On the second ever episode of Rampage in the biggest venue AEW have ever run in the United Centre, CM Punk made his return to wrestling after 7 years out of the ring. We all expected it, the breadcrumbs were entire loaves of bread with CM Punk carved onto the sides, but this didn't take away from the moment, in fact this may have enhanced it.
The anticipation has been palpable in podcaster's voices, in Twitter fans punctuation and in the CM Punk chants that rung around the United Centre from the first second of that telecast. The pops were incredible; the first note of Cult of Personality, the dive into the crowd and even his change of stance to sitting cross-legged a la 'Pipe bomb'.
In this article I am going to attempt to go through his promo and analyse his language to find clues about who Punk is now and what he is indicating about this AEW run. I am going to be using a transcript from BleedingCool.com. Many thanks to them for gathering Punk's words together and kindly making the transcript available.
You guys really know how to make a kid feel like Britt Baker in Pittsburgh.
Punk has said he very deliberately wanted to put over Britt Baker. This is cool, obviously! It also shows that he is very aware of the need to promote women's wrestling and the women's wrestlers who are working tirelessly to boost the division in AEW. Punk will be well aware of the issues around this if not due to his own powers of observation but his wife's lived experiences as she battled her way up the card in WWE whilst not 'fitting the mould'. I've often felt the Paige story was actually done first by AJ Lee.
I'm winging this. We're winging this. "We." That's a very important distinction. We'll get back to it. But I didn't plan on what I was going to say because I didn't know what to say, because I didn't know how I was going to feel, but I knew that I needed to feel it.
I don't quite believe that Punk was fully winging it. He definitely had things in mind to say. However, I think this is about WWE scripting which as we all know has been a core feature of many of the former WWE wrestlers' complaints. Punk was a representative of this frustration even while in the company.
Using 'we' and highlighting that word is a good thing. I can remember sitting in an assembly as a teacher as another teacher spoke to the school about how she introduced a program of work to the school the previous year. Her use of the word 'I' bugged me because even though she had led the program and shared it with us; we had all then worked on it as a staff team. This happens often in all aspects of life, many people see themselves as responsible for success when in fact it's usually a team effort.
Punk's success was both about him and it wasn't about him. He was the poster boy for the WWE fans' rebellion around who was being pushed and how the company was treating its talent. He was their guy, he didn't fit the mould and he knew it and, indeed, said it.
The part about needing to feel the crowd to know what to say is a really pro wrestling thing to say. Pro Wrestling is essentially sports theatre, with the performer-audience interaction that takes place in a theatre dialled up to 11. CM Punk clearly recognises this and is expecting to tune into the emotion of the crowd.
*the crowd chants CM Punk*
That's what I've heard for seven years. I heard you. I heard you.
This is almost how to reassure a child or a disgruntled employee. As an adult this needn't be a barb, we all have a child inside of us that needs reassurance. Nowadays because of the world we live in our ancient instincts and emotions end up attached to far less life or death. Even as adults we can have a mood ruined by a bad wrestling show if you're having a bad day and it was supposed to cheer you up. Punk was reassuring the crowd that he understands their experience.
And we got a lot to cover. There's good news and bad news. The bad news is we're not going to get to it all right here right now. But the good news is, is I've got the time. Wednesday, Friday, four Sunday or Saturdays a year. I got the time, and I ain't going anywhere.
In essence this is, 'I'm not Brock Lesnar'. Punk is telling us that he's going to be on our screens regularly. He isn't going to dip in and out and pick up main events. This makes a lot of sense, this was one of the things that really got under his skin in the final months or years in WWE.
He's got the time and he isn't going anywhere suggests he's coming home, he is able to forgive wrestling and he is coming back to where he started; pro wrestling, almost to rekindle his first love.
Wait. One second. Possibly for me, the most important thing I'm going to say right now, and this is for everybody at home, this is for everybody who bought a ticket, this is for everybody in the back. If, at all through my journey, any of my personal choices or decisions related to my life made you feel disappointed or let down, let me just say… Let me just say… I understand, if you all try to understand that I was never gonna get healthy physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally, staying in the same place that got me sick in the first place.
This is more explicit and in the same vein as the 'I heard you'. Punk is saying directly to the fans that he doesn't expect them to blindly love everything that he has done or said over the 7 years away. He understands that on a selfish level some fans may wish that he stuck around or came back sooner.
He then invites the fans to empathize with him. This is important too, he wants to be a person not some gladiator above the fans. This is important, too often do wrestlers take to Twitter or Instagram to drag the fans. It's become too common an occurrence for fans to point out that other performance arts do not insult the fans for receiving a product negatively. The challenge in performance arts is to tap in to what fans want by creating something in relation to that that is of great quality. Deriding the paying customer for not liking the product is not the game.
To hear Punk talk about getting healthy physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally is heartening. As an individual who has gone down the mental health rabbit hole it is cool to hear a TV superstar referring to spiritual and emotional wellness in the midst of such a traditionally masculine environment. Another incredible addition to the pro-mental health AEW locker room with Adam Page, Eddie Kingston and Kenny Omega.
The final line of this section is the bit everyone is talking about. It's a clear reference to WWE without it being explicit. He has underlined his reasoning for leaving. He wasn't just taking his ball and going home. He wasn't just physically shot. He was broken down as a person, partially because of, and I'm assuming here, the hierarchical and patriarchal WWE system.
Can I tell you guys a story? It's hot in here. Hang on one second.
*Punk removes his sweatshirt, revealing a white CM Punk shirt underneath, and sits pipe bomb style in the ring*
Using the idea of telling a story makes it seem like Punk is telling his own fable. This seems egotistical when you write it like that, but it's a cool flourish of language and 'tell a story' is exactly what he did!
The t-shirt reveal, part of the way through and not straight away was a great pacing of all the reveals. Sitting pipe bomb style in the middle of the ring was an obvious but well-received thing to do.
Can I tell you a story? You see, I felt before like I had to leave. I didn't want to, but I knew I couldn't stay, and that was when I used to work for a place called Ring of Honor.
This is a swerve. We're expecting to hear that he didn't want to stop performing in front of the fans, but the hierarchy and controls pushed him out of the WWE. But he takes us all the way back to Ring of Honor instead. This is very interesting as RoH have not taken part in the 'Forbidden Door' crossovers, despite previously working with New Japan and previously being the home of a huge number of the AEW roster.
August 13th, 2005 was my last match in Ring of Honor, and I famously came out with tears in my eyes, and walking out here today, I now know why I was crying.
This is the groundwork for a lot of the rest of the promo; Ring of Honor in 2005. He is also introducing more emotion into the promo and completely underscoring how much he loved Ring of Honor. Will we see Punk look to do that promotion a further favour?
And it was a lot of reasons. But what it boiled down to was, I had made a place where people could come work, get paid, learn their craft, and love professional wrestling.
So this bit is odd, 'I had made a place', it rather sounds like Punk is taking credit for RoH's success. I'd like to think this is a flub of language and he meant he had made a shift in what wrestlers need to look like or their stature in the ring to work for an American wrestling promotion. Otherwise there are a lot of other wrestlers who contributed to the rise of Ring of Honor that may have something to say!
And I cried because I knew I was leaving a place that I love, and it was a home, and I knew where I was going, wasn't going to be easy for a guy like me. Because I'm one of you.
Well we all know the story. Punk was famously derided by Shawn Michaels and Triple H during the early days of his WWE journey. He wasn't a wrestler in the vein of their, then, current crop of wrestlers; super athletes and body-builders; most notably the famous OVW class of Cena, Lesnar, Batista and Orton.
So I look at it like this: August 13th, 2005, I left professional wrestling.
Even Vince McMahon would agree here. WWE is sports entertainment but not that many out with the company even use this phrase. Punk is happy to use this phrase, he wants to distance the ethos of the WWE from what he loves and the love he wants to rekindle. However this does also enrich the story he is telling.
*Punk stands back up*
August 20th, 2021. I'm back. And I'm back for you. I'm not gonna lie, I'm back for me too,
This bit is great, I love this bit! I want to do this for you and I want to do this for myself. This is great, there is too much insincerity around people claiming to only do things to honour their family or to make their team or coaches proud. I don't have any hesitancy around believing people want to do things for others and that it even drives them more. But when athletes or individuals say they are doing it entirely for others, I always struggle to believe it.
Human beings are designed to strike for significant. Individuals are hard-wired to see themselves as somewhat special, it's an evolutionary trait designed to propel their genes forward through time. Punk is accepting that he wants to do this for himself, he is underscoring his reputation for honesty and telling it as it is.
This is also healthy! Another example of Punk displaying healthy language and authenticity that is important for developing and maintaining strong, healthy mental and emotional health.
and I'm back because there's a hell of a lot of young talent that I wish I was surrounded by 10 years ago. So insane that I sit back and I say, well, hell, they're here now, so why aren't you? Here I am. I'm back, because I want to work with that young talent that had the same passion that I had stamped out.
Here's another example of Punk putting over others, this time young guys in AEW, we can all assume who he means as AEW have done a great job of profiling these guys. It also indicates Punk does not want to be The Rock swooping in and stealing his spot, against another main event guy. Punk is not swooping in four times a year to wrestle Omega, Moxley, Cody and Jericho.
I'm back because there's a couple of scores to settle in that locker room. I'm back for the young guys.
The couple of scores to settle is an odd comment, it reads as if it may be more a character trait. It seems unlikely that Punk is going to be working with Chris Jericho. So this may has just been a throwaway line to add drama to the promo.
*Darby Allin and Sting are watching from the rafters*
Darby Allin. I see you. You're good. I've seen you jump out of airplanes. I've seen you wrapped up in a body bag and chucked over the top rope. I've seen you kicked down a flight of stairs, and you always come back.
The direction he is going in is cemented. This is good! It tells us there won't be some contrived switcheroo where Punk ends up facing Omega at All Out. That would go against the message that Punk was crafting throughout the promo. It also confirms the excitement that was swirling around the proposition of Punk versus Darby Allin ever since Darby dropped that 'Best in the World' line of Dynamite.
He then goes onto put over Darby's toughness that has been a theme in recent months from the cinematic match against Team Taz to the stadium assault by Sky and Page to the Coffin match a month ago.
Just like each and every person here in Chicago, you're tough. But I'm here to help, and you're the first on the list. I'm gonna help you because you're a daredevil and you like danger. Well, Darby Allin, there is nothing you can do that is more dangerous than wrestling CM Punk. Except wrestling CM Punk in Chicago. I will see you, and I'll see Sting, and I'll see all of you September 5th. At All Out, live on pay per view. I'm back.
Tying it back to Chicago and setting the scene for All Out. Also perhaps a call back to the infamous Cena match at Money in the Bank 2011. Also selling the PPV in from of the second biggest AEW audience since the first episode.
Oh, one more thing. Seven years is an awful long time to wait for somebody. I appreciate everybody here who has waited. So on your way out of the United Centre tonight, grab yourself a free ice cream bar on me.
Well this is just nice, isn't it!?
However, it's also a call back to CM Punk joking that he was going to use his negotiating power of Vince McMahon to bring back WWE ice cream bars and get a CM Punk one!
Overall, I was really intrigued to hear him speak more than once about mental health using language that needs to be used more frequently in arenas that are so masculine. I was also interested in the lengths he went to essentially disavow his time in WWE. It's understandable but I feel it also undercuts how a lot of his fans; most of his fans, came to know him. To finish more positively, it was really cool to see him glowing warmth towards the people of Chicago and the AEW roster.
This feels like a moment in time in the wrestling world. CM Punk delivered a historic promo comprising of class, dignity, emotion and positivity. He was at the epicentre of an emotional storm and he conducted it with grace and purpose.
Thank you for reading!