Best of 2023: Pro Wrestling Recap

2023 continued to be an insane year in the world of professional wrestling. From unforeseen returns to unbelievable storylines, wrestling persists in being one of the most interesting, engaging forms of entertainment available.

I'm grateful that I get to share a little slice of this often misunderstood world with folks and maybe encourage others to give it a try. Professional wrestling has sport, theater, spectacle, emotion, and the best part of all: no end in sight. You can always pick it up immediately and quickly be caught up in the world, making it more accessible than other long-running book or television series.

The art of professional wrestling is real, and I'm here to break down the best (and, admittedly, sometimes worst) of 2023.

Mercedes Moné Debuts (January 4, 2023 – Wrestle Kingdom 17)

A young woman standing in a wrestling ring.

On May 16, 2022, Sasha Banks walked out of the WWE following alleged disputes over booking and treatment. At the time, she was one half of the Women’s Tag Team Champs, but rumors claimed that she and her partner Naomi disagreed with how these new belts were being presented and, subsequently, how the two of them were being treated. Once it was quickly established that the walkout was not a storyline and Sasha’s future with the company was all but over, she immediately became one of the hottest free agents on the market.

Where would she go? AEW is always a viable option States-side for former WWE talent to stretch their legs under different creative control. Impact Wrestling is also a possibility for folks looking for something new. Outside of the United States, New Japan continues its reign overseas, though the presentation given of its women’s roster is disproportionate to the men. However, the rumor mill swirled with talks of Sasha Banks (real name Mercedes Varnado) making the international leap to NJPW and appearing at Wrestle Kingdom 17, Japan’s equivalent to the WWE’s WrestleMania.

Shortly after the inaugural IWGP Women’s Champ Kairi successfully defended her title against Tam Nakano on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 17, the newly-dubbed Mercedes Moné -- decked in fire-dyed hair and an ostentatious headpiece reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty -- sauntered down to the ring to confront the champ and claim her place in line. A month later, Moné would dethrone Kairi and win the IWGP Women’s Championship at Battle of the Belts in San Jose. Her reign on top would end in April, though, when she would lose to Mayu Iwantani, “The Icon of Stardom.” Since then, she’s been out with an injury, not quite meeting the incredible hype her return generated. In her absence the new question has been posed: when she’s healthy again, is WWE still off the table? Fans waiting for their answer can check out some of her famous NXT matches that set her on the course to be one of the hottest women wrestlers in the world.

Vince McMahon Returns (January 9, 2023)

An older man holding a microphone and standing in a wrestling ring.

No lie, I’m kind of a fan of the fact that a couple of the topics I discussed in last year’s recap are getting revisited here because it further supports the idea that professional wrestling goes on forever. (This will not be the last example of this!) In late July 2022, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon “resigned” from his position amidst hush money allegations regarding inappropriate relationships he had with former employees. I asked back then if he was really, truly gone and 2023 gave me an answer: nope!

Instead of returning to the helm as chairman, McMahon was made a board member of the company and “[did] not intend for my return to have any impact on [the management team’s] roles, duties, or responsibilities.” The rest of 2023 seems to confirm that McMahon has removed his previous stranglehold on the creative choices made and has let his son-in-law Paul Leveque continue in that position. For more information on the life of one of the most polarizing figures in professional wrestling, author Abraham Riesman wrote an incredible biography on the life of Vince McMahon titled Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America that can be placed on hold through the online catalog.

However, McMahon’s return also brought with it rumors that the company was looking to be sold…

Sami Zayn Turns on The Bloodline (January 28, 2023 – Royal Rumble)

A man lies on his stomach surrounded by flowers.

At the end of 2022, fans watched as The Bloodline stood tall together during November’s Survivor Series: WarGames event. Sami Zayn had established himself as a trustworthy Honorary Uce, helping the faction claim victory over the opposition which included Zayn’s former best friend, Kevin Owens. In the fallout, Owens challenged Reigns for a chance at his Undisputed WWE Universal Championship at the Royal Rumble in January. While Zayn had proved himself loyal, Reigns’ leadership was tinged with pettiness, and he forced Zayn to accompany him to the ring to watch his former best friend fall. While Owens had Reigns on the ropes multiple times throughout the match, Reigns has been the proverbial cockroach during this reign. He brutalized Owens to pick up the pinfall victory.

But the embarrassment didn’t end there, as Roman ordered the Usos and Solo Sikoa to continue the beatdown while Sami watched in horror. Owens ended up handcuffed to the ropes, repeatedly getting kicked by the Usos while Reigns lingered in the background with a steel chair. When the champ finally approached the defeated Owens, trash-talking the friendship he used to have with his member of The Bloodline, Zayn had seen enough. He intervened with the Tribal Chief, stepping in front of the incoming blow and saying that this level of violence was beneath him, that he’d made his point. 

Did I mention that Roman Reigns was petty? Instead of listening to the pleas of his family (the term he just threw in Owens’ face), he instead thrust the steel chair into Zayn’s hands and ordered him to finish the job. When Sami resisted, Reigns pie-faced the Honorary Uce and badmouthed his loyalty. For the briefest of moments, you see Sami pull up against Roman and go nose-to-nose with him before quickly ducking his head and breaking eye contact. Reigns gives the final instruction and walks away, turning his back on Zayn while the crowd chants, “Sa-mi! Sa-mi!”

Dramatic theater wishes it could create this level of tension.

Zayn winds up and connects square with Reigns’ back, sending the Tribal Chief to his knees while the Alamodome crowd erupts in thunderous support. Legitimately, I have never heard a crowd cheer more loudly for anything that wasn’t a returning wrestler or someone winning a match. Zayn had become the most sympathetic wrestler on the roster and his work opposite Reigns is one for the record books. He immediately drops the chair, turns to Jey Uso – the man whose trust he finally gained in November – and apologizes. Jey’s disbelief and confusion lead to him walking out of the ring, not joining in the beatdown his brothers are delivering to Sami, but not saving him either. After all of Jey’s issues with Reigns over the past few years and the unwavering support he received from Sami, Jey’s loyalty appeared to be the next domino to fall in this story.

You can watch the entire match, fallout, and the rest of the Royal Rumble by placing a hold on the Royal Rumble 2023 DVD through the online catalog.

Sami Zayn vs Roman Reigns (February 18, 2023 – Elimination Chamber)

A man flies over the top rope of a wrestling ring.

After the events of the Royal Rumble, Sami Zayn had had enough of Roman Reigns’ bullying and his treatment of the rest of The Bloodline. It was obvious that Roman needed them more than they needed him. Sami wanted his chance to dethrone the king and end The Bloodline once and for all. In his mind, there was no better place to do that than in his hometown of Montreal for Elimination Chamber.

Roman Reigns was undefeated, but he was not undefeatable. The cracks in his defense were growing larger and his continued reliance on a stable that was crumbling around him had to eventually break. Fans knew that he had to lose one day, but no one had come close to realistically achieving that throughout his years-long reign. The beauty of pro wrestling is that storylines can absolutely be written out months and years in advance, but injuries – or fan support – can cause companies to call an audible and coronate someone new.

Could that person be Sami Zayn?

For fans, this felt like history repeating itself. Sami’s meteoric ascent to the main event and his connection with fans harkened back to Daniel Bryan’s rise and ultimate triumph at WrestleMania 30. Bryan was not considered “main event material” within the WWE despite his global accolades, and fans voiced their disagreement every chance they could. It is widely accepted that Bryan’s addition to the main event of WrestleMania 30 was a Hail Mary from a company that refused to listen to what fans wanted for the longest time.

Sami Zayn is main event material. His time on the main roster in WWE did not live up to his tenure in NXT, WWE’s former “developmental” brand which during his run felt more like a third, independent brand. But he’s a former NXT Champion and capable of acting as WWE’s champion. Fans were behind him. He had the chops, both in the ring and on the mic. But most importantly for wrestling, the story was there: Sami had been trying to prove himself to The Bloodline for over a year. He earned the trust of everyone involved but, once on the inside, saw that the man he called his Tribal Chief was nothing but a coward. He was fighting in his hometown. Someone had to slay Goliath, and Sami was volunteering as David.

At Elimination Chamber, the rumble coming from the crowd from the outset of the match was palpable: Sami had a chance. Small, but not impossible. The biggest obstacle working against Sami was that WrestleMania was six weeks away. Cody Rhodes had won the 2023 Royal Rumble, guaranteeing him a match against the champion – whoever it was – at that year’s WrestleMania. Would WWE jerk the rug on their plans for their biggest night of the year?

Zayn and Reigns rocked the house, keeping the Montreal crowd invested the entire way through. Ref bumps and interference from The Bloodline abounded, but it wasn’t until Jey hit the ring that the tension ratcheted skyward.

Jey still hadn’t established his alignment with either man after what happened at Royal Rumble. Once Roman pulled a steel chair to use against Sami, Jey inserted himself between the two men. (Sound familiar?) Instead of stopping, Roman handed the chair to Jey and told him to finish the job himself. (Sound familiar??) When Jey hesitated a moment too long, Roman pie-faced his younger cousin and berated him for his inaction. (Sound familiar???) Before Jey could make his decision, Sami stirred and attempted a spear against the champ, who ducked out of the way and let Jey take the full brunt of the move. Roman capitalized on the confusion and pinned Zayn to remain champ.

Afterward, Kevin Owens stormed the ring to clear out the trash. The relationship between Owens and Zayn was left ambiguous, though: was Owens there as backup or was he getting revenge? Six weeks remained until WrestleMania 39. The Bloodline continued to stand tall. But it felt like the clock was ticking for Roman’s time as champ, and Cody Rhodes was waiting for him.

Catch Zayn’s and Reigns’ match and the rest of the card by checking out the Elimination Chamber 2023 DVD available through the online catalog.

MJF vs Bryan Danielson (March 5, 2023 – AEW Revolution)

Two men stand side by side with promotional text surrounding them.

Time for some AEW!

In November 2022, Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) defeated Jon Moxley to become the AEW World Champion. He may have used nefarious means to do so – enlisting William Regal to feed him brass knuckles even though Regal was actively aligned with Moxley – but he’s also a character known for cheating as often as he breathes. Frequently lauded as one of the “four pillars” of the company, MJF’s ascent to the highest possible rank within AEW thrilled fans. (It was just unfortunate that he was unable to do so defeating CM Punk whom he had built up a SIGNIFICANT rivalry with but who was forced to vacate the title a couple months prior due to shenanigans but… Oh well.)

With everything in wrestling, though, the show must continue and MJF needed a new opponent to test his chops as the big man on campus. With Regal’s betrayal of Moxley and the greater Blackpool Combat Club, current BCC member Bryan Danielson stepped up to air his grievances with Regal and MJF and place himself firmly in line to fight for the belt. For fans interested in Danielson’s journey years prior within WWE, folks can check out Yes!: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania and place a hold through the online catalog.

Lead-up to the match hinted that there was no way that MJF could hang with Danielson, who was arguably one of the greatest active professional wrestlers in the world. The stipulations were raised to make the match a 60-minute Iron Man match, where competitors try to get as many pinfalls and submissions within the time limit. Danielson’s MO is that he can wrestle circles around folks, touting his cardio as unmatched and firmly believing MJF wouldn’t stand a chance against him. How would AEW pit its current champ – and home-grown star – versus a global wrestling icon?

The two men put on a bloody, violent hour of wrestling, ending with a 3-3 tie that included a DQ from a low blow, an elbow drop to the outside of the ring, and MJF throwing a fan’s drink into the face of a child. (Side note: MJF is known for “living his gimmick” and being the same arrogant jerk outside the ring as he is inside the ring. Internet fans criticized MJF drenching the young fan and stories after the fact revealed that the kid and the kid’s mother were upset with the wrestler.) Fans in the arena booed the 3-3 ending; a tie favors the champ but is not definitive, and MJF was in a position where he had so much to prove. While he would keep his championship, his first title defense would be inconclusive.

The decision was made to go into “sudden death” with the next pinfall or submission claiming all and, hilariously, rendering everything written above about MJF's need to prove himself moot. Instead of being the better wrestler, MJF revealed himself to be, as usual, the better cheater, and clocked Danielson out of sight from the referee with an oxygen tank hidden underneath the ring. MJF slapped one of Danielson’s finishing submissions on the American Dragon and forced him to tap. MJF was better than Danielson and now everyone knew it.

Perennial wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer awarded the match 5¾ stars, exceeding the usual cap of 5 stars for matches that hit all the notes. Not only did MJF cement himself as AEW’s top guy against one of the top guys in the business, but he also got the elusive approval from Meltzer himself. MJF has remained AEW World Champion through 2023 with no serious competitors in sight.

Roman Reigns Retains (April 2, 2023 – WrestleMania 39)

A close up of a disappointed man.

In the six weeks following the events of Elimination Chamber, Sami Zayn was betrayed by Jey Uso who firmly aligned himself with his brother (and fellow Tag Team Champ) Jimmy Uso. Zayn and Kevin Owens mended fences and decided that for The Bloodline to fall, the foundation needed to crumble first. The two of them focused their attention on the Usos and challenged them for their Undisputed Tag Team Championships in the main event of Night 1 of WrestleMania.

The Usos came out unsupported by their Tribal Chief and unsupported by the fans. Sami and Kevin went into the match looking for a fight and looking to finally rip apart the faction that had been holding the company hostage for three years. The two of them dominated the Usos and became the new Undisputed Tag Team Champions. SoFi Stadium erupted for their victory but also for what was to follow: the Usos first, Roman Reigns next.

On Night 2, Cody Rhodes walked to the ring amongst thunderous cheers. For the man who just a few years prior had helped form WWE’s direct competition, he was now main eventing WrestleMania, a possibility that had never been within reach during his previous time with the company. Soaking in the adulation, he watched as Roman Reigns made his way to the ring flanked by Solo Sikoa and Paul Heyman. The absence of the Usos was heavily noted.

Shortly after the match began, the referee ejected Sikoa who had routinely assisted Reigns in his previous victories. Paul Heyman, who remained at ringside, was no match for Rhodes.

After a ref bump, however, the Usos revealed themselves to help their Tribal Chief but were quickly neutralized by Zayn and Owens. Before the new champs left, they delivered their own finishers to the prone Reigns. Cody crawled to the champ for a pin, but only got a two count. The crowd was electric.

Cody hit Roman with his late father’s finishing move, even throwing in a classic Dusty Rhodes shimmy. Cody hit Roman with two Cross Rhodes, his own finisher, and went for a third to hit those final nails in the coffin. Paul Heyman clambered onto the ring apron to distract the ref while Cody revved up, only to be hit by a Samoan Spike from Solo Sikoa, who had snuck back to the ring. Solo was never spotted by the ref, Reigns hit Rhodes with one spear, and covered the American Nightmare for three. Roman Reigns was still your Undisputed WWE Universal Champion.

(If these blog posts had an audio component, this is the record scratch.)

Wait. What? Roman Reigns… won? But… What?!

Look no further than the split crowd reactions once that final bell rang. For some, Roman’s continued reign was a given. He had been champion for over two and a half years at that point and was well on his way to solidifying himself in the record books. For others (including myself), Cody’s loss was mind-boggling. WWE had fallen backwards into one of the most compelling storylines they’d had in years. Roman had been on top for closing in on 1,000 days, and WWE had been creating a worthy opponent for the past year in someone who was looking for that redemption. The Bloodline was understandably crumbling, heightened by Jimmy and Jey’s loss the night before. The table had been set for the Head of the Table to fall… and he didn’t.

As we creep toward the end of December, Roman Reigns is still champ (although he is now simply the Universal Champion; stay tuned), Jey has split from Jimmy, and The Bloodline storyline has fizzled into nothing. What could’ve ended in a white-hot fashion has simply slowed into an overly-exhausted plot that will undoubtedly reignite in January when the next Royal Rumble winner is crowned.

To watch both nights of this historic event, check out the WrestleMania Goes Hollywood DVD by placing a hold on it through the online catalog.

Endeavor Buys WWE (April 3, 2023)

The logos for Endeavor, WWE, and UFC.

Mere hours after their biggest event of the year, WWE announced that Endeavor, the parent company of UFC, would be buying the pro wrestling giant and merging it with their MMA branch to form a new publicly traded company. Their Wall Street ticker? TKO.

And you can’t keep a man like Vince McMahon in the shadows for too long. Endeavor named McMahon Chairman of TKO, placing him back in a significant position of power, albeit one not nearly as powerful as his reign in WWE. For now, he also remains removed from creative decisions within WWE.

Even well into 2023, it’s difficult to see how much this acquisition and merger will impact WWE. But not having a McMahon as sole owner of the company is unprecedented and worthy of note. Additionally, it may be the push to encourage athletes in both groups to shoot for something never attained by either combat sport: unionization. At a combined enterprise value of $21 billion, the argument can be made that maybe these athletes deserve a bigger slice of the pie. Or health insurance.

Seth Rollins Becomes “Inaugural” WWE World Heavyweight Champion (May 27, 2023 – Night of Champions)

A smiling man holds a wrestling championship belt over his head.

To emphasize the corner WWE had painted themselves into with the retention of Reigns’ championship at WrestleMania 39, the company announced at the end of April that they would create a “new” World Heavyweight Championship that would be distinguished from Reigns’ Undisputed WWE Universal Championship.

At WrestleMania 38 in 2022, Roman Reigns entered as the Universal Champion. He was wrestling against Brock Lesnar who held the WWE Championship. Whoever won that match would carry both titles and become the undisputed champion. (It was up to WWE whether they would keep these titles separate for individual title defenses like they’ve done previously; for example, Seth Rollins was once simultaneously WWE Champion and United States Champion, but defended both titles separately.)

Reigns was regularly announced as the “Undisputed WWE Universal Champion,” clearly marking that these titles had become one over the course of his reign. But the infrequency of his title defenses made it difficult to meaningfully promote a champion of the company that was 1) realistically beatable (at this point), and 2) regularly on television. In addition to Reigns not consistently defending these titles on premium live events, sometimes he was absent from television altogether.

On the April 24 episode of Raw, it was announced that the WWE would go through a draft separating the roster between Monday Night Raw and Friday’s SmackDown. (This is a common occurrence within WWE to, theoretically, allow other wrestlers to shine since they won’t be splitting their screen time between two shows. 1) It never works out that way, because 2) it never lasts. But here we are again.) Additionally, with this brand split, new titles would be created to allow wrestlers on specific rosters an opportunity to compete for those belts.

SmackDown drafted Roman Reigns, thereby taking his belt – now reverted back to the WWE Universal Championship – with him to be defended only by SmackDown competitors. On this same episode of Raw, the “new” WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt was unveiled. It would be fought over through a single-elimination bracket with the two finalists clashing at Night of Champions in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Any of the men selected for the tournament had a very real chance of being the inaugural champion, but two early favorites (mostly fueled by rumors) were AJ Styles and Seth Rollins. Lo and behold, the two men made it to the finals and squared off on May 27 from the Jeddah Super Dome where they had a fantastic match; Styles had been out of action for months at this point, so it was great to see him still performing on an expected level. Rollins scored a pinfall victory by delivering a Stomp to AJ’s head, leaving Saudi Arabia as the inaugural WWE World Heavyweight Champion. You can catch the entire match and the rest of the event on the Night of Champions DVD available through the library.

After Seth’s victory, he wasted no time establishing that he would be a working champion unlike a certain Tribal Chief on SmackDown. He would regularly be on television and would regularly defend his title at premium live events, making his title the “real” major championship worth pursuing. As with all professional wrestling, this is where rumors and reality become grey: WWE only had itself to blame for Reigns’ chokehold on two titles for well over a year, and instead of biting the bullet and passing the torch onto a number of obvious candidates, they opted not to. Rollins’ annoyance at Reigns’ part-time contract isn’t unjustified, but how much is the character versus the person speaking?

For whatever it’s worth, Rollins is an exceptional performer both in the ring and on the mic and knows when there’s money to be made. He may believe some of the barbs he’s throwing, but he’s also a professional who won’t let a little personal strife get in the way of selling a story and making money.

AEW: All In London at Wembley Stadium (August 25, 2023)

A promotional graphic for AEW's All In event in London.

Way back in April, AEW owner Tony Khan announced that their annual live event All In would be hailing from London’s Wembley Stadium and would be the first AEW event happening outside of North America. Fans and critics alike were immediately skeptical of this venue due to its size. Wembley’s standard capacity sits around 90,000 people, but the AEW configuration would bring it closer to 84,000 available seats. Regardless of those 6,000 “lost” seats, if AEW could sell out the stadium, this would be the single largest attendance for any professional wrestling ever.

The original record, which stood for decades, was claimed by WrestleMania 3; Gene Okerlund famously announced that the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit set the new indoor-attendance record with 93,173. As the years went on, it seemed very unlikely that the promoted attendance was the actual attendance by paying fans and was more likely to be the total number of people in the building, including the wrestlers and staff of the stadium. Even less gracious speculation believed that Vince McMahon simply made the number up.

Yet another record to beat regarding pro wrestling attendance was for Wembley Stadium itself, also held by WWE: its 1992 SummerSlam event. If AEW could sell out All In, it would defeat WWE on multiple fronts, further fueling the fire between WWE fans and AEW ones.

Tickets went on presale in early May, and word soon spread that over 36,000 tickets had moved. That alone broke AEW’s own records for attendance, but ticket sales continued to grow for the next couple months. When the event was only a few weeks away, reports showed that close to 80,000 tickets had been distributed, the vast majority of them purchased by actual fans and not bots. By the time the event rolled around, AEW confidently announced to its live All In audience that 81,035 fans were in attendance that evening, claiming that it was the largest attended professional wrestling event in history.

Except, it wasn’t. A month after the event, a curious fan submitted an honest-to-goodness FOIA request to determine if that number was legitimate. The response stated that 81,035 was definitively the number of paid tickets for the event, but the actual attendance number (determined by the turnstile counts) was close to 72,265. Nearly 10,000 fewer than the bold claims made by Khan, and well under both the attendance records for both WrestleMania 3 and SummerSlam ’92. Oops.

In AEW’s defense, any wrestling event with over 70,000 fans in attendance should be applauded, especially for a company still in its early years. But the carney roots of wrestling run just as deep in Tony Khan as they do in Vince McMahon, and he couldn’t help boasting that AEW took down the big dog, even if it wasn’t actually true. If only there was something that could make people forget about this blunder of a PR move…

CM Punk Fired from AEW (September 2, 2023)

A man walks away with one arm in the air.

That’ll do it.

Amongst all the talk surrounding the attendance drama of AEW’s All In, bubbling below the surface was another issue. A week prior to the event, rumors (always rumors!) began to spread that CM Punk – the appointed locker room leader for Collision, AEW’s third show – approached wrestler Jack Perry and encouraged him to not use real glass in a separate segment leading up to his match with HOOK. Perry refused and tensions ran high between the two wrestlers, but other than some drama and some gossip, not much came about from this conversation.

At All In, both Perry and HOOK took a bump through the glass windows of a car. Immediately after the bump, Perry directly addressed the camera and seemingly called out Punk for their use of real glass.

Once the match was over, Perry returned to the back to be tended to by medical personnel. Punk’s match was next on the card, forcing him to walk by Perry. As he passed by, Punk turned to Perry and asked him if he had a problem, to which Perry responded that he can refer to what was said to the camera. Unfortunately, Punk took the bait and replied that he could take Perry down in a real fight, laying his hands on the young wrestler. The two scuffled briefly before being broken up, with management scrambling to determine if Punk could (or, frankly, should) go out for his match. After a small delay, Punk headed for the ring, won his match, and left.

Just shy of a full year prior, CM Punk was involved in a different backstage scuffle with other AEW wrestlers and was swiftly suspended for several months. But Khan’s desire then to keep Punk around was apparent as he rewarded him with Collision, AEW’s third show with a separate roster that would keep him away from the men he originally had beef with. Fool Khan once, shame on him. Fool him twice…

Fans were divided on how Punk’s punishment would play out. Supporters shamed Jack Perry’s behavior and disregard for safety, while others couldn’t help but see the common denominator in AEW’s two backstage brawls. The consensus was that neither man handled the situation very well; Jack Perry is only 26 and hasn’t been in the business nearly as long as CM Punk has, but Punk’s role as the clear veteran and locker room leader should mean that he should know better.

A weeklong investigation after All In inevitably lead to the termination of CM Punk from AEW. The company released a statement offering sincere thanks to Punk for his role in the past year. But the cord had been severed. The man who claimed he would never wrestle again thanks to the WWE had found a home in AEW, only to be thrown back out a year later.

Eight years was a long time for Punk to cool off and change his mind about wrestling, and Khan did what many thought to be the impossible in 2021 getting Punk to sign. Now that Punk was a free agent, what was next for the man? Would WWE even try to invite him back into the fold? If they did, would there be a snowball’s chance of him saying yes? This is the man who claimed that WWE ruined Punk’s love of wrestling, putting his life at risk with incorrect medical diagnoses and not treating him as the main eventer he saw himself to be. But if professional wrestling has taught me anything, it’s never say never.

CM Punk Returns to WWE (November 25, 2023 – Survivor Series: WarGames)

A man in a white tee shirt looks at the wrestling crowd.

See what I mean?

While AEW continued to sort out its drama with the release of its biggest star, WWE kept cranking forward. As the company moved into November, its annual Survivor Series event was on the horizon. Originally focused on a traditional survivor series-style match, which was a five-versus-five elimination tag match, the new iteration of the event -- now titles Survivor Series: WarGames -- pitted competitors against each other in, you guessed it, a WarGames match. Instead of all ten competitors available to wrestle, the teams of five enter one at a time, allowing teams to gain advantage over the other. WarGames itself takes place in two conjoined wrestling rings inside a gigantic cage that surrounds both, allowing room for multiple brawls to break out while enclosing opponents in a limiting structure. WarGames is nuts.

Apart from last year's WarGames match (which briefly solidified The Bloodline), most iterations of the match are an excuse to pit 10 wrestlers against one another with the promise of crazy spectacle but little in the way of storyline. The Judgment Day, WWE's hottest heel faction comprised of Damian Priest, Finn Bálor, Dominik Mysterio, and JD McDonagh wrestled alongside Drew McIntyre against a slapdash of babyfaces who were "tired" of The Judgment Day's shenanigans: Cody Rhodes. Seth Rollins, Jey Uso, and Sami Zayn. 

But that’s only four! The story going into 2023’s event was that the good guys were short one man to help take down the bad guys, leading into a perfect opportunity for someone like the long-injured Randy Orton to make his triumphant return.

In fact, WWE made it pretty obvious through dirt sheets that Orton would be returning at the Allstate Arena. It wasn’t like WWE to spoil their own surprise, but it felt expected because of how long Orton had been on the injured list. It was time for him to return. And when his music hit that night, fans greeted him with the cheers he’d earned over his 20-year career. They were genuinely happy to see him.

What fans weren’t anticipating was the fact that Orton was a red herring. Once The Judgment Day lay defeated and the tenuous alliance between the babyfaces could be set aside, fans were given whiplash (in a similar vein to what AEW did in 2021 with Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson at All Out) when Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” began playing throughout the arena. Longtime fans know not to trust the music; an old, tired trope for heels in wrestling is to use a popular wrestler’s music to get that initial pop of excitement only to bring out someone who is not them. You can hear the crowd’s energy die down a little as they wait to see who was coming out. When Chicago’s favorite son strutted out from gorilla, the place exploded. Punk 2021’s return seemed impossible, but this felt beyond unreal. CM Punk back in WWE was truly surreal.

Punk’s first run through WWE is historic, and fans can relive those years through CM Punk: The Best in the World, available through the library’s catalog. Time will tell how Punk’s second run through WWE will play out, especially juxtaposed against someone like Cody Rhodes who came back to a hero’s welcome and is on track to main event WrestleMania against Roman Reigns (again). Punk is at the disadvantage of having left AEW on poorer terms, but there’s no denying the guy’s appeal and fanbase. WWE scored a coup in luring CM Punk back, meaning that 2024 will be another very interesting year in the world of wrestling.