CM Punk's return to WWE has hit a road block, with an injury at Royal Rumble.

It’s always disheartening when WWE performers get injured, both for the performers themselves as well as their fans. But it’s absolutely heartbreaking when an injury occurs on the road to WrestleMania. Sadly, this is the case for CM Punk, who announced on last night’s Raw that he tore his triceps at the Royal Rumble and will have to miss WrestleMania XL while he recovers from surgery.

This news came to the profound shock and dismay of WWE fans who were ecstatic to see Punk back on the WrestleMania stage, myself included. As a huge CM Punk fan, I lost my mind when he made his long-awaited return to WWE late last year. Like most fans, I also immediately began speculating who he should face at the historic 40th WrestleMania in Philadelphia.

While nothing was ever confirmed by the company itself, it was obvious to anyone with eyes that the plan seemed to be Punk facing off against current World Heavyweight Champion Seth “Freakin” Rollins in the main event of WrestleMania night one. With Seth and Punk squaring off in a war of words as recently as a month ago, it seems WWE was laying the groundwork for what many felt was one of the marquee attractions of the biggest wrestling show of the year.

Whatever plans WWE may have had for these two in April, it seems that the match may have been in jeopardy even before Punk’s injury. During a title defense on Raw a few weeks ago, Rollins was reported to have torn his MCL late in the match. The champ cut a promo a week later in which he promised he would be healed up and ready to compete by WrestleMania, but that still seems up in the air as of right now.

But assuming Rollins is able to make it to Mania after all, the question still remains: who should challenge him at WrestleMania if not Punk? I believe there are a few viable candidates who could fill the role and give Rollins a tough fight for the gold at the showcase of the immortals. Here are five performers I believe could feasibly fill the Punk-sized void at this year’s WrestleMania:

  • Cody Rhodes

    When Cody Rhodes won the men’s Royal Rumble match last Saturday, he immediately set his sights on Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns. It’s the rematch that fans have been begging for since the American Nightmare’s crushing loss to the Tribal Chief at last year’s WrestleMania. And after clinching another Rumble win, it looked like Cody had punched his ticket to redemption.

    However, news of Punk’s injury could possibly pivot those plans. As the Rumble winner, Rhodes has the right to choose which champion he faces at Mania. And while the logical choice would be a rematch against Reigns, it’s possible he could decide to step up as Rollins’ challenger instead.

    I’m not a huge fan of this idea, but at least it would make narrative sense. After all, Cody returned to WWE at WrestleMania 38 as a surprise opponent for Rollins. Rhodes then went 3-0 against Rollins throughout that spring. Another Mania match between the two could tell the story of Seth proving his worth against his longtime rival, with the heavyweight championship adding extra stakes.

    I can see this match being good on paper, and would be a fine substitution to a Rollins and Punk match. But as I said, I’d rather not see Cody in this match when everyone is pulling for him to finish the story against Reigns instead.

  • Gunther

    While Cody Rhodes vs. Seth Rollins would make for an exciting face vs. face match, the best WrestleMania stories often revolve a clear-cut good guy facing off against a clear-cut bad guy. And there’s very few bad guys in the business right now at the level of the Ring General and current Intercontinental Champion Gunther.

    Gunther has been on a tear ever since he debuted on the main roster in 2022. After winning the Intercontinental championship that summer, he has successfully defended it against all comers in brutal, explosive contests. His intimidating stature and unmatched in-ring prowess would make him a fearsome opponent for Rollins.

    It seems that WWE may be planting seeds for this idea too. Gunther confronted Rollins during his injury update and vowed to “break” him as soon as Rollins was cleared for in-ring competition. Could we see said breakage at WrestleMania?

  • Drew McIntyre

    The Scottish Warrior seems to have it out for the world champ. Lately Drew McIntyre has been utterly fixated reaching the heights he achieved in 2020 when he won his first ever WWE Championship.

    In a way you gotta feel for Drew. After all, he was in an unenviable position of having to carry the company as champion during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hell, his WrestleMania championship win – which is arguably the highest achievement in a WWE star’s career – was in an empty arena due to quarantine protocols.

    Granted, it’s slightly tougher to make a case for Drew as #1 contender recently, given how Seth has successfully defended his title from McIntyre on a number of occasions already. But still, there’s a part of me that wouldn’t hate seeing Drew win a world title in front of an actual WrestleMania crowd this time.

  • Jey Uso

    This is my dark horse pick for Punk’s replacement at WrestleMania. Jey Uso is currently in the midst of an incredible career renaissance. After serving as Roman Reigns’ lackey for the better part of two years, Jey finally broke free from the Bloodline last summer.

    Since then Jey has emerged as a capable and entertaining singles star in his own right, proving that he doesn’t need his twin brother Jimmy by his side to make waves in WWE.

    However, it looks as though the WrestleMania plans for Jey most likely involve a match against Jimmy. Brother-versus-brother is a story that tells itself, and would be an emotionally impactful chapter in both of their careers. But until that match is confirmed I’m not completely ruling out the possibility of Jey vs. Rollins closing out night one. This would be the ultimate feather in the cap for “Main Event” Jey Uso.

  • Sami Zayn

    I can’t think of a single wrestling fan who wouldn’t be overjoyed by Sami Zayn finally winning world championship gold at the grandest stage of them all. Zayn plays the underdog role to perfection, and even had fans believing he could beat Roman Reigns at last year’s Elimination Chamber.

    Sami’s WrestleMania record is perhaps the most unique. From an Intercontinental championship ladder match, to a comedy match against Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, to his emotional tag-team championship win alongside his best friend Kevin Owens in the main event of last year’s night one.

    Suffice to say, Zayn is no stranger to memorable WrestleMania moments. And win or lose, Sami would definitely put on an unforgettable show against Rollins this year in Philadelphia. Push Sami, you cowards!

  • John Cena

    Ok, this is admittedly my way-out-of-left-field prediction. Of all the potential contenders I’ve listed, this one’s probably the least likely to happen.

    However, solely in terms of star power and name recognition, John Cena is the only option that I can think of who manages to surpass CM Punk in this scenario. Inserting Cena in Punk’s place at WrestleMania would theoretically put a lot more eyes on the show, especially if they play up the idea of Cena finally surpassing Ric Flair’s 16-time World Championship record.

    What’s more, Rollins and Cena have a long and contentious history together filled with blood, sweat, and actual broken bones. The chemistry is there, the story is there, the only thing I have trouble buying for Cena is the believability of him as a contender.

    I understand this is a crazy thing to say considering how dominant Cena’s initial WWE run was. But now it’s 2024, and in the few sporadic times he’s competed recently Cena hasn’t won a singles match in almost seven years. With that said, you have to wonder if anyone would buy John Cena being an actual challenge for Seth “Freakin” Rollins, who’s conversely in the prime of his career.

    But he’s called “Big Match” John for a reason. Cena has been known to dig deep when the situation calls for it and deliver a star-studded performance that reminds even his toughest critics why he was at the top of WWE for so long. I don’t think it’s going to happen this year, but it’s always a possibility that Cena comes back for world title #17 before hanging up his jorts for good.

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