In the two years since the former first officially entered the scene, I feel like AEW and WWE have carved out separate lanes for each other in the American pro wrestling sphere, offering up different experiences and styles of the medium for different audiences that can coexist with each other. One does not need to “beat” the other, it’s not really a “competition” unless you’re weirdly invested in capitalistic ideas of there needing to be some kind of victorious dominance, and pro wrestling as a whole (much like general society) works better when there are legitimate alternatives and healthy one-upmanship pushing everyone to bring out the best in themselves instead of stagnating under a monopolistic hegemony. Whilst I vastly prefer AEW’s programming at this point, I don’t actively have a dog in this fight and would rather both companies thrived since that theoretically leads to a better product for myself, the mid-20s pro wrestling fan.
That said, this democratic Switzerland approach to the ongoing conflict does have its limits and doesn’t refrain either side from criticism or direct comparison when they deserve it. To wit, these last 24 hours saw both companies pull off the surprise returns of maybe the two biggest wrestlers of the 2010s: Becky Lynch for WWE and CM Punk for AEW. Both are aiming to be the biggest news stories in the wrestling sphere this year and both demonstrate a marked difference in each company’s overall attitudes towards the medium they operate within. Thanks to the timing of both returns, it’s impossible not to look at them in a direct compare/contrast gaze, especially when one of those returns was pulled off practically perfectly and the other was… the polar opposite.
Now, before we jump in, I would like to stress that I am aware this is a little like comparing apples to diet sodas. In so many specifics, this is not a 1:1 situation and that may ultimately seem like I’m building an argument on extremely shaky foundations. After all, Becky was only returning from a sixteen-month maternity leave to the company she made her global name in and there was never any doubt during that time she would come back at some point. Punk, meanwhile, was gone for seven and a half years, full-on retired and unwilling to even entertain the idea of a comeback during almost the entirety of that, and returns by jumping ship to the WWE’s erstwhile biggest rival. And that’s just the most obvious non-like factor. Furthermore, this is not to say that there is only one correct way to surprise-return somebody. Absolutely unequivocally not what I am trying to say here. Rather, the point of this piece is to just shed light on two very different attitudes towards how both companies treat their top stars in the ecosystem at large and that, whilst still being diplomatic to other ways of doing things, one of the methods displayed in these two returns, from concept to execution, was fundamentally dreadful and deserves calling out.
So, with those caveated, it’s time for another Good Idea, Bad Idea.
Let’s start with the CM Punk return on the second-ever AEW: Rampage. Again, to be fair, this was the worst-kept secret in all of professional wrestling for the last month; Punk and Tony Khan even said as much on the post-show media scrum. In many ways, this had been teased for weeks. Darby Allin calling out anybody who thinks that they’re “the best in the world,” the Young Bucks putting some of Punk’s old offense into their repertoire for matches ever since the rumours started swirling, and, of course, booking the 14,000-seater United Center in Chicago for the second episode of an hour-long weekly TV show three weeks ahead of time with no announced card until a few days before.
AEW never explicitly stated that CM Punk was going to debut, but they also never explicitly denied it and played heavily upon the audience’s trust in the kind of company AEW had been up to now. In spite of everything wrestling fans had been conditioned to expect and accept by wrestling companies for decades, they were asked to trust Punk was coming back and it’s telling of the long-standing adversarial relationship that, even when it was basically a done deal, the overall mood heading in online was just as much cautious scepticism as unbridled hype. I saw so many evocations of “Chicago will be burned down if Punk is not there” ever since the United Center booking was announced, all subconsciously carrying an “oh god, what if this is just a swerve?” strain no matter how obvious the end result was, a belief I shared. Of course, those decades of negative psychological conditioning were exactly what allowed Punk’s return to still be a surprise when it happened; I can tell you I popped like crazy when that first note of “Cult of Personality” hit even though I knew it was coming.
And then there’s the presentation of the return. Top of the show, no mucking around or dragging out. No swerves, no playing with fans’ emotions through misdirection, no making them wait longer than needs be. Just the opening titles, the commentary team running down the card, about 20 seconds of the crowd chanting for Punk’s name with the lights leading them along, then boom. All of Punk’s audio and visual iconography before the man himself strolls out on stage to a messianic reception. The commentary and production team completely cede control of the moment to said crowd. It’s a solid minute before anyone from the announce booth utters a word and all four men take turns delivering just one line each before receding back into the non-stop roar of the crowd rather try to corporately stamp their mark on the moment. There’s electric passion in J.R.’s call of “it is Jordan-esque” but that’s almost all he says because the man and his compatriots know nothing they say would sell how big of deal this moment is better than the organic crowd reaction. Ditto the editing which carefully balances between crowd reactions and actually letting the viewers at home see the thing they’re losing their minds over.
When it’s finally time for Punk to start performing, his very first words put over younger homegrown AEW talent. “You guys really know how to make a kid feel like Britt Baker in Pittsburgh.” His promo clearly sets up his character going forward, expertly weaving between shoot and work in the way he built his legend on, as the grizzled vet whose passion which had been ruthlessly extinguished became reignited by the sight of a new generation of misfits like him making it big on their own terms. He calls out Darby Allin, putting over the daredevil toughness and kindred spirit of the fast-rising star and making their eventual clash sound like a real big money match, instantly making the kid a very big deal in the eyes of lapsed wrestling fans tuning into AEW for the first time. Finally, he accepts Darby’s coded challenge from three weeks earlier, choosing All Out as the stage which gives everyone two weeks to get even more hyped about their encounter in ways which ring deeper than just “Punk’s first match in seven years.”
It is, frankly, perfect. A perfect return, one which I honestly don’t think could’ve been booked better and I’ve watched this segment on loop for the last 24 hours, both analysing for this article and just in general because the energy gets me hyped as fuck. It’s also symptomatic of how AEW treats both their product and fans at large. Punk’s return is given the mega-spotlight it called for and the pomp and circumstance it naturally demanded, but the moment was allowed to breathe. Both in the immediate presentation (which is something the company struggles with) and in the wider narrative sense. Punk’s return was positioned in that segment as something long-term with an eye on the bigger picture of the company and its young talent, Punk explicitly putting over the roster both in general and with specific examples which give Britt and Darby an additional rub during a moment that theoretically isn’t about them. And, more importantly, AEW asked for its audience’s trust and, rather than punish them for it, repaid said trust by delivering the expected satisfying outcome. As any long-time wrestling fan knows, that’s disappointingly rare.
Now, let’s switch gears and look at Becky Lynch’s return during the SmackDown Women’s Championship segment of last night’s Summerslam. As mentioned earlier, this is not quite an apples-to-apples comparison since Punk’s return was a full “say Punk’s back without actually saying Punk’s back” block-out whereas Becky’s return was a surprise swerve during… whatever the fuck this was. But the execution of that context is still important and demonstrates a wider point. Becky had been teasing since WrestleMania that she was prepping for a return to the ring, especially with this post prior to Money in the Bank, albeit in her usual trollish way which demonstrated the power she still held in being able to spool up the rumour mill at a moment’s notice. Post-MitB, she went silent again and so the question of whether she would return at Summerslam wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind going into the SmackDown Women’s Championship segment.
Right up until champion Bianca Belair got in the ring, WWE were still selling Belair vs. Sasha Banks II as a big match for Summerslam. Running back the WrestleMania 37 Night One main event, one which made mainstream headlines for the cultural significance of two Black women topping the card in a title fight for a major wrestling promotion in an absolute banger of a match, is exactly the kind of prospect you sell PPVs and event tickets on. There will have been a not insignificant number of people buying Summerslam for this match and, despite worrying rumours in dirt-sheets over the week leading up about whether Sasha would be cleared due to whatever mysterious reason, there’s no reason in-product to believe the match won’t happen. Yesterday had a full segment dedicated to hyping the bout, we just sat through a multi-minute promo package, Belair is in the ring right now…
…and then Greg Hamilton gets on the mic to say that “Sasha Banks is unable to compete this evening.” No further explanation is given for this. Yet another instance of WWE explicitly selling a match they had no intention of following through on and the crowd just dies at it. Carmella is announced as Sasha’s replacement. Stone silence as she makes her way to the ring followed by disgruntled boos at every word said by Bianca, less aimed at her and more at Creative for the swerve. Five minutes have passed now and investment is audibly through the floor. Carmella’s entrance takes forever, Bianca’s promo takes forever to start and end, audible chants of “bullshit” are flowing through the crowd but soon die away back to stony silence.
Finally, just before the bell can ring to start the substitute match, Becky’s music hits. The crowd does admittedly explode but they’re drowned out by Michael Cole and Pat McAfee’s canned screams and “NONONONONO!!”s and “WHAT?!”s and “NO WAY!”s which greet every single surprise return in WWE. Literally, the second that first note hits, they’re screaming over the crowd and yelling about “ONE OF THE BIGGEST STARS ON THE PLANET!!!” Repeating the full name of “The Man Becky Lynch” over and over again like a corporate soundbite, taking almost a minute before they finally let the bellow of the crowd just sit uninterrupted for more than five seconds, and even then get right back to shilling attendance statistics and repeating the obvious over and over again as soon as possible. The moment is not allowed to just be for so damn long, needlessly overcomplicated to get there and needlessly overproduced when it does happen.
Then, the really egregious stuff starts. As expected, after soaking in the adulation, Becky dumps Carmella out of the ring and stares down Bianca to thunderous “BECKY!” chants. She grabs a mic, proposes that “The Man and The EST blow the roof off this joint for the SmackDown Women’s Championship,” and Bianca, who gets no mic time once Becky enters the picture, non-verbally agrees. Crowd gets hype, bell rings, they circle each other, Becky hits one rough forearm and a Manhandle Slam to squash Bianca in 27 seconds for the title. The crowd pops for the surprise but, as the celebration part of the segment runs on for the next four minutes, they just die off. A crowd that had enthusiastically sang along to the refrain of Becky’s theme for three full minutes earlier just stops cheering the return of the company’s biggest and most beloved star within minutes of her shockingly winning a title. Bianca, for her part, slinks off crying and otherwise doing nothing.
Everything about this was atrociously mishandled. The build-up, as mentioned, was needlessly overcomplicated and built upon deliberately betraying the trust of an audience who expected the thing they had been explicitly promised for the cheap swerve pops. The initial shock of the return drowned under a sea of exhaustingly inane commentary determined to sell the moment through slogans and branding instead of just letting the crowd naturally do it for them. Rather than building to the money match of Becky v. Bianca which would sell a lot of tickets and give both competitors time to deservedly build things up, the trigger got pulled too early and hotshotting a title back onto Becky with shades of Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania IX. And, worst of all, the two-move squash itself, immediately buried the younger (in active pro wrestling experience) talent who got over during the returnee’s absence by making them look like an absolute chump to everybody watching for… what discernible end? Cos everybody looked terrible in this. It’s “Kofi Kingston squashed by Brock Lesnar” levels of bad with similar uncomfortable racial optics.
It’s all very much symptomatic of WWE’s relationship with wrestling at large. Her return and the way in which it was handled is one detrimentally interested in the short-term, one that prioritises the shock of moments over the satisfaction of long-form storytelling. Immediately attached with the “ONE OF THE BIGGEST” corporate stink, minimising the breakout performance of one of their new potentially-crossover stars, and sacrificing both all of the hard thankless work Bianca had put into the title over the past five months and the big money potential of a real Becky/Bianca battle down the line for a cheap pop and social media engagement. I have no doubt that those two will have an actual match at Extreme Rules next month that’ll be very good, but why should I care? Why should I be invested in a proper match when I’ve just seen Becky effortlessly squash Bianca in seconds after a year away? You can, in fact, just not do the match.
This is all extremely disheartening since, again, I don’t want to take a proper side in the AEW/WWE wars. But these two returns, occurring within 24 hours of each other, and the approaches they took are just completely indicative of where the two companies are at right now. One lets the return breathe, allows the natural crowd energy to sell the gravity of the situation to a viewer, has the returnee set-up an enticing programme for the future which puts over the prospects of talent who got over in their absence, and demonstrates a company willing to repay fan trust by giving them what they want in a satisfying payoff. The other… doesn’t, quite simply. Becky’s return is carny as all fuck, built upon a betrayal of audience trust yet still demanding said audience continue trusting in the WWE anyway because maybe the next SmackDown will rehab Bianca’s character or lead to Becky doing a heel turn or something to justify the bitter-tasting shenanigans. “It’s just a little squashed! It’s still good, it’s still good!”
One company currently respects me as a wrestling fan. The other laughs in my face that “it’s such good shit, pal!” Never has that been more apparent than in the last 24 hours.
Words: Callie Petch