CM Punk stepped down from a dais inside the bowels of NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, last Sept. 4 with blood still on his face, a towel around his neck, and bags of muffins and sparkling water in either hand. The All Elite Wrestling (AEW) World Championship belt he had just regained in the All Out pay-per-view main event against Jon Moxley was tucked under his right arm, the strap slung over his shoulder.
Punk, one of the most popular and polarizing professional wrestlers of the past two decades, walked out of the news conference room in his native Chicagoland and, as far as AEW television is concerned, has hardly been seen since -- until now.
After nine months away, a devastating injury, backstage drama that reportedly turned physical and a deluge of rumors about his future, CM Punk will return to AEW on Saturday night for its new weekly show "Collision" (TNT, 8 p.m. ET) at United Center in Chicago.
Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, is no longer the AEW champion. Without saying why, AEW owner Tony Khan announced on the Sept. 7 episode of "AEW Dynamite" that the title had been vacated. Punk's name was not mentioned on AEW programming at all until very recently. No public statement was made about his whereabouts or his triceps injury for months. For those consuming only AEW's product and not any wrestling media, the entire situation was shrouded in mystery.
"I know pro wrestling is absolutely the most bizarre form of entertainment on Earth, but to me, I treat it like a business, and I treat it like the television show that it is," Punk told ESPN in his first interview since last September. "So, y'all haven't seen me since I won the belt. I'm coming back. Tune in to find out exactly what I have to say. I'm picking up right where I left off."
The absence was due to Punk tearing his left triceps tendon completely off the bone in the All Out match against Moxley, Punk said. The injury required surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process. It was tough mentally, he said, because the injury was sustained in just his second match back after recovering from breaking his foot in June 2022. Punk said he's back to 100% now, and photos and videos on his Instagram have shown an impressive physique.
"I think, in wrestling, we always kind of joke how we always get hurt doing the dumb stuff," Punk said. "Fall off a 15-foot ladder through a table and you're fine and you're running 6 miles the next day and you're in the gym. And then it's just always the dumb little things, like some routine thing that I've done a thousand times in my career, and it injures you. And then just the mental aspect of this recovery, it has not been easy. Luckily, I've got a really good support system, my wife [April Mendez, a three-time WWE divas champion under the moniker AJ Lee] and [dog] Larry, and I've got great friends and a super great rehab team that was able to get me back this quickly even though it doesn't feel -- it feels like it was 12 years ago."
Aside from the recovery and rehab, the main reason the past nine months have felt so long is the many questions surrounding Punk's future in AEW and reports from media outlets such as the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Fightful and PW Insider of backstage turmoil between Punk and AEW stars and executive vice presidents Kenny Omega and brothers Matt and Nick Jackson (the Young Bucks tag team). Omega, the Jacksons and "Hangman" Adam Page were among a group of wrestlers (that included Cody Rhodes, now of WWE) that helped launch AEW with Khan as the CEO in 2019. That group had been previously dubbed "The Elite," which led to the branding of All Elite Wrestling. Punk signed with AEW in 2021 after a seven-year absence from the industry.
In Punk's mind, the division started sometime in spring 2022. Previously, he said he felt as if he had a solid relationship with the group, including approaching Omega to ensure nothing Punk was doing in his matches would infringe on what spots Omega had planned and checking in on Page while he was sick with COVID-19.
On May 25, 2022, Punk and Page were booked for a promo segment in the ring on Dynamite. Page was the AEW champion then, and Punk would be his challenger at the next pay-per-view event, Double or Nothing, four days later. Punk said he and Page discussed backstage before the segment what they would say, much as Punk said he did for similar segments in the past with wrestlers such as MJF and Eddie Kingston. But when they got into the ring, according to Punk, Page strayed from what they had agreed on.
"You talk a big game about workers' rights," Page said on television. "Well, you've shown the exact opposite since you got here. I love this place, I care about this place. This is my home. And this Sunday at Double or Nothing, I will not be defending this championship against you. No, for the first time in my life, I'll be defending All Elite Wrestling from you."
It was a bit confusing to most fans, especially the first part, since Punk's character was a babyface, a good guy, as was Page's. But to the naked ear, it just sounded like pro wrestling trash talk, part of the story. Punk said it was not that and confronted Page about it when they returned backstage.
According to Punk, Page told him he said what he did because Punk had AEW wrestler and coach Colt Cabana fired from the company, or at least tried to. Punk and Cabana had a very public falling-out years ago, before Punk arrived in AEW, that included multiple lawsuits. Punk said he told Page that that was not true and that Cabana still worked for the company.
Cabana had been a mainstay on AEW YouTube shows and the Being The Elite YouTube vlog until March 2022. After March 4, 2022, Cabana didn't have another match for AEW in the United States until Nov. 2, 2022, and did not appear on Being The Elite for several months. Khan has said in multiple media appearances that Cabana's absence was because he was reassigned to work for the Ring of Honor wrestling promotion, which Khan purchased in March 2022. Cabana wrestled for ROH multiple times between March 2022 and November 2022, as well as on an overseas tour to promote AEW's video game.
Punk told ESPN that he has no relationship with Cabana but that he "never" asked Khan to take Cabana's or anyone else's job. But others in the company, including the Elite, believe Punk did indeed do that, per sources. Page was evidently confident enough to bring it up unexpectedly on television.
Khan and Page were unavailable to comment for this article, according to AEW. When reached for comment via email, Cabana said ESPN should go through AEW "for everything." Omega and the Jacksons declined to comment via their agent Barry Bloom.
Page's comments during the segment -- a "shoot," in wrestling terms, meaning not a planned part of the show -- infuriated Punk. So much so that he considered not going through with the match out of concern that Page might intentionally attempt to hurt him. But Punk did go through with it and was booked to beat Page to win the AEW title on May 29, 2022.
"And I proceed to have what I think is a garbage match because I'm trying to protect myself on stuff instead of actually just working and trying to put on the best performance I can," Punk said. "I'm keeping an eye out. He chopped me in the mouth one time, and I'm just like, 'OK, did you do that on purpose?' You chip my tooth, and I'm like, 'All right, should I give him a receipt?' It changes the dynamic. It poisoned everything for me, and it made it all really, really ugly, and that was what set all of this off, and here we are over a year later and ain't s--- been done about it."
Three days after Double or Nothing, Punk broke his foot doing a crowd dive during his entrance. In his return to television Aug. 18, Punk called out Page during a segment in the ring without anyone knowing he would do it.
Things escalated after Punk beat Moxley in the All Out main event Sept. 4. Punk, known for being outspoken going back to his days in WWE and beyond, ripped into Page in the post-event news conference and accused Omega and the Jacksons of "spreading lies and bulls---" about him in the wrestling media. He said Omega and the Jacksons, all executive vice presidents in AEW, "couldn't f---ing manage a Target." He also took aim at Cabana. Khan was next to him on the stage. Videos of the fiery news conference have been watched more than 1 million times on YouTube.
Punk said he had regrets about what transpired in that media scrum and has since apologized to Khan for it. He said his and Khan's relationship is now "great."
"The first thing I said to Tony when I sat down with him and spoke to him after it was, 'Man, I'm really sorry I put you in that position,'" Punk said. "I apologize for the scrum. But when you've watched that scrum, you're looking at a very, very frustrated guy who had told people. That's not the first time he heard all that. It's not the first time lawyers were told all that. And I was just looking for something to be done and nothing got done. So, if you want something done right, you got to do it yourself. And I just didn't approach it in the right manner, but tension was high. I was very, very pissed. I pretty much knew that I had just injured myself again. I was hurt, and I was disappointed. Yeah, it's very easy for me to say I regret that and I handled it the wrong way, 100%."
After Punk left the news conference, there was a physical altercation involving Punk, his longtime friend and AEW producer Ace Steel, and Omega and the Jacksons, according to multiple reports. No one has discussed exactly what transpired, and Omega said on "The Sessions" podcast on March 1 that "we can't say anything legally."
AEW launched a third-party investigation with a law firm into the matter, which has since been completed, sources confirmed with ESPN. Khan announced on the Sept. 7 Dynamite that Punk's AEW World title and the AEW World Trios title, which Omega and the Young Bucks held, were vacated. Khan didn't mention their names, just that the titles no longer had champions. There was little to no mention of Omega and the Jacksons on AEW television again until November.
Punk said that he doesn't like saying "no comment" but that "we are trying to move past what happened that night specifically."
"I don't think what happened was a big deal..." Punk said. "This has happened in the last 10 months in hockey, in basketball, in baseball, in just about every sport. And it's covered and it's gone the next day. I think because I have injured my tricep and I've been out for so long, I think it has been exacerbated. I think it's been exacerbated by people spreading lies about the whole thing. And when, in reality, my attitude is, well, s--- happens."
Omega said on "The Sessions" that what happened was a "super big shame" and "a lot of people aren't going to ever know exactly how it went down" or why or how it could have been prevented. He said thankfully no one was seriously injured and hopes other parties are "doing well."
"The important part is that I don't think anyone is happy that it happened or is proud that it happened or anything like that," Omega said. "I think, across the board, everyone thinks it was a terrible situation that was unnecessary."
Punk said he has not had any conversations with Omega or the Jacksons since the incident, although he has tried. He said when he has reached out, he has gotten "messages from lawyers saying, 'Do not contact this person.'" Punk said he is unclear whether those responses came at the request of legal representatives of Omega and the Jacksons or a third party.
The pro wrestling industry has a history of leveraging real-life events and shaping them into future storylines, some of which have been very lucrative. Blending reality and fiction has been one of the art's core tenets, essentially a simulated sporting event or fight.
Punk, though, said he had been told that using this saga on television and spinning it into some matches that would undoubtedly draw money won't happen. He resents that he's been painted as "the bad guy" in online reports when he feels he's just been defending himself. Punk said people in the AEW locker room leaking things to the wrestling media have contributed to the internal drama.
"Now we all got to roll in the f---ing mud, and that never should have happened and has never been course-corrected," Punk said. "So, I understand people want to say that, 'Oh, man, Punk is a dick.' Well yeah, because I'm defending myself and I will always defend myself. I'm open to have a full-blown f---ing sit-down powwow discussion with everybody about it. But it hasn't happened yet, and it's not because of my lack of trying."
At least for now, Punk will be featured on "Collision," AEW's new show, while Omega, the Jacksons, Page and others will be on "AEW Dynamite." Joining Punk on "Collision" will be up-and-coming wrestlers such as Ricky Starks and Powerhouse Hobbs, as well as established veterans such as Samoa Joe, Miro, Thunder Rosa and Andrade El Idolo. Punk said he's "excited" about a show with a lot of talent but will need to build some depth.
"With more TV time, you're only going to see guys like Hobbs and Starks, people who I think have the potential to do what an MJF [current AEW champion] has done with his television time but they haven't been able to be positioned because a guy like MJF gets a big lion share of television time, because he earned it," Punk said. "We just need to do a better job of spotlighting so many different guys, and this is, for a lot of guys, sink or swim. Now it's just like, well, now's the time. You're going to have to really bust your ass and prove why we're giving you this spotlight and this TV time."
Saturday hasn't been a big night for wrestling television in over two decades. There is a ton of competition in the sports world, from big UFC and WWE events to major college football. It'll be a fight for ratings every single week. In interviews, Khan said that TNT wanted more AEW programming and Saturday was the night selected.
"If I'm the poster boy -- top guy, whatever -- this is what people dream about," Punk said. "You get put in a position like this and, you know, can't take the negative criticism. Personally, I look at it like a challenge. ... But as far as ticket sales for a Saturday night compare and contrast, I think it's a lot easier to move a Saturday night ticket to a live event than it is on a workday, on a Wednesday. So, there's positives and negatives, you know what I mean? And I don't look at the negatives as these huge detrimental things."
AEW is only 4 years old and has already had great success as a competitor to WWE, which has ruled the pro wrestling world with few legitimate challengers for more than two decades. AEW has produced good ratings, pay-per-view buy numbers and ticket sales in a short amount of time. Per Khan, the promotion has already sold more than 65,000 tickets to its debut show in the United Kingdom, Aug. 27 at Wembley Stadium, and its next pay-per-view, a collaboration with New Japan Pro-Wrestling called Forbidden Door on June 25, is expected to be fully sold out in Toronto.
A six-man tag team will headline the first "Collision" show Saturday, pitting CM Punk and AEW World Tag Team champions FTR against Jay White, Juice Robinson and Samoa Joe. Wardlow will defend his TNT championship against Luchasaurus.
At no point, Punk said, did he consider not returning.
"I certainly had some low moments, and I won't rule out in those fleeting moments where I just say, 'Ah, f--- this, whatever,'" Punk said. "But I don't ever think it was a serious intention to say that I'm done. There's still work to do, and I think I'm excited about a lot of stuff that's coming up. So, to just throw the baby out with the bathwater, just because of a little boo-boo, I think would be a little silly."
Nine months after stepping off the news conference stage in Hoffman Estates, Punk will be down the road in Chicago, his hometown, with an open forum yet again. The wrestling world will surely be waiting with bated breath.
"I won't know what I'm gonna do or say until I have that microphone in my hand," Punk said in a promo that aired Wednesday on "AEW Dynamite." "I have a lot of things to get off my chest."