AEW Are Probably Signing CM Punk And Daniel Bryan; What Happens Next?
AEW looks set for a major boost thanks to CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, but these acquisitions will pose a number of key questions.
It’s been a real struggle not to use the ‘waiting for a bus’ cliche. As the two men who transcended internet darling status and shattered WWE’s proverbial glass ceiling, the careers of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were already inextricably linked. Now, after a breathless series of reports and rumours, it somehow seems likely that their paths will become even more entangled in AEW.
It’s actually been difficult to process these stories simultaneously; we have to consider them together, but the respective moods are so different. One is something many of us thought logical, a thing that might happen. Bringing up the likelihood of the other was usually met with ridicule.
Of course, the boring part has to be mentioned (just once, I promise): it’s always a possibility that one or both deals could completely fall through. Indeed, we modern wrestling fans are usually guilty of expecting the worst. But for the sake of our own sanity, let’s assume all goes ahead as planned. That could be utterly seismic for the wrestling industry.
But what happens next? Clearly, on name value alone, acquiring CM Punk and Daniel Bryan (or Bryan Danielson) would be an astronomical boost for AEW. Punk’s dramatic removal from WWE stardom is as intoxicating as Bryan’s recent proximity to it, having even headlined the most recent WrestleMania. But how well could things play out beyond those initial earth-shattering pops?
Bryan seems the least tricky to place in this regard. He’s known for being extremely creatively engaged, still capable of constructing and putting on elite-level matches at the age of 40. The structure of his feuds and bouts with Roman Reigns, AJ Styles, Kofi Kingston and Brock Lesnar indicate that at this stage of his career, as long as he stays healthy, Bryan can slot in seamlessly and bring the best out of anyone.
Punk? He’s more of an unknown quantity, despite only being two years older than Bryan. After all, the latter was putting on TV Match of the Year candidates as recently as April, while the Chicagoan last wrestled in the 2014 Royal Rumble.
Clearly, Punk has kept himself in top condition over the years - enough for a fleeting MMA career in his late thirties - but ring rust is surely a unique obstacle to overcome. In the past, he’s even poked fun at his own perceived lack of natural athleticism, joking that he wrestles with ‘lead in his ass’ compared to former tag partner Colt Cabana. That may be a touch self-critical for a man with his enviable track record, but it helps remind us: we have no idea what a CM Punk match looks like in 2021.
Then again, perhaps I’m worrying too much. It’s unfortunate for Punk that he’s rumoured to return to the spotlight alongside one of the most technically gifted wrestlers we’ve ever seen. Comparing the duo too directly could lead us to forget that Punk wasn’t just good in his day - he was elite. There’s the famous five star match with John Cena, the SummerSlam war with Lesnar, and the customary WrestleMania classic with Undertaker. That all came after a legendary indie run, his hallowed trilogy with Samoa Joe the crown jewel of a historic ROH career.
In-ring, I think that’s enough evidence to give Punk the benefit of the doubt - perhaps even cause for cautious optimism, although his every move will no doubt be scrutinised by the online mob. His real strength, though, is as a charismatic storyteller, and AEW enjoy telling a story or two. That’s one of Bryan’s great strengths too, one which was overshadowed by his unmatched wrestling ability until recently. It remains so impressive that late in his career, Bryan was keen to bolster his limitless in-ring storytelling with radically improved mic skills.
So while we may not be entirely sure how the actual matches will pan out, we know for a fact that Punk and Bryan can carry their half of a feud with ease. But who do they feud with? This is a crucial step for AEW to get right, especially given how impatient we wrestling fans are these days. We’ve already despaired at those early Miro storylines, as good as the outcome has been. We’ve already seen big-name acquisitions like Christian slip quietly into the midcard - which would normally be fine, but maybe not after promising to ‘outwork everyone.’
These booking missteps mustn’t happen with Punk and Bryan; the hype will simply be too much. But this leads AEW to a catch-22 situation, given that the top of their men’s division is already so finely poised. Huge signings are always fun in wrestling, but they don’t always come about at the right time. Where exactly do they fit in?
I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of fantasy booking over the past week or so, and my mind immediately jumped to Bryan vs. Kenny Omega. Then it immediately jumped back, because that’s potentially a terrible idea.
Although not confirmed at the time of writing, Omega vs. Hangman Page will surely happen at All Out, one of those golden, fragile storylines we just want to see end as it should. The most straightforward outcome seems to be a Hangman victory, but there’s every chance that AEW might sink their hero even further into despair, leading to a glorious redemption at Full Gear. Should the feud indeed continue towards the end of the year, I may start to get worried. So much time and emotion has been invested in Page’s journey, intertwining it with the emergence of Punk or Bryan would surely be wrong.
Similarly, in the case of Punk, I’m not alone in wishing immediately for a feud with MJF. But again, in my mind AEW need to tie up loose ends before involving their potential megastar newcomers. Were this example to come true, MJF’s ongoing feud with Chris Jericho would have to be conclusively brought to an end for full effect, to avoid diluting or cutting short existing storylines.
However it happens, it seems a safe bet that Punk and Bryan will be inserted somewhere near the top of the card. Arguments have already been made on Twitter that one or the other should quickly be made AEW World Champion, given the publicity such a decision would attract. Such a notion brings its own raft of questions and potential problems. Would this invalidate the rise of Hangman? Would Punk and Bryan not be better used to elevate AEW’s crop of immense young talent? Or indeed, is this a boring way of thinking? Would the risk be worth it anyway?
These are dilemmas that any promoter would kill for. Tony Khan has a tendency to go in all guns blazing, but it’s in their moments of restraint and patience that AEW shine brightest.
Usually I’d end this by preaching the virtues of sensible booking, but the signing of Punk and Bryan would be an exceptional set of circumstances. Perhaps convention should be thrown out of the window, a risky strategy for sure, but one that could pay off in spades for the promotion.
Regardless of whether it results in triumph or disaster, I’m sure we’ll all be watching closely to find out.