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AEW Is Proving to Be the Perfect Home for CM Punk

After more than seven years on the sidelines, the upstart company full of emerging young talent has been a great place to make his return.

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

CM Punk on AEW: “This is really about the soul, the spirit and the art of professional wrestling”

Long before CM Punk became an international commodity, he proudly cut his teeth as an indie wrestler.

Punk rose to new heights in 2002 with the Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South, where he had the opportunity to wrestle the legendary Eddie Guerrero.

Guerrero belonged on the grandest stage possible, but he no longer had that opportunity. Only months after being sent to rehab, he was unceremoniously fired from WWE after a November 2001 arrest for drunk driving. Before his return to WWE the following year, Guerrero cleaned up—and formed a relationship with Punk. Their trust went to an entirely different level after Guerrero defeated Punk to win the IWA Mid-South heavyweight title in a triple-threat match that also included Rey Mysterio in January of 2002. It sounds far more like fiction than fact, but the match took place at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Indianapolis.

Punk regained the belt a month later in a match at Community High School in Morris, Ill., and they wrestled a classic at the Monroeville Sports Center in Monroeville, Pa., that April. That was a booking Guerrero fulfilled despite having already returned to WWE and becoming the Intercontinental champion, further heightening the moment.

Punk vividly recalls the feeling of sharing the ring with Guerrero, and he addressed the significance of his current colleagues feeling similarly about working with him in AEW.

“I’m not saying I’m Eddie Guerrero,” Punk says. “I’ll never say that, and I’ll never compare myself to him. But that spirit of wanting to give back and challenge wrestlers, that’s what he did and that’s what I want to do.”

Punk came to the aid of current indie standout Anthony Greene last week on Rampage, preventing Bobby Fish from continuing his assault on him. That now leads to Punk making his in-ring Dynamite debut this week in a match against Fish, a moment that AEW owner Tony Khan had planned out specifically for this evening.

“I had this date—Wednesday, Oct. 27—circled a long time ago,” Khan says. “This is our first Wednesday back from the time shifting. I intentionally booked all his television dates on Rampage, knowing that I wanted to give our fans something really special on Dynamite, and that is the Dynamite debut of CM Punk.

“Bobby Fish is a very important free-agent signing for us, and he’s a great wrestler. When he worked for the competition, he’s someone I had a ton of respect for. He was also amazing with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The Young Bucks mentioned he’s one of their favorite people to work with, and he’s such a great matchup for Punk, who is so focused on his wrestling. His matches have focused on grappling, selling, and psychology, and I’m really excited for people to see this match on a very important night for us.”

So far, all of Punk’s opponents were chosen knowing that the emphasis would be on the wrestling. The psychology and methodology Punk brings to his matches is a breath of fresh air, and he has made this run all about giving back.

“It’s apples and oranges, but in terms of a big free agent helping change the dynamic of a company, WCW was a great company that had huge stars with Ric Flair and Sting,” Khan says. “When Hulk Hogan came in, right away he worked with Ric Flair and Vader. It would have been interesting had he worked with ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin, ‘Flyin’ Brian Pillman and Dustin Rhodes, and some veterans, too, like Paul Orndorff, revisiting their history before working with the top stars.

“I don’t want to reimagine history, because obviously WCW rose to great heights, but for AEW, I thought it would be great to see CM Punk against a wide variety of opponents. It’s all about wrestling and the fans, and that’s a perfect marriage for AEW. I’m expecting another great match tonight.”

Punk has found an oasis to give back in AEW.

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“This is really about the soul, the spirit, and the art of professional wrestling,” Punk says. “It reminds me of how I started. It’s why guys like me and Bryan Danielson would drive 15 hours to get to a show, and barely get gas money in return, to wrestle in front of 300 rabid fans in Philadelphia. That’s what this is, with TNT behind it.

“We’re the punk rock band that used to play at your bowling alley. It has that spirit and love of the art. It’s a place where you can make a living and learn the craft.”

A rejuvenated Punk is a sight to behold. Beginning with his All Out match against Darby Allin, he has looked more comfortable in the ring in every match, an impressive feat for someone who had not been involved in wrestling for seven-and-a-half-years.

“AEW got Bryan Danielson, a once-in-generation talent, to come here, and they got me to come back after all the time I was gone,” Punk says. “And then you have AEW doing the impossible, making a deal with Martha Hart to produce Owen Hart T-shirts, action figures and they’re even going to put him in video games. That speaks volumes to what AEW is and the potential of how much bigger it can get.”

Now that Punk is back scintillating crowds every week, he is eager to work with AEW’s collection of rising stars. And if one of them ever treats Punk in a manner similar to the way he once admired the legendary Guerrero, he knows exactly how he will respond.

“That’s a great responsibility,” Punk says. “If anyone looks at me that way, I will not abuse that. I’ll treat it as a sacred gift.”

The (online) week in wrestling

  • Kevin Owens was spectacular in the ladder match on Raw. Seth Rollins won, which makes him next in line for a title match against Big E. 
  • This bump from Io Shirai was otherworldly. 
  • Bryan Danielson and Dustin Rhodes put together a fantastic match on Dynamite, which now leads to Danielson wrestling a highly anticipated affair against Eddie Kingston. 
  • Brock Lesnar was written off WWE programming on SmackDown, but he is expected to return fairly early into 2021. 
  • After it appeared certain that Katsuyori Shibata would never wrestle again, his return is a true inspiration. 
  • There was no shortage of highlights this past weekend, including The Elite’s beat down of Jungle Boy.
  • Is there a sharper talker in wrestling than MJF?
  • AEW has taken pieces of what NXT used to do—like have different wrestlers in the crowd—and brought that concept to a whole new level of intrigue. 
  • Yes, that was Kazuchika Okada carrying around the old IWGP heavyweight title belt in New Japan.
  • Best wishes to Kylie Rae. 
  • If you haven’t already watched, this is a fun video. 
  • My favorite Minoru Suzuki match during this U.S. tour was with Bryan Danielson, though the one with Jonathan Gresham was also special. 
  • King Xavier? It just sounds right. 
  • Congratulations to Mandy Rose, the new NXT women’s champion, as well as new NXT tag champs Gigi Dolin and Jacy Jayne. 

Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair need to turn backstage altercation into box-office moment

Last Friday on SmackDown, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair closed the show in a segment together.

Since Lynch, the reigning SmackDown women’s champion, was drafted to Raw, and Flair, who was Raw women’s champion, is now part of SmackDown, the decision was made to have the two exchange belts.

Creatively, WWE should hold itself to a higher standard than merely swapping the belts. That sends the wrong message, which is that these titles—which are supposed to mean everything—are merely interchangeable.

During the segment, as Flair was relinquishing her title, Lynch started to reach for it. Tauntingly, Flair tossed the belt onto the mat. Sonya Deville, who oversaw the exchange, made Flair pick up the belt and hand it to her. Lynch, who had famously called herself “Becky Two-Belts” after WrestleMania 35, never had a chance to hold both belts, as Deville handed Lynch her new Raw belt only after she had relinquished the SmackDown title, which she did by tossing it at Flair.

The segment created a significant buzz on social media, leading to reports from both PWInsider and Fightful that addressed animosity between Flair and Lynch, as well as their backstage altercation after SmackDown went off the air.

Flair and Lynch are two massive stars, and the timing would seem to be fortuitous for WWE. If Survivor Series is built around champion vs. champion matches, that would lead to Lynch against Flair at Madison Square Garden.

A lack of communication explains why the segment fell apart, and it is somewhat reminiscent of the real-life feud between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. They were both major superstars for WWE in the 1990s, each claiming the company as their own midway through the decade. Hart and Michaels both wanted to be recognized as the best worker of their generation, to such a degree that they could have been fighting each other backstage in the Gorilla position as their entrance music was playing, and yet still would have been totally professional with one another the moment they stepped into the ring. That is the same blueprint that should be used for Lynch and Flair, who are both utmost professionals, in order to turn this moment from a backstage altercation to box office moment.

Lynch and Flair having legitimate animosity may create some noise, but for it to be a box office success, this program needs to focus on their personalities. That could lead to some incredible moments. On Raw, why not have Flair boast about the exchange? She cuts an excellent promo, and she could have said that WWE can fire her, but they would have to do so pulling her off Lynch. On SmackDown, Lynch could talk about how she knows how to survive in WWE and that Flair could never match her skills in the ring.

There is no doubt their program would draw significant interest across the industry. And while it is unlikely to main-event at Survivor Series (Big E needs to be in that spot in his first pay-per-view singles match as WWE champion) it could still be the hottest match on the show. Flair and Lynch could open the Survivor Series in the most compelling fashion imaginable with the crowd at its hottest during the first match.

And it wouldn’t be hard to explain why it was going on first. Have Lynch cut a promo on the kickoff show letting the world know that she would not leave until she gets a chance to fight Flair. Pyro could open the show with Lynch standing in the ring, all awaiting Flair’s arrival.

Even though Lynch and Flair are currently on separate brands and in the midst of their own programs, another meeting between the two stars is inevitable. If done right, it has the potential to be better than any other program in wrestling.

Tweet of the Week

This would be such a phenomenal chance for Buddy Matthews–formerly WWE’s Buddy Murphy–to shine.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.