By: Abhinav Tirumala
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
The line made famous by Harvey Dent applies to many and ended up being the lasting legacy of CM Punk’s run in All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
In this article, we’ll take you through the highs and lows of CM Punk’s career and focus on his time with Tony Khan’s establishment. In an article to follow, we will give two different perspectives on the events that unfolded for over two years. His time in the promotion proved to be the ultimate seesaw, as for all the good CM Punk did for AEW, you could argue he caused as much trouble. As the saying goes, every story has two sides, so we’ll examine the Second City Saint’s run from two accounts that greatly vary and leave you, the reader, to choose your interpretation of events.
Before starting each account, we’ll briefly describe CM Punk’s career, what made him stand out as a performer, and a summary of his time in other promotions before his 2021 arrival in All Elite Wrestling. Then, we'll take a detailed look at his time in the AEW, noting the rivalries and moments.
Let's have a look at the career of one of the most controversial wrestlers of the modern age.
A Brief History of CM Punk Before AEW
“The greatest thing the devil ever did was make you people believe he didn’t exist.”
These were the famous words uttered by CM Punk after winning the Ring Of Honor World Championship in June 2005, kickstarting one of the most critical runs of his career, the “Summer Of Punk.” To summarise the angle, Punk teased leaving Ring Of Honor (ROH) as its champion and heading to WWE with the belt still in his possession. It showcased his greatest asset to the wrestling business: his promo ability. Punk’s run in Ring Of Honor led to many famous promos that established him in the top tier of talkers during his generation, including standouts “The Old Man and the Snake” and “The Monsters of the World”. His in-ring work in Ring Of Honor also led to some of the best matches in the promotion's history and the entirety of the 2000 American wrestling scene. His trilogy of ROH World Title matches against Samoa Joe became instant classics, giving the promotion more eyes in a time when WWE was the only game in town. His feud and friendship with fellow Chicago native and real-life best friend, Colt Cabana, led to one of the promotion's best matches, with Punk and Cabana tagging against The Briscoe Brothers. Of course, his final ROH match was in Chicago against Cabana, where he famously left the show with tears in his eyes, the icing on the cake to his stellar run with the promotion. Punk’s induction into the first-ever class of the Ring Of Honor Hall Of Fame in 2022 gives further credence to his value and legacy.
Next, we take a look at the company where CM Punk went from being an indy darling to a household name in the wrestling business: WWE. From 2006 to 2010, Punk showed the potential of being a massive star but never truly broke into the main-event scene of WWE. However, he managed to pack in a litany of memorable moments, with his mastery on the microphone again showcasing his talent among giants. Standout moments included his feud with Jeff Hardy and his time leading the Straight Edge Society in a feud with Rey Mysterio, during which he famously sang happy birthday to Mysterio’s daughter. Additionally, his sermon on the mouth during the 2010 Royal Rumble, where Punk came out third and eliminated them, cutting promos in the ring and getting masterful heel heat before being eliminated by Triple H, led to a big reaction. However, his most famous moment and feud in WWE came on June 27th, 2011, when CM Punk cut one of the most incredible promos in the history of the wrestling business, known as “The Pipebomb.” His subsequent angle with John Cena instantly transformed CM Punk from a breakout star to a certified main-event phenomenon. He parlayed the pipebomb into an excellent match with John Cena in Chicago and later on a 434-day title reign. During his time in WWE, CM Punk would have classic encounters with Daniel Bryan, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, and The Rock.
Following a significant heel run working alongside legendary wrestling manager Paul Heyman, his run in WWE ended controversially due to various medical issues and creative disagreements. Punk subsequently retired from the wrestling business in 2014, and outside of one or two appearances under a mask on indie promotions, he was gone from the industry until 2021, when All Elite Wrestling came calling.
A Look Back At CM Punk’s AEW Run
All Elite Wrestling, the world's second-biggest wrestling company, began signing free-agent stars and firmly establishing itself in the pro wrestling landscape as the alternative to WWE in 2021. In June, rumours would leak of CM Punk returning to wrestling with AEW to debut at their All Out pay-per-view, which takes place every year in Chicago. Subsequently, on the July 28th, 2021, edition of AEW Dynamite, AEW President Tony Khan announced that week 2 of their newest program, AEW Rampage, would emanate from the United Center in Chicago and would be given the subtitle The First Dance, playing off the Last Dance documentary released earlier that year. Adding fuel to the fire, Punk would post an Instagram story of a quote stating, “Nothing’s Over Till Your Underground,” a tattoo on Darby Allin’s chest, teasing his eventual match with the young superstar. After a couple of weeks building anticipation, it finally happened on August 20, 2021: CM Punk was back in the wrestling business after seven years.
Punk returned at the United Center, drawing a thunderous ovation and addressing the fans in an excellent promo, confronting Allin, who he later defeated at AEW All Out 2021 in his first match in 7 years. Punk would then do a few short feuds with Will Hobbs and Eddie Kingston, with the Kingston feud being a brutal affair, with both men referencing their real-life hatred of each other. The two would engage in a short, hard-hitting, and brutal experience at AEW Full Gear 2021, where Punk would win the feud and the match. His promo on AEW Rampage to set up the match with Kingston still ranks among the best in the short history of All Elite Wrestling and of Punk’s legendary career. However, his true magnum opus in All Elite Wrestling would be his legendary feud with young superstar Maxwell Jacob Friedman, MJF.
CM Punk’s rivalry with MJF was the centrepiece of AEW and quickly became the most anticipated rivalry of CM Punk’s career, despite lasting just over four months from November until early March. The rivalry was profoundly personal and a tribute to old-school wrestling. Little details include the two not touching a single time nor mentioning each other in public interviews before their first encounter on the February 2nd edition of AEW Dynamite in Chicago. Both men routinely referenced past incidents in Punk’s life previously thought unmentionable, including his legal battle against the WWE and his well-known tendency to lash out when things seem to be against him. They wrestled a 38-minute classic at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, with MJF handing Punk the first loss of his AEW career. The rivalry eventually led to a series of promos where Punk would subsequently earn his rematch with MJF at the Revolution pay-per-view event and challenged him to a dog collar match.
MJF would later reveal his backstory in a heartfelt promo, telling the story of a CM Punk fan who was hurt and destroyed by Punk’s retirement in 2014 and now wanted vengeance on his hero for leaving him when he needed him most, invoking the feelings of many fans during the time, myself included. MJF would also attack Punk and choke him out with a chain, invoking the line Punk famously used in 2005, “the greatest thing the devil ever did was make people believe he didn’t exist.” The two would have a brutal affair at AEW Revolution, where Punk finally defeated MJF. This rivalry would be the high point of Punk’s AEW run and amongst the best of his entire wrestling career. The YouTube channel Outside Interference even produced a YouTube documentary on the rivalry that garnered over 2.6 million views.
The honeymoon period for Punk in AEW would soon come to a screeching halt when he engaged in a feud with then-AEW World Champion Adam Page. In a promo exchange between the two men, Adam Page would do what wrestling jargon refers to as “going into business for yourself,” going against the agreed-upon planned nature of the segment. In this case, he would allude to Punk using his stature to get rid of wrestler Colt Cabana, Punk’s former best friend turned real-life enemy. Cabana was a friend of Page and many others in the company, who blamed Punk’s hiring for Cabana suddenly disappearing from television, despite Punk and CEO Tony Khan’s denials. In reality, Khan reassigned Cabana to AEW’s sister promotion, Ring Of Honor, which Khan had recently purchased. Punk would later feud with and win the AEW World Title from Page at the Double Or Nothing 2022 pay-per-view event in a nearly 25-minute match.
Further backstage, rumours would begin to pop up about Punk’s alleged misdeeds in the company and wrestlers having a problem with his conduct. In fact, at a press conference, when asked how people in the locker room felt about him, Punk answered, “ If there are people backstage that don’t like me, it’s a minority. If anybody says nobody wants me here or likes me, I like to say that nobodies don’t want me here and nobodies don’t like me.”
Punk would injure his foot in a match just three days later and sit out for about three months, where immediately upon returning, he challenged Adam Page to a rematch and called him a coward . During his time away, AEW crowned an interim champion in Jon Moxley, who faced Punk at All Out in Chicago for the championship in the main event.
The Chaos of CM Punk’s Media Scrum, Return & Firing
The All Out 2022 pay-per-view will go down in history as the most embarrassing night of All Elite Wrestling. Fresh off winning the AEW World Title in a classic match against Moxley, CM Punk was the first wrestler to speak in the traditional post-PPV media scrum. What took place could only be described as fascinating. In a lethal tirade, CM Punk explained the history of his problems with Colt Cabana, berated “Hangman” Adam Page for being unprofessional and ripped him to shreds, mocked and called out the Elite, who he termed as “irresponsible EVPs who couldn’t manage a target.” He also repeatedly cut off Khan whenever Khan tried to settle the situation. In a bizarre turn of events, Punk would constantly eat muffins during the scrum, which he told everyone was from Mindy’s Bakery, a local restaurant in Chicago. Somehow, things would get worse and more embarrassing for All Elite Wrestling in the backstage area just a few minutes later.
“Brawl Out,” as it came to be known, refers to the backstage physical altercation between CM Punk, Punk’s trainer and AEW Producer Ace Steel, Kenny Omega, and The Young Bucks. The brawl ended with injuries, suspensions, fractured relationships and ultimately, disgrace. Though accounts vary depending on the point of view, the essential details remain similar, including Punk punching Matt Jackson, Ace Steel throwing a chair at Nick Jackson, and Kenny Omega putting Ace Steel in a crossface, to which Steel would bite Omega’s arm. It was reported two days later by Sports Illustrated that all parties in the brawl received suspensions, and the incident was under investigation. The timing added to the mess, as, Punk had just won the AEW World Championship and the Elite had just been crowned the inaugural AEW Trios Champions, with Kenny Omega having just returned from a nine-month layoff due to various injuries.
Punk’s tirade resulted in uncertainty for the company, something they would shortly overcome after resolving the situation. After about three months, The Elite would return to the company at the AEW Full Gear 2022, where they challenged for the AEW Trios Championship. Meanwhile, Punk’s status was kept silent by Tony Khan for a while, though the bicep tear Punk suffered during his match against Moxley at All Out also kept details short. Ace Steel was initially fired in October 2022 due to his involvement in the incident.
After about nine months, CM Punk returned to AEW again in the United Center on the June 17th episode of AEW’s new Saturday show, AEW Saturday Collision. Punk would be the new show's centrepiece and be kept entirely separate from The Elite and others who didn’t want to work with him. The Elite would become the main anchors on AEW’s flagship program, AEW Dynamite, keeping away from Punk. Alongside Punk, Ace Steel returned to All Elite Wrestling in 2023 following the announcement of AEW Collision and Punk’s return to AEW, with Steel working remotely as Punk’s producer. The separation went to such an extent that Punk and The Elite were held backstage on pay-per-view weekends on separate sides of the building due to the entire roster being under one roof. Additionally, CM Punk’s influence on Collision included certain powers, such as heavy creative influence and being able to select which talents would be on the show to avoid any further animosity and drama. However, this experiment failed spectacularly just two months later.
CM Punk’s return undoubtedly ruffled many feathers. It caused tension within the company, and the lack of mending fences between any of the parties involved in Brawl Out resulted in yet another backstage fight involving CM Punk. Stemming from an argument about using broken glass, Punk, and young star Jack Perry would get into a verbal confrontation before an episode of AEW Collision in late June. The argument centred over CM Punk rejecting Perry’s use of real glass in a backstage angle and due to his stature on Collision, nixing it, angering Perry. Perry believed that the only reason Punk nixed the picture was because Perry is a supporter of The Elite. Perry would reference this incident during his pre-show match on AEW’s All In London pay-per-view, where, after driving an opponent through a car windshield., he said, “ You know what this is ? Real glass, go cry me a river,” into a camera. This shot at Punk, whose match against Samoa Joe opened the main card, led to a brief physical altercation between the two during AEW’s All In London pay-per-view, after which AEW President and CEO Tony Khan suspended both men pending investigation. The details of the incident vary depending on the perspective, but the one constant is that Punk punched Jack Perry, and chaos briefly ensued; Punk threatened to quit and reportedly “lunged” towards Tony Khan.
In what turned out to be his final match in AEW, Punk defeated Samoa Joe in about 15 minutes, cementing the long-lasting legacy between the two men. With their All Out PPV scheduled in Chicago the next week, Khan made a landmark decision, which seemed impossible and inconceivable two years ago. Just seven days later, AEW announced CM Punk had been terminated with cause, ending Punk’s controversial tenure in All Elite Wrestling. Khan also reiterated the announcement live in front of the Chicago crowd, leading to massive boos and disappointment.