Voices: WWE is in a boom period – but it may soon be wrestling with a problem

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Do you have any idea how difficult it is to explain to people that you’re a 33-year-old man who watches wrestling? Not just watches, but gets way too invested in, and stays up until 5am to watch pay-per-views even though he has work the following day? It’s a tough gig, but it’s been a lot easier in the past year or so, ever since wrestling inexplicably got cool again.

Well, maybe cool isn’t the right word – that’s wishful thinking on my part – but it’s definitely experiencing a surge in popularity. This has largely been due to a change of management and creative direction at WWE, which remains king of the wrestling landscape, and has finally made the bold decision to stop actively antagonising its fans and instead give them what they ask for (well… mostly – we still remember the rubber chicken).

Last night saw the limits of that generosity tested though, as WWE held its annual Survivor Series pay-per-view. While the event was hugely fun for all the usual reasons (simulated violence, body oil, etc), it also saw the return to the company of one of wrestling’s most controversial figures: CM Punk.

If you aren’t familiar, Punk was a darling of the early-2000s independent wrestling scene. He was an enigmatic, anti-authority, electric presence, and in contrast to most wrestlers there was essentially no difference between Phil Brooks the man and CM Punk the character. He joined WWE in 2005, quickly becoming a fan favourite, as he acted as a kind of mouthpiece for those fans who had started to turn on the promotion in the years following the company’s bloody and provocative heyday, when it had taken steps to repackage itself as a more family-friendly product.

Despite a number of world championship wins and being featured in programmes with stars like the Rock and John Cena, Punk never really reached the heights that some fans believed he was owed, and in 2014 left WWE on extremely bad terms.

Seven years later, in August 2021, CM Punk made his seismic return to wrestling for the up-and-coming promotion All Elite Wrestling (AEW), and his presence was a significant factor in helping the company make the first legitimate challenge to WWE’s stranglehold on the industry in over a decade.

However, a little over a year later at the company’s All Out pay-per-view in September 2022, after winning the AEW World Championship for the second time, Punk was involved in a backstage incident with several company EVPs which turned violent. Punk was suspended for nine months, before making his return in June of this year.

Months later, Punk was involved in yet another backstage incident at the company’s record-breaking UK show, held at Wembley stadium in August (the confusingly titled All In). This time AEW president (as well as Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC executive) Tony Khan was allegedly caught up the incident, later stating on an episode of AEW Collision that "never in all [this] time have I ever felt … that my security, my safety, my life was in danger at a wrestling show”. That proved to be the final straw, and Punk was terminated for just cause in September.

Despite all of this, CM Punk was still considered one of the most sought-after signings for huge swathes of the wrestling fandom. Unlike many wrestlers who leave the big leagues and try their hand in lesser promotions or on the indies (his embarrassing UFC stint notwithstanding), Punk kept his own mythology alive by largely staying away from wrestling until AEW had proved itself as a somewhat serious contender to WWE.

Due to the fact that his AEW return never really got off the ground, achieving little more than two abortive championship runs and a series of mid-card feuds, many fans were eager for Punk to return to WWE and give them the kind of “true” return that British wrestling Youtubers have been fantasy booking since 2014.

And now, after a decade of rumours and drama, the prodigal son has returned to the promotion that made him a household name. Punk appeared in the final moments of last night’s show, paying off weeks of cryptic teases in front of a white-hot hometown Chicago crowd.

The question now is: will WWE end up regretting their decision?

Within minutes of the show ending there were already rumours of backstage discord, with several stars allegedly expressing anger and confusion at Punk’s return. If course, in the world of wrestling that doesn’t mean much. The entire industry is built on blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and it’s always possible that a “backstage scoop” is a seed planted as part of an eventual on-screen feud.

Likewise, the return has prompted mixed reactions from fans, with some expressing doubt that Punk will be able to behave himself for long enough for his return to pay off in any meaningful way.

As a fan of WWE, and as somebody invested in its ongoing success, I’m firmly in the “please just go back to losing real MMA fights, Phil” camp. I wrote wrestling news during the heyday of the Punk/AEW drama, and I have no real desire to experience another two years of that particular soap opera, especially when WWE (and the industry as a whole) is doing so well right now.

That being said, 90 per cent of wrestling is about messy drama (the other 10 per cent is body oil), so I fully understand the impulse to see where this goes, even if it is a disaster. After all, it’s entirely possible that he’s learned his lesson (hey, a cowboy zombie wizard was one of the top guys in the industry for 30 years – I’ve learned not to write anything off).

I have no idea what’s going to happen next, but hey, that’s the beauty of wrestling.