CM Punk, Becky Lynch, Brock Lesnar: Is Simplicity Key In A Wrestling Return?
Why have WWE and AEW's huge recent returns been a mixed bag?
Last night, AEW’s YouTube channel released the latest ‘Road To’ special, featuring an extended behind-the-scenes look at CM Punk’s entrance.
For anybody unfamiliar with TV production (like myself) it’s a dizzying watch. Camera cues are constantly prepared, executed and cancelled - each instruction barked within seconds of the last. When Punk dives into the front row, the crew allow themselves a whoop of delight at having captured the moment, before throwing themselves straight back into the pressure cooker.
All that for a man walking down a ramp.
The video demonstrates a lot of things, and serves as a reminder of the incredible unseen effort put into running a televised wrestling product. But it also highlights an important contrast.
AEW’s production team may have tied themselves in knots shooting the biggest return of the decade, but the segment itself was simple. Punk made his return, said the type of things we expected him to say, called out Darby Allin and left.
Nothing more was needed.
It just so happens that Punk’s AEW arrival wasn’t the weekend’s only major appearance. It was the most highly anticipated for sure, but shared the headlines with two of the year’s other biggest returns.
WWE threw us a pair of curveballs on Saturday, with a 50% success rate.
Like the historic opening of Rampage, Brock Lesnar’s SummerSlam-closing comeback was also kept simple - and despite not being quite as intense, it can still be considered a success. He interrupted a triumphant Roman Reigns, stared him out of the ring, and fired up the crowd.
In practice, this played out better than it may have looked on paper. We’ve seen Lesnar vs. Reigns many times, but this chapter has a whole new dynamic.
Roman is now the biggest heel in wrestling today, and a babyface Brock feels genuinely refreshing. Paul Heyman is an interesting factor too, having seemingly ditched Lesnar for a more modern upgrade. Will he stay loyal to Reigns or betray him for the Beast Incarnate?
This question hasn’t even been addressed yet, let alone answered - which is good. WWE have time, and their straightforward reintroduction of Brock will allow the feud to grow in any number of directions.
Becky Lynch’s shock return was almost entirely the opposite.
Unlike the others we’ve discussed so far, Becky’s appearance was anything but simple. So many elements were at play, all combining to reach a not-so-satisfactory conclusion.
It’s unclear what percentage of the fans inside Allegiant Stadium were already aware that Bianca Belair vs. Sasha Banks was not going ahead. The internet crowd certainly knew, with news having leaked many days in advance of SummerSlam, and WWE unwilling to admit this ahead of the show.
When Greg Hamilton announced that Belair’s replacement opponent would be Carmella, a woman she’d easily beaten on TV the night before, suddenly that didn’t matter. The entire stadium could have already known that Banks wasn’t in the building; they were going to boo their hearts out anyway.
A moment later though, everything was okay. Becky’s music hit and she carted Carmella out of the ring, challenging the champion to ‘blow the roof off’ with her. Of course WWE had a backup plan. How foolish we were to think otherwise.
Then Becky won in less than 30 seconds.
For several reasons, WWE got it wrong here. First and foremost, it damages Bianca, one of the company’s most promising and naturally gifted stars. It also acted as a slap in the face to the fans, suckering us in with a marquee match-up between two wrestlers that had never directly faced one another, only to blow through it instantly.
Importantly, this booking also harms Becky, who cheap-shotted Belair en route to victory, before celebrating like she’d just beaten Charlotte Flair in Dublin.
The call becomes even weirder when we consider Dave Meltzer’s report this week, stating: ‘Regarding the stories of Becky Lynch being a heel, this is definitely the case and she was the one who requested it.’
That would be the same Becky Lynch who spearheaded the women’s revolution, organically became the most over WWE Superstar since Daniel Bryan, and won the first ever women’s WrestleMania main event. Not only does she want to turn heel, but the promotion are fully backing her?
I still can’t make head nor tail of the decision making behind this, especially compared to Punk and Lesnar’s straightforward, effective segments.
So does this mean that when it comes to hugely-anticipated returns, simplicity is better? I wouldn’t necessarily say so.
Yes, the circumstances of Becky’s appearance and title win were convoluted, but had she and Bianca been given time to put on an exciting contest, I think we’d be looking at it far more favourably - perhaps even regardless of the match result. I’d have liked to have seen the champ retain, but would that have risked wasting The Man’s big comeback?
Truth be told, WWE created a lose-lose situation for themselves - not the first time either. But, in this instance, it would have been at least sweetened greatly by a full-blooded bout between two of the best around.
Similarly, maybe Punk’s return wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Yes, Tony Khan has received praise from all quarters for letting one of the industry’s greatest ever talkers walk out in his hometown and giving him a microphone.
But the circumstances surrounding the return are what allowed AEW such an open goal, and what made the moment so monumental.
And those circumstances are anything but simple.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see such a perfect storm again. Punk’s cult hero status on the indies, his incredible rise in WWE and, ultimately, the deliberate squandering of his potential is enough of a story in itself.
Add to that the podcast, the court case, the apparent lack of interest in ever coming back to wrestling, and even the name ‘CM Punk’ becoming a mantra for discontent and protest among wrestling fans; you can see why AEW only had to nudge him through the curtain.
Honestly, they’d have been silly to add anything else to such an emotionally loaded moment.
Big returns in wrestling are tricky because they seem so straightforward. How can you mess up a beloved figure coming back to your promotion? As demonstrated by the hardworking production crew in AEW’s ‘Road To’ video, perhaps the trick is to make it look as effortless as we assume it is.