SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
I write this while STILL in the merchandise line at the United Center. Think they have any of the new, one of a kind “I was there” C.M. Punk shirts left?
Tony Khan, Punk, and anyone else in AEW that was involved in the creative process for how the debut would be booked, promoted, and executed, take a bow. The combination of leaked news regarding Punk’s return, on-air teases for Punk, and the fact that the show everyone was at in the first place felt like a one-off special event was the smoothest cultivation of anticipation in wrestling in quite some time.
It was palpable. Yes, the audience knew Punk would be making his AEW debut on this show. No secret there and that fact helped achieve the goal. Knowing, but not knowing when or how things would go down fanned conversations a-plenty in the concourse, which generated added excitement for what folks knew they’d see. Like a spider’s web, you could feel different people pick up ideas on the debut as they walked and passed them along to others, building a legitimate buzz in the building for Punk, what he would do, and the impact he’d have long term.
AEW was ready to capitalize and boost that excitement. The episode of Dark that was shot featured over acts like Tay Conti, Pac, Frankie Kazarian, Thunder Rosa, a special appearance from Britt Baker, and more. Baker was the star of the episode. Her demeanor on the microphone leaned into a heelish direction in terms of tone, but the Chicago audience gave her a superstar reaction – a warmup for the reaction they’d give Punk a little later in the night.
Between every taped AEW Dark match, the audience fired up a “C.M. Punk” chant. Not pocketed groupings of mistimed chants around the building either. They were full-fledged, full building, passionate, and excited calls for the debuting star. Think disgruntled 2016 WWE fans venting at Roman Reigns in terms of volume.
When Dark concluded, the humming buzz of the audience grew louder and louder, even turning into chants for Justin Roberts when it needed somewhere to go. Tony Khan walked out and the audience responded by standing to their feet and loudly applauding their long-lost leader like cult followers. The anticipation built and built until the Rampage opening hit. Then?
Batshit crazy. The Punk chants rained down loudly across the arena and only subsided when Cult of Personality hit, pivoting the chants into a raucous cheer of a deprived audience being fed their guy for the first time in seven years.
When C.M. Punk walked out onto the stage, the reaction elevated in excitement and then sustained as he walked down the ramp. Genuine emotion. The audience threw it at Punk, Punk absorbed it with a tear in his eye, and then tossed it back to the audience. A balancing of the artistic equation of pro wrestling.
You don’t get to have your cake and eat it very often, but Tony Khan basked in the glory of both on Friday night. His strategy of hyping, but not promoting Punk’s appearance delivered for both masters he was serving. The debut did big numbers. 1.1 million viewers for the full episode of Rampage and a .53 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic to be exact. The debut also was a tremendously special moment for AEW, the professional wrestling business, and the fans. Can they maintain? Time will tell. On this night and in the building, that question didn’t matter.