Wrestling fans have waited more than seven years to see the return of CM Punk to a wrestling ring. That wait is over as of Sunday night’s AEW All Out pay-per-view, with Punk set to face rising young star Darby Allin in one of the biggest matches in AEW history.
Seven years is a long time. Young men and women who are now old enough to legally drink were obsessing over the impending releases of the final movies in The Hunger Games tetralogy when Punk’s career was wrapping up in 2014. Instead of “the milk crate challenge,” the internet was still in the clutches of “the ice bucket challenge” as wrestling fans spent that summer wondering if one of the top stars had truly walked away for good.
Every year that followed carried its own rumors of a Punk return, rooted more in fan hopes than any tangible proof a return was actually forthcoming.
Then came AEW and the first true national competitor to the WWE product that had robbed Punk of the joy he’d found in wrestling. Suddenly, the prospect of Punk wrestling again seemed realistic. It took two years after AEW’s formation, but Punk finally showed up on the Aug. 20 episode of AEW Rampage in Chicago, officially announcing his return to wrestling in front of a hometown crowd.
The return, the reaction and the pitch-perfect promo that followed all served as immediate reminders that Punk remains as good as anyone in history at creating iconic professional wrestling moments.
As we prepare to embark on the next era of Punk’s career, let’s take a look back at the opponents and moments that have defined his already-legendary career.
The breakout rivalry with Chris Hero
While Punk’s early career was largely defined by his time either facing or teaming with Colt Cabana, his now-former best friend and fellow trainee of Steel Domain, the rivalry that broke Punk out as a must-see attraction was his series of matches with Chris Hero. Hero and Punk built a spectacular rivalry in Indiana-based IWA Mid-South that saw them face off in matches that became big hits for VHS tape traders and collectors, including a nearly one-hour tables, ladders and chairs match and a 93-minute ironman match.
The rivalry between Punk and Hero would make both important names in an independent wrestling boom period and put Punk in a position to be featured across the county against a long list of other future WWE stars.
A bloody Ring of Honor feud with Raven
Ring of Honor launched in 2002 as a prestige independent wrestling promotion, furthering the independent boom as the promotion pushed to gather the best unsigned wrestlers in the world for shows featuring top-to-bottom action. In 2003, Punk became a heel for the promotion and entered into a long feud with Raven. The Raven feud was a focal point of ROH programming and allowed Punk to bring more exposure to his straight-edge heel character, building on Punk’s actual lifestyle as someone who does not drink alcohol or do drugs against Raven, who had struggled with drug and alcohol abuse in his past.
Punk and Raven would wrestle in a series of bloody matches, including a dog collar match and multiple matches inside a steel cage. On a bigger stage than he’d been on to date, Punk proved he could not only put on compelling wrestling matches, but had the skills to carry a storyline as a character.
America’s first five-star match in seven years
Punk would continue to serve as one of ROH’s top stars for years, eventually entering into a feud with then-champ Samoa Joe. The duo took part in a three-match series, with the first two matches ending in 60-minute draws before Joe picked up a win in the third match. The rivalry is even more notable for producing the first American match to receive five stars in seven years from veteran wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. That distinction was given to the second of the three-match series.
The Summer of Punk
Punk would sign a developmental deal with WWE in 2005 and was set to seemingly close out his ROH career in a match with ROH champion Austin Aries at Death Before Dishonor III. Rather than the expected result, with Punk losing and moving along to his WWE career, Punk won the championship and began trolling the ROH locker room and fans, vowing to take the title with him to WWE when he left and even signing his WWE contract on top of the ROH championship. The Summer of Punk, as it became known, was a wild ride to end Punk’s ROH career, blending the reality of his departure with unexpected twists and turns that would later be somewhat revisited around the time of Punk’s infamous “Pipe Bomb” in WWE.
First Money in the Bank win and WWE championship
After languishing in WWE’s failed attempt to revive the ECW brand — which included a stint with Punk as ECW champion — Punk finally broke through to the top-tier of WWE when he won the Money in the Bank match at WrestleMania 24. Punk would go on to cash in the championship contract on Raw, waiting until Edge had been laid out by Batista before running to the ring and hitting his Go to Sleep finisher to win his first major WWE championship. The title reign would turn out to be mostly forgettable, lasting just 69 days before being forced to forfeit the championship after an attack by Randy Orton.
World heavyweight championship rivalry with Jeff Hardy
At WrestleMania 25, Punk won Money in the Bank for a second time. Again, he would go on to successfully cash in the contract, this time defeating Jeff Hardy to win the world heavyweight championship. This would lead to a new period of Punk as a heel, calling back to his ECW rivalry with Raven as he again pushed his straight-edge lifestyle while feuding with a man who had a long history of substance-abuse issues. This title reign would do far more than the previous to establish Punk as a main event player and the feud with Hardy would produce a pair of title changes and some memorable matches, none better than their SummerSlam 2009 TLC main event, which Punk won to regain the championship.
“The Pipe Bomb” and John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011
In 2011, Punk was growing increasingly frustrated with his time in WWE, and much like during the Summer of Punk, he blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Ahead of a match with John Cena at Money in the Bank, Punk delivered what would be known as “The Pipe Bomb.” During this promo, Punk vented about WWE fans, wrestlers and management while vowing to win the WWE championship at the upcoming pay-per-view before leaving the company. The promo injected new life into WWE, drawing attention from lapsed fans and bringing a new feeling of unpredictability to WWE programming.
That Punk and Cena would go on to wrestle arguably the best match of both men’s careers at Money in the Bank made things even better. Punk would win the championship, again defying expectations as his contract was ending. He would, of course, sign a new deal and continue to be featured as a main eventer.
434 days as champion
Punk won the championship again in October 2011, beating Alberto Del Rio at Survivor Series. That victory kicked off what would become the longest title reign in modern WWE history at 434 days. That record would eventually be broken by Brock Lesnar in 2018, but it was a stunning accomplishment at a time when lengthy title reigns were not the norm. Punk defended his title against an impressive list of opponents while also joining with new “advocate” Paul Heyman until his title reign ended at the hands of The Rock at Royal Rumble 2013.
A shot at The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak
Narrowing Punk’s career to 10 notable matches, moments or accomplishments means skipping over a lot of huge things. Punk’s run as the leader of the Straight Edge Society or rivalry with Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar could easily make such a list. Still, a shot at The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak was a huge deal for Punk, especially considering one of Punk’s greatest complaints about his time with WWE is he never was given the opportunity to main event the biggest show on the wrestling calendar.
Punk and Undertaker delivered a classic at WrestleMania 29, putting on far and away the best match on the card. Punk didn’t get the honor of breaking Undertaker’s legendary undefeated streak at WrestleMania — that would go to Lesnar the following year — but cemented his place in WrestleMania history even without ever serving as the main event.