Punk Ain't Dead... How Can His Return "Change The Culture" Of WWE?
So, it's been a few days since it all went down. I don't know if hell froze over, but an icy breeze sure blew through Satan's gates. CM Punk returned to WWE! ...Kinda, anyway. The former WWE Champion/comic book writer/UFC wannabe walked into a LA studio as part of WWE's new show, WWE Backstage. His appearance was short and sweet, and left us with more questions than answers.
In case you couldn't be f'd watching the video... Punk was quickly thrown into the last minute or so of the program. His famous entrance theme, "Cult Of Personality" by Living Colour blared over the speakers. Giving a quick glance to the camera, then making his way into the "ring" portion of the stage set and said, "It's as simple as this- just when they think that they have the answers, I change... the culture. I'll see you next week!" WWE and FOX quickly noted following Punk's appearance that he would be an occasional contributor/analyst on WWE Backstage, a show that looks at the storylines and weekly happenings in WWE with a behind-the-scenes slant.
CM Punk could be a massive gamechanger here for WWE. Fans have chanted his name ad nauseum at WWE events for almost 6 years now, since Punk made his unceremonious exit from the company following the Royal Rumble in January 2014. As a former champion and main eventer, Punk was unhappy with his position on the roster, and was also experiencing some health issues that he alleges were not handled properly by WWE. To understand how and why Punk could be a difference maker, we need to take a look at who he is, the path he has taken in his career- both in and out of WWE- and what his return actually means here.
CM Punk was one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling after the explosion of John Cena. By the time Punk made his debut, Cena was already a multi-time champion. By the time CM Punk ascended to main event status, Cena was established as THE GUY in the company. It's important to note that CM Punk was and is the anti-thesis of everything John Cena is. Cena is clean cut, Punk is covered in tattoos. Cena is a former bodybuilder, Punk is skinny and not gifted athletically. Cena was a product of WWE's developmental system, and Punk worked his way up through the American independent wrestling scene, gaining a reputation for being an "internet darling". It's that last point that is perhaps the most crucial- Punk was the pre-cursor to people like Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and AJ Styles becoming big stars in WWE. So, in that sense, he's already changed the culture of WWE before.
Despite not having a "traditional" pro wrestling look, CM Punk became undeniable. His wrestling style contained elements of mixed martial arts and Japanese strong style- which for WWE in 2006, was well ahead of his time. Perhaps most importantly than that, after a few years of being a somewhat generic yet popular babyface, working through WWE's brands of Raw, Smackdown and ECW, Punk was given the opportunity to turn heel. Playing the bad guy, Punk was able to really display his talents on the microphone. His verbal demolitions of men like Jeff Hardy and Rey Mysterio really set him apart from the pack. And in 2011, CM Punk was given free reign to cut a promo on John Cena. On that night, he didn't just cut a regular promo... he dropped the Pipebomb.
In the modern day, this kind of "worked shoot" promo might not be THAT surprising. WWE often reference behind-the-scenes stuff nowadays, especially with the amount of content that gets released on the WWE Network. At the time though, breaking that 4th wall and mentioning backstage politics, as well as other wrestling promotions like New Japan and ROH... it was absolutely unheard of! It injected life into what was a stale, predictable, overly scripted product. Punk brought something fresh and new. It was appropriate that Punk wore a Stone Cold t-shit during this segment, as the fire and spirit of rebellion that became attached to his character following the Pipebomb was something not seen since the days of Austin in the Attitude Era.
There was no turning back from there. CM Punk was a bonafide main event star. He would beat Cena for the WWE Championship at Money In The Bank 2011, in his hometown of Chicago, and he would briefly leave the company with the WWE Championship, blowing Vince McMahon a kiss on the way out. Of course, behind the scenes a new contract had been signed, but Punk's star was shining as bright as ever. A couple of missteps happened along the way involving Triple H (pre- cool NXT Dad Hunter) and Kevin Nash, but Punk was ultimately none the worse for wear as far as that was concerned, and he would capture the WWE Championship again from Alberto Del Rio at Survivor Series 2011. From there, Punk would hold the main championship in the company for 434 days- the longest reign since Hulk Hogan. He would drop the title to The Rock at the 2013 Royal Rumble- CM Punk was the only man apart from John Cena to have a proper singles match with The People's Champ, which speaks a lot to the star that he was.
Post title-loss, CM Punk moved into a Wrestlemania feud with the Undertaker. Their match at Wrestlemania 29 stole the show, and it was arguably the last great match of Taker's career, but Punk was unsatisfied... he wanted to main event Wrestlemania, and despite all his hard work and accolades, had never gotten that opportunity. Post-Mania, Punk took a hiatus, returning in June to face Chris Jericho in Chicago. He faced Brock Lesnar in a marquee match at Summerslam 2013- in what was probably the best match of Brock's second WWE run. But then, Punk took a tumble down the card. He feuded with his old manager Paul Heyman, and had matches with Ryback and Curtis Axel. The end of 2013 saw Punk feuding with popular new faction, The Shield, putting the young guys over. Punk's final WWE appearance saw him eliminated from the Rumble by Kane... and that was the final straw. With his star power diminishing and his body beaten up from over a decade of throwing himself around wrestling rings, CM Punk walked away from WWE.
Both on and off screen, CM Punk was an outspoken character. After his WWE exit, he went on Colt Cabana's podcast and vented about his treatment in WWE, specifically in regards to his health, stating that he worked through injuries, concussions and infections without the appropriate medical care. This resulted in a lengthy lawsuit between Punk and WWE. WWE sent Punk his termination letter on his wedding day. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon would take little shots at him in promos on TV. Punk seemed extremely bitter about pro wrestling in general and refused to talk about it for a long time.
One failed attempt at being a UFC fighter later, and CM Punk is in a better headspace now. This year, he started speaking more positively about his history in pro wrestling, and even made an appearance at the Starrcast fan convention in Chicago back in August, right before AEW All Out. Given the links between AEW and the Starrcast event, it naturally led to fan speculation that Punk would join the newest major company in the pro wrestling industry. The word is that Punk did negotiate with AEW and Tony Khan, who undoubtedly would have offered the "big bag" that the Straight Edge Superstar was after... but Punk opted to go back to his old stomping grounds instead.
Now, for the bucket of cold water to be poured over all this excitement and speculation... many have noted that CM Punk is not actually contracted to WWE. WWE Backstage is a FOX show, and it is actually the FOX executives paying Punk's wages to be an analyst on this talk show. However... there is precedent for former WWE stars to return to the company after first dealing with external companies. Brock Lesnar, Ultimate Warrior, Bill Goldberg, Sting... all signed contracts with 2K in order for their likenesses to be used in WWE games. Within months, though, all of those people signed with WWE. The only one to appear in a 2K game and not subsequently wrestle for WWE was Warrior, and that's only because of the small matter that he DIED the day after appearing on the post-Mania Raw.
So, this time, FOX is the middle man, but CM Punk is willing to work on a show with the WWE logo on it, with people that work directly for WWE... history tells us that it's only a matter of time before we see CM Punk in an actual WWE ring on an actual WWE show. With ratings down, fan/critic response not being at its best, and quite frankly, WWE running out of big stars/legends that they can use for Wrestlemania cards, the time could be right for CM Punk to get that Wrestlemania main event that he's always wanted.
And it's not like the current roster is averse to the idea of Punk coming back into the fold. Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt wasted no time in getting on Twitter. Rollins was direct with a simple request of "fight me", while Wyatt said "I see you", accompanied by a photo of Punk and Wyatt interacting when our current Universal Champion was known as Husky Harris.
CM Punk himself is obviously saving a lot of his comments for his appearance on WWE Backstage in a couple of days. I found his brief comment of "changing the culture" quite interesting. Obviously, it was a cute little play off Roddy Piper's infamous quote, "just when they think they know the answers, I change the questions", but also, as I detailed above, Punk HAS changed the culture in WWE. He's returning to the company in a new landscape that he essentially helped spawn. How does he feel about that? Does he have anything left to prove? Is there anyone who Punk himself has the itch to face? (Personally, Punk vs. Styles, Balor, Wyatt, Rollins, Reigns, Bryan, Nakamura, Joe, Mysterio, Lesnar, Zayn, Ali, Gargano, Ciampa, Riddle and Cole all interest me). But more than that, for the immediate future... how does he "change the culture" as an analyst? How honest is he allowed to be? Punk is known for having no filter, and hearing him rip through some of the more stupid creative choices (like the whole Lashley/Rusev/Lana storyline) would be quite refreshing.
Also, CM Punk is a smart man. He knows what kind of excitement, speculation and expectations come with him making an appearance on a WWE show, even if it is just a studio show. And for what it's worth, the man looked pretty damn happy walking out there with his iconic music blaring.
Is it clobbering time? Not yet. But I have no doubts that we will see CM Punk in a WWE ring again, for the big time match he never got before. That would be the Holy Grail of the Mania main event, but hey... WWE's next PPV, Survivor Series... just happens to be taking place in Chicago. Who knows?
Until next time, take care,