The beautiful thing about professional wrestling, and sports in general, is its ability to bring people together. Watching CM Punk make his long-awaited return on the second episode of AEW Rampage on Friday was a stark reminder of just how rewarding that experience can be.
On March 19, 1995, Michael Jordan returned to the NBA wearing the No. 45 following his now-infamous two-word fax that simply read, "I'm back." Although the global icon only scored 19 points in the Chicago Bulls' overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers, it's still one of the most-watched games in the history of the sport, garnering an estimated 35 million viewers.
Some 26 years later, Punk duplicated the fax in a straightforward press release after his segment aired. Wrestling is more niche than basketball, and the superstar guard did more to expand the sport's audience than anyone to this day.
However, there are undeniable similarities between Punk's comeback following a foray into MMA and His Airness' return after an 18-month hiatus to play baseball. The biggest resemblance between the two is their sheer will to be the best and their mission to take Chicago, a city known for its loyal sports fans, to new heights.
Jordan also came to a land of giants and proved that a shooting guard could be the face of a franchise at a time when centers were the focal point of most teams. When you look at Punk's lean frame you wouldn't immediately assume he's a professional wrestler, but he was a part of the changing of the guard that opened the door for other smaller guys.
The Worst-Kept Secret of All Time
On Friday night, the energy in the United Center was palpable from the moment fans entered the arena. There was a hint of joy and tentative excitement in the air from the beginning as we all knew who was coming. During the media scrum afterward, Tony Khan called it "the worst kept secret of all time."
As Rampage began, the "CM Punk" chants grew louder and louder until his iconic theme song began and prompted one of the loudest sustained ovations of the last 10 years. When "Cult of Personality" rang out in the iconic stadium, it evoked memories of the first time Living Colour's hit played on the Jul. 26, 2011 episode of WWE Raw.
It stirred up all the feelings from the second Summer of Punk and reignited the energy emanating from every one of his audacious promos. Then the hometown hero stepped out onto the stage and put all the speculation to rest as he received a raucous welcome that will go down in history.
There was such an indisputable mix of emotions as fans shed tears of joy and disbelief made way for euphoria. It was surreal but The Voice of the Voiceless was indeed heading to a wrestling ring for the first time in seven years to make a new statement and encourage his passionate fanbase to believe again.
The man who climbed to the top of the mountain and endured every corporate mechanization one could imagine for his trouble finally made his way back to the place where it all began. In return, the Chicago crowd, his people, literally embraced him as he dove into the audience and doled out hugs to onlookers sitting ringside.
The house that Jordan built was the perfect setting for Punk's triumphant return. The Madhouse on Madison delivered the same copious helping of homerism that provided the backdrop for his infamous Money in the Bank 2011 win.
However, it was more than just a storyline. This wasn't a celebrated act of defiance; it was the triumphant end of a long journey that signaled redemption and growth.
A Second Chance and its Sweet Reward
Punk's AEW debut represented the culmination of a movement that The Second City Saint set in motion at the height of his popularity. This was a victory lap for an indie wrestling legend and bona fide megastar who was ready to write his final chapter at last.
It was poetic and satisfying because not everyone is lucky enough to get this opportunity. To put this in perspective, rapper DMX passed away in April while planning his comeback.
The First Dance was magical in a way that only pro wrestling can be when the fans connect with someone truly special. Under the banners that the greatest basketball player of all time and Punk's beloved Blackhawks raised, The Best in the World had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
When he entered the ring with a microphone in hand, he looked overwhelmed and surprisingly nervous. Punk was admittedly "winging it" as he prepared to address the audience for the first time. He was noticeably emotional but the crowd responded with the kind of unanimous love that most performers can only dream of.
The fans cheered in approval as he assured them he was here to stay. They jeered at the idea that he owed us an apology for leaving to recover after his stint with "the place that made him sick." Then, the self-proclaimed Paul Heyman guy masterfully promoted his new shirt and the upcoming pay-per-view, All Out, in a way that would have made his long-time friend and advocate proud.
After his segment, fans swarmed the lobby in hopes of purchasing the exclusive shirt. The lines for the merchandise stalls wrapped around the building within minutes.
Punk amusingly received an even louder reaction when he crossed his legs and sat down in the middle of the ring as he did when he cut the famous pipebomb promo 10 years ago. Then he rather brilliantly talked about his reluctance to leave Ring of Honor and confused everyone hoping for a more direct shot at WWE.
Instead, the former WWE champion flipped his ex-employer's terminology, sports entertainment, on its head. In the process, he heralded his return to pro wrestling for the first time since Aug. 13, 2005, the day he left ROH. It was a fitting introduction to the AEW crowd because the company is the spiritual successor to that era and presentation.
Punk didn't need to feed into contempt for the process behind sports entertainment anymore because he was here to profess his love for what he felt he lost. On Aug. 20, 2021, he came back to reclaim it and the industry is better for it. For the second time, the man who helped to put the city on the map returned from hiatus, and the United Center rejoiced.
As a parting gift, the newest addition to the AEW roster gave the fans in attendance the ice cream bars he had demanded during his feud with John Cena.