CM Punk’s debut in All Elite Wrestling sent shockwaves through the industry. Now, the 42-year-old will step in the ring for his first match in seven years when he faces Darby Allin at AEW’s “All Out” pay-per-view on Sunday (8 p.m., Bleacher Report) from NOW Arena in Chicago. Before lacing up the boots again, Punk – whose real name is Phil Brooks – took time for some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski.
(Edited for clarity and length)
Q: Have you had a chance to really process the last week and what it’s meant to you and the fans?
A: (Shakes his head no) I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to process it, but it’s been non-stop since. It’s been the overwhelmingness of the event Friday night coupled with the anxiety of not being able to sleep for days prior knowing what I was doing and then the buzz keeping me up for days after, like I haven’t slept so good since like two weeks ago (laughs). You get a flood of phone calls, you get a flood of texts, you get emails and then the ratings come out then it happens all over again. It’s been a lot, but it’s been nothing but positive, so it’s been extremely enjoyable.
Q: Are the emotions, nerves, anticipation any different when you’re getting prepared for your first match this week?
A: It’s the same, honestly. I’m very nervous. I said that to a few people backstage last Friday at the United Center, like Eddie Kingston. And Eddie looked at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I think he even said it, ‘You’re CM Punk.’ Yeah, but I kind of sort of haven’t been in seven years. Also, I was at a stage for a while I didn’t care, I didn’t get nervous. Being nervous, I’m excited about it. I’m embracing that. That means I care, which is pretty exciting.
Q: You said in your press conference after your debut that not being in front of fans may have held your debut back a little bit. Was this something that got held back maybe this year waiting for fans to come back, or was it even prior to that that this could have potentially happened?
A: I don’t think the pandemic held back or delayed anything. I think if anything it gave me – us – more time to prepare and think about it and get ready for it. Timing is everything. Gosh, it couldn’t have been timed any better. I think it was 100 percent perfect.
Q: You said getting prepared with this match you haven’t done more than work out in your basement and things like that. Have you gotten in a ring recently and did any of the in-ring work on the show “Heels” help?
A: I’ve been in a ring. The “Heels” stuff definitely helped. The first time I was in a ring was on the set of “Heels.” There was that moment where everyone crowded around the ring and they’re like, ‘Oooo, let’s see what happens.’ I just hit the ropes real hard a bunch of times like Stan Hansen. It really was like riding a bike. I guess you don’t really forget. It’s muscle memory. It just came back to me. I don’t anticipate any problems. Now that I say that I’ve probably jinxed myself.
Q: Does there still have to be the moment of showing the fans and proving to them, “I can still do this in the ring?” It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing to give them that match that shows them, hey I’m still CM Punk?
A: For sure. Seven years is a long time. I know there’s a contingent of fans out there that have this opinion that, “Oh he was never really any good. Oh, he’s not an athlete.” And that always kind of flummoxed me, especially my last year [in WWE] when I was just absolutely trash, hurt and unmotivated, I had the best year. Brock [Lesnar], Undertaker, (John) Cena in Texas. And that’s a hurt Phil. A motivated Phil ready to have fun I think is a very dangerous thing.
Q: There are probably some softer landing spots for your first match than Darby just because of the style he wrestles. Why is he your first opponent and did you want to just jump back in with someone at his level and not get that soft landing people sometimes take?
A: I think he’s the perfect opponent. … I’m kind of approaching it like I’m quasi-new guy, but old head coming back into this thing. From an artistic storyline perspective, I can’t go after Kenny [Omega] right way. He’s the (world) champion. It wouldn’t make any sense. I never wrestled in this organization. Darby is a lot of things. He’s a fantastic talent, he’s a great personality. Within the AEW storytelling, he’s a very compelling character that the fans like. I just think he’s like the perfect foil right now. It’s a spotlight on, yes this CM Punk’s first match back in seven years. It needs to be a good match, right? I need a good dance partner. Darby is probably one of the best guys for the role, honestly.
Q: Have you gotten yourself prepare to take his suicide dive now?
A: No. (Laughs) I was biking a little bit. I got a full head of steam and I ran right into the back of a semi. I’m almost there.
Q: You said before your debut that pro wrestling needed “a kick in the d—k.” What did you mean by that and how do you hope to contribute to that?
A: It’s hard to not speak on where you’ve been when you’re talking about where you’re going. I’m not looking backward. I’m focused on forward. I just think there’s been one flavor of ice cream for so long and it’s refreshing to see AEW come about. You can criticize both places. There is good and bad in both places, but just the momentum AEW has and the fact that there’s a new restaurant in town and it’s getting good reviews, so why wouldn’t you go try the food served there?
I just think because there has only been one flavor of ice cream and it’s served to you in the same bowl with the same spoon – imagine if there was one movie studio turning out the same type of movie with the same actors. We need to churn the water a little bit here. We need to be disruptors and create some exciting energy. AEW, before I showed up, was already doing that.
Q: You’ve also been writing initials on your sneakers at all the AEW events. Is there any insight you can give as to why you’ve done it and what they mean?
A: I stole this from LeBron James; a lot of basketball players will write messages on their shoes and stuff. I wrote AC on my shoes and CF on the other foot. AC is Always Chicago and CF is Chicago Forever.
Q: Do you think we’re approaching a second kind of boom period of pro wrestling? AEW has momentum, WWE just brought Becky Lynch and Brock Lesnar back. It just feels like all the stars are here to draw attention back to the industry.
A: I think people will always harken back to, ‘Oh, X amount of people used to watch this, where are those millions and millions of people? Where did they go?’ It’s why I don’t put a whole lot of stock in ratings and demographics. It’s not my job. I know TNT, I know the executives love that stuff, but I don’t like movies simply because somebody else likes a movie. I don’t go to restaurants simply because it’s highly rated. They serve something I’m allergic to so I’m not gonna go ahead and eat it.
I definitely think stuff’s trending upward and it feels hot right now. I don’t know if I can call it a boom period. Attitude Era, how many people were watching? So there are a lot of people out there who are not watching. I think chasing all those fans who don’t watch any more can be detrimental. I’m about giving our fans, who are here in the arena, I’m about giving them what they want and making them happy.
Yes, mainstream popularity for television shows, yes that stuff is great and I think that audience can eventually come and that’s what AEW has. You watch it on television and you go, ‘Look at those people in the stands, they’re having a blast. I need to go to that. I need to watch that. I need to get into this.’ And if you are just trying to chase people who aren’t watching, people who maybe watched 10 years ago, that’s a crapshoot. You could be shooting yourself in the foot.
Q: Will the ice cream bars be at every AEW event or is that the goal?
A: I don’t know. I got to talk to some people about that.
Q: I know you like sports analogies. I was trying to explain to people what you coming back meant and what it was equivalent to. The only thing I could think of was if Barry Sanders had decided to come back. Do you think that is fair?
A: I’ll take a Barry Sanders. I think the Michael Jordan analogy is pretty good, too. A guy who was on top, he left, tried playing baseball. I was a guy on top. I left, tried MMA. I came back, he came back, United Center. There are parallels for sure. I know some people will be very, very upset and be like, ‘He’s not Michael Jordan,’ and I think they’re missing the point. I’m not Barry Sanders either, but the analogy is there. Flattered to be in that kind of conversation with those two names.