CM Punk saw this coming.
During his epic promo leading up to 2011 Money in the Bank, the former WWE Superstar talked about being "a spoke on the wheel." The company would continue to prosper in his absence.
And so it shall.
Ever since he left the company after the 2014 Royal Rumble, speculation has been rife about when CM Punk would make his return. Surely this was all a ruse, playing into a larger storyline.
Or was his walkout actually real? Nobody really knew.
Then WWE put Punk in the Alumni section on WWE.com, followed by Punk's tweet that seemed to signal he was done with the company (Warning: Tweet is NSFW and contains explicit language.).
Nope, thank YOU.Thanks for all the help and support through the years. Health and happiness above all.Don't ever take any shit from anybody.— Coach (@CMPunk) July 15, 2014
CM Punk has always been somebody who loved to toy with the crowd's emotions, especially with his "Summer of Punk" storylines in both Ring of Honor and WWE. That's what has made this situation so hard to read. How many times do you buy into this guy's story before you start getting skeptical?
However, for all intents and purposes, it would appear that both he and the company are moving on.
With Punk now completely out of the picture, the spotlight can continue to shine on WWE's younger talent, and the company is not lacking for emerging stars. Following the completion of the WWE Performance Center and elevation of NXT, the company is grooming more wrestlers for success than it ever has.
It would take too long to list all of the Superstars who have debuted in the past two or three years and look like they're WWE World Heavyweight Championship material. Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze and Adrian Neville are all still in NXT and waiting to get called up to the Big Show.
WWE can have confidence in giving the ball to Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Bray Wyatt and letting them run with it. Others, like Cesaro, Rusev, Big E and Dolph Ziggler, just need the right angle to be elevated to a main event level.
And if you think that second part seems crazy, take a look at the career arcs of Mark Henry and Jack Swagger.
Before 2011, Henry had hardly been anything more than a big, strong heel to take on face challengers. He had gotten some world title shots, but no one took him too seriously as a viable threat.
Then he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 2011, opened the "Hall of Pain" for business and became maybe the most compelling wrestler in the company. His fake retirement and World's Strongest Slam on John Cena on the June 13, 2013 episode of Raw were amazing.
Henry was in his 40s and doing the best stuff of his career. Ten years ago, that would have seemed crazy.
And then there's Swagger, who was given the World Heavyweight Championship before he was ready and then cast aside into midcard purgatory when his title reign failed. His WrestleMania 29 title match with Alberto Del Rio looked to be the last chance he'd have to become a major star again, but that angle went nowhere.
On the June 30 episode of Raw, Swagger was thrown into a feud with Rusev, and all of a sudden an entire arena was chanting "Let's go Swagger!"
It's 2014, and fans were cheering for Swagger in a non-ironic way. Go figure.
Uproxx's Brandon Stroud covered the topic in his Best and Worst of Raw column the night after the show (Warning: Quote is NSFW and contains explicit language.):
They glossed over the reality of Zeb being a terrible, terrible representation of decent American folks with a FREEDOM OF SPEECH~ thing, suggesting that HE can say awful shit about America and be awful to Americans because he IS American. The Dixie Chicks thing. You can say Bush sucks here, but if you say Bush sucks in Europe you are blacklisted forever. It worked though, somehow, and by the time Swagger was doing Ricky Steamboat armdrags to Rusev and sending him packing, EVERYBODY was into it. I never thought I’d hear 'let’s go Swagger' chants, but here we are.
I love this, obviously, because I’ve been begging for a Real Americans face turn since Cesaro joined the crew. It’s very easy to turn Zeb from 'racist, politically extreme guy we hate' to 'racist, politically extreme guy we’re used to and kinda love because he’s so wrong about everything.' You just portray him as your ignorant uncle at a family get-together. Of course he’s a total asshole, but he’ll always be there for you, because deep down he loves you and wants you to be happy. Plus, Jack Swagger gets used for something besides jobbing and hurting people we like!
Swagger still isn't a top guy, but he now has more momentum than he's had for the past three years.
WWE can make fans react in a certain way. The second the company wants to elevate the younger talent to take Punk's spot, it won't hesitate, and sooner or later, the crowd will start viewing that guy as a legitimate contender.
This is what it always does when the old guard moves on.
Think back to 1998, when Shawn Michaels was forced to take an indefinite hiatus from the company because of a back injury. He was one of the biggest stars in wrestling at the time. Losing him could have been a crippling blow, yet WWE rose to unforeseen heights off the backs of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Had HBK been around in an in-ring capacity from 1998 to 2000 and maybe early 2001, would those two guys have risen the way that they did? Maybe Michaels would have main-evented WrestleMania XV in place of either Rock or Austin.
Perhaps Mick Foley wouldn't get the WWE Championship run that he so richly deserved.
You could make the same point regarding Bret Hart's move to WCW. In the space of a year, WWE lost its two biggest stars of the 1990s and still headed into the new millennium stronger than ever, partially because those two guys were gone.
CM Punk is a great in-ring worker and one of the best in the business on the microphone.
But why spend any more time discussing his potential return and how he should main-event WrestleMania 31? By doing that, you're missing on the next generation of stars coming up through the pipeline.