Would a return to the ring do CM Punk or the company any good?
Beleaguered WWE fans have often looked outwardly for a savior from frustration and disappointment. Though some arrive fresh from other promotions, most of the anointed return from the company’s illustrious past. In recent months, WWE appointed Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff in the positions of Executive Directors of Raw and Smackdown. Revered as the architects behind some of the most compelling angles of the ’90s, the two men that helmed WCW and ECW must now report to the notoriously erratic Vince McMahon.
Fresh from the Heyman administration taking Bray Wyatt’s “The Fiend” gimmick and severely hampering its credibility, at least Paul escaped Wyatt’s Hell in a Cell debacle against Universal Champion Seth Rollins with his job intact. Just four months after he was appointed, Bischoff was given his marching orders from Smackdown. Unofficially rendered the flagship show after they signed a lucrative deal with FOX, the director’s canning came after their viewing figures plummeted by over a million viewers.
Consigned to the knowledge that stars such as Stone Cold, The Rock, John Cena and Undertaker are relics of the past, fans have been given a glimmer of hope in recent weeks. Jettisoned from the company in acrimonious fashion back in Royal Rumble 2014, many believed that the prospect of seeing CM Punk ever appearing on another WWE property was a pipedream. But if preliminary reports are to be believed, the “Second City Saint” is set to become a staple of “WWE Backstage” on FOX. After news surfaced that he’d auditioned for the show, insiders were quick to speculate that he’ll be working in the capacity of a pundit and talking head. However, much like how a Hall Of Fame induction or 2K game appearance often foreshadows a return, it hasn’t stopped fans clamoring for “The Best In The World” to lace up his boots once again.
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Once embroiled in a heated legal battle with WWE doctor Chris Ammam over his expose on the negligible medical treatment he’d received, CM Punk seemed to have underlined that chequered yet immensely successful period of his life. Infamously fired on his wedding day to fellow retired wrestler AJ Lee, even Vince McMahon’s on-air apology to did little to mend the chasm that had developed between the two parties. But whether it was arch nemeses such as Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart or Jeff Jarrett and Kurt Angle, the WWE chairman has proven that he’s always willing to reconcile when there’s money to be made. From there, the two-pronged question becomes A) would Punk be open to returning to wrestling? And B) would it be beneficial to either the company or his legacy?
As far as point A, it’s clear that Punk's stance has softened from the days where he took to his former best friend Colt Cabana’s podcast to lament over how “they Z-Pakked me to death, so much that in December I shit my pants on a SmackDown.” The further removed he became from the environment, the more he’s been able to speak from a place of level-headed pragmatism, ever more apparent than during his recent interview at Starrcast III. Speaking to Mike Johnson of PWInsider, Punk alluded to the fact that he’s realistically open to any and all offers at this juncture of his life:
“I wouldn’t not talk to them…. In what other business does somebody suspend somebody else, and then they don’t come and get them after the suspension? Like, why is it up to me? It’s just a weird situation, but that being said, I’m over it. I’ve been over it for a very long time, it’s in the past. I’m 40 years old and I try to be as zen and wise as I possibly can be. ’ll have a conversation with anybody”, Punk continued. But it’s nothing…like, I’m not calling them, but if they’re like, ‘Oh, hey,’ I mean, I’ll talk to you. See what you got to say, but it better be good.”
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Fresh off a foray into horror movies with the upcoming Girl On The Third Floor, Punk has commanded more of a persistent media presence than he has in years. That said, it’s important to remember that there’s another unresolved contractual obligation still lingering over his return to active competition. For a period of two ill-fated bouts, CM Punk used his name recognition to leverage his way into the UFC. Despite never having competed in the sport before, Brooks—who was infamously labeled “skinny-fat” by on/offscreen foe Triple H—stepped into the prestige MMA organization and was predictably trounced on both occasions. With one foot still in the sport as a commentator for Cage Fury Fighting Championships, Punk recently shocked fans by revealing that he’s still technically under contract. “If I was gonna fight again, should it be in the UFC? Probably not. But again, I'm not gonna ... be like, "Hey, you should cut me,” he told ESPN. “It'll happen or it won't happen. I'm not worried about it”
Although Cain Velasquez hung up the eight-ounce gloves in order to join WWE’s ranks and Jake Hager is pulling double duty for Bellator and AEW, it’s important to note that Punk essentially became the butt of the joke when it was emphatically proven that the combat sports world was not for him. Conversely, these one-sided losses have done little to dampen WWE fans’ tendency to chant his name as a way to show their disapproval with the flailing product of today. In fact, it's fair to say that he remains one of the most venerated figures of the past two decades. So, now that we’ve established that he’s available for talks, the real question is whether it’d be beneficial to either party.
In the years since his absence, the business has undergone an in-ring revolution. Inspired by the very style that wrestlers such as Punk, Samoa Joe, Nigel McGuinness, and Daniel Bryan helped popularise during the early years of Ring Of Honor, mainstream wrestling has moved towards a more frenetically paced style that’s far removed from the golden age. More athletically dazzling and highflying than ever, Punk has admitted that at the ripe age of 40, he’d have great difficulty reacclimating to that level of competition. Citing the unparalleled acrobatics of Will Ospreay and high-intensity style of Kenny Omega, his Starrcast interview saw him admit that he doesn’t believe he could keep up with them but could “do something” with it.
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As WWE gradually coalesces to the new style, a full-time return to the company would force Punk to test his mettle against wrestlers such as Ali, Ricochet, Aleister Black and perhaps even NXT stars such as Johnny Gargano and Adam Cole that are very much in their prime. Considering that WWE would predominantly want Punk to recapture the audience that they’ve lost to AEW- who have routinely beaten NXT in the ratings since the “Wednesday Night War” began—the physical ability that saw garnered him the nickname of “The Best In The World” would have to remain intact. On top of that, one crucial puzzle piece is that Punk would actually have to want to be there. As to whether or not he still harbors a shred of the antipathy towards wrestling, look no further than this tweet from July of this year. Engulfed by another barrage of pleas for him to return, Punk retorted by asking “Why do you spend your time on something you hate? If it’s soooooo bad, leave it. I did. Works wonders.”
Then, when asked if that albatross of never main-eventing Wrestlemania still hung over him, Punk spoke with earnestness to Mike Johnston as he said: “I think I had a pretty good career, I don’t think there’s anything left that I need to accomplish.” After weighing up all of the evidence, it’s clear that the return of CM Punk to WWE is not the one size fits all solution that fans, and perhaps WWE officials, think it might be. As attested to by the failure of Bischoff’s return and the growing aggravation towards part-timers returning for one big payday, the only way to fix WWE’s systemic issues is to put their faith in those who do have things left to accomplish. While it’d undoubtedly send fans into a frenzy, the in-ring return of CM Punk would simply be an exciting attraction rather than the answer to what ails the company.