Before pro wrestling superstar CM Punk walked out to the ring in front of a sold out crowd at Chicago’s United Center on Friday, Aug. 20, fans were already chanting his name.
“CM PUNK! CM PUNK!”
These chants are not unheard of at pro wrestling events. Punk is a fan favorite among the hardcore wrestling faithful. However, for the past seven years, those chants would go unheeded.
Fans would clamor for CM Punk, but he would not appear.
Punk seemingly, and abruptly, retired from pro wrestling in 2014 after a very public falling out with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). As the years went by, he insisted and further cemented in interviews that he’s not looking to return. Fans had to contend with the fact that maybe Punk was really done wrestling.
Yet, they knew he was going to walk out at All Elite Wrestling’s (AEW) televised Rampage show that Friday night, more than seven years after he walked away from the business.
Because the news of Punk’s return was spoiled on the internet, leaking all across social media nearly a full month earlier.
Social media leaks, TV rating success
In a previous era, a leak like this in the wrestling industry could’ve changed a company’s plans. AEW instead embraced the idea that everyone knew Punk signed with them instead of his old WWE stomping ground and was returning to TV in his hometown of Chicago.
When the camera started rolling with fans chanting his name, AEW opened the show with Punk walking out and addressing his return. Fans expected what could have been the surprise of the decade. So, AEW just went ahead and delivered it. The company never explicitly said Punk was debuting, social media was doing that for them.
More than a million people tuned in. Perhaps, if it was an unexpected surprise, many who watched it live that night wouldn’t have. That episode of Rampage scored the highest ratings for AEW since the upstart wrestling promotion premiered AEW: Dynamite on television in October 2019, according to Nielsen. Wrestling YouTuber Denise Salcedo noticed that “CM Punk” related trending topics took over social media platforms like Twitter.
As journalist David Bixenspan pointed out, Google’s search trends showed that CM Punk’s return to pro wrestling even outperformed WWE’s second biggest show of the year, SummerSlam, which was just days after Punk’s AEW debut.
WWE’s event had two surprises of its own: The returns of Brock Lesnar and Becky Lynch. The two had been away from the ring for more than a year and their SummerSlam appearances had not been leaked in advance.
The leak absolutely worked in AEW’s favor.
In an online conversation with Mashable, Sapp explained how AEW adapted to the fact that everyone knew Punk was returning.
“Leaning into it was a really smart business move on AEW’s part,” he said.
The dirt sheets
Leaks are not a new phenomenon in pro wrestling. Even with all the drama found in the scripted storylines and predetermined matches played out on your TV set, oftentimes the juiciest stories in wrestling are the real-life business dealings and politicking found backstage.
Pro wrestlers work to map out athletic showcases and create compelling characters in order to draw larger crowds and work their way to main event level matches. Wrestling promotions compete to sign the hottest new talent and lure established superstars over from their competitors.
Decades before social media and the internet, wrestling superfans would seek out physical newsletters dishing the latest in behind-the-scenes wrestling news. Dave Meltzer’s popular Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which began publishing in print in 1982, is probably the earliest example of these wrestling publications.
Those working in the business, however, often referred to these outlets derogatorily as “dirt sheets.” They looked at people like Meltzer, a credible legitimate journalist, as lifting the curtain on an industry that looks at itself in the same way a magician never reveals how magic tricks work.
As Sapp of Fightful explained to me, a wrestler addressing what was printed in the dirt sheets was “something that was seen as taboo for years.” That’s not the case anymore. Nowadays, it’s not out of the ordinary for talent to acknowledge leaked information. Sometimes they’ll do it outright with a written post. Other times they may subtly hint at the details with no more than a relevant .GIF.
In the late ’90s, pro wrestling entered what is arguably viewed as its biggest boom. World Championship Wrestling (WCW), backed by television magnate Ted Turner, provided industry leader WWE, then known as WWF, with some of the strongest competition it ever encountered. Known in the wrestling business as The Monday Night Wars, for years both companies aired its flagship TV programs – WWE Raw and WCW Nitro – on Monday nights and went head-to-head in the television ratings.
It just so happened that dial-up internet was rolling out in households across the country during this time period too. So, “dirt sheets” made their way online, too. Backstage wrestling news started to spread quicker and easier than ever before. When talent would jump from WWE to WCW, or vice versa, the news would leak.
Perhaps the most notorious leak during this time period came in Jan. 1999.
During this time, WWE would sometimes pre-tape Raw in advance. And thanks to the internet, the results would leak. On this particular episode of Raw, wrestler Mick Foley, often booked as a lovable underdog, would win the WWE title. Over on the live WCW Nitro, commentator Tony Schiavone would leak Foley’s title win spoiler in an effort to mock their competitor’s creative decision.
More than half a million WCW viewers would change the channel over to Raw to catch Foley’s long-sought victory. This is often viewed as a pivotal moment in the Monday Night Wars, which ended in March 2001 with WWE purchasing WCW.
The modern era
As the internet matured and the wrestling landscape changed with the consolidation of the big promotions, the dirt sheets evolved too.
“For a long time, the Wrestling Observer site didn’t do that much traffic,” David Bixenspan explained to me.
Bixenspan says that over the past decade, pro wrestling news outlets formed during the age of the internet, creating content specifically for the internet that would flourish and set the stage for how backstage news would spread in the modern era.
This was a “byproduct of the SEO revolution that happened a decade or so ago,” Bixenspan explained, referring to how important search engines and social media became in the discovery of content.
As wrestling sites blew up online, the wrestling organizations had to adapt to the proliferation of leaks as well.
“AEW largely tries to be more like a regular sports league,” says Bixenspan. The company holds press conferences with the media and is fairly open about addressing news and rumors that have been made public.
“WWE makes efforts [to stop leaks], but it’s such a big company, so many people have to know what is going on at any given time,” Sapp tells me.
Sometimes, plans will change and it’s assumed it’s because of leaks.
“A recent example was a story regarding Sonya Deville possibly returning to the ring,” Sapp told me. “WWE had Money in the Bank graphics produced for her and all.”
While Deville appeared at the event in her usual on-screen role, she did not wrestle as the leaks had claimed she would.
“A WWE rep simply told me they ‘jumped the gun’ on that,” Sapp said.
Sapp further explained that most of the time company representatives won’t be so forthcoming, outright lie, or simply not respond when he reaches out to confirm leaks from sources.
On the contrary, if WWE – a company that’s heavily invested in social media – feels like a leak getting out could be a net positive for them, they’ll lean into it as well.
When wrestling legend Bill Goldberg returned to WWE over the summer, Sapp “got the feeling that they wanted the online buzz of a major star popping up.” When he reached out to them at that time, WWE confirmed his story pretty quickly.
But just because the wrestling companies have learned to live with more information getting out in the age of social media, there’s still plenty of risk involved for the source of the leaks.
Last year, AEW superstar Chris Jericho confirmed that the company discovered the source of a major backstage leak involving the debut of an on-screen talent.
“We know who the spy is, by the way. Oh, we know. He’ll never fucking be back in AEW,” Jericho shared on a livestream.
Leaks then, now, forever…
This past Sunday, just a few weeks after his return to wrestling, CM Punk had his first match in seven years, defeating Darby Allin at AEW’s All Out pay-per-view event.
At the end of the event, Bryan Danielson, a former WWE World Champion, walked out on the entrance ramp and debuted for AEW. He had just jumped ship from WWE to their newest big competitor.
Again, this could have been a huge surprise. A little over a month earlier, though, on the same day Fightful reported that CM Punk looked to be headed to AEW for his return to wrestling, another wrestling site, Bodyslam.net, leaked the news that Danielson had just signed with the company as well.
Once again, however, the leaks may have worked in the company’s favor. Wrestling fans who expected a “surprise” bought the $50 All Out PPV. According to AEW owner Tony Khan, the All Out event was the most-watched PPV in the company’s history. While the exact buy rate has yet to be released, it’s estimated to nearly double last year’s 90,000 PPV buys.
“By far, wrestling companies are more accepting of the possibility of leaks getting out,” Sapp told me. “They’ve learned to simply work alongside the buzz created by leaks.”
So, as long as there’s fans searching out for the latest news online and the dirt sheets there to write them up, the leaks will continue to flow in professional wrestling.