The allure of a CM Punk return to wrestling continues to loom over both All Elite Wrestling and WWE.
While both companies have done just fine for themselves lately in their own respective ways, and while Punk's potential return to wrestling comes down to when he wants to do it, the fact that a modern-day legend remains on the free-agent market has a way of generating conversation.
Make no mistake: either promotion would welcome Punk with open arms if he picked up the phone and said he wanted a match. Yes, even WWE. Punk is a legend, regardless of the nature of his departure and the happenings after. He's a draw, and draws get deals from Vince McMahon. Period.
But more interesting is the AEW angle.
AEW is playing the role of the underdog in the industry. The TNT deal is nice, but WWE SmackDown is moving to Fox in October, and the promotion just shifted NXT into a position to compete with AEW's weekly programming.
In other words, it's an all-out war, and Punk is one of those guys who could help shift the balance.
Indeed, Punk's arrival could have massive ramifications on how things play out. His return, provided it happens, is easily going to be the top moment of the decade. He's too big, and there is simply too much backstory there for it not to be. If he chooses AEW, that instantly grabs the up-and-coming company a slice of the pie they wouldn't necessarily have otherwise: casual fans.
Punk has something WWE covets greatly, if not goes out of its way to keep with guys like Brock Lesnar. Besides a commandeering personality and character, Punk is a draw thanks to his indy, WWE and UFC days, as well as his greater work outside of wrestling itself.
That's a big boon AEW couldn't otherwise achieve. Say Punk shows up at the All Out pay-per-view at Sears Centre Arena in his hometown of Chicago on Saturday, signifying he would be there on a weekly basis for AEW's cable programming. That reach he has, in turn, boosts the company's ratings in a way it simply wouldn't have had before, even with a cable juggernaut advertising its program.
This is all assuming Punk would even choose AEW over WWE. The former just seems like the choice because where there is smoke, there is fire. One of Punk's grievances with his former employer was work rate and treatment of employees, something AEW has over WWE in a big way. Money is a moot point, as both places can cough up the dough thanks to their backers. AEW gets a little nod too because Punk and Cody Rhodes, among others, have come up in headlines together lately.
But those ruling out WWE completely haven't been paying attention. This is Punk himself from an interview with ESPN's Marc Raimondi in July:
"...[B]ut I'm not that dude that sat down on a stage in Vegas eight years ago. I'm not the dude that left WWE. I'm not that guy. That was five-years-ago Phil. I'm a different dude now. People still have that connotation, like, "Oh, he hates WWE." And it's just like, no, I've let all that go, and I've let all that go so long ago. But there are people that hold on to that. They still think or want me to be who I was. I'm not who I was yesterday. This is my journey, this is my odyssey."
Yes, there has been some gnarly history between Punk and WWE since he left. But people change, and the cliche that says time heals all applies here too.
And thinking about Punk specifically, he's been pursuing non-wrestling goals like authoring comic books, and what else he has planned is hard to say.
If we're talking which promotion gives him a better avenue toward Hollywood or whatever else he might want to pursue after wrestling, WWE is the easy winner. His agency reportedly reached out to Fox about Punk being a co-host on a WWE-focused show for FS1 recently too, according to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t Wrestling Inc's Marc Middleton).
With WWE, "never say never" applies perhaps more so than anywhere else. Still, the positives of AEW are hard to ignore, especially in terms of the light schedule and the history-making sense.
Even then, should Punk pick AEW, "contend" is an interesting term. WWE is a global juggernaut with its own Netflix-style streaming service, the best roster in the world and a lucrative Fox programming integration on the way, to name a few things.
As such, "contend" should be viewed in this sense as survival, a way for AEW to capture some of the collective wrestling mindshare. The longer AEW persists and the better it can do, the more it lures outsiders to the product and the more it grabs a chunk of WWE's five-plus hours of weekly programming, the better.
Everybody wins if CM Punk returns no matter where he chooses to perform, as is the nature of the wrestling business. If it's AEW, the promotion merely has a much better chance of withstanding WWE's counterpunches.