Secret meetings, negotiations and ice cream bars: The inside story of CM Punk's return to wrestling

CM Punk touched by 'overwhelming' reaction to his return (0:41)

CM Punk was flattered by the fan reaction to his return to wrestling and calls it a great sports moment. (0:41)

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- CM PUNK arrived at the United Center in Chicago at about 4:30 p.m. local time on Aug. 20, about 4½ hours before he was scheduled to make his return to professional wrestling after more than seven years away on All Elite Wrestling's "Rampage."

The former WWE champion and UFC fighter was nervous and anxious as he entered his hometown venue. He hadn't slept for two nights. Punk tried to settle down by watching some of the wrestling matches being taped for other AEW shows prior to the live Rampage broadcast, but he couldn't sit still or focus. He was hungry, but he couldn't force himself to eat much.

Punk started second-guessing some things. He gazed down at his black-and-white sneakers and wondered if those were the right ones to wear. He looked in a bathroom mirror to see if his slicked-back dark hair looked OK. He continued to pace around the backstage area, trying to find comfort in a small group of people who he brought along with him, including Nora Flanagan, who he has known since he was 14 years old, and Lou D'Angeli, a former pro wrestling performer who was once known as Sign Guy Dudley in Extreme Championship Wrestling.

With about 15 minutes until showtime, Punk and his friends moved just behind the curtain. Punk, a massive hockey fan, flashed a quick smile. This was a familiar location for him inside of the United Center.

"This is where I always stand for when I do 'Shoot the Puck' for the Blackhawks," Punk told D'Angeli. "I'm always nervous when I'm doing that, so this makes perfect sense that I'm nervous here again."

Finally, the intro music for AEW Rampage played in the arena, marking the start of the broadcast. And when that stopped playing, the "CM Punk!" chants started, even though the sold-out crowd still didn't know for sure he would be there.

That's when Punk's signature entrance music, "Cult of Personality," by Living Colour, blared out of the United Center's PA system -- whipping the crowd into a frenzy, with a climbing decibel level that only grew to greater heights as Punk walked through the tunnel and presented himself to the spectators.

CM Punk makes long-awaited return to professional wrestling

After seven years, CM Punk makes his return to professional wrestling and receives massive cheers on AEW Rampage in Chicago.

Punk, one of the most beloved wrestlers of the modern era, had officially returned to pro wrestling for the first time since he left WWE in 2014 under the most acrimonious of circumstances. On Sunday, he'll perform in his first match back, against Darby Allin -- a wrestler that Punk said would be his favorite if he was a teenager right now --at AEW's All Out pay-per-view event at NOW Arena, near his hometown of Chicago.

The story of Punk's return goes much deeper than that. There were multiple sold-out arenas, record-setting T-shirt sales and $500 ice cream bars along the way, but at its core, it's about a man who has finally come home.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime spot," Punk said of his return. "I'm never going to get a chance to do something like that again. I don't know if there's ever gonna be another chance for anybody to do something like that again. Perfect storm."

TONY KHAN REMEMBERS the first time he sat down for a meeting with Punk. It was the day after Christmas in 2018. Khan, also a Chicago native, was home for the holidays. He was one week away from announcing that AEW, his upstart wrestling promotion, would be launching in 2019 with Khan as the president and CEO. Khan is the 38-year-old son of Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC owner Shad Khan, and has served at an executive level for both professional sports franchises.

Punk, a former WWE headliner who walked away from that company and the industry as a whole in 2014, was at the top of Khan's acquisition list. The two spoke for more than an hour.

"He's one of the biggest stars in all of wrestling, and he was a free agent," Khan said.

Punk, though, was "pessimistic," Khan said. Things between him and WWE ended badly. Punk was sick and injured in those final months, and he left in January 2014 the night after competing in his final WWE match at the Royal Rumble. He was officially fired on his wedding day that June.

WWE doctor Christopher Amann ended up suing Punk for defamation after comments Punk made about his medical treatment with WWE on a podcast -- a lawsuit Punk eventually won, after a long, drawn out process.

After leaving WWE, Punk seemed to want to put the wrestling business behind him. He started training full time in mixed martial arts, was signed to the UFC in December 2014 and competed twice for that organization, in 2016 and 2018. In interviews, Punk was mostly negative about professional wrestling.

"He was turned off by a lot of things that happened after the fact, for the obvious reasons," D'Angeli said. "He needed to take that step away. I wasn't fully convinced he would ever come back. I never asked him, either."

Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, said he never hated pro wrestling, a path he started on as a passionate backyard wrestler in 1999. He had tons of success in the independent wrestling scene, including Ring of Honor, and then signed with WWE in 2005. He described his feelings for the industry as "love-hate."

Even before he officially left the WWE, the way he believed the talent was treated, and how they treated each other, started to sour Punk's long-time passion for wrestling.

"To me, honestly, there's no such thing as 'the boys,'" Punk said, using a wrestling term for the wrestlers or talent. "If there was such a thing as 'the boys,' there would be a f---ing union. And too many times you see people just get so unfairly treated and there's a whole locker room full of people who would be -- if it was them -- be like, 'Hey guys, help me.' And I was one of those people.

"The business is always going to be the business. It's built the way it is. I will always tell individual wrestlers, you have to protect yourself. You can't expect other people to come to your aid. I found out the hard way. There's other people that it's still happening [to]. You can be loyal to a company that wouldn't piss on your ashes if you burned alive or you could just make sure at the end of the day that you're happy and you're healthy."

While the edges of his stark opposition to a wrestling return had softened slightly over the years, it was clear to Khan after the Dec. 26 meeting that Punk was not ready.

"He wanted to see how this thing went," Khan said.

THERE WEREN'T SIRENS signaling Punk's desire to return to wrestling, but little by little there were small signs popping up in unseen corners. In early 2019, Dana Salls Cree got a direct message from a verified account to her business Instagram for Pretty Cool Ice Cream. Salls Cree had started the artisan ice cream bar company in Chicago just a few months earlier.

Punk had been told about her shop from a mutual friend, and there he was in her DMs.

Punk asked Salls Cree if Pretty Cool could make 20,000 ice cream bars. It would have been the most the shop had ever made in an order, but she said it was doable.

"The conversation with him was pretty simple," Salls Cree told ESPN. "He seemed like a good guy. I asked, 'Do you have an event?' He just said, 'I'll say I have an event.' I said, 'Cool, where do you want them?' I didn't pry. I figured if there was more information to come, it would come when it needed to come."

At the time, Punk still had not made up his mind that he would return to wrestling with AEW, though he was starting to consider it, unbeknownst to many. AEW wasn't even a thing yet, officially, as its first event wouldn't happen until May 2019.

But Punk had said for years he wanted to see the return of the old WWF ice cream bars, which were discontinued in 2009 after more than two decades, including an infamous on-air callout for them as he stood in the ring with Vince McMahon himself. He also was inspired by comedian Andy Kaufman, who once took a Carnegie Hall crowd out for milk and cookies.

"It was all part of the plan, and I was just getting my ducks in a row," Punk said. ... "I just think I knew this was something that was going to happen. In order for it to be perfect, that was a main component -- those damn ice cream bars."

AEW'S FIRST PAY-PER-VIEW event, Double or Nothing in Las Vegas on Memorial Day Weekend 2019, came and went. No Punk. The comeback buzz picked up again in late summer. AEW would be running its second PPV in Chicago on Labor Day Weekend. Punk was asked about it often, and Khan said that put some strain on the possibilities. The media, Khan said, "didn't do us any favors."

"The fans really had an expectation," Khan said. "It wasn't anybody's fault. It wasn't like we were trying to give people the perception he was coming and it wasn't like he was trying to give the perception he was coming. But people just really wanted it to happen, because it's just something people really care about."

Punk did return to pro wrestling in 2019, sideways. In November 2019, Punk signed with Fox Sports as part of the panel for its WWE Backstage show on FS1. Punk made it clear that he was working for Fox and not WWE. But Fox was WWE's broadcast partner for the show Smackdown, and that naturally led to more speculation of a return.

Khan was undeterred.

"I was not discouraged, actually," he said. "If he was going to go back there, he would have gone back. He didn't. I was actually somewhat encouraged. The fact that he never went back to wrestle there made me believe this was still definitely possible. It was definitely one of my dreams and aspirations."

Having a good experience with Backstage and enjoying the work alongside host Renee Paquette, the show's producers started to warm Punk up to wrestling again. Earlier that fall, Punk had cleared all his legal situations. In 2018, Punk won his lawsuit against Amann, and in September 2019, he and former friend Colt Cabana settled lawsuits against one another that stemmed from the Amann suit, after Punk appeared on Cabana's podcast.

"That takes a lot out of you," Punk said. "I don't think I was ever coming back while entrenched in [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] suits and whatnot. I think once I was free and clear, I think that's when you can begin to heal from all of that. Honestly, it's what eventually happened."

WWE BACKSTAGE WAS canceled in June 2020 due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. In spring 2020, Khan and Punk started to talk more, and got closer. Khan had no intention of signing Punk and bringing him back with no fans in attendance, so it allowed for what he described as a "low-pressure friendship."

"Everyone is at home more," Khan said. "People are reconnecting with people they haven't talked to as much, and connecting with friends. I talked to him a lot. He was watching the shows and enjoying them. He liked a lot of the young wrestlers who were becoming breakout stars on AEW Dynamite."

Punk said he wasn't sure if he would have returned sooner if not for the pandemic. He joked in the virtual media scrum after his return that he needed to be wined and dined by AEW.

"It's me, and I go to my own speed and I'm on my own dream," Punk told ESPN. "It worked out. I'm pretty guarded and I'm pretty private. So I was just kind of keeping an eye on it and I wanted to see how it was going to turn out."

One of the things that impressed Punk most about AEW was how the promotion and talent dealt with the death of one of its wrestlers, Brodie Lee, last December. No one in the AEW locker room divulged that Lee was sick with a non-COVID-related lung issue -- and Khan didn't even tell Punk, even though by that time they were talking often.

Punk said this week on ESPN's SportsNation that he was "blown away" the locker room was tight-knit enough not to leak the news. It gave him the hope that maybe AEW would be different from his past experiences.

In December 2020, Punk finally took himself out of the UFC's USADA drug-testing pool, rendering him essentially retired from MMA. Meanwhile, Punk said WWE had been reaching out to him about a return as well, through intermediaries. Punk said he did listen to overtures, but they never really got off the ground.

"I remember one of the first things I ever said to them was, 'Above all, don't play games,'" Punk said. "And they played games. Some things never change. ... When you enter a conversation with people you have a past with and you know who they are, how seriously can you take it? I know exactly who they are and they just continue to prove it. I'm trying to be as diplomatic as I possibly can."

ON FEB. 12, Punk answered a fan's Twitter question about which AEW wrestlers he'd most like to work with if he came back. Punk listed five young AEW stars, including Allin. Khan texted him, saying he liked his list.

Within a few weeks, Punk and Khan were talking monetary figures and how he'd debut in AEW.

"Once he wanted to come back, there was nothing standing between us," Khan said. "He was looking to be well compensated, but I would want to compensate CM Punk. That wasn't that hard to figure out. Him wanting to wrestle for AEW was the biggest thing we had to establish. Once we had that established, we all wanted the same stuff."

As these conversations were going on, AEW Dynamite pulled in big ratings on Wednesday nights and became the No. 1 show on cable for the night several times. By January 2020, AEW had already proved themselves a viable entity and signed an extension with TNT that extended through 2023.

Punk said in an interview last year that he would need a fun story to tell and "the stupidest amount of money" to come back. Punk said he's happy with his AEW contract, adding that LeBron James loves basketball, but "he ain't showing up unless you pay that motherf---er, right?" He implied that if he returned to wrestling for the money alone, it would be with WWE.

"What I mean is, it's not all about the money for me," Punk said. "Because if it was, I would have probably been the main event of WrestleMania this past year. Or I would have been at the Royal Rumble. Everybody is different. Every situation is different. There's some people that don't like me, so all they're going to hear is 'Oh, he's just doing it for the money.' And I could give a s---.

"The proof is in the pudding. Does it matter why I'm doing it? Do you really care? If you don't like me, don't watch. It's a perfect storm. It's a lot of everything. It's the money, it's the freedom. It's the creative, and it's the possibility of working with young, talented people that excite me."

KHAN HAD ALL OUT circled for CM Punk's return. But in the spring, Punk had brought up the United Center. Khan looked into it in May or June and saw that the building had Aug. 20 open, so AEW put a hold on that date.

The wrestling website Fightful.com reported July 21 that CM Punk was in discussions for a return to pro wrestling with AEW. Seven days later, AEW announced it would run United Center on Aug. 20 for the second episode of its second cable show, Rampage. The title of the episode would be The First Dance", a takeoff on ESPN's "The Last Dance" documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

On Aug. 2, Punk showed up at Pretty Cool Ice Cream and put down a deposit to buy 15,000 ice cream bars. He and Salls Cree had been talking on and off for two years. The cost for the order would have normally been $84,000, Salls Cree said, but she gave Punk a discount.

"I mean, you write a check for 15,000 ice cream bars, you're pretty much all in at that point," Punk said with a laugh.

On that same day, AEW sold out the United Center in minutes. It would be the promotion's largest live audience to date, although Punk was never officially announced. Fans bought tickets based on reports, rumors and hints made on AEW television, like Allin calling out "The Best in the World" to appear on Rampage.

Punk wanted a surprise element.

"I kind of proposed that it could be the worst kept secret in wrestling, but it's still a secret," Khan said. "And the real gist of it was that 99% deep down you're pretty sure he's going to come out, but it's that 1% doubt that maybe he's not here, that maybe this is all a big put-on, that is what made the reaction in the moment so electric, I think."

Two weeks before Punk's return, he contacted Ryan Barkan, the owner of Pro Wrestling Tees, and told him the news. Pro Wrestling Tees is the leader in non-WWE wrestling merchandise and based in Chicago. Punk needed a new T-shirt for his huge return, so Barkan put him in touch with artist Dave Stenken. They came up with a design and AEW quickly approved it. The shirts would be ready for Aug. 20.

Barkan had to have the shirts printed at a different warehouse, so his staff didn't know what was going on. He delivered the first batch, which were customized with an "I was there" message for all in attendance, himself. Meanwhile, Salls Cree and her nine employees at Pretty Cool were carrying the Punk ice cream bars up by hand from their downstairs freezer before driving them over.

Punk arrived early at the United Center and got a text from his lawyer while there. He told Punk that he should probably sign his AEW contract before appearing on television, so he did that about 30 minutes before the start of Rampage.

Before the show began, Barkan took his seat in the front row. Punk came out to one of the loudest reactions in the history of pro wrestling. On his phone, Barkan was watching the Pro Wrestling Tees website traffic -- and the site immediately crashed when the T-shirts went live. Lines for the shirt at the United Center climbed up escalators and throughout the concourse.

The website came back online 12 hours later, and that weekend the Punk return shirts surpassed the company's all-time selling shirt record.

The classic Bullet Club T-shirt from New Japan Pro Wrestling previously held the record with 35,000 shirts sold, over seven years. The new CM Punk shirts sold more than that in less than three days, even with the site crashing. Barkan said the new Punk shirts are on pace to reach more than 100,000 sold and orders have come from as far away as Malta, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

Back at United Center, Punk was nearly brought to tears as he walked out. He slapped hands, hugged fans and did a stage dive into the crowd at one point. Inside the ring, he cut an emotional promo about his pro wrestling journey, the city he loves and why he wanted to return in front of his hometown fans. At the end of his speech, Punk told the 15,316 fans that on their way out there would be ice cream bars "on me."

The next morning, a wide-eyed Salls Cree watched the segment on YouTube from home. Up until that point, she really had no idea what all those ice cream bars were for. Her husband woke her up and she opened Instagram to 90 messages, mostly of people wanting the Punk ice cream bars, some from as far away as Italy and Colombia.

She looked on eBay and saw some people selling wrappers from that night for as much as $800. One fan bought a frozen, uneaten Punk ice cream bar on the site for $500. There will be 4,000 more Pretty Cool ice cream bars sold this week at the NOW Arena.

"I don't think I quite understood how beloved he was to this city," said Salls Cree, a Seattle native. "But the Chicago that I've gotten to know and the way they showed up for him, and he showed up for them. That was so Chicago to me."

DURING PUNK'S ON-AIR speech, AEW sent out a news release with a quote from Punk simply stating: "I'm back," just as Jordan had done when he returned to the Bulls in 1995.

When he got back behind the curtain, Punk saw Khan first, then walked down the stairs to hug D'Angeli.

After the embrace, Punk asked D'Angeli, "So, how was it?"

D'Angeli looked back at his longtime friend and replied: "You know how it was."

Even days later, Punk was still living in the energy of that moment.

"Soak it in, man. Just enjoy it," Punk said. "It doesn't matter what happens in five minutes. It doesn't matter what happens in five weeks. Tomorrow does not exist. Yesterday does not matter. Everything was about the present. And I think just as human beings, not enough of us take moments to just be present."