. When “Cult of Personality” played through the speakers, the crowd erupted in the loudest reaction I remember hearing. The name “CM Punk” showed up on the large screens, and finally, after seven long years, Phil Brooks walked onto the stage, returning to Professional Wrestling as a hero, to the deafening cheers of the partisan Chicago crowd. He seemed staid, overwhelmed with the adulation of the fans who never forgot about him, as he looked around and then kneeled on the entrance ramp, his eyes on the verge of tears. As he soaked in the chants from the crowd, his expression changed to one of gratitude and joy. As he stood back up and exclaimed back at the crowd, his arms outstretched- it was in that moment that he, the crowd, and everyone watching at home realized, that the best in the world, the voice of the voiceless, the professional wrestler CM Punk, had truly returned.
The atmosphere in the United Center was emotionally charged- so much so, that we saw one of the spectators crying, overwhelmed by the emotions of that moment. A few folks on the internet were quick to make fun of that guy, to which I say, it’s sad that men aren’t allowed to express their vulnerability in situations like these. Men are not emotional monoliths only capable of anger and rage- they can be emotionally invested in things, and have the right to express their vulnerability publicly. The majority of wrestling fans completely understood what he felt, though, and were supportive of him, which I appreciate.
Moments like these are what make professional wrestling so much more unique than any other form of entertainment. Sure, movies and TV shows can have plot twists. They can have the most amazing cinematics and the most realistic special effects. What they cannot do, however, is blend the crowd’s reactions into the performance seamlessly. They can’t blur the lines between reality and fiction in the way that professional wrestling storylines can.
It was this mixture of reality and fantasy that drew audiences to the United Center and to TV Screens around the world that night. They flocked to see the return of both the man and the character that enraptured wrestling fans in a way that hadn’t occurred since the heyday of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Yes, he didn’t leave the WWE on good terms. Yes, he burned a lot of bridges along the way. Yes, he tried his hand at MMA and was handily beat twice. All of those things are true, and yet the crowd welcomed him back.
Why didn’t his failures post WWE matter to this crowd? The answer to that is simple- they believed because they wanted to believe. The suspension of disbelief is one of the key requirements to enjoy professional wrestling. This key principle is what allows people to buy into the David vs Goliath-esque storylines, the supernatural occurrences, and the larger-than-life characters. Some wrestling companies push the envelope by having matches between wrestlers and inanimate objects. One company even held an entire match with two “invisible men” as competitors- go watch “invisible man vs invisible Stan” to get an idea of what I am talking about.
Thus ended CM Punk’s seven-year hiatus from the squared circle. Seven years is a long time- especially in today’s fast-paced age of social media, where people get famous and lose their fame within the span of just a few days. Wrestling fans didn’t forget about him during his hiatus, though- to the extent that his name continued to be chanted by fans as a way to express discontent towards the performances or the storylines being played out in front of them. It just goes to show how much he and what he stood for meant to the fans.
As he picked up the microphone and spoke to the fans in a wrestling ring for the first time in seven years, he said he had nothing prepared- although I feel like he had a lot of thoughts in his mind that he wanted to speak about. He started by talking up new talent, recognizing his past missteps, and acknowledging how his fans had never forgotten about him.
What stuck with me was when he said “I was never going to get healthy physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally, staying in the same place that got me sick in the first place”. While he said that in reference to his prior experiences working in “sports entertainment”, what I took from it was that creativity doesn’t need to come from a place of pain and negativity. I first began writing as a creative outlet several years ago thinking that I needed to be in some kind of pain or anguish to truly create something worthy of being seen. As I grew older, I realized that creation can come from a place of happiness and positivity as well. Creating something need not be a catharsis, something to go through to feel better. Feeling happy and optimistic can be a starting point for it too, leading you to share your optimism with others that may share your sentiments and come together to multiply that positivity.
There is so much more I can say about CM Punk’s debut in AEW- one of the most anticipated and invigorating moments I have seen in professional wrestling. I’ll end by saying this- professional wrestling is one of the most unique forms of live performance art that exists. When done poorly, it can be terrible, but when it’s done well, it’s beyond perfect. I know it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. The wrestling world is a lot more diverse than it used to be 7-10 years ago. There’s something for everyone- a diverse landscape that can be seen if you look beyond the realm of WWE and “sports entertainment”. In a way, that’s what CM Punk wanted to bring to wrestling- a cultural change. He left professional wrestling in 2005, he left “sports entertainment” in 2014, and now as the wrestling landscape has begun to shift, he finds himself at the epicenter of the earthquake of change, the right man, in the right mindset, at the right moment.
I don’t know about you, but for me:
“Wrestling is better than the things you like.”John Oliver