A one-bathroom rec center may not have appeared to be an avenue to superstardom when CM Punk walked through the black curtain at South Philadelphia’s Murphy Recreation Center almost 20 years ago. There were no bright lights or flashy entrances or thousands of fans screaming his name.
Just a black curtain separating the backstage area from the arena floor, which was technically a youth basketball court.
It was professional wrestling at a city playground with 300 fans stuffed inside, sitting behind a chain-link fence and banners promoting the company — an upstart Philly group called Ring of Honor — strung on basketball rims. There was nothing glamorous about it.
But for CM Punk, now one of the biggest stars in professional wrestling, the Murphy Rec Center at Third and Shunk “was the big time.”
“You walk into that building on a Tuesday and you’re like, ‘I don’t get it. This building ain’t nothing,’” said CM Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks. “But if you walk into that building on a Saturday night in 2002 when it’s filled with maniacs going crazy for all this gnarly pro wrestling, that’s what made it special. It’s not the building that makes it special. It’s the people who fill the building up. That’s what we had with Ring of Honor.”
CM Punk’s career took him to England and Japan, Madison Square Garden and MetLife Stadium. Once the WWE’s champion for 434 straight days, he calls himself “The Best in the World” and is now one of the main attractions for AEW, a two-year-old company that is presenting WWE its first serious challenge in more than 20 years.
It’s hard to find a current wrestler with as much buzz as the 42-year-old CM Punk, who walked away from WWE in 2014 and left the wrestling business for more than seven years before joining AEW this summer.
His career may not have reached those heights had CM Punk not walked through the curtain at the Murphy Rec, wrestled the likes of Bryan Danielson and Samoa Joe, spent three years sleeping on a futon in Collegeville, and blossomed during his time with Ring of Honor into a main event star.
“Before you knew it, he went from here’s another guy who ‘Yeah, I know him because I’m a wrestling nerd and I’ve seen his name here and there’ to someone who quickly elevated to the top,” said former Ring of Honor owner Cary Silkin. “It was like a family. You felt like you were part of something. Punk fit right in with that.”
So when CM Punk returns Wednesday to Philadelphia for AEW’s Dynamite at Temple’s Liacouras Center, it won’t just be a stop in another city.
“You have to realize that this was a time before the internet. I’m not saying the internet didn’t exist, but it existed a lot less than it does now. So being a kid from Chicago and wrestling in Philadelphia, it really felt special to me,” CM Punk said. “You obviously want what you do to feel special to everyone else and that was one of the first times I felt like, ‘Wow these people actually know who I am. They recognize what I’ve already done and they’re very happy to see me.’ I think that just goes back decades. Philadelphia has always been a hard-core pro wrestling city.
“If I could use one word that I think a lot of people in Philly love now is gritty. I’ve never been a pretty guy. I’m very genuine. What you see is what you get. The Philadelphia crowd is the crowd that loves the bad guys. They didn’t care so much about the characters. They appreciated the craft and the work that went into it. I think that’s possibly why they took to me so well. People who love wrestling appreciate someone else who loves wrestling.”
WWE faced little competition after purchasing WCW and ECW, which was based in South Philly, in the early 2000s. Other companies tried, but their product always felt a tier below WWE.
That changed with the launch of AEW, which is owned by Tony Khan, whose billionaire father owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and English soccer club Fulham. AEW has the money to compete with WWE, a TV contract with Turner Broadcasting, and a roster filled with former WWE stars and popular non-WWE wrestlers.
Punk is joined in AEW by Chris Jericho, whom he faced at WrestleMania, WWE’s showcase event. And he’s back with Danielson, whom Punk wrestled in his first match at the Murphy Rec in 2002 before meeting him again in WWE.
AEW has already topped WWE in the TV ratings. The show last month in New York, which drew almost 20,000 fans, was the largest non-WWE wrestling show in North America since 1999.
This competition feels different, but for CM Punk the new company feels familiar.
“I’m glad I found it. I’m glad it exists,” CM Punk said. “Because it is the exact spirit of that place. It has the spirit of Ring of Honor. It has the spirit of the Murphy Rec Center when it’s 115 degrees inside and fans aren’t getting out of their seats because they’re afraid that they’re going to miss something amazing.”
It’s been almost seven weeks since CM Punk debuted with AEW to a roaring crowd in his hometown of Chicago, and the reactions have been similar everywhere he has been since. Philadelphia will be no different.
But if there’s any doubt, CM Punk can think back to 2006 — a year after he left Ring of Honor — when he was a new performer trying to find his way in WWE. He was back in Philly for Survivor Series, one of WWE’s top events, teaming with two wrestlers — Triple H and Shawn Michaels — who were supposed to be the attractions.
But the Philly crowd, remembering the guy who came through the curtain at the Murphy Rec, chanted CM Punk’s name.
“Not only did it mean something to me then, it means something to me now. That’s just validation that you’re good at what you do,” CM Punk said. “A lot of times in this business, it won’t make sense to the people in charge what catches fire. But if the people in charge are smart and have a brain in their head, they’ll recognize it and just go, ‘All right, this is what the fans want, we’re just going to give it to them.’ That kind of backfired on me at that point in Philly because that wasn’t the case. That’s not what happened.
“People were mad because ‘We don’t understand. Why’s this kid over?’ Then they’ll use the crutch of ‘Oh, it’s just internet fans.’ Yeah, OK, 18,000 people packed the place and they’re all just internet fans, but whatever. It means something to me now because it was validation. Like ‘Yeah. My hard work is paying off. Yeah. People are seeing me and the things that I’m doing and people like me. Let’s go.’ Now I’m in a spot where if that happens, it’s embraced. It’s not picked apart and told why 18,000 screaming people are wrong. Now we’re just like, ‘Yeah, those 18,000 screaming people were right.’”
The venue on Wednesday night will be bigger than the Murphy Rec and the lights will be brighter. There will be more than one bathroom at the Liacouras Center, the basketball nets will be out of sight and the entrance will be more elaborate than a black curtain.
But for CM Punk, it will feel like the Murphy Rec. And he’ll be just a few miles from the building that helped take his career to the next level.
“It was a place in time. It was just a magical place,” CM Punk said. “It’s one of those things that you wish you could go back there. In 2021, I’d love to go back there and put on a show there. It’s everything that punk rock was to me. Seeing a band like Green Day play in a bowling alley in 1993 right before they exploded in 1994 and now they’re doing stadiums. Murphy Rec Center is like that to me.”