You could call me a lapsed wrestling fan. I was into it as a kid like most of my friends, and I’ve had moments of hardcore fandom as I’ve gotten older. Saying that me and the WWE have an on again/ off again relationship would be accurate. So I missed out on CM Punk’s first tour of active duty, and instead knew of him as a former wrestler-turned commentator. I was in attendance at the Raw where Punk left the announce table to chair-shot John Cena. But I’m no wrestling expert, so keep that in mind as I talk about how impressed I have been with the rise of CM Punk.
I first became a fan of CM Punk at the Royal Rumble earlier this year, when he was the leader of the New Nexus. You remember the New Nexus, right? The sequel to the merchandise-selling stable that got squashed in a matter of months? Yeah, that one. I was impressed with the way Punk was able to establish his character in the ring. Pro-wrestling is an odd bit of performance art when you get right down to it. Yes, these men and women are displaying incredible feats of athletic prowess and work as hard as any other professional athlete, but they also have to tell a story in the ring. Punk is a master of this. There was a moment in the Royal Rumble when it was just him and his Nexus in the ring, waiting for the next Superstar to come and get eliminated. Punk was completely entertaining the entire time, sitting cross-legged in the ring, mocking boredom, or giving the crowd a sardonic grin. As you would imagine, the audience wanted blood, and that’s what a great heel does.
Whether CM Punk created this angle for himself on his own, or if it was collaboration with WWE creative doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that I’m buying what CM Punk is selling, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I ended up missing most of the weekly WWE shows for a long time. I did see Wrestlemania which, while being largely disappointing, cemented my respect for CM Punk as an entertainer. His match with Randy Orton (one of my absolute least favorite wrestlers) was amazing, and again, he showed a wonderful ability to control the crowd with his persona. It had been a long time since I had seen a wrestler that could wrap an audience around his finger in the way Punk did, and I took notice. Even so, it wasn’t enough to keep me coming back to Raw and Smackdown every week.
Flash forward to June 27. It was reported that CM Punk’s contract with the WWE was about to expire, and he didn’t want to re-sign. However, he had one last Pay-Per-View show before he would be leaving, and he had said that he wanted to leave as the WWE champion. As a long time wrestling fan, I could see the storyline unfold before my eyes: This was a good way of building up the title match between Punk and Cena, and while fans may wonder what would happen if CM Punk actually left as the champion, I knew that Cena would get the pin, Punk would be out, and we’d never hear about him again. Yawn.
How wrong I was.
Things got interesting when Punk made a now-legendary “shoot promo”, which is wrestling jargon for something that is off-the-cuff and unscripted. Or, more unscripted than your usual promo. But what was so amazing was how much of this promo came from CM Punk’s actual frustration with the WWE, and also how much the WWE let him get away with saying. It was a scathing promo, wherein CM Punk vented his frustration at not being promoted by the WWE. He called himself a wrestler, a dirty word around the WWE for years. He expressed aggravation with the fans that cheer for him and ask him to sign the program that doesn’t have his picture on it at 5am when he’s waiting for his plane. He was angry about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being booked for the main event at the next Wrestlemania, even though The Rock is no longer a regular man on the roster, and hasn’t been for years. It was intense stuff, and it certainly got people talking, as well as watching. The Money in the Bank PPV was very successful for the WWE, and what was even more shocking was that CM Punk left the WWE as the champion.
Now, here’s where things get a little dicey. It’s difficult to say just how much of this was your typical WWE storyline and how much of this came out of the amazing amount of support that CM Punk got from the fans. For the first time, people were outright booing John Cena, while chants of “CM Punk!” could be heard during WWE broadcasts. CM Punk made an amazing appearance at the WWE panel during the San Diego Comic Con, and that just added to the rebel persona that Punk had been cultivating. Was this all planned from the start? Was this a storyline that was created when CM Punk went to negotiate his next contract before Money in the Bank? It very well could have been.
But parts of this story feel legitimate, and if that’s so, then CM Punk has done something that rarely happens in professional wrestling: He raised himself up from the mid card and catapulted himself into the main event league. It’s entirely possible that CM Punk went to Triple H, who has been taking a larger role in the business side of the WWE, and pitched this idea. If so, then the powers that be at the WWE are just as responsible for CM Punk’s recent meteoric rise to prominence. Whatever the case, Punk took the ball and ran with it. When he returned to Raw on July 25th, the crowd went wild without the Superstar saying a word.
Since CM Punk’s return, he has continued to shine. He still says things on the mic that have a ring of truth to them, like he’s airing the dirty laundry of the WWE out for all to see. He’s currently feuding with Triple H, and it’s a great parallel for both men, as Triple H was in a similar situation with Vince McMahon about 10 years ago. It’s compelling stuff, and with it seems to be a tonal shift for the WWE programming. Matches lately have been longer and more interesting than they have been in ages. Jim Ross is back on commentary, and he’s calling wrestling moves, something that hasn’t been done for a long time. I’m not saying that CM Punk is the reason for all of these changes, but he turned the magnifying glass on the WWE, and it seems as if the WWE saw some things that needed to improve. Whatever the case may be, I have been tuning in every week to see CM Punk, and I’ve been impressed with the quality of the show overall.
Whether CM Punk created this angle for himself on his own, or if it was collaboration with WWE creative doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that I’m buying what CM Punk is selling, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. And it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been able to say that about WWE programming.