CM Punk has been back in the news—or, anyway, back on wrestling websites— this past week for two separate and very different reasons. One of those is fueling giddy speculation about a potential comeback. The other is a bit more complicated.
On Friday, the independent wrestling promotion MKE Wrestling staged the last event ever at the Knights of Columbus Hall in West Allis, Wisconsin, which had been a regular home to area indie shows for decades. Numerous midwestern veterans got their starts working there—bigger names like CM Punk and Colt Cabana, but also their trainers Ace Steel and Danny Dominion and longtime friends like Chuck E. Smooth and manager/announcer/Shimmer promoter Dave Prazak. To a certain part of the scene, this venue’s passing was a big deal, and local fans turned out as if it was, packing the small room with 350 people.
The next morning, the Twitter account for MKE Wrestling tweeted this video:
It shows the end of a match between Steel and Daryck St. Holmes in which Prazak runs to the back and retrieves a masked man in a hoodie. That masked man then hits CM Punk’s Go 2 Sleep finishing move on St. Holmes. The crowd, seemingly not super hardcores who would recognize the significance of the move or the history between the three, don’t actually react much. The move and the relationship were significant, though, because they strongly implied that the masked man was CM Punk. It took at least half a day before the story really blew up despite the fact that MKE promoter/ROH wrestler Silas Young hinted as strongly as possible that it was indeed Punk behind the mask. The discovery of a photo of Punk in the same town in the same outfit (minus mask and gloves) on the same day only served to confirm it further.
Punk has largely stayed away from any kind of wrestling event since leaving WWE and retiring in 2014. That he appeared semi-incognito, got physical, and was clearly fine with making it known that he was The Masked Man Of West Allis, Wisconsin was of particular significance. Punk had said in the past that if he ever came back it would be on the DL, under a mask, and with his friends, but doing his signature move and making no real effort to disguise his identity doesn’t quite qualify as incognito. It’s since been reported by Fightful that Punk had worked as a manager, this time completely incognito, on a December 2015 Freelance Wrestling show in Chicago. The difference, this time, is that people were supposed to find out about it.
This could all just mean that Punk wanted to give the fans a special moment at the last show in the building, of course. But Punk’s seeming absence from pro wrestling for over five years prior makes the return stand out in a big way, especially with All Elite Wrestling launching in a month. Last June, the week of his last UFC fight, Punk told MMAFighting.com (transcription available at Cageside Seats) that he had not gotten any firm wrestling offers and wasn’t particularly interested in a comeback regardless. (Cody Rhodes, then pushing the ROH-affiliated All In supershow and now an executive for AEW, later stated that the team behind the show had in fact made Punk “a real offer.”)
Just how much of Punk’s love for wrestling was beaten out of him by his exhausting WWE experience is hard to know, although it’s clear that time away from WWE has made his heart grow at least a bit fonder. But even with the potential for a big guaranteed contract for a limited schedule in AEW, Punk is still someone who always wanted to retire young, already super beat-up from his first go-round in the sport, and arguably too jaded at this point to find fulfillment in any kind of wrestling career. A month before he suffered a concussion in the ring, back in late 2013, Punk tweeted after a show in Detroit that “I don’t have many of these left in me.” Getting himself motivated to do a wink-and-nod cameo at the MKE show is intriguing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean his passion is back.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only reason CM Punk was in the news this week.
As you may remember from the coverage here last year, Punk and Colt Cabana were found not liable for defamation in a lawsuit brought by WWE ringside physician Dr. Chris Amann in 2015. That lawsuit was filed after Punk vented about the company and the questionable medical treatment he’d received while working there, for two hours, on Cabana’s podcast. (Full disclosure: I have worked with Cabana on unrelated wrestling history podcasts, the last of which was released in October 2017, for Howl/Stitcher Premium, which paid both of us directly.) While it was known going into the trial that some kind of rift had opened between Cabana and Punk, who had been longtime friends, it was unknown what it was or why it had happened; all that those in the courtroom could observe was that the two had separate lawyers and seemed chummy enough discussing the case. Two months later, Cabana sued Punk for the legal fees he’d incurred in fighting off Amann; under Illinois law, there’s no recourse to recover those fees from the loser in a defamation case. Until this week, the only comment either made outside of court was Cabana, on his podcast, acknowledging the story; he denied that he went backstage at a WWE show during the Amann case, and denied that having done so was the cause of the split. That was it until earlier this week.
On Monday night, near the end of Raw, Punk replied to a tweet from comedian/wrestling fan Ron Funches asking about appearing on his podcast. “Promise not to sue me for being a good friend (then sign a legally binding agreement that you’re not a greedy steaming pile of ungrateful snake shit) and I’ll consider it,” Punk replied. On Wednesday afternoon, Punk responded to a fan who said that “money isn’t worth a friendship” with “I agree with everything you said, but this ain’t my doing, and I did everything I could.”
One complicating factor here is that we don’t really know Punk’s side of the story at all. We know his side’s legal arguments and certain denials contained therein, but he hasn’t given a specific counter-narrative to Cabana’s version yet. And Cabana’s version isn’t easy to parse, either.
Here, as briefly as possible, is Cabana’s side of things: He got a cease and desist letter from Amann in December 2014, at which point Punk said in text messages that he’d go over the charges with his lawyer and that “I’ll make sure you’re 100% covered.” Amann sued the two in February 2015, and in the March 2015 retainer with Punk’s lawyer, who had negotiated a settlement between Punk and WWE for moneys owed, it’s explicit that while only Punk was responsible for costs, both were clients. About a year later, Punk sends an email in which he demands that Cabana pay half of the $513,736 in legal fees spent to that point and makes clear that he feels Cabana did something that Punk was not inclined to forgive. At that point, Cabana started the process to substitute a new lawyer, but Punk’s lawyer ended up saying in an email chain that he’d still represent them both under the existing agreement unless a conflict of interest arose. Nine months later, without formal explanation, Punk’s counsel withdrew as Cabana’s representation; an unnamed conflict has been cited by Punk in recent filings*.
In fairness, guarding your side of the underlying story is not exactly an uncommon legal strategy, and the gawking general public isn’t entitled to a peek at their affairs just because we’ve seen them wrestle on TV. Among the hardcore fans who have kept up with the lawsuit, Punk has lost much of the goodwill he gained during the trial. Fans would still welcome him back, mask or not, because he really was that great. But, that intriguing cameo aside, CM Punk still doesn’t quite seem like a guy who wants back into wrestling.
Update (4/27/19 12:18 a.m.): Carey Stein, Colt Cabana’s lawyer, sent in a clarification on the issue of if there was a conflict of interest. While Punk’s current counsel claimed in a recent filing that Loeb & Loeb, the firm representing Punk in the Amann case, dropped Cabana due to a conflict of interest, the letter that they sent Cabana at the time stated outright that no such conflict existed.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.