Reaction to CM Punk’s Return at AEW Rampage: The First Dance

CM Punk at the United Center in Chicago for AEW Rampage. (Photo by Tim Bowman)

CM Punk returned after over seven years away from pro wrestling, marking one of the most anticipated comebacks in wrestling history.

CM Punk debuted for All Elite Wrestling on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021 after leaving the industry as an active competitor in 2014. I still haven’t watched the Rampage episode back on television, looked at much footage online or reactions on social media. This is my raw thoughts to the night’s events from being there live in the arena.

CM Punk was always one of my favorite wrestlers. I liked his wrestling style, his skills on the microphone, his personality and his general attitude. His “pipe bomb” promo on Raw in June 2011 was amazing. Voicing his frustrations with the company and his position in it, the segment blurred the lines between the fantasy of the show and the reality of what actually happens behind the scenes. A lot of fans (myself included) felt the same way that Punk did about the WWE at the time. I regretted not going to the WWE Money in the Bank pay-per-view in July 2011 where he faced John Cena for the WWE title at Allstate Arena in Chicago. He won the match, took the title and left out through the crowd, seemingly no longer part of the company after his contract ran out in storyline. During the next several months the WWE fumbled the story and Punk’s red hot momentum, squandering a huge opportunity to reignite an exciting period for the company much like the Attitude Era of the 1990s. However the pipe bomb promo and time period afterwards cemented CM Punk as one of the top wrestling stars and must-watch talent of the last 15 years, giving him a cult-like status with the fans that still stands to this day. Now 10 years later Punk has changed the wrestling world again.

After leaving the WWE in 2014 over tumultuous circumstances (like wrestling with a staph infection for months, dealing with injuries, burnout and irreconcilable differences with the company), Punk essentially retired from pro wrestling. In the years he was gone Punk had a few fights for the UFC, did MMA commentary and pursued other creative avenues in acting and comic books. In November 2019 he returned to the wrestling world as an analyst for the show WWE Backstage as part of Fox Sports but wasn’t contracted directly by the WWE. A lot of fans were pissed off he left and hated him for not going back to wrestle for WWE but I give him props for pursing new challenges. It takes a lot courage to step outside of your comfort zone, try something you might fail at or change direction in your life.

Over the years fans kept chanting his name at WWE shows when he wasn’t even with the company, whether it be during bad, scripted promos and boring matches, at guys the audience didn’t like, or just to show their displeasure with the WWE product. The “CM Punk” chant was a jab at the WWE and morphed into something that represented way more than just fans missing their favorite wrestler. There’s also this weird animosity towards Punk from the WWE side of things that’s bizarre but that people could probably relate to in their own jobs and different relationships.

The whole reason for The First Dance show was for Punk’s return to wrestling, a reference to “The Last Dance” documentary series on the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. With it being only the second ever episode of Rampage, the show was quickly announced, given a special name and set in Punk’s hometown of Chicago in the United Center, a building that in nearly 21 years has only held one wrestling show besides AEW. The First Dance would take place at a huge arena in the city when the company would be returning to the area just a few weeks later for their All Out pay-per-view week at the Now Arena in Hoffman Estates for the first several days of September. All this added up to something big going down at this show. AEW continued to further tease Punk’s return for the past several weeks, from Darby Allin challenging anyone who thinks they’re “the best in the world,” to president and CEO Tony Khan dropping hints across interviews and social media to Kenny Omega wearing a “Chick Magnet” shirt (a reference to the “CM” in Punk’s name) on the Aug. 18 episode of Dynamite.

The two hours or so of AEW Dark was alright with some decent matches but everyone was basically waiting for Rampage to start so CM Punk would appear. There was this massive anticipation and expectation underlying everything, from waiting in line to get into the building to watching each match on Dark. A few minutes before Rampage started Tony Khan came out and thanked everyone for buying a ticket for this special night and being faithful to AEW and what the company was doing. He sounded pretty emotional and almost like he was going to start crying.

Being in the building for Punk’s debut was incredible. It felt like the United Center was going to be lifted off into space with all the energy inside the room. Right at 9.p.m. central time the mood immediately changed. When “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour hit the arena, the place went absolutely insane. I’ve been to many wrestling shows in my life but none like this. Seeing this jam-packed arena going crazy with CM Punk chants was wild and surreal. Even though most of the fans knew he was going to be there, they still reacted like they were shocked to see CM Punk’s entrance video playing on the ramp. The energy in the arena was so warm and positive. It’s almost difficult to describe and I don’t know if it could ever fully come across on television. You just had to be in the building that night. The crowd reaction was so deafening that it overtook the sound of the music playing. It later sounded like the whole arena was singing the lyrics to the song as Punk took his time down to the ring. There was just this sense of pure happiness and joy everyone was experiencing together in the arena. Many fans had waited years for this moment and it finally happened, just not in a WWE ring.

After his extended entrance, Punk entered the ring and talked to the crowd. Punk’s promo mentioned how he left pro wrestling on Aug. 13, 2005 after going from Ring of Honor to the WWE. He was with the WWE system for about nine years but still feels like he left pro wrestling before then, even after he became a worldwide superstar. He apologized for anyone who he disappointed by his absence but said he couldn’t get healthy by staying in the place that made him physically, mentally and spiritually sick to begin with, a reference to his many issues with the WWE. He ended the promo by saying that he’s back. Oh, and he gave everyone in the building free ice cream bars after the show.

The promo also set up several things in the near future. It solidified CM Punk as a megastar with AEW, set up a match against a young, upcoming star like Darby Allin, promoted the All Out pay-per-view on Sept. 5 and hyped the weekly Dynamite shows on Wednesday. It hit all the points it needed to and made you excited for AEW’s future.

It was an all-time great moment and easily one of the best moments in wrestling history. I don’t think it could have been done any better. Being there live was an incredible experience and lasting memory. WWE hasn’t had a moment like this in seemingly forever and honestly doesn’t have the ability to create them nowadays anyway. Punk’s whole comeback felt like an organic moment instead of something not authentic and overproduced. AEW signed the hottest talent of the modern era, which instantly elevated the brand more than it already was in its short history. Punk’s return was one of the best ever in wrestling, especially in the last decade.

The exclusive CM Punk t-shirt that he wore on television was on sale in the arena and sold out. The lines for it wrapped around the United Center hall. It legitimately looked like thousands of people were trying to buy the shirt. I tried to get one right after Punk’s segment was over and it was impossible. The lines were just way too long. I did think it was hilarious how a guy sitting in the row in front of me completely missed the entire CM Punk return because he went to get some subpar nachos from the concession stand. He came back to his seat well into the Rampage show. Like the whole reason for even being there that particular night was to see CM Punk again and the guy missed the whole thing.

I made sure to grab a CM Punk ice cream bar after the show on my way out of the arena. Eating the ice cream outside the arena was real chill after experiencing such a great night. A lot of fans were just hanging out and eating this ice cream bar, kind of in another collective moment. This ice cream bar was something that Punk brought up in 2011 on WWE television that never happened at the time but all these years later it finally did. It’s another special touch that made Punk’s debut done the right way, for both him and the fans.

As a fan of pro wrestling since early 2001, I’ve soured on it over the past year or so for various reasons. I do like AEW a lot but also enjoy other companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling, Major League Wrestling or Ring of Honor. It’s just hard as a fan to sit through WWE programming, especially Raw. To me, the current WWE product is just unwatchable a lot of the time. This is the main company that the average person thinks of when it comes to pro wrestling and it’s usually just bad television. Investing seven hours a week across three different shows of Raw, Smackdown and NXT feels like a complete waste of time. Lately with all the talent cuts like Aleister Black (now Malakai Black in AEW), Bronson Reed and Bray Wyatt, the upcoming NXT overhaul and the combination of bad creative, it’s just not fun being a fan of the WWE or following the product. At least now there are plenty of other companies to watch and a strong alternative in AEW.

Punk now has a chance to bring in a lot of lost wrestling fans through AEW. In 2011 when Punk eventually became the hottest star in the company, episodes of Raw were getting anywhere near 4.5 million to over 5.5 million people watching each week throughout that year. Compared to today, the Aug. 16 episode of Raw averaged 1.8 million viewers. Fans have stopped watching WWE and have left in the millions. A lot of this is a result of the show’s quality and star power continually declining over the years. WWE now has a billion dollar television rights deal with Fox yet the product has arguably never been worse.

Punk sold out the United Center with over 15,000 fans based on just speculation he would be there. The last time wrestling really happened at the United Center was in November 2000 when WCW was there for Nitro and Thunder. Besides a house show in March 2018, the WWE has only ran one other show at the United Center, for the SummerSlam pay-per-view in August 1994. WCW used the building several times during the height of the Monday Night Wars, notably for the first time when Sting famously came down from the arena’s rafters in January 1997 and for a Spring Stampede pay-per-view in March 2000. Without even a card announced and matches promoted, AEW sold out the famous Chicago arena as a new company not even three years old yet. That’s crazy.

AEW has so much momentum now. It feels exciting to be a wrestling fan. AEW has a legitimate megastar in Punk to add to its already stacked roster and all the company’s recent talent signings. Brian Danielson (Daniel Bryan) is also potentially debuting with the company soon, another performer that WWE has let slip away this year. AEW is even entering the New York market for the live AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York on Sept. 22, which is another milestone show. Maybe AEW can do Punk’s return right and usher in another great era for professional wrestling.

Photo gallery (Photos by Tim Bowman):

One Comment

  1. […] attended CM Punk’s return to pro wrestling in August 2021 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. It was a much different vibe then. The crowd was […]

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