Originally published on Fanbyte as “Between the Bells, CM Punk and MJF Get it Right” on February 3, 2022

It’s been a rocky road getting here. I’ve written before about how I didn’t love the much-lauded CM Punk/MJF promo from last year, but what I failed to mention was how effective I found the opening angle to the entire rivalry to be. Punk brushing off MJF felt like the perfect catalyst to this whole thing, which is why I’ve been frustrated with the last couple of months of TV, featuring these two dancing around what I felt worked best about them as a pair.

Stuff like Punk invoking a rare AEW DQ to tarnish MJF’s record or the incredibly fun Christmastime six-man tag pitting Punk, Sting, and Darby against MJF & FTR stood out as highlights to me, while the actual material they lobbed at each other from the mic was hit or miss. Despite that, I thought the go-home segment for this match on the January 26th Dynamite was extremely effective. Of all the angles they’d run to further the MJF/Punk story to date, that one finally seemed to get to the core of the emotional dynamic between the two competitors. MJF parroted the bitter, entitled sentiments of the worst of online fandom back in 2014, while Punk stayed dedicated to fighting each new day to be his best self. It was the perfect way to finally lead into the anticipated match-up.

Still, some things made me doubt.

I don’t think MJF’s a bad wrestler, but he also hasn’t been put in too many situations to help him shine in-ring. Not only is he incredibly protected in terms of working very limited TV dates, he spent a year feuding with 2020s Chris Jericho, which just isn’t really the way to have great matches. The Darby Allin match from Full Gear, however, went a little too far in the opposite direction with too much of an emphasis on MJF’s athletic capabilities at the expense of some of his heel character work.

Also, a lot of AEW’s self-imposed booking limitations really handcuffed what this feud should have been. The need for MJF to work very rarely, the company’s general aversion to rematches, Tony Khan’s Baba-esque refusal to utilize disqualification and count out finishes—all these got in the way of what could have been a very compelling three or four match series that saw a steady increase in heat and intensity.

And then, to top it all off, MJF’s music played and he entered for the match with close to 45 minutes left on the Dynamite broadcast.

This is going to be a mess, I thought.

Somehow, it wasn’t.

It’s not a perfect match. The runtime is a bit much; there’s a much tighter version of what we got here that gets the job done quicker. But I was surprised to find how little it bothered me, as I thought what we got filled up the time quite well. Also, there’s the finish, which sacrifices action to angle, but it didn’t overstay its welcome and felt like a natural enough end to things. Not the best way for this match to end, but fine enough for what they were going for.

But otherwise, this ruled.

In fact, the match won me over quite early. Although things open with an MJF cheap shot that hinted at the match going straight into a heel heat segment, we got a real honest to God babyface shine in this. Punk just thrashed MJF for a good ten or so minutes, even chasing him up into the crowd as he did during the December 22nd six-man tag. It isn’t the most explosive action you’ll see in your life, but there’s still something very satisfying about it. The highlight of this segment came from MJF getting caught between the ropes and swinging like a pendulum to sell CM Punk’s punches. That’s the kind of old school stooging and selling that can make MJF’s character work. Such a self-serious, petty, vicious heel being made an absolute fool of in a wonderfully visual way feels right for MJF’s character in a way that so few instances in his other performances have.

I think this is comfortably MJF’s best in-ring performance in his entire AEW run. For the first time, it felt like he really nailed that delicate balance between being a hateful heel and keeping his in-ring work constantly compelling. I’ve already mentioned how his stooging made him an entertaining punching bag for Punk but his offense here deserves just as much praise.

Outside of a hilariously failed attempt to lock in a ringpost Figure Four (thankfully obscured by TBS’ picture-in-picture), MJF did his best work in control that I’ve ever seen. His first big control segment was built around arm work, and he’d already shown before that he has fun and interesting ways to attack the arm to set up his Salt of the Earth finish. Later on, when Punk tweaked his own knee on a suicide dive, MJF had the good sense to go after the newly injured limb to compound the damage he’d done on the arm. It’s all very classic, well-done stuff.

Really though, it’s the little things MJF does outside of the limb work that elevate his performance here. Nasty, violent little things like pawing and scraping at Punk’s eyes while in control or biting at Punk’s face in the corner do a lot for MJF. It adds a little more edge and danger to his character that helps elevate him without compromising his position as a dastardly heel.

With AEW so committed to MJF as their next big project now that Hangman’s already won the belt, this is the version of MJF in the ring that needs to show up on a consistent basis.

But enough about MJF, let’s talk about the real star of the show.

This is the most impressive CM Punk performance since his return to professional wrestling. While the Eddie Kingston brawl at Full Gear was a better match and experience on the whole, Punk’s individual effort in this match eclipses his performance from November. His fingerprints are all over this thing, especially in the careful match layout specifically meant to address all the concerns I had about this match going into it.

For one, though Punk and MJF didn’t have the heated series of matches that could have elevated this feud, they instead incorporated that need for violent escalation into the fabric of the match itself. The key here is that false finish where MJF choked out Punk with a concealed strip of tape, which Bryce Remsburg found after the bell. In a perfect world, this is the finish to an early singles match that leads to later matches. We’ve seen this work before — Punk himself laid out the blueprint with Jimmy Rave all the way back in 2005.

Having that here provides a nice break in the action, but Punk doesn’t let it sit too long. He uses the restart to immediately enter a nice fiery comeback where he really takes it to MJF.

Where Punk really excels is his selling. Just some of the most convincing and thoughtful limb selling that one can see. That early arm work nearly immobilizes Punk’s arm. The awkwardness of it and how it hinders his ability to do the simplest of moves shines through as he’s ginger about that arm for the whole match. Add to that the additional leg selling that Punk introduces in the back half of the match? Amazing stuff from one of the all-time greats.

It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes the big stuff Punk eventually gets to do so satisfying. By the time he nailed the Pepsi Plunge for the first time in over a decade, it felt massive because of all he had to overcome to do it.

CM Punk has spent his entire comeback paying tribute to the professional wrestling that he loves and this is the apex of that so far. With MJF, he crafted and structured a match that flows pretty much seamlessly from one narrative point to the next without ever devolving into incoherence or overindulgence. It’s the craftsmanship on display here that stands out above everything else. There’s real care applied to this, the same care and thought that Punk always put into his best work.

What a Punk performance this is. The kind of thing that in 2022, despite Punk’s seven-year hiatus, or him sharing a roster with the likes of Bryan Danielson or Jon Moxley, can make one stop and consider.

Maybe CM Punk is still the best in the world after all.

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