“I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make money.”
As a wrestling promoter, there is seldom a sentence that will make you beam more than the one above being stated with intent into the ringside camera by a main event talent. Especially when you’ve committed several millions of dollars to bringing said main event talent back to your company.
Where this statement becomes bothersome for a promoter, however, is when the talent in question is also gifted with the ability to make enemies. In addition to the ones who already exist on your roster.
This is the quandary Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque currently finds himself in with CM Punk. At present, a little over a week removed from the Straight Edge Superstar’s hell-freezing return at Survivor Series in his native Chicago, everything appears white hot. Punk-related content has shattered all of WWE’s social media records and a promotion already in the midst of arguably its most memorable era in two decades now has one of their most talked about superstars of all time back on the roster.
With WrestleMania season on the horizon, it’s a hell of a position to be in.
Which is what makes Punk’s return to the land of Sports Entertainment after nearly 10 years away so precariously positioned.
By all accounts, the former WWE, AEW and Ring of Honor champion was the personification of joviality while backstage in both Chicago for Survivor Series then Nashville for Monday Night Raw last week. Reports have claimed that Punk was seen laughing and joking in gorilla position before making his entrances and was well received by everyone he interacted with.
So far, so good.
Business-wise, Raw’s TV rating soared 29% from the previous week, with over 1.8m people tuning in for Punk’s first appearance in a WWE ring since January 2014. The much coveted 18-49 and 18-34 demos were also up 35% and 44% respectively. Storylines and roads to WrestleMania were being fantasy booked and seemingly every outlet on the planet was dedicating online column inches to big Phil Brooks, even the BBC.
Yet this was not a locker room identical to the one Punk found himself in back in August 2021, when he made his initial, emotionally charged and greatly anticipated (but not widely expected) return to pro wrestling, with AEW.
All Elite Wrestling’s roster were grateful for Punk’s decision to put the past behind him and rediscover the industry he once so obsessed over. The youthful, unproven, potential stars of tomorrow sought guidance and advice from Punk as the man many of them had been inspired by in their formative years as wrestling fans. With all due respect to the star power and experience of Chris Jericho, Sting and Jim Ross as longstanding household names from a golden era, Punk’s arrival felt like a genuine difference maker when it finally occurred.
And for the best part of a year, the wrestling world realised what it had been missing without Punk on the mic and in the ring. From his initial All Out return bout with Darby Allin, to his war with Eddie Kingston to his blood-stained feud of the year with MJF, everything the 45-year-old touched turned to gold. Not an ounce of negativity was even hinted at until Punk incurred the unscripted wrath of Adam ‘Hangman’ Page.
That a situation was allowed to devolve so rapidly and dramatically from one line in a promo to the anarchy of Brawl Out less than four months later doesn’t reflect well on anybody involved. Punk, to his credit, has since accepted that he didn’t approach his now legendarily infamous, muffin munching, nuclear evisceration of a post-show press conference in the right manner. Which is putting things mildly. On his return to television earlier this year, arriving back to Collision, a brand new Saturday night show that had basically been created to accommodate Punk in a manner that maintained his distance from Page, The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, the Chicago native set about making up for lost time, tearing into bouts with Satoshi Kojima, Ricky Starks and a revisiting of arguably his most seminal series of matches, with Samoa Joe.
Yet Punk was now no longer the revered icon to everybody backstage. He was not the Moby Dick that Tony Khan had done so much to reel in from murky, post-wrestling depths once thought impenetrable back in 2021. To some, including the likes of FTR, he was. But now laden with powerful enemies in the form of the company’s Executive Vice Presidents, and with a lot of the promotion’s dirty laundry aired in public, altering the perception of AEW as a blissful, alternative wrestling utopia to the WWE Sports Entertainment juggernaut, there were plenty outside of The Elite who didn’t welcome Punk’s presence with open arms.
One of whom, of course, was ‘Jungle Boy’ Jack Perry. In late 2021 or the first half of 2022, it is safe to assume Perry doesn’t make his subtle-as-a-house brick “it’s real glass, cry me a river” remark to camera as a way to further antagonise Punk. However, in the post-Brawl Out world of August 2023, with Punk now considered a toxic presence by several members of the roster, and with a major strike against his name, Perry felt emboldened enough to needle the former two-time AEW Champion.
Less than a week later and Punk and AEW were no more. Two unlikely returns, one met with triumph the other with trepidation, had both ended in controversy, disaster and division. Perry instigating the situation at Wembley was, of course, a mind-numbingly stupid decision. In doing so, he further drew the ire of the talent who was probably the biggest needle mover AEW had at their disposal at a time when live attendances and TV ratings had either plateaued or tailed off pretty dramatically. However, Punk reacting so aggressively when he had already tarnished his reputation with many not only in AEW, but across the industry, workers and fans alike, was likewise ridiculous. A calmer, more mature head was needed, but Punk opted for the path that led to the exit door.
Which leads us to 25 November, 2023 and the Allstate Arena in Chicago, Illinois. Reports have claimed that Triple H gathered the talent taking part in that evening’s WarGames main event to explain to them all that Punk would be returning at the culmination of the show, just as the viewers back home believed the event was about to go off the air. Those same reports immediately pointed out that both World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins and Drew McIntyre were visibly upset upon hearing the revelation.
A less than ideal way to break the ice for the new marquee signing.
While Rollins’ enraged reaction at ringside that night was a planned spot to further an eventual feud between he and Punk, playing off real life heat the pair currently endure, McIntyre’s storming backstage and exiting the arena was unscripted. If Punk’s return was indeed the main point of consternation for the Scotsman, then the towering Glaswegian is not alone in the WWE locker room in his distaste for the former WWE Champion.
In a recent interview with James Williams, Kevin Owens gave an unenthused response to a question regarding Punk’s return, simply stating, “I just want to have fun at work. So if he’s got that mindset, great.” When then asked about Randy Orton’s return, however, Owens extolled a plethora of virtues onto The Viper, saying, “I love Randy. I’m so happy he’s back. And he’s much needed. To me, having him around in the locker room is an absolute positive…besides the fact that he’s a fantastic performer and he’s a legend, there are some people that are just good to have around. He’s good to have around. He’s good for the morale.
“There are people that are leaders without saying, ‘I’m a leader.’ You know, they don’t need to be. They just are. Randy’s one of them. So when he’s around, everybody just steps up their game just because Randy Orton’s here. And I love that.”
Night and day responses, I’m sure you’ll agree. Of course, it is well known that Owens maintains a close friendship with The Young Bucks, so his less-than-delighted reply is unsurprising, but no surprises doesn’t mean a lack of concern.
Talent of the level of Rollins, McIntyre and Owens being displeased about a return would be enough to make any booker wonder whether they were doing the right thing. Is any talent worth alienating such a prominent portion of your roster for? Especially at a time when the product is on a tremendous upswing, both creatively and monetarily?
Just over 20 years ago, in 2002, Vince McMahon brought the nWo to the WWE, against the wishes of most of his star studded locker room, including his biggest ever drawing card, Stone Cold Steve Austin. History has not shone too brightly on that business decision. By bringing CM Punk back, Triple H, in his role overseeing creative and talent relations, has risked pissing on a hornet’s nest for, essentially, no reason. Business is booming and acts up and down the card are getting, and staying, over.
The Bloodline continues to intrigue, Cody Rhodes is the darling of any crowd he appears in front of, Judgement Day have finally been positioned as a dominant force, with Damage CTRL’s new, Joshi-heavy lineup elevating them into a stable that are now taken seriously by WWE fans. LA Knight’s rapid ascent has not been slowed by his defeat to Roman Reigns, while Seth Rollins’ run as World Heavyweight Champion remains popular as ever, as does Gunther’s all-conquering Intercontinental Title reign. Becky Lynch is fresh off a mesmerising little run as NXT Women’s Champion, cementing several of the women’s roster in Orlando as bona fide ones to watch for the future. Sami Zayn is beloved by all, United States champion Logan Paul loathed, Jey Uso is more main event than ever and did I mention that Randy Orton is back to a series of monstrous ovations?
What Punk does do, on the other hand, is take all of this and have the opportunity to send it all into another stratosphere entirely. While his return to pro wrestling was unexpected by many, his return to WWE was thought an impossibility on a par with Bret Hart ever stepping foot back in the old New York territory post-Montreal.
For the best part of a decade, Punk publicly trashed WWE, Vince McMahon and especially Triple H. He became embroiled in eye-wateringly expensive legal action with them and revealed that working there had left him with ‘zero passion’ for pro-wrestling. He rejected McMahon’s apology to him on Steve Austin’s podcast, branding the move ‘insincere’ and explained how he had rejected a WrestleMania 30 match against Triple H because The Game needed a match with Punk much more than the other way round. Yet all of this previous bad blood could go some way to explaining why a second marriage between Punk and TKO’s newest subsidiary could be a roaring success.
Punk has never been more aware of his public perception. He has also never been more aware that this new chapter within WWE represents his final chance at a happy ending in the business he loves most. Being able to do business with those who have publicly labeled him a ‘cancer’ without the slightest hint of incident will restore the belief of those who lost faith when his AEW run went so wildly off the rails. The expectations on his shoulders are also nothing like those that were placed upon him when he signed on the dotted line for Tony Khan. WWE is swimming with success stories at this current point in their history. While there are undoubtedly those who will look to Punk for help and direction, there are more who are comfortable in their own skin than there were in AEW’s 2021 locker room.
Not being expected to shoulder such responsibility should hopefully allow Punk to thrive. The competition to be the Best In The World and prove himself not only to a new generation of fans who have grown up without him as a WWE mainstay, but to those who have such fond memories of his last run with the company, could light a fire which powers this one final run clean into the sunset.
A pipebomb may not have been forthcoming in Punk’s hotly anticipated return promo last Monday night in Nashville, but it wasn’t needed. While Pepsi’s biggest superfan may have kept things relatively happy-go-lucky for six safe minutes, he was also doing so after being tagged as a ‘hypocrite’ by Seth Rollins earlier in the night. And there Punk was, popping the crowd with his newfound positivity for his ‘home’. A world removed from the same ‘home’ that left him void of passion nine years ago and vowing never to return. Punk himself admitted that his words wouldn’t sound like CM Punk at the commencement of the promo. That’s because, in all likelihood, they weren’t CM Punk’s actual words, but the seeds being sown for an eventual turn on Rollins and the WWE Universe heading into a mega-money programme for WrestleMania 40 in Philadelphia next April.
Beginning with Rollins, the same man responsible for the aforementioned ‘cancer’ comment, is a smart play by Triple H, as it sets the tone for how Punk’s programmes can and will be handled. Everything goes off without a hitch and everyone walks away happy at the end of it, then confidence will be bred from there throughout the roster to those who would have rather seen Phil Brooks retire to Chicago after receiving his pink slip from Tony Khan. The fact that Triple H is so willing to work with Punk again and sing his praises publicly should have already set this tone given the vitriol Punk spat in The King of King’s direction following his 2014 walk out.
With people to prove wrong and almost limitless possibilities awaiting him in WWE, CM Punk is primed for a money-making run the likes of which he once believed would never happen, even at his most profitable peak over a decade ago. Unbothered by new friendships, CM Punk is more dangerous than he has ever been. Whether that’s for better or worse remains to be seen.
Featured Image Credit: WWE