CM Punk made an entire career out of setting the wrestling industry on fire. From “King of the Indies” all the way up to his final day in WWE, Punk was always a focal point of discussion and debate. For a new generation of wrestling fan in the early 2000s, Punk was exactly what they wanted. Hard-hitting, tireless work ethic, edgy personality, and one helluva promo. The guy could go in the ring. His matches with Samoa Joe in Ring of Honor are the stuff of legend, two men taking each other to the brink of their physical limitations, telling stories with their bodies like the all-time greats both men were destined to become. Over the years, Punk always stayed Punk, for better or worse and his fans loved him for it. He never changed. That’s what made his abrupt retirement so difficult. He was loved in a way very few professional wrestlers ever are and for that reason, fans will always speculate about his return. While I too am a CM Punk fan for life, I’m of the opinion that it’s time to let him retire in peace and begin to appreciate his legacy.
CM Punk always had this modern Bret Hart vibe to him. Both men took their craft incredibly seriously, to the point of being mocked by others. It was real to them, all of it, especially the desire to defy the odds within the industry and be the best. Both men were considered too small to be WWE Champion and neither was Vince McMahon’s first choice. They were both technical wizards in a land of giants who appealed to fans who wanted more sport than entertainment. Both men had incredibly memorable exits from WWE, with Bret’s departure the most talked about in the history of the business. Punk’s has to be at least Top 5. Once out of WWE, Bret never fully came home again. He’s made appearances and showed up from time to time, but it was always on his terms. That my friends is what I consider a best-case scenario for CM Punk.
If there’s one thing we all know about CM Punk from his career, the man took a lot of pride in his work. He had goals and ambitions to achieve and he never stopped chasing those goals—until the day he left WWE. Even then, he left to pursue a new dream as an MMA fighter. Granted Punk’s MMA career never amounted to much but it wasn’t for lack of effort and passion. That’s exactly why he didn’t give up after his first MMA loss. His drive is like no other. When people bring up Punk wrestling again today, that drive and passion is always the first thing I think of. Does he have those kinds of feelings for wrestling again? I’m inclined to think not based on interviews and quotes from him. There’s a zero percent chance he’s showing up in AEW unless he’s got something to prove. As much as we see it as a way to further legitimize a company many of us want to succeed, Punk would likely have to want to go to war with WWE to take a deal with AEW and he simply doesn’t seem to have that mindset right now.
I do wonder if Punk has made peace with his goal of never headlining WrestleMania. Any fan of WWE’s product during his run there knows that he deserved top billing on the biggest show of the year there several times over, yet he never got his moment. He had plenty of other moments, matches and promos that will live on in fan’s minds forever but he never had the show-closing moment on the grandest stage of them all, and we all know how bad he wanted it. Is that something that could bring him back one day or has he put that behind him? It’s hard to say.
It’s in our nature as wrestling friends to always expect the swerve, the big return, or for the unthinkable to happen. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around someone leaving the business and just being gone, especially someone we loved as much as CM Punk. When you look back at Punk’s body of work, he really did it all, except for headlining WrestleMania. His WWE feuds with John Cena, The Undertaker, Daniel Bryan, Chris Jericho and so many more, not to mention his Ring of Honor work have left us with some of the greatest matches we’ve seen anywhere. It’s time to revisit them. It’s time to enjoy his body of work again, the same way we would any other retired wrestler. We can’t begin to truly appreciate him as an all-time great until we close the door on the idea of him coming back. There’s nothing wrong with missing him—that’s to be expected; but by sitting around waiting for him to be AEW’s next big surprise or for him and WWE to kiss and make up, we’re not acknowledging who he is. A man of great conviction who has always taken his own path—a man who wasn’t in it for the money or anything but a desire to be the best in the world. As the years add up since he left WWE, it’s time for us to accept the fact that Punk may no longer want to be the best wrestler in the world. He might have new dreams to chase.
I could be completely wrong. Punk may show up on TNT this October and help take the fight to Vince. He might go back home to WWE and have a WrestleMania moment on par with all of the other amazing things he’s done. I’m not betting on it though. Me, I’m going to open up my old Ring of Honor DVD’s and mark out over his 5-star classics with Joe. I’m going to revisit his Money in the Bank match with Cena. I’m going to embrace his work as some of the best I’ve seen in my lifetime and think of him the same way I do so many of my other favorites that have taken off their boots for the last time. CM Punk was the best in the world as he claimed for a long time. Now it’s time to move past our desire for closure and begin remembering him as one of the greatest of all time.