Photo: Ed Webster
From the very outset of his entrance into the United Center, CM chose to live his truest punk ideals and his fans reciprocated. But the way they did so collectively eschews the popular image of punk, following the higher ideal of punk culture and continuing AEW’s way of changing the wrestling game with egalitarian attitudes, total authenticity, embracing emotions, and positive community.
The classic intro Cult of Personality of course played as CM Punk entered the arena to a mass of cheering fans expecting the redemption of The Best In The World, but Punk’s body language and the position on his knees he soon took set the tone he actually intended for his return. His first words were a humorous call-out to Dr. Britt Baker, which served to break the tension caused by this excitement by acknowledging his company in the room, a well-executed use of a classic technique used in political speaking. He shifts from technique to ideology by elucidating his ideals in a subtle but clear way shortly after. “We’re winging this, we, that’s an important distinction,” he asserts. This is an important distinction that goes to the core of what punk is. Punk rock is based on the DIY ethos as is often explained with the phrase “here’s 3 chords, start a band,” or in layman’s terms, winging it. The use of “we” goes to how a punk show is a participatory event; the band on the stage is largely considered to be on the same level as the audience. This is due to the egalitarian, sometimes even anarchist ideas that much of punk rock adheres to.
“I didn’t know what I was going to feel but I knew I needed to feel it,” is the surprising way Punk explains his line of thought in that moment. Far from being merely a mode of releasing canned aggression, emotions in true punk rock are unpredictable. What is predictable is that the fans coming to a punk show “needed to feel” whatever it was they came out of the show with, and this is much the same for wrestling fans. They came for a community that would accept them and come alongside them and a way to express themselves. Anything from emo-infused pop-punk acts like All Time Low to cries for change by groups like Anti-Flag to a literal “Bro Hymn” from Pennywise works. His fans felt their emotions in all different ways, from exuberant cheering to crying, which Punk acknowledges by example here as being acceptable. However, some fans did not follow his lead, in particular as it relates to one particular crying man in the stands. Insults about the man, which primarily attacked his expression as an affront to masculinity, up to and including saying he is losing his marriage abounded online, from people who claim to be fans of CM Punk. This shows a clear double-standard, as no one in that arena or online would dare question the masculinity of “The Best In The World” standing in the ring and acknowledging his own emotions, unless that someone wishes to activate “Clobbering Time.”
“What happened to the passion, what happened to the reason for screaming, what happened to the music and the message that I love?” - H2O, What Happened?
Sadly, this attitude mirrors debates within the punk community about nihilistic aggression for its own with seldom a thought about a greater purpose versus using aggression as a tool to creatively change the world into a set of ideals the community has held through its early propagation. The former, many of whom date back to punk predecessors like Sex Pistols will assert their toughness and “punk scene status” by engaging in reckless acts such as property damage over younger punks who may prefer to express a broader spectrum of their individual personality in an adequately deliberate manner rather than passing fraternity-style tests of punk adherence. Those who do not agree with this behavior and perform it on the command of self-appointed elders are deemed by this faction as weak and unbecoming of being called punks, meanwhile the other side that is not being boastful holds the majority of the scene, being stronger than they could imagine and is holding to the punk way better than the factious elders. I am reminded of Darby Allin’s assertions that he would do dangerous things, but only because he wanted to, not because a boss at a promotion said so. Punk shows an admiration for his coming opponent Allin in his speech, specifically for his willingness to do such dangerous things, showing that this way is far from being soft; this kind of raw, scrappy strength is still a key part of the punk way. What performance approach and version of yourself, as long as it is not hurting others, that you bring to this community is your choice alone. Those choices are to be respected, even if you choose to participate differently.
CM Punk’s straight-edge identity ties him to the latter tradition by way of the “Positive Hardcore” movement, which dates back to the early days of punk in the 1980s and includes bands like H2O whose members he appears to be friends with. Straight-edge is specifically intended to dissuade adherents from unhealthy behaviors, specifically alcohol and drug use, that could threaten the furtherance of the movement. Positive Hardcore also promotes an overall “Positive Mental Attitude” while sometimes aggressively expressing negative emotions and the need for change, a concept that can be called “Revolutionary Mental Attitude” (for a song by Stick To Your Guns with H2O frontman Toby Morse).
Punk further shows the fatal flaws of inauthentic, forced expression by asserting that he “left professional wrestling” in 2005 (after leaving Ring of Honor) and that the environment he left actually made him sick physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He apologized for how this made him retreat from the ring for seven years. This point resonates with many fans, and many in the working class overall, who have been made sick by exploitative workplaces and especially felt the need to step aside from such during the immense health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, in what has been termed “The Great Resignation.” Workers’ rights is a main area of focus of punk activism, and the way he recognizes this in the realm of sport and in the context of his triumphant return is a brilliant way of validating the need to care for workers and for us to make choices to take care of ourselves in the face of oppression.
Any fan knows the environment he refers to is his time in WWE, but some do not understand how their own entrenched mindsets can create an environment that can likewise make fellow fans sick, nor that there is a way to change it without betraying their strength. The message of AEW is that pro wrestling is in the hands of the fans and as the early Being The Elite intros say, that it’s possible to “Change The World.” AEW’s product, which includes nuanced characters and athletes who are given substantial creative freedom, stands in stark contrast to the aggression for aggression’s sake model other wrestling promotions choose. People who hold this ideal of AEW as true are the people CM Punk chose to return to the ring for and why I choose to watch.
Punk rock, and CM Punk’s words, serve as an invitation to break free from the ideas of forced conformity while expressing every part of yourself, including both strength and sadness. Fans, both those stating and receiving those criticisms, cannot heal and make triumphant returns of their own in an environment that makes them sick. If you are a fan who felt the need to control the wrestling scene by quelling what you thought was an unbecoming expression of a man, I invite you to break free of those ideas today. By doing so, you become more like CM Punk and strengthen, not weaken, the movement we are a part of as AEW fans.
Greyson Peltier is the host of The Fixerpunk Podcast, a communications consultant specializing in social impact, and founder of Laguna Beach, CA-based consulting firm Off Speed Solutions. Peltier is a graduate of the University of Southern California with honors and has been featured by media outlets like Vice, ESPN Radio KLAA, USA Radio Network, and Street Fight Radio.