It’s been a big few weeks for WWE. Since the beginning of July, they’ve welcomed fans back into arenas, held a successful “Money in the Bank” pay-per-view, and brought John Cena back for a summer-long feud with Roman Reigns. There’s even talk that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson might make a one-off appearance for a match at next year’s WrestleMania. Just when they thought that things couldn’t get any better, though, their biggest rivals might have scooped them with an incredible double signing. The word on the pro wrestling street is that both CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, better known within WWE as Daniel Bryan, have signed contracts with All Elite Wrestling.

Punk and Bryan are – or, perhaps, were – the hottest free agents in the wrestling business. Bryan left WWE earlier this year after losing to Roman Reigns in a triple threat match with Edge at this year’s WrestleMania. His contract was due to expire, but most insiders expected him to sign an extension. Those hopes have now disappeared. WWE recently sent a memo to video game company 2K to have Bryan removed from the forthcoming WWE 2K22 video game, and all references to him have been removed from WWE’s marketing material. That’s a sure sign that he’s gone elsewhere and also an indication of WWE’s feelings on the matter.

Danielson heading to AEW is a surprise but isn’t totally out of the blue. The popular wrestler had made it known that he doesn’t think he has long left as a full-time wrestler and would like the freedom to have “dream matches” with opponents in Japan and elsewhere outside WWE before he retires. WWE, with its exclusive contracts and reluctance to work with other wrestling companies, couldn’t offer him that. AEW can and has. Tony Khan’s promotion has pre-existing links with New Japan Pro Wrestling and also AAA in Mexico, not to mention Impact and Ring of Honor at home in the USA. If Danielson is under contract to AEW, he’ll also have the freedom to work a limited number of dates elsewhere, and that might have been the decisive factor for him. If the reports we’ve seen are accurate, AEW has also offered him similar financial terms as WWE.

The bigger surprise of the two is CM Punk, who hasn’t wrestled since he appeared in WWE’s Royal Rumble in 2014. Since then, he’s suggested several times that he’s done with wrestling altogether and has tried to move on to mixed martial arts. That move didn’t go well. He fought twice in the UFC cage and lost both times, although the second of those losses was eventually overturned after his opponent failed a drug test. From there, he moved into acting and will appear in the Starz show “Heels,” which airs later this year. “Heels” is a drama based on pro wrestling, and so Punk had to resume wrestling training to get in shape for the role. It seems he may have rediscovered his love for wrestling in the process.

Punk is a signing that AEW fans have fantasized about since the company ran its first show in 2019. During his hottest years in WWE, he was more “over” with the audience than any performer since Stone Cold Steve Austin. Even now, fans chant his name as a form of protest when WWE tries to serve them something they don’t want to watch in the ring. He’s enormously popular but also controversial. Some of his former colleagues say he’s difficult to work with. He’s rarely shy of voicing his opinion on the state of wrestling or even other wrestlers, and the things he says about them aren’t often pleasant. To his fans, though, that’s all part of his charm; CM Punk – whether we’re talking about the man or the character he plays – is an “edgy” performer who blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. He’s bound to give AEW Dynamite a ratings boost – and that’s something Vince McMahon and WWE should probably start worrying about now.

The financial terms of both contracts are likely to remain secret, so we’ll never know how much of a risk Tony Khan has taken by bringing them in. If he matched WWE’s offer to Danielson, we’re talking seven figures per year. Punk has always been clear that it would take a big-money offer to bring him back, so we should assume he received one. Tony Khan is rich, and his father is a billionaire, but AEW doesn’t have the resources that WWE does. The books have to be balanced, and so that’s the risk. This move is a gamble, but we shouldn’t expect any different from a company that has its own licensed online slots game and even uses a casino theme for its biggest pay per view show of the year. We suspect that Tony Khan has occasionally been known to play slots online. He knows that you sometimes have to take a big risk to receive a big reward, which is the basic mechanism of every online slots game ever created. Maybe there’s an irony here because WWE tried and failed to launch a wrestling-themed range of online slots here. WWE is playing it safe by bringing back John Cena. AEW is going out on a limb by bringing in a live hand grenade in the form of CM Punk. The addition of Danielson – one of the greatest wrestlers of all time – is a big bonus.

So, with all of this said, are the rumours true? We shouldn’t expect AEW, Danielson, or Punk to give us confirmation any time soon, but all signs point to “yes.” AEW has historically been quick to deny inaccurate reports of signings, and this time they’ve stayed silent. Danielson isn’t a big user of social media, but Punk has always been quick to shoot down reports of his return in the past. He’s issuing no denials this time either. The purge of the “Daniel Bryan” name from all WWE content only makes sense if he’s signed with a rival promotion, and internally WWE is said to have told employees that Punk has signed with AEW. On top of that, trusted voices Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer and Mike Johnson of Pro Wrestling Insider both believe the reports to be true. Strap yourselves in, wrestling fans – it’s going to be quite the summer.

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