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  • Writer's pictureAlex George Pickering

CM Punk: The Catcher in the Ring

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

A deep dive into the most enigmatic figure in the world of wrestling and MMA.

He’s been called many things: an agitator, an iconoclast and the unapologetic “best in the world.” But whether you love him or hate him, Phillip Brooks, better known by his ring moniker CM Punk, is at his heart a rebel—and not the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll kind either. With a “straight edge” alcohol-and-recreational-drug-free lifestyle and an almost condescending dedication to his craft, he’s an antihero who has both stirred stadiums to near-deafening hysteria and left others cursing his name, one of the greatest draws of all time in the pro wrestling/MMA world and one of its equally biggest headaches. He’s the most fascinating figure in the business today, some might say. And for that reason alone, it’s not surprising to find many who consider themselves still—in spite of all the controversy swirling around him of late—a CM Punk fan. But the enduring intrigue in the man who once delivered the most famous “pipebomb promo” of all time runs even deeper than that. For fans and critics alike, Punk has ascended to almost folk hero level fandom, effortlessly carting his heavy political baggage and bucking the system at every turn. Indeed, he has become the industry’s resident lightning rod and his antics the talk of the tabloids. But as this longtime fan will argue, there’s a familiar if not universal method behind Punk’s madness that might just make sense, and which conjures up for me another enigmatic cultural icon: the late great author J. D. Salinger.

To better understand what I mean, let’s first take a look back. Phil Brooks entered the pro wrestling scene with a hearty appetite for success and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. No, he wasn’t boasting the 24-inch pythons of Hulk Hogan or the familial ties to the business of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but he had drive. Passion. Trained in his hometown of Chicago by fellow wrestler Ace Steel, he quickly climbed the territorial ladder from the Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South to the higher stakes promotion, Ring of Honor. The name CM Punk was born out of a last minute tag team placement during his backyard wrestling days, the CM of which stood for “Chick Magnet” (a fact that would likely make the very progressive-minded Punk of 2022 both shrug and blush). In ROH, Punk made an immediate impression during his second 60-minute match with then World Champion Samoa Joe, which veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer awarded a rare five-star rating. It wouldn’t be long before Punk made his WWE debut, advancing from their Ohio Valley developmental territory to the rebooted ECW on Syfy. He eventually become the ECW Champion, and soon after, a multi-time World Champion, even setting a record with his 434 day reign. CM Punk, the internationally-known WWE superstar, had arrived.

But it wasn’t just his in-ring performance that drove thousands to stadiums. It was the man himself, “the cult of personality,” as his entrance music so aptly put it. CM Punk represented both an aspirational lifestyle and a brand in itself. Countercultural and defiant to a fault, he came to epitomize a certain underdog activism. He was the kind of guy that would show up to the WWE Comic-Con panel after a “worked” retirement and reply to Chief Operating Officer Triple H’s invitation to return to wrestling with, “Steph’s got my number”—a provocative reference to Triple H’s wife Stephanie McMahon. He was the man who mocked six-foot-ten “Big Daddy Cool” Kevin Nash for the click of his aging knees, who compared WWE tent-pole champion John Cena to the New York Yankees, the ultimate jab at the Boston-bred Cena. True to his name, he was the ultimate punk, someone on the inside of the wrestling biz poking fun of its most glaring flaws and faux pas, and the fans loved him for it. His off-script shoots, opening with his signature folded-legs pose center ring or just below the entrance titantron, blurred the line between reality and fiction, real world grievances and wrestling storylines. From the graver questions that had always vexed audiences to the tongue-in-cheek, he asked it all. Why weren’t there more relatively smaller-sized guys in the WWE? Why were some performers given a push to stardom, while others were left in the dust? And for Pete’s sake, what had become of the forsaken CM Punk ice-cream bars? Vowing to “make the WWE fun again,” Punk was the mouthpiece for the little guy, the voice of the voiceless.

Eventually, that thin line between fictionalized outrage and real world drama would come to a head. One the January 27th, 2014 telecast of WWE Monday Night Raw, CM Punk no-showed in spite of being heavily advertised for the evening. It was reported by The Wrestling Observer that Punk told then Chairman and CEO of WWE Vince McMahon and Triple H that he was “going home,” sending shockwaves throughout the wrestling world. The bewilderment and intrigue surrounding his exit was further compounded by the fact Punk seemed to fall off the map completely, making limited media appearances and rarely commenting on his wrestling status for months to come. In fact, one of the few times Phil Brooks did seem to tip his hand towards anything CM Punk related was when I personally designed a satirical meme of his head Photoshopped on Matthew McConaughey’s character from the first season of True Detective. Knowing Punk was a fan of the show, I tweeted the image from the Twitter handle of our recently released web series Balcony, and it just so happens that Punk retweeted it. A few wrestling news outlets even commented on the retweet as one of his few non-Chicago-Blackhawks-related tweets of the time. Not to say my tweet changed the course of anything, but it’s nice to play at least a tiny part in history, right?

CM Punk 'True Detective' Meme posted by Balcony – Web Series July 5th, 2014

In November of 2014, Punk finally spilled his guts on his longtime friend Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast, detailing a litany of allegations against his former employer, including unpaid royalties and termination papers that arrived on his wedding day of all days. Considerable attention was given also to WWE physician Dr. Chris Amann, who Punk blamed for an untreated lump on his back that doctors later confirmed could have been fatal. With his passion for wrestling equally drained, Punk entered into an eventual settlement with WWE and vowed never to wrestle again.

Punk’s departure from the ring would not last long, however. In fact, it would take another shape altogether: the octagon. Yes, Punk made the extraordinary leap from the staged combat of wrestling to actual mixed martial arts competition in UFC. And though he would go on to lose his only two matches, one against Mickey Gall and the other Mike Jackson (though the latter was later deemed a no contest), he earned himself the street credit of a Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey, a level of respect reserved only for those willing to take a real life punch. It was also during this time that CM Punk chants would often overtake WWE live events, especially in Chicago. The man himself might have left the company, but the legend lingered on in the hearts of diehard fans, and they have looong memories.

After a brief stint as co-host of Fox Sports 1’s WWE Backstage in 2019 and 2020, Punk finally did what he once swore never to do: return to wrestling. But not for WWE; rather, Punk joined other veterans and newbies of the industry at WWE’s newest and arguably steepest competition since the Monday Night Wars with WCW: All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the Jacksonsville, Florida based promotion owned and operated by Shahid and Tony Khan. To this day, his debut on the August 20th, 2021 episode of AEW Rampage: The First Dance after his seven year retirement remains one of the most watched episodes of wrestling content ever, the Youtube clip alone of which has garnered nearly 15 million views. Punk sprang from the ashes of his WWE burnout with a mile-wide smile as the footage cut to a grown man openly weeping in the stands. Not since the Hulkster received a ten-minute ovation in Montreal, Canada twenty years prior had a pro wrestler riled up an audience to such theatrics. And as Punk entered the ring, delivering a shoot for the ages—even casting a bit of shade on his former employer—his legacy as one of the GOATs of the industry was secured. Not to mention, the long-awaited CM Punk ice-cream bars were finally available for fans to enjoy. Famed commentator Jim Ross would even credit Punk’s return with renewing his “love affair” with wrestling.

But the euphoria wouldn’t last long. After a string of impressive matches, including defeating "Hangman" Adam Page for the AEW title at Double or Nothing in May 2022, Punk incurred an injury that would take him out of action for the summer and crown Jon Moxley interim champion. Punk finally returned in August, only to lose to Moxley in a spectacularly quick fashion—all of which is the kayfabe side of the story. Where the real drama began was in the aftermath of Punk’s rematch with Moxley at All Out 2022, in which he both reclaimed the AEW Championship but tore a muscle in his arm during the match (as reported by Dave Meltzer), but that wasn’t the worst of it. In an expletive-ridden media scrum following the event, Punk aired a number of alleged grievances, including blaming several AEW Executive Vice Presidents and fellows wrestlers (namely Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks and Adam Page) for perpetrating rumors that Punk had attempted to get his former friend Colt Cabana fired—yes, for those keeping score, the same Cabana that had invited Punk on his podcast years before to voice his objections to WWE. Punk and Cabana had evidently experienced a falling out over lawsuits related to that podcast appearance since then, but rather than bore you with every detail, let’s just say Punk had an axe to grind that night, and, hot damn, did he grind it!

If Punk’s diatribe wasn’t problematic enough for Tony Khan, a real life fight reportedly broke out backstage between Punk, aided by his friend Ace Steel, and Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. In the wake of this altercation, Punk was stripped of his title and indefinitely suspended from AEW. The man who arrived in AEW to such boisterous fanfare had suddenly been cast aside just as resoundingly.

Understandably, media pundits and fans alike expressed disappointment and disillusionment over Punk’s actions. After all, he had just been crowned AEW Champion for the second time, and instead of using that moment to tout about his miraculous comeback, he chose to tear down his colleagues instead, including several EVP’s. Many longtime defenders of Punk took to Twitter to blast his actions. Some even compared him to free agent wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had been released from a number of NFL teams after numerous high profile incidents. Following his suspension, Punk fell into a period of media silence again, his ultimate AEW fate left open to public speculation. History was repeating itself for the most polarizing person in the industry.

Former WCW Senior Vice President Eric Bischoff once wrote an autobiography titled Controversy Creates Cash, and though the book predates Punk’s rise to stardom, its central thesis comes to mind in this case. While Punk’s post-All Out behavior certainly offers grounds for criticism, it’s also the very substance of his being. That which compromises his career—speaking his mind in spite of the consequences, beating to his own incendiary drum—has been historically what also makes him hugely popular. One might ask the critics on Twitter gasping at the very notion of Punk maligning the EVP’s of his company, have you not watched this man before? Did you miss all the off-script needling of his former employer WWE, or else COO Triple H himself, even while under contract with them? Maybe there are some lines that a professional wrestler and reigning champion dare not cross, but this quite frankly is who CM Punk is: a rebel-rouser, a pot-stirrer. AEW must have known what they were in for when they signed him on, and to their credit, that includes a massive spike in ratings. But it also means volatility and unpredictability. Punk is the wildest of wild cards, a man with loud opinions and a strong aversion to conformity. In many ways, he is the J. D. Salinger of his industry.

Think about it, down to the very stylizing of his name, Punk is a Salinger analog (i.e. "C. M. Punk" and "J. D. Salinger"), but the similarities don’t end there. With his one and only novel The Catcher in the Rye, a few novellas and a catalog of short stories, author J. D. Salinger left more on the table writing-wise than he released. But what little content he did share with the world was almost unanimously praised in the literary world—one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, but with one of its thinnest resumes. Punk, likewise, went stretches of years without performing, and similar to Salinger, receded into reclusive stints of radio silence, all of which only grew the lore around him. Something about dabbling in greatness and then disappearing creates a certain mythos and builds a public figure up in society’s collective imaginations.

CM Punk photograph by Michael Avedon, November, 2021

Salinger was also an incredibly stubborn and combative player in his industry. No publisher, no editor, could ever be pure enough, could ever be acquiescent enough, to meet his standards. By the same token, no wrestling promotion could ever meet CM Punk’s expectations, could ever be completely immune to opposing egos and self-interest—and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe in expecting excellence, Punk challenges the wrestling and MMA world to be better, like quality control. Yes, akin to Salinger himself and his most notable character Holden Caulfield, Punk is trying to preserve something pure and uncorrupted in his industry. And whether you agree with his actions or not, like the Robert Burns poem that gave Salinger’s novel its name, his message is at the very least well-meaning.

Mystery, intrigue, controversy, greatness—all of it makes CM Punk what he is today, the Salinger-esque countercultural icon for a new generation, “The Catcher in the Ring.” And when the smoke finally clears, and apologies are accepted, I believe it would be in the interest of any major promotion (and especially AEW) to capitalize on Punk’s willingness to share whatever he has left in the ring. After all, when it comes to CM Punk, nothing is ever a guarantee.

UPDATE - June 2023: CM Punk made his AEW return on the Saturday June 17th, 2023 premiere of AEW's new weekly show Collision. Check out his in-ring return here.

Thanks for reading! Agree or have a different opinion? Offer your thoughts in the comments section below.

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