Avid readers will tell you that there are only so many stories out there to be told, and that the skill of a writer lies in their telling. Professional wrestling is well suited to some of these stories.
Wrestling has long favored ‘rags to riches’ characters who work their way up the card and share their humble origins with the audience.
A charismatic world-beating fighter embarks on a quest to avenge another wrestler’s betrayal, or on an extended run to a championship match — it’s often said that the money in pro wrestling storylines lies in the hero’s ‘chase’ rather than their run on top.
Along the way the babyface battles monsters of various shapes and sizes: less subtly the giants and time-displaced foreign heels and face-painted goons and raving madmen who stand across from him in the ring. Or maybe the office itself, personified until recently by a corrupt 77-year-old boss. Or more interestingly, some great internal conflict-self doubt or grief or fear that pushed him onward.
But I’d argue what wrestling has done best, particularly since the 1990s is the voyage and return of the hero. Often this isn’t by choice; injuries or burnout or contract snafus mean a favorite performer takes an extended break from their home promotion, or from wrestling in general. This absence becomes taken for granted, and while fans may miss their hero, wrestling goes on. A return is almost always by definition a surprise, and results in a huge pop from the crowd. But what happens after makes the difference between adding another chapter to a legacy or an uninspiring epilogue to what was if not a celebratory, a satisfying conclusion.
Between AEW and WWE we may be on the verge of a golden age of comebacks.
The birth of AEW gave all manner of talent alienated by Vince McMahon’s stale WWE product a new home and an audience begging for something different. Perhaps the biggest and most successful of these comebacks has been CM Punk, who in the space of a year went from seven years’ retirement to world champion, and is now returning from injury to face similar reclamation project Jon “Not Dean Ambrose” Moxley for the definitive All Elite Wrestling world title.
Since WrestleMania, Vince’s recent ‘retirement’ may have opened the floodgates at WWE. Stars who were misused by McMahon and cut prematurely have started making their way back hoping for a do-over on what it still wrestling’s biggest stage. Karrion Kross, last seen jobbing to a hobbled Jeff Hardy (currently sidelined from yet another in a series of diminishing returns with AEW) in bondage gear and a gladiator mask, swooped into the main event of last Friday’s SmackDown, while Dexter Lumis (who had never made it to the main roster in his recent run) worked his way into the main event scene of Monday’s Raw.
I would argue that for the last few years comebacks have taken on a different meaning. Stars are returning older, after longer layoffs, often in much better shape than they’ve left and more integrated into upper card storylines. Sure mega-stars like John Cena or The Rock will pop occasional pay-per-views then return to their film shooting schedules, but there’s a lot more going on, and as wrestling leadership is changing, hopefully more pathways back to the limelight and better storytelling to support them.
For me, the shift started with Edge in WWE and CM Punk in AEW.
I admit, I’m a huge fan of both men and have followed their comebacks with interest. For one thing, Edge comes from my hometown and won his first Intercontinental title at a house show I attended. After sitting in the nosebleeds for WrestleMania 18 (more on that later), I think that’s my biggest live mark out moment. For another thing, both men are part of the last era where I felt really invested as a fan. I singularly looked forward to their promos and matches and would have bought a ticket to watch either. I suspect that part of this has to do with the fact that both men are around my age; it’s unsettling to think that they retired the way they did, having to redefine themselves at the same time most of us desk jockeys hit our professional stride. It was also a stark reminder that my own athletic prime, such as it was, had passed… or has it?
Edge and Punk are hardly the first to make notable comebacks. WWE, which held the spotlight as the sole major US-based promotion (and has by far the largest media outreach) has regularly brought its most popular acts back; sometimes for one-off appearances, sometimes to rejoin the main roster full-time like Drew McIntyre or Bobbly Lashley. In the best-case scenario, you get a result like McIntyre of Lashley or, at least at the moment, like Kross — where a talented performer receives a stronger push and builds momentum to keep them at the top of the card, where they belong. Rey Mysterio returned a few years ago at the Royal Rumble, along with MVP. Batista came back twice; once in a lackluster run which served to launch Daniel Bryan into the stratosphere, and later to have closure in a solo shot at WrestleMania vs. Triple H. Bryan himself lost years of his career to injury, only to have a successful second act that saw his longest reign as WWE Champion (as an environmentalist heel rather than his white hot ‘Yes!’ chanting babyface persona)… and is now embarking on a third act with AEW, which feels like it has lost the plot in deciding whether he is a face or heel, and a threat or a veteran to highlight new stars.
But the biggest in-ring comeback of all was likely Hulk Hogan’s return to a WWF ring in Toronto at WrestleMania 18. As part of the heel New World Order (NWO) faction which had run roughshod over WCW, Hogan came out after a nine-year absence to ear-splitting cheers. Historians will say the Toronto crowd turned fan favorite The Rock heel against Hogan, but from my vantage point in the cheap seats I remember both men being wildly cheered throughout the night. What was more impressive was Hogan’s hero’s welcome the next night on Monday Night Raw — a sustained ovation that truly turned him babyface and sustained a final World championship run. That reaction has propelled him through a series of lesser comebacks, where increased physical limitations, out-of-ring-scandals, and a lack of contrition for some truly awful racist comments have significantly eroded his legacy. WWE has since tried to parade Hogan in front of a hometown Florida crowd, alongside Goodwill Ambassador Titus O’Neill; the crowd booed him mercilessly. As Gorilla Monsoon might have said, it seems like Hogan went to the well once too often (one could argue that Ric Flair’s supposed last match on July 31 usurps the ‘worst comeback’ title, if only because he apparently passed out twice during the match, but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie).
Coming off his own seven-year hiatus, Punk’s debut with AEW yielded a similar fan reaction. Punk had walked away from wrestling in January 2014, hurt and bitter over his use (or misuse) by WWE. Unlike Hogan, who defected to a rival wrestling promotion, Punk left the ring entirely in favor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s octagon. A late in life start and injuries meant his UFC career was short and undistinguished — he sustained two losses against marginal fighters which, back in the day would have ‘exposed the business.’ But in August 2021, Punk’s return with new rival AEW drew a sustained ovation that rivalled Hogan’s post-Mania Raw appearance. The crowds have cooled off slightly since then as Punk has been slowly rebuilt and taken his first loss in a classic feud with Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF). Punk appears on TV every week. His promo skills may have even sharpened even if it’s clear that he has lost a step or two in ring… but then Punk is around my age, and I’m not delivering flying elbows to my laptop whilst working from home. After gaining retribution against MJF in a brutal dog collar match, Punk has signaled his interest in pursuing the AEW championship. He won, beating the younger if less charismatic Hangman Adam Page, whose weak heel turn to set up the victory didn’t help matters, and swiftly injured himself in a stage dive, necessitating the crowning of Jon Moxley as interim champ and setting up a fight between those two. Giving Punk the title is great fan service, but a reminder why ‘legitimate’ sports teams rarely spend big bucks on older talent — they can be prone to injury. The best measure of Punk’s success may be how he works with younger talent: he sometimes beats them, but more importantly gives them credibility via competitive matches or occasional losses (like MJF). If Punk avoids the Hogan traps of overexposure, overbooking and a horrific lack of self-awareness, his comeback may prove more satisfying from a fan’s perspective than Hogan’s.
Which brings us to Edge. At 48 Edge is a bit older than CM Punk, even if he has trained himself to improbably the best shape of his career. After retiring as WWE World Champion due to a serious neck injury in 2011, he came back at the 2020 Royal Rumble in an absolute shocker. Like Daniel Bryan, I have mixed feelings about this comeback; as a fan of his work as a wrestler I’m thrilled to see him in action, but I cringe a little with every bump, no matter how well protected. Punk’s biggest injury was to his ego; Edge would be sidelined for seven months with a torn triceps, after just a few matches back. Entering the Royal Rumble he still got the huge pop, and has gone on to win the 2021 Royal Rumble, going bell-to-bell, and to main event WrestleMania against two other comeback kids — Daniel Bryan, in one of his last WWE matches, and Roman Reigns (who wasn’t gone nearly as long due to treatment for leukemia, but who was reborn as one of the best pure heels in the business right now). Edge’s in-ring work has been solid, but his booking seems to undermine the best parts of his story. Edge has flipped back and forth between heel and face since his return. I prefer Edge as a heel, but after coming back from a devastating injury and nearly a decade away it’s tough to convince people to boo him — especially against AJ Styles, who has also alternated between good and bad every year or so since joining WWE. WWE seemed to agree and promptly booted him out of his nascent Judgement Day stable. Even as a heel, Edge at his best is driven. His motivation as a heel comes from being the “ultimate opportunist.” This makes sense when a title is on the line or there’s something (like family or a Japanese shampoo commercial) to fight for. In the absence of a solid motivator to bring out that depraved heel, Edge loses his… edge, and the audience starts to drift away to other attractions. I still think his greatest opportunity would have been a rehash of his relationship with Christian, who also came back from an extended concussion-based layoff in the middle of Edge’s winning performance, but was not signed. Christian is such a good heel that he should never be anything else; he’s currently launching devastating worked-shoot promos in AEW after a transitional run as Impact World Champion to tie up a Forbidden Door storyline.
One can argue who was the bigger star during Edge and Punk’s initial runs. In Edge’s comeback, WWE has positioned him similarly to Batista, Goldberg or more recently Cena, but despite his many title runs I don’t think Edge has ever been the face of a brand, nor has he shown the same broad pop culture appeal. His current run doesn’t hurt but unlike those three it’s difficult to see WWE putting a major championship back on him; and without those as a prop his comeback becomes anticlimactic. Punk’s return has been a slower burn; he is also at a stage in his career where a sustained reign on top feels unlikely, although a shorter run would help add credibility to the AEW World title and as a transitional champion he can make a true star. I would suggest Punk’s comeback thus far has been more fun to watch, if only because he’s stayed truer to character. The fact of the matter is that I missed both men in-ring and on the mic, and wresting is better for having them involved. I’m glad that they now have the chance to end their pro wrestling careers more on their own terms, in front of audiences who appreciate them. I can only hope that unlike Hogan and Flair, they have the good sense to know when to ride off into the sunset and leave us still wanting more.
As a wrestling fan, after years that’s just where I’m at; intrigued by new faces and wondering how they will interact with those who are coming back. Free agency has new meaning with early AEW contracts coming due. Cody Rhodes has already leveraged his stint on the indies and with AEW into a major comeback at WrestleMania, and it remains to be seen what happens when he returns from injury. The former Bray Wyatt has sat out a year following his release, while Adam Scherr could be primed for a return to his Brawn Strowman character. Surprisingly, he may be most missed of all as a giant who can actually put on a fun match, after the awkward performances by Omos or Satnam Singh or Shanky. With closer attention paid to long-term booking and an investment in storylines and creative freedom, we could indeed be looking at a new era for wrestling, comebacks included.
TOP PHOTO: Jon Moxley and CM Punk share a moment at AEW Dynamite, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ, on February 9, 2022. Photo by George Tahinos, https://georgetahinos.smugmug.com