Pro Wrestling’s Biggest Stories of 2021: CM Punk’s AEW Arrival

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CM Punk’s return to professional wrestling seemed impossible. I remember sitting with a group of journalists when Punk gave a sit-down interview at the 2019 Starrcast fan convention. It was the day before AEW’s first All Out pay-per-view and many fans thought it’d be impossible for Punk not to appear at the Sears Centre given it was a short drive from the convention (it didn’t happen). But as I scribbled down every sentence he uttered for a live play-by-play on Twitter, I remember looking up at Punk and seeing a man at peace.

There was no sign of the anger Punk carried when he gave those notorious interviews on The Art of Wrestling back in 2014. Nor was there the chip on the shoulder he had while walking into his UFC debut in 2016. Instead, here sat a man who was allowing himself to have fun with his retirement. He got to write comics, star in horror movies, commentate live MMA events, watch his beloved Chicago Blackhawks and relax at home with his dog Larry and his wife (whose post-wrestling career as a writer is still blowing up). For as much as fans wanted him back, Punk didn’t need wrestling anymore.

Fast forward to the Summer of 2021. By this point, it seemed like All Elite Wrestling had already moved past bringing the former WWE Champion in. Punk, Tony Khan and a number of wrestlers had all gone on record about the situation — Khan wanted Punk back when AEW first launched, the two sides had negotiations, but nothing materialized. Then on July 21, Fightful’s Sean Ross Sapp released the first real indicator that Punk was on his way, reporting that he was in “ongoing talks for a return” and that AEW was “the most likely landing point.” This paired up perfectly with what Punk said when he appeared on Oral Sessions the previous December.

“What would it take (to go back to wrestling)? Oh gosh. Without wanting to insult anybody on either side of the fence, any WWE talent or AEW talent, it would take, above all, an interesting scenario,” Punk said. “A story that would be fun to tell and also just the stupidest amount of money. But, they can save themselves a lot of money if they present a fun storyline. Now, what that is, I don’t know. I’m a pretty picky guy, especially at this point. I think there are more interesting people on the AEW side of things for me to wrestle and that’s because I’ve never wrestled them before. Young Bucks, Kenny Omega.”

Within weeks, Khan and AEW’s EVPs were being flooded with questions about Punk, though a lot of that was their own doing as AEW stars started dropping some not-so-subtle references on episodes of Dynamite (Kenny Omega’s Cookie Monster shirt immediately comes to mind). Then it was announced that the second episode of AEW Rampage would be held inside Chicago’s United Center, a venue Khan hadn’t dared to try and fill despite hosting multiple events in the Chicago area. The arena sold out in about five minutes, making one thing abundantly clear — either Punk was showing up or AEW was setting fans up for a massive disappointment.

The night of Aug. 20 quickly arrived. WWE was set to take over the conversation the following night with SummerSlam in Las Vegas, but as soon as SmackDown was over fans flipped over to TNT in droves. The commentators didn’t say a word, allowing the overwhelming “CM Punk!” chant ringing through the arena to dominate the broadcast. Static could be heard, then the music hit.

Punk was greeted to perhaps one of the loudest crowd reactions in televised pro wrestling history. After embracing a few fans (and diving into the crowd), he sat cross-legged in the middle of the ring and bared his soul to the audience. He apologized for being gone for so long, said he heard all of those chants that had lingered on WWE programming for years, then admitted he truly left pro wrestling when he departed from Ring of Honor in 2006. Now he was back.

Punk made his in-ring debut for the company a little over two weeks later at All Out, then opened the post-show press conference sitting alongside Tony Khan. That feeling of peace from the Starrcast interview was gone, now replaced with an overwhelming sense of joy that his love for the business had been reignited.

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I know what you’re thinking: if this story was seven years in the making, why is it only No. 5 on this list? Well, that’s simple — because we’re still in the first act of Punk’s story as an AEW star. He’s wrestled another seven matches since that first bout with Allin, each time shaking off a bit of the ring rust that had built up during his absence. And if those recent promos with Eddie Kingston and MJF have taught us anything, it’s that Punk is starting to remind people just how explosive he can be on the microphone.

“Speaking of losing, I haven’t yet,” Punk said after his match with Kingston at Full Gear. “And there’s other people in this locker room, if they have problem with me, come see me. Because little by little, day by day, I’m remembering exactly who the f– I am!”

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