The Return of CM Punk to Pro Wrestling

Surreal.

Professional wrestling when it’s able to hit its highest notes, there’s nothing quite like it. Of course, as a fan of pro wrestling I think that. I’m sure a professional football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, etc. fan would say something similar about their beloved sport or form of entertainment. But to make the case, what sets professional wrestling apart is that it’s a blend of sports and entertainment, where you can both control what happens and can’t script what happens (that’ll make sense in a moment). That unique blend manifests the most emotional, rewarding moments as a fan.

That is, take for example what set the pro wrestling world on fire last night: CM Punk returned after seven years away from pro wrestling to All Elite Wrestling’s new Friday TNT program, Rampage. CM Punk is 42-years-old. He was away for the daily grind of pro wrestling for seven years, having quit WWE after the 2014 Royal Rumble. Check out how loud the reaction was for his return in his home city of Chicago:

Is there anything like that in other sports? The first example that comes to mind is Michael Jordan, who stepped away to play baseball and then came back. In fact, Punk, in an ode to Jordan, sent out a press release that simply stated, “I’m Back.” Then after retiring in 1998, Jordan returned five years later in 2003 at the age of 40 to play with the Wizards.

Here’s is Jordan’s return in 1995. The crowd is indeed loud:

But again, what sets pro wrestling apart? They can milk it. Was that a satisfying video to watch above? Yes, the classic introduction gives you the shivers, but hardly any time was given to soak in the crowd’s adulation at Jordan’s return. On the other hand, when CM Punk returned, he got 18 minutes of television time to do his thing and for fans at home to hear the live crowd roar for him. That’s pro wrestling!

Otherwise, my knowledge isn’t deep enough to know of other examples. But also consider this, AEW didn’t exist seven years ago when Punk exited the pro wrestling business. That’s perhaps the most astounding part of this. Not that Punk actually came back — they all come back at some point, Bret Hart, Bruno Sammartino, Hogan, all of them do — but that the company he came back to exists at all, and more than existing, is vibrant on the national stage with TNT to be real competition to WWE.

WWE has become synonymous with pro wrestling in the same way that Kleenex is synonymous with tissues or Q-tips with cotton swabs. When people who don’t watch wrestling or are lapsed fans (meaning, they haven’t watched in a while) reference pro wrestling, their reference point is most likely WWE, even when the content isn’t WWE’s. Nonetheless, AEW is making real headway as competition to WWE in a very short period of time.

But that goes to my point with how the truly great moments in pro wrestling are often the product of organic, unscripted moments in a scripted world, such as CM Punk coming back to a company that didn’t exist seven years ago. Or that one of the biggest homegrown talents in AEW (meaning, she wasn’t a WWE cast off; she became a star within AEW), Britt Baker, debuted on the independents in 2015, the year after Punk’s departure. And now, she’s one of the biggest stars in AEW for his return. In fact, there’s even more symmetry to it; she was at the 2014 Royal Rumble, his last match, and of course, was there upon his return:

And that Punk, in his first words in seven years inside a pro wrestling ring, referenced Britt Baker specifically because he wanted to help put her over.

Wrestling is just the coolest for that return and for that symmetry. When you can make a crowd “pop” for a human being like that. That, when he does his trademark sitting down in the ring to speak, the act of sitting elicits a loud, excited reaction. It’s surreal.

Again, because pro wrestling exists in that weird space between sports (because of the athleticism) and entertainment (because of the scripted theatrics), wrestling is also uniquely positioned to hit those high notes in a way other sports and entertainment outlets don’t often get to. I’m not saying they don’t exist elsewhere, as for example, what Marvel pulled off over 10 years to build up to Endgame is the highest of highly improbable, but satisfying, notes.

But like, you’re not going to see a 63-year-old Tom Brady still throwing footballs in the National Football League (okay, maybe). However, you do get to see a 62-year-old living legend in Sting still perform in AEW. Or a 54-year-old Goldberg in WWE (I know, I know). Or a 42-year-old CM Punk making his triumphant return to pro wrestling to compete at a high level.

As I’ve written before, the best pro wrestling action in-ring is akin to art. It’s beauty in-motion, like the best of ballet, as weird of a comparison as that seems. But at the end of the day, pro wrestling fans are pro wrestling fans for moments. We remember the moments perhaps more than the in-ring action itself. For moments like CM Punk returning, which will certainly be remember as one of the greatest moments in pro wrestling history.

I love pro wrestling.

Soak it in, maaaaan.

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