Despite threatening to quit in that speech, Punk stuck around WWE for a few years until eventually he sort of just stopped appearing altogether. What was going on behind the scenes when WWE began removing him from their official information has been told a thousand different ways by a thousand different people, but it seemed at the time that irreparable damage had been done between the performer and his employer. The true version of the events that transpired has been buried underneath a mountain of lawsuits, NDAs and rumors. Considering WWE’s habit of spreading blatant disinformation to journalists and fans alike, we may never know what actually happened.
Punk went on to have a series of embarrassing fights in UFC before fading into the shadows of popular culture. But wrestling fans have a long memory, and Punk’s name was—and still is!—frequently chanted during WWE events to signify both boredom and a demand for his return whenever a match gets slow.
As All Elite Wrestling began to crystallize in 2018, and because Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan (AEW’s figureheads) were clearly courting some absconded WWE talent, endless rumors started circulating that Punk was among the people they had been considering for the new league. Then, just last week, WWE announced that Punk was back, but as a reporter and analyst on the “WWE Backstage” program on FS1.
What kinds of paychecks McMahon had to cut to woo Punk back to his side remains unclear. Is this a sign of WWE’s desperation to undercut AEW by buying up the allegiance of talents they might otherwise have procured? Considering the allegations of counter-programming McMahon has faced following the decision to move NXT to compete with AEW: Dynamite, it wouldn’t be totally unbelievable that Punk’s return is yet another gesture simply executed to undermine his newest competition.
The question of WWE’s ruthlessness when it comes to “Backstage” programming is a bigger question following the hiring of Ryan Satin, a notable wrestling journalist, as a correspondent. Is WWE at this point just wantonly purchasing the loyalty of notable people who could potentially criticize their practices?
Or, instead, is this latest move more indication that WWE is out of cards to play—other than nostalgia? WWE has been shockingly incompetent when it comes to creating new breakout stars in a post-John Cena landscape, and although the company may have scorned Punk earlier in the decade, he’s at least got the kind of name recognition outside the wrestling world that none of the current athletes have been able to obtain. People will clearly tune into this show just to see Punk, if only because they have fond memories of his more bombastic moments. And if they can’t get him back in the ring, better to have ownership of his legacy than nothing at all.
Wild speculation could lead some to conclude that this is the first step WWE is taking to eventually seduce Punk back into action. But he’s not a young man anymore, and he’s already seen how that story ends. But how he’ll behave when WWE inevitably gets on his nerves this time around is exactly the kind of mystery that will keep fans engaged.