He’s probably not the kind of guy that would admit as much, but you sense that CM Punk had unfinished business in the world of professional wrestling.
It’s not as if he really left the business on his own terms, with those torturous last few months in the WWE doing little for him physically or creatively – in fact, there were plenty who thought that Phillip Brooks, as his parents know him, might be finished as a wrestler.
A stint in UFC – Brooks is a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – was only ever likely to be a scratching of an itch, rather than a new career path. Indeed, he was laughed out of the organization after two straight defeats, although that was perhaps a tad harsh. His first opponent, Mickey Gall, is building a solid record in the welterweight division, and he will be watching closely as Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington lock horns for the welterweight gold in November – the former being the favorite in the UFC 268 outright winner betting odds. At 29, who’s to say Gall won’t reach the top of the ladder too one day, which would at least at some credence to Punk’s efforts.
While Brooks is a confirmed lover of mixed martial arts, it’s pro wrestling where he has truly made his name, and it was a moment of genuine joy for many when he revealed himself as the latest member of the AEW roster on an episode of Rampage in August.
It doesn’t appear as though this is going to be a token return either. Punk has been working hard on his conditioning, and he isn’t treading lightly in his AEW debut – he will take on Darby Allin at All Out in September.
As we know, Allin is a high-stakes, all action performer, and in many ways he is the perfect opponent for Punk – he has enough wrestling chops to carry the veteran through his first match in seven years, and will be willing to take the necessary risks to ensure their battle is talked about for all the right reasons thereafter.
Punk is a straight up guy who knows how the industry works, but he will be desperate to get a win or two under his belt on his return – it’s the only way that AEW can really legitimize the 42-year-old. Hopefully, a loss or two won’t halt the upward ascent of Allin to main event status…
When their feud is over, it will be intriguing to see where Punk’s tenure in AEW heads next. More than capable of selling a fight on the mic on his own, if Punk is still able to wrestle at an elite level then there are some fantastic match-ups available to him.
So here’s five options for Punk’s next opponent (after Allin) in AEW:
You suspect that AEW chiefs will want to avoid a WWE nostalgia trip at all costs as they plot Punk’s renaissance.
But it would be hard to resist the possibility of a Punk vs Jericho battle, given that they are two of the finest talkers in the business.
Whether the duo would work well in the ring together remains to be seen, and at a combined age of 92 this wouldn’t be the kind of high-octane action that AEW is famed for.
Another complication is Jericho’s face turn, as it’s almost a given that – down the line – Punk will face a heel opponent to capitalize on his own position as one of the most beloved star’s in the sport today.
And so maybe it’s Jericho’s current enemy that is the most likely combatant for Punk…
This youngster continues to impress everyone with his in-ring abilities, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better heel character on the mic anywhere in pro wrestling right now.
It seems almost inevitable that he and Punk would mesh nicely, and at 25 MJF would be able to do much of the heavy lifting of any match-up should his 42-year-old opponent find himself short of gas after his lengthy hiatus.
It has the potential to be a PPV headliner, and you suspect that MJF could even take a defeat at this point without his star diminishing in any way – that makes him the perfect foil for Punk at this moment in time.
His soundbites since revealing his return to wrestling have cast Punk as somebody who wants to help get emerging talent over, as much as he wants to dominate and be the figurehead for AEW.
In that sense, Jungle Boy would be an ideal foil for Punk, and his ascent would be legitimized even further if he could come out of a rivalry with a two-decade veteran in good standing.
Rather than being a technical mat-based encounter, Punk would watch on as Jungle Boy performs his spell-binding array of aerobatics, and that would be a real point of difference against the wrestling chops of the former WWE champion.
Okay, this would be the stuff of dreams.
There’s absolutely no guarantees that Daniel Bryan is joining AEW, although there have been enough Chinese whispers and corner-of-the-mouth asides – from Punk himself, actually – to suggest that the Yes! man is heading for the organization. And then… well, Punk vs Bryan sells itself. A contest practically 15 years in the making
As he sits down with AEW’s creative team to flesh out his medium-term future, there will surely be a bit of Punk’s ego that makes him want to explore the possibility of being the champion and top dog in the company.
To get there, he would have to find a way past Kenny Omega, who many regard as the best in the business – and a surprisingly good heel.
Good vs evil, the best vs the best… selling Omega vs Punk would be a breeze, and would probably become one of the strongest performing PPVs in the company’s short history.
And even for a humble soul like Punk, that might be a difficult concept to turn down.