CM Punk was never supposed to become one of the biggest stars in wrestling. The AEW game-changer took the long road to the top, and an even longer one to find his way back after leaving. ‘The Best In The World’ has looked reinvigorated since returning to wrestling after seven years away. The fact his return was considered the biggest signing a major promotion had made in a decade says everything about Punk’s unlikely journey.
Hipsters were not as well-worn as a social class cliche in 2005, but if they had been, you might have called CM Punk a hipster favourite. The ‘Second City Saint’ was coming off the back of the critically-acclaimed “Summer Of Punk”, a long-running Ring Of Honor storyline where he reigned as world champion despite his public signing with WWE. Played expertly to antagonise independent wrestling fans, Punk even went as far as to sign his WWE contract on top of the ROH belt. When the time came though, he lost his championship to James Gibson and departed the promotion for pastures new. His independent run had reached a ceiling, with Punk having engaged in classic battles in promotions big and small, all over the world.
Heavily-tattooed, small of frame and with an aesthetic to match his name, you would have been forgiven for thinking Punk was the antithesis of a mid-00s WWE superstar. The top of the card was occupied by the likes of Batista, John Cena and Triple H, all muscular body types with what was considered a typical “WWE look”. CM Punk felt like an aberration, but his differences are exactly what took him to the top.
Punk debuted in 2006 for the ECW brand, WWE’s version of the outlaw Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion that had gained a rabid following in the 90s. Despite WWE owner Vince McMahon softening the promotion’s hardcore edges, it still made sense to introduce Punk in the alternative environs of ECW. The Chicago native would soon reign as ECW champion, and enjoyed an entertaining series of matches with Johnny Nitro (now John Morrison).
After impressing on the smaller brand, Punk was called up to the main roster in superb style. The tattooed grappler won Money In The Bank at WrestleMania XXIV, and just three months later he successfully cashed in the briefcase to win the World Heavyweight Championship. Despite his obvious talent, few expected Punk to ascend to the top this quickly. This was reflected in WWE seeming to get cold feet with their unconventional new title-holder. His title defences were not put in the traditional main event slot, and he often retained the title via unconvincing means, such as a double-disqualification draw with Batista at The Great American Bash.
The way Punk ceded the title also held very little glory, attacked before a Championship Scramble at Unforgiven and vacating the belt before the match, won by Chris Jericho, even took place. He would repeat the feat that brought him his first title at the following year’s WrestleMania, becoming the first man to win two Money In The Bank matches. After cashing in the briefcase and defeating champion Jeff Hardy, Punk would turn heel for the first time in his WWE tenure. Adopting a holier-than-thou character based on his own straight edge beliefs, Punk criticised Hardy for his real-life drug arrests. The storyline was incredibly effective, with Punk coming across as the ultimate villain against the redemption-seeking Hardy. The pair swapped the title in a series of classic matchers before Punk won their decider in a ‘Loser Leaves WWE’ battle.
Punk’s time as champion would soon come to an end at the hands of The Undertaker. Dropping down the card, Punk formed The Straight Edge Society, and recruited Luke Gallows, Joey Mercury and Serena Deeb to his drug-free cause. After a memorable feud with Rey Mysterio, he next assumed control of The New Nexus, but the once-popular faction was on the slide and this harmed Punk’s momentum. However, this wrestler who overcame so much to reign as a three-time world champion would soon become a bigger star than ever before.
We have covered the ‘Pipebomb’ promo in depth on The Sportsman previously, and the effect was seismic. Punk’s reality-blurring invective turned him from a fading main eventer to the hottest thing in wrestling overnight. The result, an all-time classic match with John Cena at Money In The Bank, put him over the top. In the summer of 2011, CM Punk WAS pro wrestling.
For the next several years, the ‘Voice Of The Voiceless’ was never far from the top of the card. He embarked on the longest WWE title reign since 1988, a stunning 434 days. His record-breaking tenure was ended by The Rock, something that would become a bone of contention for Punk as ‘The Great One’ was only passing through between movie roles, and dropped the title to John Cena two months later. Another issue would be a reported mis-diagnosis of a staph infection by a WWE doctor in November 2013, something that would become a legal matter in the following years. These were among a series of factors that led the 35-year-old to walk out of the company in January 2014, citing health reasons.
For seven years, that looked like the unsatisfactory end to CM Punk’s time in professional wrestling. Punk pursued television and movie roles, wrote comic books during a stint at Marvel, and even attempted a UFC career. This ended after two fights without a win, but Punk should be applauded for taking such a brave step at that stage in his life. All the while, rumours of a return persisted despite Punk appearing to have moved on. His name was chanted at events, while the wrestler took to blocking people who asked him about a wrestling comeback on social media.
Somewhere along the line though, the real-life Phil Brooks seemed to soften on his iconic wrestling days. He released a line of merchandise based on his wrestling character, and began to do autograph sessions at wrestling events. Punk even hosted ‘WWE Backstage’ on the Fox network, a round-up show affiliated with, but not produced by, WWE. Many saw this as Punk kicking the door open for a ring return, but at the time he claimed he was still not interested, though enticingly he refused to rule it out entirely.
However, it was not WWE who would benefit from CM Punk’s change of heart. Instead, new kid on the block AEW completed the biggest signing in recent memory. The move makes a lot of sense. The company, owned by Tony Khan, whose family also own Fulham Football Club, put on a more diverse, wrestling-focused product than WWE. The size and look of Punk that led to his unconvincing early title reign are no barrier in AEW. This is partly because wrestlers like Punk, and fellow AEW wrestler Bryan Danielson, helped forge a path for a new generation of smaller, more athletic, technically gifted athletes. Punk’s differences are what made him such a success, and others have followed the path he helped forge. CM Punk was never meant to be a superstar, but he became one of the most undeniable talents of the era.