In the weeks leading up to his much-rumored return to pro wrestling there were a lot of questions about just what exactly CM Punk meant to the sport in 2021. His debut promo and the massive rating it popped made it clear that Punk’s standing hadn’t waned in the slightest. On that night, many observed that there was a sense of resolution, a promise fulfilled by Punk’s turning up in AEW. He belonged here, and in some ways, it felt like this was all for him.
It was clear to me on that night that CM Punk’s place in wrestling history was grossly underrated. The paltry 15% of ballots his name appeared on in last year’s Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame voting, a decline from the previous year’s 20%, was a product of broadly felt antipathies that muddled the formidable influence the man has had.
Punk’s Hall of Fame credentials are strong on many fronts: in his analysis of Wrestling Observer Award Shares, Fred Morlan determined that Punk’s “Flair/Thesz standing alone is a strong argument that he should already be in.” That’s not to mention his long list of great matches, including being one-half of two out of only six American matches to be awarded five stars by Dave Meltzer between 1998 and 2015, a timespan that encapsulates the entire first run of Punk’s career. Add to that his reputation as an all-time great promo, and the demonstrably profound impact he’s already had on AEW’s business and you’ve already got a solid case for his inclusion.
But Punk’s greatest claim to a spot in the Hall of Fame comes from that big broad question: can you write the history of pro wrestling without including this candidate’s story? Trevor Dame compellingly argued on the Flagship Patreon’s about candidates from Modern US/Canada that Randy Orton and Edge both fail this test. Simply put, if those wrestlers weren’t the ones in the main event positions WWE booked them in, somebody else would have been and things probably wouldn’t be so different for it. This is absolutely not the case with CM Punk.
CM Punk’s career may be the most important of any individual wrestler for understanding the enormous changes the sport and business have undergone over the past 10-plus years.
Consider the course of events that defined the wrestling industry as they coincide with the timeline of Punk’s career: from WWE’s monopolization of the business, their increasingly homogenized product contrasting with the growth of the US independent scene, WWE’s star-making machine failing as former indie stars emerge as fan favorites on their programming, the era of part-timers and old-timers stunting the growth of the next crop of wrestlers, the steady decline in WWE viewership as alternatives from Japan and the growing super indies became more accessible to a greater number of fans… and all of this was underlined by a mounting conflict between WWE and its audience over what kind of product ought to be presented and what kind of performers ought to take center stage.
The culmination of that process was the advent of All Elite Wrestling.
AEW was the synthesis of this very strange dialectic pitting Vince McMahon against a communal yearning amongst fans and wrestlers alike for a different kind of show: a professional wrestling show.
CM Punk is the avatar of the movement for a pro wrestling renaissance that brought a viable alternative into being. In the summer of 2011 CM Punk was given a hot mic and with it, he wrote the discontent of wrestling fans into WWE canon in a way that could not be unwritten. Even with lackluster booking hampering his ascent, Punk did not merely rise to the occasion of a main event spot that was handed to him; during the 2011 Summer of Punk he did something unique and special to carve out a permanent spot at the top of WWE’s depth chart that no other wrestler could fill.
Punk made himself the anti-Cena: a true top guy who represented those fans who never wanted the homogenized, overly PG direction that accompanied John Cena’s rise. He loudly stood up for fans who weren’t ashamed to love wrestling and he openly criticized WWE’s product on grounds wrestling fans typically agreed with, both on and off the show. Punk’s indie background, his style in the ring, and the fact that he didn’t fit the mold of what a WWE Superstar was supposed to look and sound like were things he was criticized for and limited by in WWE’s culture. Wrestling fans knew that and not only didn’t they hold those things against him but they celebrated that he was unique and special.
After two more years of fighting on screen and behind the scenes for a different kind of wrestling Punk left the sport, but his presence haunted WWE like the specter of a road not taken. In the years after Punk’s departure, WWE struggled mightily to get over the things Vince McMahon has always seen as worthy of a push. Superstars who fit Vince’s mold, who fans felt were being overpushed, were rejected, while an increasing number of former indie wrestlers with unique personas and strong workrate got over in spite of Vince’s intentions. Punk of course had paved the way for this kind of change but his presence was also felt in a more explicit way: fans started chanting his name as a protest against the things they didn’t want in their wrestling shows.
To chant for CM Punk at a WWE show stopped being about anticipating Punk’s return and started being a call for a pro wrestling alternative to WWE’s presentation of sports entertainment. Raw and Smackdown ratings saw a steady decline while more and more fans sought and found alternatives. For some fans the exciting new thing was New Japan Pro Wrestling, for some it was Ring of Honor, PWG, or BritWres, and for many it was NXT, WWE’s own in-house super indie that became a vision for a fresher more exciting future within WWE by… signing every cool indie wrestler with a unique persona and strong workrate.
Punk didn’t greatly endear himself to a lot of fans during this time, but nonetheless chanting his name remained an indictment of the unsatisfying content on WWE’s programming. In the second half of the 2010s WWE’s ratings and attendance saw meaningful declines while New Japan and Ring of Honor in particular saw substantial growth. In 2018 WWE’s struggles dovetailing with the successes of All In and New Japan’s instant Madison Square Garden sell-out signaled that something was happening and the conditions were finally ripe for alternatives in the American wrestling market.
This 10-plus year movement calling for a major league pro wrestling alternative to WWE’s sports entertainment is what conjured AEW into being (along with a hefty investment from the Khan family and WarnerMedia). CM Punk is singularly influential in setting this process in motion and deserves to be recognized for his achievements and for his positive influence.
If the ten-year timeline I’ve outlined is too short a span to impress you for Hall of Fame purposes, it should be said that Punk’s position as a symbol of the pro wrestling revolution predates the Pipebomb. Punk’s indie and ROH run and his breaking the glass ceiling for indie guys in WWE makes him a genuine article trailblazer. If we’re recording the history of pro wrestling, the influential underground currents during a period of corporate domination should not be left uncovered. Even if you want to downplay the “breaking the glass ceiling” by pointing out that NXT 2.0 is proof that Vince is reverting to his preferred model of star, the reality is that the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube on this one. The alternative model that Punk and then Bryan Danielson exposed mainstream wrestling fans to actually did catch hold and helped create space for ROH, NJPW and AEW to change the wrestling landscape in the ways they did.
The American wrestling fan’s embrace of these guys fundamentally changed what was acceptable and the proof is in the AEW pudding. Even if AEW collapses next year, there will be a critical mass of wrestling fans who will never revert back to sports entertainment. But that seems unlikely anyhow. AEW seems destined for a substantial increase in revenue from TV rights over the coming years, and with that, its near-term future seems secure. Whether or not you care for its product, AEW’s viability makes the wrestling world a richer place with more jobs for wrestlers and more options for fans. An empire holding decisive sway over the fate of the sport and industry and gradually snuffing out alternative visions of pro wrestling with NXT’s and NXT UK’s and NXT Japan’s would have made for a bleak future and what we’re getting instead is unquestionably superior.
The story of how WWE’s stranglehold over American wrestling was broken cannot be accurately written without Punk’s inclusion. AEW was the answer to a call Punk more than anyone is responsible for putting out. He is truly the face of the pro wrestling revolution, whether you like him or his work, or not. In August 2021 the exiled revolutionary returned to take his rightful place in the vanguard of a movement built in his absence. It seems fitting that we put aside the petty antipathies that led to his disappointing vote total last year and mark the occasion by ushering CM Punk into his rightful place in the Hall of Fame.