The Curious Case Of CM Punk: Is His WWE Return Actually A Terrible Idea?

In the world of professional wrestling, fans are taught that the industry lives and dies on the simple phrase of “never say never.” No matter what has transpired over the years, and no matter how unhirable someone has made themselves to top professional wrestling companies, a comeback is always possible–especially when there is money to be made. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be as surprising as it is that CM Punk has returned to WWE, nearly a decade after his publicly messy departure from the company.

To fully explain the parting of ways and how bitter it was, there are a number of things to note. Firstly, Punk went through all of his side of the story in two appearances on Colt Cabana’s The Art of Wrestling podcast. In it, he discussed a number of health issues and injuries he went through during his WWE career. As a result of that podcast, WWE’s senior ringside physician, Dr. Christopher Amann, sued the Punk and Cabana for defamation. Punk and Cabana ultimately prevailed in the suit. However, it also led to the end of their friendship. It also seemed any potential of Punk returning to WWE was a moot point.

Fast forward to 2021 and we have the disastrous run of CM Punk in All Elite Wrestling. He debuted to a sold-out United Center in his hometown of Chicago, primed to be the new face of the fledgling company. While he had memorable matches at first, and even won the world championship on two occasions, those highlights were mired by injuries, reports of backstage altercations, suspensions, having the AEW World Championship stripped from him, and ultimately being fired for cause after AEW CEO Tony Khan claimed, “I’ve been going to wrestling shows for over 30 years. I’ve been producing them on this network for four years. Never in all that time have I ever felt until last Sunday that my security, my safety, my life was in danger at a wrestling show.”

While no details were provided about why Khan felt in danger, the notion that Punk was fired over the incident made him look unhirable to those on the outside. For the first time ever, “never” seemed like an appropriate response.

Of course, there was plenty of speculation that he would eventually return to WWE, perhaps as soon as the 2023 installment of Survivor Series, which would emanate from Chicago. But given his past criticisms ofnow-head of WWE creative, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, the logical conclusion would be that too many bridges had been burned.

Yet, in the final moments of Survivor Series over the weekend, the Chicago crowd was shocked and delighted when Punk’s signature song–Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality”–started blaring through the arena speakers, while his name lit up the video screen. Still, WWE had pulled this trick before two months after his last final WWE appearance, so it wasn’t until the former AEW star made his way onto the stage that the crowd really showed their appreciation.

All we’ve seen, thus far, is Punk walk into the room in Chicago. It won’t be until Monday Night Raw that he actually makes his intentions clear, making it quite possibly the most can’t-miss episode of wrestling television in 2023. Don’t expect him to get into too many details about his parting of ways with AEW, though, as even Khan has said he’s legally unable to comment on Punk’s departure and new-ish home in WWE.

This all leads to the most important question: Is WWE bringing Punk back into the fold again even a good idea to begin with? There are two schools of thought on this, so let’s make those cases, shall we?

The case for CM Punk

If nothing else, WWE bringing CM Punk back into the fold generates the types of headlines the company wants to see. It was the sort of shocking moment that rarely, if ever, happens in wrestling anymore, where dirt sheets and social media tend to spoil everything. Not even AEW could keep its signing of Punk a secret–and the company managed to sell out a much bigger arena because of it. Now, though, WWE has truly caught viewers and the wrestling world by surprise, which is hard to do in our always-online society.

There’s also a sense that Punk returning to WWE is proof that the company is the true be-all/end-all of pro wrestling, when you consider that Punk is the second top-level AEW talent to head back to WWE, following Cody Rhodes in 2022. AEW was supposed to be the indie-flavored alternative that motivated wrestlers to find new life outside of the WWE ecosystem. Now, a few years into the experiment, we’ve seen two of the company’s biggest names head back to where they came from. Pairing that with the likes of Brian Pillman Jr. and Jade Cargill leaving AEW to carve out their own WWE careers, it arguably cements World Wrestling Entertainment–and its parent company TKO Corp.–as the undisputed champion of wrestling.

Perhaps most importantly, bringing CM Punk back to the company is a huge achievement for Levesque and WWE CEO Nick Khan. It’s been a year with the two driving the company, and signing CM Punk is an incredibly valuable flag to plant. By way of comparison, look at the first major decisions made by Disney CEO Bob Iger. Upon taking over that media company, he set out to make some very big purchases that defined his legacy with The Walt Disney Company–he bought Pixar and Marvel Comics. While Disney had previously worked closely with Pixar on its animated slate, the acquisition of Marvel set the company on its future course–the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Levesque and Khan bringing Punk back to WWE is a similar situation. It’s a statement to the world that the two are willing to do whatever it takes–including working with talent that has been loudly and aggressively critical of WWE–to stay on top and preserve the company’s future.

What’s more, it’s coming at a time when WWE is negotiating for the TV rights of Monday Night Raw. And with Smackdown moving to USA next year, chances are they’re talking to suitors outside of their normal cable networks. With not only the return of CM Punk, but also Randy Orton–both of whom are being promoted as appearing on Raw–WWE has made their Monday night program even more enticing than it has been in recent weeks.

Since Vince McMahon stepped down from his roles in WWE, leading to Levesque overseeing all of the creative team, WWE’s programming had seen a massive upshift in quality. Ratings are up, more live event tickets are being sold. Now, with a returning Orton and Punk on Raw, the value of that show is about to go up even further.

Lastly, but still importantly, this gives Punk the chance to not have his career end poorly. Whether you love or hate CM Punk, love or hate AEW, his time there is marred to the point that it very likely would have gone down as his legacy in pro wrestling. And given how much remains–and likely will remain–unknown about what really went on behind the scenes, including the events of the All In 2022 press conference and the reported altercations backstage at AEW shows, without a chance at redemption, that’s what the majority of Punk’s career would have been known for.

Now, with a chance to shine once more in WWE, Punk has some control over his own career narrative. Of course, chances are he also has a very complicated contract to keep what allegedly happened in AEW from happening again. But perhaps this is the type of “freedom” Punk needs as a performer. When previously in WWE, he thrived on the character development of that version of CM Punk–from the Straight-Edge Society through his run as the best in the world. Now he has a chance to recapture some of that magic, hopefully settling on being something other than the curmudgeonly veteran he’s played since returning to the industry.

So, really, the sky’s the limit for CM Punk in WWE–and that’s before you consider all of the matches he’s bound to have. If WWE doesn’t pull the trigger on a feud with Seth Rollins immediately, it couldn’t be a bigger mistake. Meanwhile, guys like Gunther, Austin Theory, Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Jey Uso, Cody Rhodes, and–yes–even Logan Paul are likely going to all have incredible matches with Punk. We’d even add The Miz to that list, given the murky history between the two.

In a perfect world, this is a wonderful moment for WWE, for Punk, and for the fans. However, if there’s one thing wrestling isn’t, it’s perfect.

The case against CM Punk

If you were firmly of the thought that WWE should stay as far away from Punk as possible, you’re not wrong. After all, look at the last two years of his career. It’s been filled with injuries, suspensions, reported backstage fights, and even a threat against his last boss, Tony Khan. When he was let go, both Khan and AEW made it clear that Punk was fired “for cause.” This wasn’t a run of the mill contract release or expiration. This wasn’t a suspension pending release. CM Punk was fired by AEW, or at least whatever being fired is when you are an independent contractor.

Bringing someone like that in could easily be a human resources nightmare. What’s more, based on reports and fan videos from Survivor Series, it seems there are a number of talents who are none too pleased about Punk’s return–including the aforementioned Rollins.

While it could be said that the actions we saw at Survivor Series were setups for storylines, it was much earlier this year that Rollins referred to Punk as a “cancer” and told him to stay away from WWE. Perhaps he’s been working a long-term angle. Or, perhaps Punk has some fences to mend now that he’s back in WWE.

Will this lead to a spike in WWE’s ratings, though? After all, that’s what the wrestling business is really about. The answer to that question is that, while in the short-term that’s definitely possible, there’s not much long-term evidence.

Look at AEW Collision, for example. The Saturday night show debuted in June of this year, highlighted by Punk’s return from suspension and injury. Its debut episode drew 816,000 viewers, which is about on-pay with AEW’s other two-hour weekly show, Dynamite. Two months later, though, and the show had sunk to usually bringing in 400-600,000 viewers. It showed that while Punk was a draw, it wasn’t clear exactly how long of a tail his presence had in terms of making people tune in. Since his departure, Collision viewership has continued to sink with the November 17 episode bringing in 270,000 viewers.

Above all else, though, what does this tell others in the industry about toxic talent? I’m not saying CM Punk is a toxic individual. Rather, I’m pointing out that there were many toxic traits on full display during much of his time in AEW. The sort of reports and allegations we’ve read, along with Tony Khan’s own words about firing Punk, would make him unhirable in most places if he wasn’t named CM Punk. If I’m a WWE talent that’s been putting in the work to achieve the next level, only for a guy that has come across as incredibly ungrateful for everything he’s earned over the years, I’d be upset.

During the post-Survivor Series press conference, Levesque noted that neither he nor Punk were the same people they were a decade ago when they didn’t get along. “Everybody grows, everybody changes,” he told the media. “And I’m a different person. He’s a different person. There’s a different company. And we’re all we’re all on the same even starting ground.”

While that’s a nice thought, there is evidence dating back to only a couple of months ago that show Punk may still be the same volatile force he was after his first WWE departure. It’s a stigma that’s going to follow him around for a while.

That’s something only Punk, himself, can fix, though. In the world of modern wrestling, he’s often framed himself as part of the old guard of professional wrestling. The type of wrestler that shakes hands, offers up advice to all who seek it, and loves the craft of pro wrestling. This is the CM Punk that first arrived in AEW, before we saw it slowly fade away as he became more disgruntled. That’s the Punk that needs to show up on Raw and stick around. A Punk that is thankful for getting the chance to prove himself once more. That Punk is the one professional wrestling is always going to need. Hopefully, it’s the one we’ll get this time.

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