No wrestler in the modern era has had such a partisan home fanbase as Punk in Chicago. Jericho guarantees enough of a mixed reaction to make the contest feel competitive, while being the consummate professional who can hide any ring rust that Punk may be suffering from. It appears to be a scenario that can only be a win for the WWE.
Sadly, these positive factors will be negated for some, and many fans will be left feeling disappointed.
This will not be the fault of either performer or of the WWE’s buildup to the event. The disillusionment will be caused by the ever-widening shadow left by the night of July 17, 2011, and the wonderment that CM Punk created when he seemingly walked away from the company as its champion.
To be honest, it is impossible not to connect Punk with that iconic event.
Fans were sent into both rapture and confusion when so many of the topics that had been discussed on the internet suddenly leaked out onto their televisions in the run-up to the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. For the most part, the audience did not know it was staged, and it was generally assumed that Cena would retain.
Punk not only winning but escaping with the belt through his hometown fans was just mind-blowing.
That night was nearly two years ago, and Payback looks perfectly positioned to capture the excitement that memory still holds. Punk has not been seen since the Raw eight days after WrestleMania. Any crowd would explode at the return of the Straight Edged Superstar, but this being his particularly partisan home crowd should make it extra special.
Yet it will still not live up to the expectation that is weighted on this moment.
There are numerous reasons why. For one, the memory of a great event tends to become greater—and more important—in the minds of fans as time wears on. Any comparison will dim in the face of the folk lore that night in 2011 now has around it.
Punk is also a very different character now and is facing a far more respected opponent in Chris Jericho. It is doubtful that even the most partisan fan will get anywhere near as aggressively hostile towards Jericho as they did towards John Cena. Punk also spent much of the year before he left putting down the audience that supported him so ferociously that night.
The mobilization of internet fans will not be as high this time around either. The naturally supportive Chicago crowd was bolstered two years ago by internet fans from across the world, who wanted to support the person who had been their mouthpiece on air.
Such movements of fans are rare outside WrestleMania season, and Payback is highly unlikely to be one of those occasions.
No one is really at fault for this being overhyped. Fans yearn for another moment in time like the end of Money in the Bank 2011 because it made them feel part of something that was groundbreaking. The WWE wants to give that to its audience. Unfortunately, that night was the result of several special circumstances coming together that cannot be recreated however much as everyone would like it to be.
Situations that mirror great events are always going to be cursed by comparison, no matter how much fans may wish to go in with a open mind.
It may be that in accepting the fact that Punk’s return at Payback is not going to rival Money in the Bank 2011, it actually delivers another truly special moment. This will only happen if everyone embraces it as a moment all of itself and lets go of the memory of two years ago.