By the time CM Punk walks down the aisle for UFC 203 on September 10, it will have been a whopping 959 days since the last time he publicly competed in any sort of official athletic contest, his last event being WWE’s 2014 Royal Rumble. But what’s even crazier is the building in which he will return to combat sports — Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena — is the exact same building he walked out of on January 27, 2014, when he decided he had enough of WWE and went home.
Much has been written about Punk’s acrimonious departure from WWE, and there’s no need to rehash it here. Instead, let’s take a look at Punk’s history with “The Q.” While it’s not an arena one might readily associate with the former WWE Superstar’s career (obviously, the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., is the most iconic backdrop for Punk’s success), there’s a surprising amount of symbolism and career milestones inside this building.
While CM Punk had spent years wrestling in various venues around Cleveland on the independent circuit (this battle royal from 2001, also featuring very young versions of Chris Hero and Colt Cabana, was one of his first appearances on a pro wrestling card in the city), his first WWE wrestling match inside the Q was against Hardcore Holly on the March 20, 2007, episode of ECW. It also marked the debut of his now-iconic Go to Sleep finishing move on TV (though it wouldn’t be identified by name until a few weeks later).
The Cleveland crowd, always a hotbed for indie wrestling, roots for him the whole way. This should come as no surprise, either. Sure, Punk wasn’t from there, but he knew what it took to survive in a large, cold, Midwestern city, as he pointed out in his speech at an awards show in 2014. (Full disclosure: I was his speechwriter for said awards show.)
“Chicago’s a lot like Cleveland: You gotta be tough,” Punk told the crowd that night. “The winters suck. The traffic sucks. A lot of our sports teams suck. That’s okay because those are the things I’ve lived with … We grow up with that and it makes us stronger, more unique people. The kind of people who refuse to take no for an answer. The kind of people who are constantly pushing and thinking 10, 12, 36 steps ahead of the world. The kind who the rest of the world is continually trying to catch up with.”
In January 2014, Punk was able to be that person who wouldn’t take no for an answer, when he chose to quit WWE on his own terms — but in 2008, he wasn’t so lucky. Going into September 2008’s Unforgiven PPV, held at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Punk was the World Heavyweight Champion, having pulled the title away from Edge earlier that summer using his Money in the Bank briefcase. He successfully defended it against JBL at SummerSlam the month prior, but behind the scenes, management had soured upon Punk as the champ, and used the evening’s odd stipulation — a championship scramble match — to pull the title from him without even having him compete. (A backstage vignette was filmed where Randy Orton and his cronies beat down Punk as an excuse to have him pulled out of the main event. The title was eventually won later in the evening by Chris Jericho.)
Following that indignity, Punk went on to have a slew of memorable matches in the Q, possibly to make up for that involuntary no-show — there was an overlooked gem in 2009 with Matt Hardy (featuring a run-in from The Undertaker), a picture-perfect hot tag from John Cena in 2011 against the short-lived Awesome Truth pairing, and a 2012 match against The Miz with a great GTS-into-Skull Crushing Finale-into-Anaconda Vice finishing sequence.
But what might be his most memorable appearance in the Q was a 2010 match against Kane, smack dab in the middle of his stellar Straight Edge Society heel run. The bout itself isn’t much to write home about, but the fun part is Punk’s entrance, where he revealed his new luchador look, thanks to having his head shaved the previous Sunday by Rey Mysterio Jr. Few people could get the crowd reaction that he did simply by taking a towel off his head without saying a word.
Despite being advertised on the card, Punk did not appear at Cleveland’s lone Monday Night Raw broadcast in 2013 that September, ostensibly selling a beatdown from Ryback, Curtis Axel and Paul Heyman from Night of Champions the night before. In reality, though, Punk was in Cleveland that night — only he was a few blocks away from the Q at the House of Blues, seeing AFI (the band whose “Miseria Cantare” served as Punk’s walkout music on the indies for years). As someone who was in attendance at Raw that night, I can tell you that the crowd was surprised and saddened that Punk didn’t show, not even for a dark match. But there was hope: Raw was already booked to return to the Q in January 2014, the night after the Royal Rumble. Surely, Punk would be there.
Again, despite being advertised on the card, Punk did not appear in Cleveland. Of course, we all know what happened there: Hours before showtime on January 27, 2014, CM Punk decided to end his WWE career — not via a fawning main event segment dedicated to his retirement, but via a stormy argument with top-level brass. Obviously, the arena audience was not clued in, and once again went home disappointed that their tattooed, punk-rock hero was a no-show. Even WWE didn’t know if this was a permanent severing of ties — as the crowd filed out of the building, they were handed fliers with CM Punk’s likeness to advertise the next Raw in Cleveland later in the year.
After six years of WWE-sanctioned competition inside the Quicken Loans Arena, CM Punk finished with an impressive 5-2 record. Of course, those results were predetermined, those matches pre-planned, those promos scripted. Now, Punk will begin his UFC career in the exact same building his WWE career came to an end. Nothing is scripted. The only way to win is to incapacitate your opponent before he does the same to you.
Punk has said that by simply climbing into the Octagon, he’s already won — and given Cleveland’s longtime support of the man, the crowd response on September 10 is likely to be overwhelmingly positive. But something tells me Punk would like nothing more than to erase all previous memories of competing inside the Q and start fresh with a new record: 1-0.