The Dark Knight Returns: The Story of CM Punk in AEW – Part One


Seven years. It’s hard to believe it had been that long. Seven years since he stood in a wrestling ring. Seven years since he picked up a microphone. Seven years since he’d been in front of a wrestling crowd. They were aching for him; he knew that. They’d been chanting his name for those last seven years and they never stopped. In fact, over the last few months they’d been chanting it even louder. They knew he was coming back. He just didn’t know if he was coming back. 

Trauma. It’s a word that has become en vogue in recent years, as more and more people are opening up about their mental health struggles. For CM Punk, trauma might not be a word that he’s ever even thought of when it came to his own life. But, from the outside looking in (and, to be clear, that is all this is), it’s easy to speculate that the man, Phil Brooks, absolutely dealt with traumatic instances as a kid, a teenager, and an adult. 

Punk has gone on record stating that he never “got what he needed” from his own parents, so he was more or less adopted by the family of a close friend of his. 

“My relationship with my family was never super good,” Punk revealed in his WWE-produced documentary, Best in the World. “And I never got what I needed from my blood family. I was always neglected or, you know, whatever. This isn’t crying; this isn’t therapy hour. I could care less. But I watched my parents, when my brother turned 16, buy him a car. My brother had the opportunity to go to college. He flunked out. He spent all the money.”

Punk said that he was never given those opportunities from his parents. Additionally, his father was an alcoholic. Punk saw firsthand what addiction can do to a person and he decided from that point on, he would never touch a drop of alcohol.

“I always kinda thought I was adopted,” Punk admitted. “Like, maybe I was from outer space or something like that. I always just found it weird, ya know? How could parents have a kid and then not 100% fully support them? In anything they wanted to do.”

Punk also stated that his brother actually stole money from him, when the two were running their own backyard wrestling federation together. 

“I watched all the resources and everything go to the brother who stole from me,” he said. “And I was just like, ‘Peace out. I’m out of here.’”

So, he left. Between everything that happened with his parents and his brother, Punk had to have felt hurt, and confused, and betrayed, and angry. 

He channeled that energy, that anger, into his wrestling character and he became one of the most well-known, and well-regarded professional wrestlers on the planet. Punk is a multiple-time world champion. He became the star of Ring of Honor and World Wrestling Entertainment. He’s at the top of most peoples’ ‘Best Of’ list. And despite never technically main-eventing WrestleMania, Punk proved himself to be one of the most popular WWE wrestlers of all time. 

And then he walked away. 

While Punk saw unprecedented success in WWE, he (along with, probably, so many others) was also the victim of countless instances of backstabbing, start-and-stop pushes, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, gaslighting, and more. It’s a side of WWE that Vince McMahon and Co. never wanted fans to see, but after Punk  walked out of the company (resulting in a suspension, and then his termination…which he received on his wedding day) he peeled back the curtain on his career on a podcast episode with his former best friend, Colt Cabana. 

The podcast is called The Art of Wrestling and Punk had appeared on it before, but never to this degree. During the episode, Punk accused Vince McMahon, Triple H, John Laurinaitis and countless others of many things. He also accused then-WWE doctor Chris Amann of malpractice, which resulted in a defamation lawsuit that Amann filed, against Punk and Cabana. While Punk won the lawsuit, it cost him his decades-long friendship with Colt Cabana. 

It seemed that his professional wrestling career had taken just as much as it had given CM Punk, and he wasn’t sure if he would ever return to the ring. Actually, he was sure. He said he would never return to professional wrestling. 

But, as the old saying goes, ‘Never say never.’

That all changed with the creation of All Elite Wrestling. It was a new company. A new world. And a new chance for The Dark Knight of Professional Wrestling to reclaim what was his.

Book One: 

The Dark Knight Returns

He’s got the homestretch all to himself. The boss told him to take as long as he needed, to say what he’s been waiting seven years to say. The truth is, he doesn’t know what he’s going to say. He doesn’t want to plan anything out. He just wants to experience the energy from the crowd. He wants to hear it. He wants to see it. He wants to “feel it.”

Then those first familiar notes of ‘Cult of Personality’ hit the PA System of the United Center. He hugs his friends, stretches his arms, and takes a deep breath. For seven years, the crowd chanted for him to come home. Now, it was on him. This is his chance to say everything he wants to say. The show is live. There are no do-overs. This is his moment. This is his story. This is his time and he knows that he will live and die by the next words that come out of his mouth.

“This would be a good death,” he thinks to himself. “But not good enough.” 

CM Punk shocked the wrestling world when he debuted for All Elite Wrestling on August 20, 2021. The rumors were rampant. People were pretty sure that Punk would be debuting on the second episode of AEW Rampage, the company’s new Friday night show. But they weren’t completely sure. Not until they heard the first few notes of ‘Cult of Personality.’ Punk had sold out the United Center on a rumor and when he walks out on stage, he receives one of the loudest ovations of his career. 

There are tears in his eyes. The genuine emotion behind those eyes – the gratitude, the peace, the acceptance of the fact that he is worthy and he is loved – nobody has ever seen that from Punk before. He’d been excited. He’d been happy. But he had never been as moved as he is on this night. 

The emotion continues as he addresses the crowd.

“I heard you,” he tells Chicago. “For seven years, I heard you.”

And, he probably did. CM Punk swore that he would never return to the world of professional wrestling. That chapter of his story was over. The world had changed. It wasn’t fun anymore. He was getting older. He was getting bitter. And he didn’t want that for himself. He didn’t want that to be his legacy.

“If any of my personal choices or decisions related to my life made you feel disappointed or let down, I understand,” Punk tells his city. “If you all try to understand that I was never going to get healthy – physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally – staying in the first place that got me sick in the first place.”

Chicago erupts. They forgive him whatever delusional trespasses they may have put on him for leaving WWE. They understand. And they’re just glad to have their hero back. It’s a celebration. A homecoming. A happy ending to one story, and the beginning of another.

But now, the celebration is over. His opponent, the first man he will wrestle in seven years, is Darby Allin. Punk is a fan. Darby Allin, Punk said, would have been his favorite wrestler as a kid. Clad in tights, jean shorts, and with half of his face painted, Darby Allin embodies everything that is right about the professional wrestling business. He is young, he is hungry, he is focused.

But, if you were to ask him, Darby Allin might tell you that he is broken, as well. His own childhood was rough, much like Punk’s. His uncle died in a car accident when Darby was younger and, legend has it, Darby Allin paints half of his face to reflect the part of himself that died when his uncle died. 

This duality reflects Darby’s mind, his heart, his soul. Half of him is young, energetic, willing to learn, eager to listen. The other half of him is dark, angry… rotting. Most of the time, Allin is able to keep this duality at bay. He can control it and he errs on the side of good more often than not. But he’s only one bad day away from embracing the dark night of his soul completely. 

Punk knows that, and while he wants to defeat Darby Allin at All Out 2021, he doesn’t want to be the one to push Allin off the ledge. There’s a balance, there. Punk doesn’t want to be the catalyst for Darby’s dark side to take over, but he does want to win because, if he doesn’t, what else is there? If he can’t go, if he can’t fight, if he can’t win, why did he return? 

“This could all end for me,” Punk thinks to himself. He hasn’t wrestled for seven years. He’s nervous. He’s scared. Does he still have what it takes? Did he ever? 

The thoughts motivate him. The doubts inspire him. At the gym, he runs faster, he jumps higher, he kicks harder. Doubts? He’s always had them. But he’s never listened to them, never been seduced by them. He’s never let them win. To doubt himself now would be to sign his death warrant; to hand the victory to his two-faced foe. He closes his eyes, turns up the music, and pushes himself deeper, further, harder. 

“The time has come,” he thinks to himself. Or is it somebody…is it something…else? “You know it in your soul. For I am your soul. You cannot escape me. You are puny. You are small. You are nothing – a hollow shell, a rusty trap that cannot hold me. Smoldering, I burn you. Burning you! I flare, hot and bright, and fierce, and beautiful. You cannot stop me. Not with wine or vows or the weight of age. You cannot stop me but still you try – still you run. You try to drown me out. But your voice is weak.”

For years, he was the voice of the voiceless. Is he still? Do they even need him to be their voice anymore, or have they found their own? Who, exactly, is he fighting for? 

The answer is now what it’s always been: He’s fighting for himself. 

And that fight takes place on September 5, 2021. It isn’t a long match; it doesn’t need to be. Darby Allin gives CM Punk everything he has. He fights like his life depends on it, and maybe it does. Just a little bit. 

Punk’s life depends on it, too. This return would all be for naught if Punk can’t beat Darby Allin. The bumps hurt but then, they always did, didn’t they? 

“This should be agony,” he thinks to himself. “I should be a mass of aching muscle – broken, spent, unable to move. And were I an older man, I surely would. But I’m a man of thirty – of twenty again. The rain on my chest is a baptism. I’m born again.” 

Salvation comes when the referee counts to three. He does it. He defeats Darby Allin. He silences that voice, if only just for a little while. 

The bell rings and he breathes a sigh of relief. He gets to his feet and extends his hand to Darby, unsure of whether Allin will take it or not. Will this defeat break him? Will he let the dark half consume him, or can he still fight it off? Punk doesn’t know.

“The scars go deep, too deep,” Punk thinks. “I close my eyes and listen. Not fooled by sight, I see him…as he is.”

He looks at his battered and beaten opponent. Darby’s paint has worn thin; most of it has fallen off. On this night, anyway, the good overtakes the bad.

Punk reaches out his hand to his opponent and helps bring him to his feet.

“I see a reflection, Darby,” he says. “A reflection.”

Join us next week for Book Two of The Dark Knight Returns: The Story of CM Punk in AEW. After defeating Darby Allin, Punk gains a little confidence. But will he lose it just as quickly when he comes face to face with the man, the mutant, the mad king himself, Eddie Kingston? Tune in next week to find out. Same Bod-Time, same Bod-Channel.

Follow Nick at @WrestlePerks

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