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CM Punk and wrestling’s most anticipated night in a decade, explained

After years of anticipation, it’s finally happening (probably).

USA Network’s 2012 Upfront Event Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Wrestling fans appear to finally be getting their wish after seven years of waiting, chanting, and wanting their voices heard. Legendary wrestler, CM Punk, regarded by some as the greatest in the history of pro wrestling is rumored to be making his return to the ring with All Elite Wrestling, likely debuting Friday night on AEW Rampage.

Punk’s indelible mark on wrestling is contentious to say the least. For some he’s the quintessential antihero, an iconoclast who was brave enough to walk away from WWE’s wrestling monolith at the height of his popularity to stand on principle. Others feel he’s a malcontent, who never appreciated what he had. Now in 2021 it doesn’t matter what you think about CM Punk. His potential return to the ring is the biggest thing to happen in wrestling for years, making Friday night one of the most anticipated in modern wrestling.

Who is CM Punk?

It’s impossible to distill a prolific life and career into such a simple question, but here’s brief overview on CM Punk, if you’re not aware of the wrestler.

Phil Brooks, an independent wrestler who began his career in 1999 working backyard and small shows in Illinois gained notoriety in 2002 when most wrestling fans began to learn about CM Punk. Signing with the Baltimore-based promotion Ring of Honor, it’s here that he began to make history.

Ring of Honor ran counter to WWE. Instead of focusing on huge production values and over-the-top presentation, RoH celebrated professional wrestling as art, as much as entertainment. The company showcased wrestlers who didn’t fit WWE’s archetype, which focused big, muscle-bound wrestlers with made-for-TV looks. Instead supremely talented wrestlers, gifted with abilities to tell a compelling story inside and outside the ring rose to the top.

Punk rose to prominence inside the company, quickly becoming a fan-favorite and wrestling some of the greatest matches in the promotion’s history against the likes of Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles and Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan), all of whom would go on to huge success in WWE. It was at this time he gained the attention of larger promotions.

First signing with TNA, where he wrestled for a year, Punk gained the attention of WWE — who signed the independent star and assigned him to Ohio Valley Wrestling, a developmental territory for WWE where wrestlers learned to work in their preferred “style.”

In 2006 CM Punk arrived on WWE TV, working for the company’s relaunch of ECW, an attempt to capture the magic of the extreme, grassroots brand WWE bought years earlier. While the relaunched ECW paled in comparison to its original product, it immediately marked Punk as being different, on the fringe, and the predominantly hardcore audience fell in love with him.

Punk was unique to everything WWE had at the time. Perfectly straddling the line between fiction and reality, Punk was unlike anything mainstream wrestling fans had seen before. He wasn’t concerned with their reactions, and treated wrestling more like a sport than a stage play. Sure, there were the classic hero and villain tropes present, but he brought an air of reality to it all. Punk was not afraid to speak his mind, fully embodying his character to a degree that it became impossible to discern where Phil Brooks ended and Punk began.

This was intoxicating to fans, who immediately jumped on the bandwagon of a wrestler whose antihero persona wasn’t dissimilar to that of Stone Cold Steve Austin. But make no mistake, he was no Stone Cold. Rather, Punk was a reaction to WWE’s “Attitude Era.” He was the kind of character fans would have hated a few years earlier. Punk, who is straight edge in his personal life, decried the alcohol and drug use rampant in pro wrestling. He wasn’t afraid to pull back the curtain on the business to tell fans he didn’t get the opportunities he deserved because he wasn’t a 6’5 muscle-bound beast. Punk didn’t use his physique to make an impact, but his mouth — and like a cult leader, everyone bought in.

Punk rose up the cards, moving to the flagship WWE Raw program, and it’s here he was launched to the stratosphere. Fans of CM Punk became the most rabid in all of WWE, following him no matter what, and pressuring WWE to give him opportunities at a time where they felt John Cena and Randy Orton were hand-picked by management and forced down their throats.

This is where Punk became more than a wrestler, he became a symbol. A locus of frustration and rage, Punk became a place for fans to invest all their energy when they were growing frustrated with WWE’s product. It became too big for the company to ignore, and the company wrote storylines that kept CM Punk away from the WWE Championship, turning powerful authority figures into the enemy similar to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s zenith.

Then, Punk became WWE Champion. It’s here the downfall began.

Why did he leave WWE?

Historically winning the WWE Championship and rising to the top of the heap is enough to satiate wrestlers and make them tow the company line, but not Punk. Despite holding the title he grew frustrated, feeling like the company was over-working him, not paying him what he was worth, and choosing to ignore him in promotional material.

Then, in 2011, as he was set to face John Cena for the WWE Championship, Punk gave his infamous “pipebomb” promo, in which he took a live mic on Raw and began to air his dirty laundry, before his mic was cut off.

Punk threatened to leave the company when his contract was up. Now, whether this was actually going to happen or not is up for debate, but fans believed Punk to such an extent that the possibility of him committing the biggest sin in professional wrestling was about to happen: That he would leave with the belt. And he won the championship over Cena. He would “leave” with the title, but made a quick return on WWE RAW.

Ultimately Punk would re-sign with WWE, staying until 2014, but was woefully unhappy during this period. Keeping all his prior grievances, CM Punk no-showed dates he was booked for, eventually walking out of the company after that year’s Royal Rumble. In interviews since Punk indicated he was a victim of medical malpractice by WWE, saying he contracted a MRSA infection that was improperly treated, and suffered a severe concussion that company doctors approved him to compete — despite Punk telling them he was too messed up.

Punk alleges he was terminated the morning of his wedding in 2014, which he said was a final straw working for the company ever again.

The legend of CM Punk

Watch any WWE programming from 2014-present and fan chants of “CM Punk” are common. It’s a catch-cry for fans decrying what they’re seeing in the ring, voicing their displeasure with management by cheering for a man who hated Vince McMahon and the entire WWE corporate structure.

Fans desperately wanted Punk to return, to “save” the company from perceived mismanagement. It got so pronounced that WWE commonly muted crowd microphones to lessen the impact of CM Punk chants.

Then, it 2019 it seemed there might be amends. Punk returned to co-host WWE Backstage, a studio program on FOX. Many fans saw it as a sign Punk was returning, but it wasn’t to be. The wrestler confirmed he would not be coming back to the ring.

What is being rumored right now?

Ever since its inception, All Elite Wrestling (AEW) has been mentioned as potential home for CM Punk. An opportunity away from WWE for him to return to mainstream wrestling, giving fans what they wanted for years, and the possibility he’d once again revolutionize the business.

Every time it was mentioned Punk would either not answer, sarcastically mock AEW, or write off the possibility all together. Then rumors started swirling that not only was Punk training to return to the ring, but it was going to happen in AEW.

Recently launching its second weekly show, the one-hour AEW Rampage, anticipation reached a fevered pitch when AEW made the choice to go big for its second week show. Traditionally a company that books smaller, more intimate arenas — AEW booked the United Center in Chicago, Punk’s home town, and branded the event “The First Dance.” Curiously at the same time, Punk posted the classic mid-90s Bulls introduction at the United Center on Instagram — solidifying in the minds of fans that Punk was coming.

AEW owner Tony Khan further built the event.

Now fans are ready. By every report CM Punk will debut tonight in Chicago and mark his return to professional wrestling for the first time in seven years. The anticipation is greater than ever, and unlike anything wrestling has seen in years.

No matter what happens next, things are about to get wild — and completely change the face of professional wrestling.