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The inside story of CM Punk’s dramatic debut with AEW

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CM Punk addresses fans at the United Center in Chicago on his return to pro wrestling. Photo courtesy All Elite Wrestling.

CM Punk called it wrestling’s “worst kept secret,” but, truth is, you weren’t 100 percent sure that Punk would make his prodigal son return.

OK, maybe 95 percent sure, but …

Full disclosure: I’d been crediting AEW founder and GM Tony Khan for giving the world a master class on marketing with the dramatic debut of Punk on last night’s “Rampage,” but Khan himself gives all the credit to Punk.

“It was exactly what both of us wanted, which was the surprise, but everybody knew what was coming,” Khan said in a post-show media scrum. “We created, like, international worldwide buzz. The buzz just around the city of Chicago today, it was palpable. You could feel it everywhere, really, everywhere wrestling is watched. You can feel people cared about this. The word was spreading. And it was really exciting. And I think it was the right call, and I credit it to CM Punk, because it was it was a great idea to do it that way.”

It’s almost impossible to keep a secret in wrestling, so, credit to Khan, Punk and everybody who knew for the message discipline.

The word slipped out, OK, yes, was leaked out, a few weeks back that Punk was rumored to have been signed by AEW, that he might debut at the promotion’s “All Out” pay-per-view on Sept. 5 in Chicago, then got adjusted to the Aug. 20 episode of “Rampage” when AEW announced the date for that weekly series’ second show.

And then it was left at that – a rumor, unconfirmed, officially.

Khan and the company’s top stars did a run of media interviews over the past couple of weeks to promote “All Out” and “Rampage,” and did just enough to address the Punk story without giving anything away.

Which was refreshing, because it’s the case in wrestling these days that what are intended to be big surprises end up getting revealed ahead of time.

“I think a lot of people in the back who were in on it, they knew I was going to be here, but they weren’t sure. And man, isn’t that fun? Isn’t that fun? The worst kept secret, designed that way for a reason,” Punk said after his return, which was seven years in the making, after he left WWE in early 2014, citing fatigue with that company’s demanding travel schedule.

“You can criticize and say, well, they should advertise. Maybe the ratings will be better,” Punk said. “It’s about the moments. It’s about the moments and making people go, man, I can’t miss the show. I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is fun, and I want to be a part of it.”

It was fun to be a part of it, and that’s how you felt in the walk-up to 10 p.m. ET on Friday, that whether you were there in the United Center in Chicago, or at home watching on TV, you were a part of it.

My group of wrestling fan friends, all of whom I consider to be very knowledgeable about how the business works behind the scenes, if only because they know me, a guy who had a brief run with an indy company that put on a pay-per-view a few years back before receding back into the muck, none of them thought Punk had actually been signed.

One engaged me Thursday night in a lengthy text conversation about how he assumed that Vince McMahon would end up signing Punk to main event Wrestlemania next spring.

A second, in the minutes leading up to 10 p.m. ET, lamented what he assumed would be the downfall of AEW, after the embarrassment that would doom the company from the buildup to Punk without a return on fans’ emotional investment.

My thoughts were elsewhere: specifically, on how Khan would do it. Would he save the Punk announcement to the final segment of the one-hour show, or go with Punk right at the top?

I also thought through what WWE might do to counter-program with its “Smackdown” show on Fox. Would McMahon try to ask Fox for a couple of minutes of overrun to try to jigger with whatever AEW might have planned?

Turns out, “Smackdown” went off the air at 9:57 p.m. ET, giving wrestling fans plenty of time to flip over to TNT.

“Rampage” opened with graphics, a shot of the announce team, which notably included legendary play-by-play man Jim Ross, who is not a regular on “Rampage,” our first clue that something big was up.

Then, we got shots of the crowd chanting “CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!”

Then a wide shot, and strains of an entrance song that was hard to make out, because the United Center crowd erupted when they heard the first notes of “Cult of Personality,” the 1980s Living Colour hit that has accompanied Punk to the ring since his days in Ring of Honor.

Punk, admittedly, was “nervous” at making his way from go position to the stage.

“I’ve been telling everybody all day, and my wife all week, probably the week before that, that I was extremely nervous. And I was, you know, and I mean, like Eddie Kingston’s, like, like, What are you talking about? Yeah, because I’m nervous,” Punk said.

“I haven’t been on the bike in a minute, you know, and being nervous is an extremely good thing, because I have been a part of moments like that, maybe not as big as that, because that’s a pretty big moment where I didn’t care at all, I wanted to be anywhere else. So being nervous meant that I cared.”

Punk also conceded to being “emotional” walking out for the big moment.

“I did tear up. I teared up a lot. I thought I was going to cry more than I did, but it’s very emotional, you know? You, you think, like, do these people care?” Punk said.

He didn’t go out knowing what he was going to say, wanting it to be a “real moment,” he said, and feeling that he “legitimately needed to go out there and feel that, and then I knew I would know once I was out there what I had to say what I had to do.”

He started by thanking fans for greeting him like AEW fans in Pittsburgh greeted their hometown star, women’s world champ Britt Baker, last week on “Rampage.”

“I haven’t been in a ring in seven years. The first thing I did was mentioned Britt Baker. I think this needs to be paid attention to. This is how you get talent. This is how you help people. I think Britt’s great. I think everybody here is great. If I could have name-dropped everybody, I would have, but that popped into my head,” Punk said.

As he sat, cross-legged, “pipe bomb”-style, he dropped a pipe bomb heard ‘round the world, referencing his time spent away from the business, with a pair of dates that whitewashed his WWE run entirely.

“I don’t want to give negative answers and talk badly about anybody. This is why I make the distinction of on Aug. 13, 2005, I left professional wrestling, and on Aug. 20, 2021, I’m back in professional wrestling,” Punk said. “I don’t think I ever hated professional wrestling. I could watch a Terry Funk match. I could watch, you know, Bill Watts’ UWF, I could watch Jim Crockett Promotions and enjoy it. Rest in power, Bobby Eaton, I could watch him in a Midnight Express match. I could listen to Steve Austin stunning or otherwise cut promos.

“I just think there needs to be a real distinction made, what I despised.,” Punk said “And it wasn’t, it wasn’t professional wrestling, and they don’t try to pretend that it is. So why are we going to continue to try to pretend that that’s what it is? Because it’s not. So, if everybody’s happy going forward, we’re pro wrestling. And I think that’s, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Now that we had Punk in an AEW ring with a mic, the next question was, naturally, would we get a hint at when we might see him in a match?

The possibilities, in terms of fantasy booking, are endless, and Punk copped after the show to being right there with fans in that respect.

“I get excited about the prospect of me working with Pillman, Hobbs, Ricky Starks, Jungle Boy, Darby Allin, Jon Moxley. Never worked with Jon Moxley before. I mean, I mean, literally, everybody,” Punk said. “I’ve never done anything with The Young Bucks. I’ve never stepped in the ring with Kenny Omega. I think there’s so many dream matches, I think was what people will call them, but just dream situations, you know, and who knows who else is coming? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Ahem. Bryan Danielson.

“There’s just different combinations that I think people can get excited about,” Punk said. “And it’s, it just feels live. No, like, I’m jazzed to be here. I’m excited to be here. I said it out there in the promo, I’m here for the fans, I’m here for me. I’m not a liar, I’m not going to lie. Like, if you tell me this can be fun again, and I go out there and have the time of my life, yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s the juice for me. You know? And I think it’s limitless possibilities. I really do believe that it feels like an environment where anything can happen. I love live TV. Let’s have fun.”

Punk’s first AEW match will be at “All Out” against Darby Allin, which on its face is … curious. Allin is one of the company’s top faces, and Punk is, well, Punk, the most over face in wrestling today.

So, why Allin?

“The Darby thing came about, this guy’s idea, we’re just kicking around ideas. I made a list. I think I did a twitter Q&A a year, year and a half ago, I don’t know, it was, like, last year, and it was just like, hey, Punk, who do you see that you think you’d like to work with? And it was all, you know, like, young guys that I saw potential in. Darby was one of them,” Punk said.

“That’s kind of the nucleus of the idea. And he’s already grown leaps and bounds since that tweet, so it kind of made sense,” Punk said. “You know, I think, I was a kid, I saw Darby Allin, you’d be my favorite wrestler, because I wasn’t a jock. I was a skateboard kid. And he does things, like, he’s obsessed with this dive. I don’t want to take it because it looks painful, but he just, it just looks like it fits. I can’t explain. Sometimes where you just you get a feeling about situations or people, and a lot of it just makes sense.”

Talking with reporters in the aftershow afterglow, Punk was asked to share details of his contract with AEW, and sidestepped.

“I don’t really know if you want to know how the sausage is made,” Punk said. “I think one of the biggest appeals of AEW is everybody here looks like they show up to have a good time, you know. You don’t want to know details about my contract. Just know that I’m here. It’s not a part-time thing. And I’m here to have fun. And I’m here to help if anybody wants help.”

Khan, sitting beside Punk at the presser, interjected: “We’re going to be doing this for a while. We’re excited. This isn’t a short-term thing or a part-time thing. This is like a full-time, we’re very excited kind of thing.”

Next question had to do with the rumors that Khan had sought to get Punk to sign on with AEW ahead of its 2019 launch, which Punk seemed to sort of confirm.

“I’ve been talking to Tony for probably a year and a half about this. Yeah, long. You know what I mean? And some, some girls are, are easy to get into bed. I am not. Nope, I need I need to be wined and dined,” Punk said. “And that’s not that’s not a, Oh, I need more money and less dates, and oh, I need this, and I need that. It was literally just talking to Tony and getting to know him. And the more people that he employed that I knew, I’d ask the question, and they’d tell me things.

“I’ve been in the game for a few minutes, you know, so I’ve seen it, and I think I traced it back to especially since the downfall of ECW, every six months to a year, somebody pops up, I have money, and we’re going to have TV, and we’re going to use all these ECW guys,” Punk said. “This is not a slight at Tony at all. It’s more of, it’s more of a slight on me being a paranoid, neurotic, anxiety-ridden, very careful person. And I wasn’t in a hurry, and the pandemic kind of help that out, you know, and I knew I couldn’t debut if there’s no people in the building. So, I always say, timing is everything. And there were a lot of happy accidents along the way that made this possible.”

Asked to expand on the “happy accidents” line, Punk went into detail.

“When I say happy accident, I mean, nothing was forced,” he said. “You know, it was a very relaxed, I don’t even want to call it a negotiation. It’s just, like, one of those things when you’re talking to somebody, and you say the same thing at the same time, and you’re just like, Yeah, that’s it. You know, like, this doesn’t have to be as hard as some people will tell you it needs to be. And I, I, what I’ve observed, especially today, being here for the first time, is nobody’s standing on their own dick. They just let stuff happen. Because again, it’s pretty simple, and it’s straightforward when it’s right, and you don’t need 16 cooks in the kitchen, you know, messing stuff up, trying to politic and either do something positive or negative, based on how somebody else is going to react to it.

“You know, like, everybody here was literally just like, let’s have fun. And there’s a time and there’s a place to be deadly serious about this business. But I see no problem with being able to do both. I went out there, and I had fun, but I was deadly.

“You know, so I guess the happy accidents are just really people in charge back here letting people make their own mistakes and learning from it, not punishing anybody, and you just know, like, I get it. It’s television,” Punk said. “There’s an entire generation of people that was ingrained that, you know, if you screw up, you’re going to get fired. And I just feel nothing but joy back here backstage, you know, and I think if somebody does screw something up, or you know, make a mistake, I think there’s just people back here that will say, hey, maybe try to do it this way this time, or you know, there’s no I told you so, there’s no pointing fingers.

“There’s nobody in the corner, elbowing and, you know, like, everybody back here wants everybody to succeed. I don’t think that’s a happy accident. That’s a happy on purpose.”

So, a year and a half. The rumors were true. Punk and Khan were in league.

So, what was it that finally got Punk to make the call to come back?

“It wasn’t about them having to prove anything to me. It was about me being open to the idea,” Punk said. “And then it wasn’t going to be well, I’m just going to jump in the pool right away. Now it was, I had to dip my toe in, you know what I mean, and see how things are going to be. Actually, this is all Renee Paquette’s fault. Honestly, this is, this is all her fault. She’s the one who got me to come back to do the ‘Backstage’ thing, and that opened my eyes to, like, OK, this is fun. She’s a good person. I like working with good people. And that’s really all it was. Like, nobody had to prove anything to me. But I did take a wait and see approach. And I waited, and I saw, and I saw, you know, and I liked what I saw.”

Khan was asked later about the “happy accidents” notion.

“Some of the happy accidents, I think, are, I’d like to think, that we navigated the pandemic as well as we could have been done, and again, that was not anything anybody ever planned for. But it definitely gave us a lot of time to talk, because there was no rush to do anything, because the fans were not coming back anytime soon. And I think that it was worth the wait. It was definitely worth the wait. And it had to be the right circumstances,” Khan said.

“But honestly, this whole thing, he had so many brilliant ideas in the run-up to this, including coming here to the United Center. And when he talked about happy accidents, and other one is that the building was available on a Friday night. When we were able to get it, and it was like, you know, when I told him on the phone, I was like, I think we can do the second episode of ‘Rampage,’ it was actually the coolest thing, because we get to, like, launch the show, and then come to the second ‘Rampage’ here and make it ‘The First Dance.’ And it’s again, like all these things just lined up perfectly.”

Next up for Punk: getting back into wrestling shape.

Yep, that’s right. His return has been looming for weeks, months, depending on how you look at it, but …

“It’s probably going to sound terrible, I can see the negative headlines right now, but I haven’t really been doing anything different. I haven’t been doing dedicated in-ring training,” Punk said. “I’ve been working out in my basement, trying to get the better shape to be publicly in my underwear again. And I think, in the best way, this is like riding a bike, and I want it to be authentic. You know, like, I don’t want to try to do stuff that I never did. I don’t want to try to learn any new tricks. I want people to be like, Oh, he’s still the same dude.

“I’m sure I’ll get in the ring in between now and when I’ve got to try to keep up with these young guys, but there hasn’t really been any super dedication. I mean, look, let’s be honest, I got a bump card, right? I’m not going to get in the ring and take a bunch of bumps. I will run the ropes.”

The final nice touch on a magical night was the CM Punk-themed ice cream bars that were given out to fans.

You’ll remember the reference to the 2011 “Summer of Punk,” when he’d pipe-bomb about WWE needing to bring back its 1980s ice cream bars, and put his face on them.

Those tasty treats handed out to departing fans are what you call in wrestling a shoot, ladies and germs.

“These ice cream bars to me represent an idea, an idea that was gift-wrapped to people that didn’t bother to take the time to try to understand their audience,” Punk said. “This is this is the easiest home run I’ve ever hit. And this is a legit thank you. You know, John Lester came to the Chicago Cubs and won us a trophy, won us a World Series. When he got traded away, he opened up a tab at a bunch of bars as a way to say thank you to the fans. This is my way to say thank you to the fans. This is personal for me. And timing’s everything. It just it felt right.

“You know, when I left Ring of Honor, I did not want to go, but I felt I couldn’t stay. And you can’t really explain that to people. It’s just something you know, you live through,” Punk said. “When I was sick and tired and hurt, and I realized that, like, these people that wouldn’t care if I died today, there’d be another show tomorrow, and I knew I had to remove me myself from the situation. I didn’t know how long it was going to take for me to heal, you know.

“And then this came along, and credit to everybody involved in AEW. It reminded me of places I used to work that I loved, where it was not about it was just more about the spirit of thing, you know, and this instead of feeling like a house, it felt like a home, that this is this the best way I can possibly describe it.”

Story by Chris Graham