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Stars Shine As WWE and AEW Ramp Up Competition

Return of CM Punk, Brock Lesnar and Becky Lynch leads to banner week for wrestling fans.

I'll raise you one. I'll see that and raise you two.

At an investor call a few weeks ago, WWE CEO Vince McMahon was asked about the competition between his promotion and two-year-old newcomer All Elite Wrestling, and if, like in the late '90s, this will be the tide that lifts all boats. He blew off that notion and pretty much tried to blow off AEW as competition.

But the competition between the two major pro wrestling brands has never been more serious, nor has any competition in wrestling dating back 22 years.

On Friday night, AEW brought CM Punk, one of pro wrestling's biggest stars from 2010-2014, out of a seven-year retirement. In doing so, it set a company-record crowd of 15,316, selling out the United Center in Chicago four minutes after tickets went on sale to the general public. It also set its single-event merchandise sales record of more than $200,000. Preliminary numbers from the top ten TV markets indicated ratings were up 57 percent from the debut of Rampage a week prior.

Punk's appearance in his home city drew one of the most amazing audience reactions to a pro wrestler in U.S. history. The reaction was compared to Montreal's reaction to Hulk Hogan in 2002 shortly after his WWE return, or the reaction to Triple H in Madison Square Garden a few months before that upon his return from a torn quad.

Though Punk (real name Phil Brooks) was not advertised to appear, the secret was not well-kept. Buzz started building when AEW rushed to book a major arena just a few weeks ahead of time in Punk's home city and called the show The First Dance. Everything about the promotion was done intentionally, mirroring the way the Chicago Bulls brought Michael Jordan back from retirement, and as the crowd was going crazy for Punk, announcer Jim Ross even used the term "Jordanesque" to describe it.

Punk's first AEW match, set for the All Out event on Sept. 5 at the NOW Center in suburban Chicago against Darby Allin, has led to a huge increase in interest level for the company. The show sold out instantly, even before fans knew Punk would be there. Once Punk's appearance was confirmed, the secondary market for the show exploded. As of Saturday afternoon, there were only four tickets on the secondary market priced at less than $367, making it the highest price to get into a pro wrestling event through the secondary market in history.

The night after Punk's debut at the United Center, WWE drew more than 45,000 fans to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas for SummerSlam, the promotion's biggest event of the summer.

That show saw the return of both Becky Lynch, the most popular woman wrestler in company history, and Brock Lesnar, one of pro wrestling's biggest stars of the past two decades. As with Punk, both showed up unannounced.

Lynch, who left in April 2020 due to pregnancy, had been training for a return which was slated for the fall. It appeared her wrestling was rushed due to Sasha Banks, the scheduled opponent for Smackdown women's champion Bianca Belair, having a medical issue the company tried to keep under cover.

Banks and Belair had missed scheduled matches the previous weekend with the rumors flying that Banks had an issue that would keep her out of SummerSlam. However, WWE continued to advertise the match on both Raw on Monday and Smackdown on Friday.

They made no mention as the show started that the match was not happening. They even played the video package just prior to the supposed championship match. Then it was announced that Banks was not there, causing the audience to boo heavily.

WWE sent out Carmella, another woman on the Smackdown roster, to face Belair for the championship, a far lesser match than Banks vs. Belair, which was a rematch of the main event of the first day of WrestleMania.

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Then Lynch's music played. Lynch came out and won the championship from Belair in 26 seconds. Her winning was almost a given; Lynch coming up short in her return would have been a huge promotional misfire. Still, seeing Lynch as a surprise quelled the crowd with the idea they had seen both a special moment and a surprise championship change.

After Roman Reigns defeated John Cena to retain the Universal title in the main event, Lesnar's music played and he got into the ring to confront Reigns. Reigns backed off. Lesnar was a heel much of his 2011-2020 run, managed by Paul Heyman in one of the classic wrestler/talker pairings in modern pro wrestling. Lesnar, 44, left WWE when his contract expired after the 2020 WrestleMania.

Even before this weekend, Lesnar vs. Reigns had been talked about heavily as a future WrestleMania headliner, though it is unclear when this inevitable match will take place. WWE has major shows scheduled: October's Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia, November's Survivor Series in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center and next year's WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.

Jump-starting the match was likely WWE's counter to AEW's Punk debut the night before, even if McMahon claims AEW is not competition for WWE.

AEW is expected to debut a number of major former WWE names, including Bryan Danielson (formerly known as Daniel Bryan). Danielson was at one time the most popular wrestler in WWE, and he is also almost universally considered one of the best in-ring performers of the modern generation.

The result of the "non-competition" between WWE and AEW is the most interesting period for pro wrestling in more than two decades. AEW's crowd Friday was the second biggest non-WWE crowd for a U.S. show since 1999. Its Sept. 22 show at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York will be the biggest since 1999, the year that marked the end of the true competition between WWF and WCW that built to the highest point of U.S. pro wrestling popularity since the 1950s.

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A sign of this new era in wrestling came during the week of Aug. 2, as WWE's Monday Raw show was No. 2 in the weekly TV ratings and AEW's Dynamite show on Wednesday was No. 4. It was the first week where two different pro wrestling shows had been in the top four since 1999. The feat is even more impressive considering it occurred during the Olympics.

Raw has often doubled AEW in the 18-49 demo, but for that week, the gap was closed to .51 for Raw with 657,000 in the key demo, to .46 and 593,000 for AEW Dynamite.

While AEW's numbers were down the past two weeks, Punk's return should be a major boost, just WWE showed increases in recent weeks with the returns of Cena and Bill Goldberg.

However, older talent, including Goldberg, 54, Cena, 44, Lesnar and even Punk, 42, provides a short-term fix that only works in conjunction with creating new stars. While WWE has a huge advantage in incumbency, the winner of the competition will likely be the company that is most successful at creating new and younger stars.

As we've seen this weekend, though, the winners are the fans, who are getting big surprises thrown at them as both sides battle for audience shares.

More Wrestling Coverage:

Becky Lynch and Brock Lesnar Return While Roman Reigns Shines at WWE’s SummerSlam
Former WWE Superstar CM Punk Debuts With AEW
Roman Reigns Still Aims to Be a Source of Inspiration, Even After Turning Heel
Bobby Lashley on ‘SummerSlam’ Match vs. Goldberg: ‘I Welcome This Challenge’

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