CM Punk has returned to WWE.
On last night’s episode of WWE Backstage—WWE’s attempt at a sports-style studio show—Punk walked onto the stage with his familiar “Cult of Personality” theme music.
— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) November 13, 2019
Let’s address a big issue first and call a spade a spade. WWE Backstage is technically a FOX property but the show is hosted by a WWE employee (Renee Young) and features two other prominent WWE employees in Paige and Booker T. Punk will join ProWrestlingSheet’s Ryan Satin as “non-WWE” employees with appearances and segments on the show.
Whether FOX is cutting the check or not, both Satin and Punk are effectively part of WWE. The show is a WWE show hosted by WWE employees where they talk about WWE. WWE can present Satin breaking “exclusive” WWE contract news—in this case about one of the hosts of the show—as a facsimile of Adrian Wojnarowski or Adam Shefter but it’s just not. This is a WWE show.
As reported by @ryansatin on #WWEBackstage:
– @JohnnyGargano ruled out of #SurvivorSeries weekend
– @mikethemiz agrees to multi-year deal with @WWE
– @RealPaigeWWE agrees to new multi-year with @WWE pic.twitter.com/Mxxja2xJPJ
— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) November 13, 2019
Punk, WWE and others can claim he is solely a property of FOX and has nothing in place with the company itself but the line of wrestlers tripping over themselves to “challenge” Punk tells a wildly different story.
I got next 🙋🏽♂️
— WWE’s resident Superhero 👑 (@KingRicochet) November 13, 2019
I saw you pic.twitter.com/v7TEXLYR6f
— Bray Wyatt (@WWEBrayWyatt) November 13, 2019
So with that out of the way, let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Phil Brooks/CM Punk walking onto a studio shoulder-to-shoulder with WWE employees on a makeshift ring studio set soaked with splashes of WWE logos gave us one of the most shocking WWE returns in recent memory.
This is Punk’s first appearance since he famously left the company in January 2014 the night after Royal Rumble 2014. Punk’s walk-out was abrupt but came after a tumultuous period between him and the company. The week of his walk-out Punk attended a UFC on FOX show in Chicago, took part in an in-depth interview with MMA reporter Ariel Helwani—where he claimed that he wasn’t sure he would stay with WWE when his contract expired—request a weekend off house shows then ultimately—after a 50-minute appearance at Sunday’s Royal Rumble—a walk-out before Raw after a series of show re-writes.
During a February 2014 conference call to investors, Vince McMahon claimed Punk was taking a sabbatical and would not return at this time. Punk’s permanent sabbatical was made official in July 2014 when he was removed from WWE.com’s active roster page.
Nope, thank YOU.Thanks for all the help and support through the years. Health and happiness above all.Don't ever take any shit from anybody.
— CM Pumpkinpie (@CMPunk) July 15, 2014
Punk, who parlayed an anti-establishment/anti-authority character into the biggest run of his career, became the hottest free agent in wrestling (despite his insistence that he was done wrestling) and also the embodiment of everything that was wrong with WWE.
“CM Punk” chants became common-place at WWE events not because fans were clamoring for the return of Punk but rather the chants came to symbolize fan displeasure with the WWE product. “CM Punk” came to mean, “We think this (match/storyline/promo/character) sucks.”
In November 2014, then-best friend Colt Cabana released an episode of his Art of Wrestling podcast with Punk as a guest. The show offered Punk an outlet to break his long-held silence on WWE. The interview touched on everything that led to Punk’s departure from the company including unpaid royalties, WWE officially firing him on his wedding day in June 2014 and, in the biggest bombshell, a number of accusations of poor medical care Punk received during his time in the company. The accusations included specific references and cases related to Dr. Chris Amann including an untreated staph infection, concussions, broken ribs, injured knees and more.
It was this portion of the podcast that led Amann to file a defamation lawsuit against Brooks and Cabana (Scott Colton) in February 2015. The case finally went to trial in 2018 with the jury ruling in favor of Punk and Cabana. Shortly after their victory in court, the tables turned as Cabana filed a lawsuit against Punk alleging that Punk agreed then later refused to pay for Cabana’s legal fees during the Amann suit. Punk filed a counterclaim against Cabana in June 2019. Finally, in September 2019, the lawsuits were settled and the dust cleared.
From the day Punk walked out off WWE until he returned at WWE Backstage last night were tumultuous and heavy times, to say the least.
Punk publically declared his unhappiness with the company, accused their doctor of malpractice, was taken to court by WWE’s doctor (with the full support of the company) and destroyed a friendship along the way. While Punk walking onto the WWE Backstage set was a shock, it wasn’t unprecedented.
Ultimate Warrior who fought with the company through multiple firings in the 90s and a hit-piece documentary returned just before his death. After the Montreal Screwjob in 1997, his brother Owen’s death under WWE watch and years of jabs thrown back and forth, Bret Hart entering a WWE ring in 2010 and hugging Shawn Michaels was certainly a stunning sight.
Jeff Jarrett who held McMahon up for money before the No Mercy 1999 PPV and was publicly fired by McMahon on the first official night of WWE’s WCW ownership. Jarrett would later found WWE’s primary competition post-WCW—Impact Wrestling—before finally returning to the company in 2018. Bruno Sammartino, a longtime star of the WWWF territory, left the company in 1988 and was an outspoken and vocal critic of McMahon with appearances on CNN, The Phil Donahue Show and more before returning to accept a WWE Hall of Fame entry in 2013.
No, Punk isn’t alone but it’s a short list.
I’m not ready to make a declaration for what this means for Punk’s legacy or his reputation. I don’t know the man. I don’t know his motivations or his reasons. While I’m ultimately disappointed Punk chose to return to the WWE family given all the issues including “nearly dying” on their watch, again, I can’t speak for the man or the choices he’s made in his life. After Punk left WWE in 2014, I was ecstatic at the prospect of what he could achieve in the exciting independent wrestling scene. Instead, Punk chose to take time away from pro wrestling and venture into the world of MMA. When All Elite Wrestling was launched earlier this year, Punk’s name was one of the first that came up as a dream signing for the new company. What better way to establish yourself as the alternative to WWE than signing the man who fought against the establishment while there, walked out and even took them to court.
It didn’t happen.
No matter whose story you believe, the result was the same: Punk did not sign with AEW. Ultimately, Punk chose to return to WWE. For now, Punk will make occasional appearances on WWE Backstage but it’s not hard to envision a situation where Punk returns for another match in the company. Punk’s years of anti-establishment rhetoric were a lot of bark and ultimately, little bite. A man who described his post-WWE life as his happiest now finds himself back in the rat race.
I can lie and tell you I don’t feel a little stupid for believing that he, Daniel Bryan and countless others who claimed to be about a bigger purpose find themselves right back with the establishment, chasing money, glory and familiarity but, I do. This website wouldn’t exist without CM Punk bringing a “voice to the voiceless” and I can always thank him for that even if Punk signed up for a life of voicelessness.