As of Jan. 12, 2023, it feels like we’ve seen the last of CM Punk in pro wrestling, let alone All Elite Wrestling.
The lasting image of Punk sitting next to Tony Khan at the All Out 2022 post-show media scrum and treating it as though it were a Festivus dinner — fulfilling the “airing of grievances” and the “feats of strength” with the “Brawl Out” fiasco — will mar plenty of fans’ perceptions of his All Elite tenure, but it shouldn’t tarnish the full picture of what he accomplished with the promotion.
When looking at what Punk produced in the ring and on the mic for AEW, there are plenty of fond memories to recollect, and his feud with Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF) sits near the top of that list.
A conflict born out of childhood idolization that devolved into a deep resentment, Punk and MJF verbally sparred for weeks before the two finally wrestled each other in Punk’s hometown on the Feb 2, 2022, episode of AEW: Dynamite. Punk and MJF scribed an entertaining first chapter in Chicago that ended with Wardlow covertly handing Friedman the Dynamite Diamond Ring and Friedman striking Punk with it to score the ill-gotten win.
Two weeks later, Punk announced the stipulation for the rematch, and given how connected he and MJF were (and still are), only one gimmick match made sense…
Daily DDT writers voted for the Dog Collar Match between CM Punk and MJF as AEW’s match of the Year.
Punk decided that Friedman — a man who grew up as a huge Punk fan to the point where he actually met and took a photo with “The Second City Saint” — needed to learn the same lessons that helped mold Punk into the legendary wrestler fans know him as today, and thus elected to chain himself to his younger rival in a Dog Collar match.
In general, the Dog Collar match carries a violent reputation — thanks to the Roddy Piper vs. Greg Valentine match from Starrcade ’83: A Flare for the Gold that Punk referenced when he announced the match — and AEW maintained that stature when Cody Rhodes and the late Mr. Brodie Lee battled in one for the TNT Championship.
Basically, Friedman and Punk had tall expectations to live up to, and the anticipation only intensified as the two cranked up the heat in their feud. Between a flustered Friedman recounting how Punk was an inspiration for him as a child and how Punk’s departure from wrestling disappointed him and Friedman reminding Punk of how much of a snake he is after Punk tried to mend fences, both men drew from Punk’s (and a bit of Friedman’s) past to piece together an incredible build.
All that was left was to cap everything with an outstanding match and, well, you’re reading about it in a “best of” awards piece, so that’s a good sign of how things went.
In line with the callbacks to yesteryear and the unpacking of Friedman’s ethos, Friedman walked to the ring with Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” — Punk’s signature entrance music — his soundtrack of choice, and Punk turned the clock back to his Ring of Honor days and dusted off his white shorts and AFI’s “Miseria Cantare” in preparation for this fight.
Once the opening bell sounded, the two wasted no time establishing that Friedman, the prototypical conniving heel, couldn’t scheme his way out of this situation and needed to face his nemesis straight-up if he wanted to survive this encounter.
For the most part, he did; he even managed to draw blood from the multi-time world champion (given the stipulation, most fans expected to see AT LEAST one person bleed). Of course, Punk proved to be too resilient to succumb to MJF’s onslaught, and this caused Friedman to call for Wardlow to literally hand him another victory via the Dynamite ring.
One problem with that plan: Wardlow, who won the Face of the Revolution ladder match earlier in the night to earn a TNT Title match, had shown signs of his own resentment and exasperation toward Friedman over the previous months, and that burgeoning animus culminated in the big man pretending to misplace the ring before leaving it for Punk to use, and Punk would take advantage of the opportunity to finally vanquish his archrival.
Overall, the match succeeded in giving fans an intense, violent conclusion to a story that spanned nearly four months. The match never reached level where it got too gruesome for comfort, and that worked to it’s benefit, as the brutality never overshadowed the story Punk and MJF told.
Combine that with a finish that enacted satisfying comeuppance for a heel that desperately needed it while continuing the story of Punk scraping by in big matches, and you get a match that stands out as AEW’s best offering of 2022.