During his 10+ minutes with a live microphone on SmackDown last night (Dec. 8), CM Punk covered a lot of ground. Beyond just reminding the WWE audience of Punk’s oratory skill after his first post-return promo on the Nov. 27 Raw was cut short due to time constraints, the segment sought to tease a bunch of different high-profile feuds en route to revealing Punk’s ultimate goal — to main event WrestleMania.
One of those potential feuds was with Kevin Owens, whose current program with Grayson Waller & Austin Theory is built on Owens knocking them both out with one punch in a backstage segment. It provided Punk with an opening to reference his own alleged penchant for backstage punch-outs during his tumultuous two years with AEW.
"I don't know who would feel comfortable working with somebody who randomly just punches people in the face backstage..." @FightOwensFight, you can't be doing that. @CMPunk #SmackDown pic.twitter.com/Rhld9Zahde— WWE (@WWE) December 9, 2023
“And I don’t know who would could feel comfortable working with somebody who randomly just punches people in the face backstage. I mean it’s 2023, ladies and gentlemen, you just can’t be doing stuff like that — that’s insane.”
They’re expertly crafted lines (possibly crafted to work around the NDAs Tony Khan’s lawyers reportedly had most of the people involved in Punk’s backstage dramas at AEW sign). It can simply be taken as a mention of KO’s feud with Waller & Theory. The way Punk tugs at his shirt collar after the first line and smirks after the second indicates its more than that however. But even if so, there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
Was he taking a shot at AEW, or more specifically The Elite? After their backstage fight with Punk at All Out 2022, a lot of people assumed the shoot would eventually become a work — leading to a big money feud between Punk (and possibly FTR) and Kenny Omega & The Young Bucks. It never happened, because Omega & The Bucks weren’t interested... maybe they didn’t “feel comfortable working with somebody who randomly just punches people in the face backstage”.
In this scenario, even if his current storyline didn’t support it, Owens would be the perfect set-up for the jab (pun semi-intended). KO’s friendship with Matt & Nick Jackson of The Bucks is well documented, and he recently gave a lukewarm response when asked about Punk coming back to the WWE. They played this up during a brief backstage interaction between the two men last night, which means we have to consider that everything from Owens’ interview answer to now has been by design.
Or was he poking fun at himself? He leads into the lines by calling Owens “prickly”, which means he & Punk “are too much alike”. Was this — either because he’s actually a changed man after his experiences in AEW or because he’s selling being one to set-up a future twist in his WWE story — a little self-deprecating humor?
Or maybe this was Punk’s latest volley aimed at the “dirt sheets”? By the time the dust settled on Brawl Out, it seemed like everyone agreed Punk threw the first punch when The Elite came into his locker room, but they didn’t agree whether that punch was random or self-defense. Those reports were mostly from Dave Meltzer & Bryan Alvarez of the Wrestling Observer, who Punk repeatedly blamed for only printing what his many enemies at AEW told them. They also led to some moralizing about what’s acceptable backstage and whether there’s any room for the “old school”-style of settling issues behind the scenes in modern wrestling, which could have been the target of Punk’s “that’s insane” — if we read that as sarcastic.
And that’s without even mentioning that Punk could have been referring to his second backstage fight, with Jack Perry after All In 2023. While there apparently wasn’t a “first punch” in that scene, Punk was reportedly the one who instigated things physically — and TK himself admitted he wasn’t comfortable working with him after feeling threatened.
The long list of possibilities does more than just provide plausible deniability if Punk’s remarks caused someone at AEW to call their lawyer. They also provide one possible explanation for why the crowd in Providence, Rhode Island didn’t really react to them.
But more likely than there being too many layers for a quick pop? It was just our latest proof that we fans who follow pro wrestling online and take in every rumor and backstage report are just a small percentage of the audience. And that’s particularly true at a Tribute to the Troops show packed with members of the military who are the very definition of the term “casual fan”. There were a lot of folks in the Amica Mutual Pavilion last night who probably aren’t even up on the Owens/Waller & Theory story, let alone dirt sheet reports from more than a year ago.
Overall though, it should confirm for Triple H & his team that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze when it comes to Punk referencing his recent past on television. At least not in anything more than a general way that could also apply to his first WWE run. “Locker room malcontent” is part of the Punk character that anyone who’s paid attention to wrestling in the 21 century knows. And it’s all that’s necessary to build or add to feuds with Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and even Kevin Owens.
Brawl Out or Jungle Boy references might get certain crowds to go “OOOOOHHHH”, but they’ll leave more people scratching their heads. No selling Punk’s entire AEW is a more devastating shot than anything he could possibly say.