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CM Punk: The WWE’s New Cult Leader

In Sports on July 28, 2011 at 9:11 am

By: Josh Koebert

I want to preface this by directing anyone unfamiliar with the WWE’s current story lines or simply anyone interested in reading good wrestling writing to a pair of gentlemen far, far better at it than I: Brandon Stroud at With Leather, and The Masked Man/David Shoemaker at Grantland.  These two are fantastic at what they do and their work is something every wrestling fan should be reading every single week.

CM Punk is The Best In The World.

He really, truly is. The man can wrestle and the man can talk like nobody’s business, and it’s no surprise that he is the guy that has finally gotten the WWE the mainstream attention it has lacked since the end of The Attitude Era.

Punk (real name Phillip Brooks) has been brilliant everywhere he has ever been. In IWA Mid-South he was a five-time Heavyweight Champ, defeating the likes of A.J. Styles and Eddie Guerrero while displaying incredible technical skill and stamina, putting on matches lasting up to 90 minutes (which is, quite frankly, in-freaking-sane).

In Ring of Honor, currently the third-largest promotion going (with some of the best wrestling and an impressive resume of alumni), Punk’s brilliance continued. He won the ROH tag team title twice with best friend Colt Cabana before turning his attention to the promotion’s World Championship.

During this time he wrestled an extremely rare five star quality match with Samoa Joe, the first match in North America rated that highly in seven years.

He eventually won the ROH title, and turned heel (bad guy). He was also signed to a WWE contract around this time, and he brought that fact into the story line. He threatened to take the Ring of Honor championship to the WWE with him, going so far as to sign his WWE contract ON the belt in a ROH ring.

He eventually lost the belt just before his time in ROH ran out, and he was honored for his work with the company in his final scheduled match when he was showered with streamers post-match (see image above).

Punk’s first appearance on WWE TV (outside of their developmental territory) was less than spectacular. He was one of the “gangsters” hanging off of the car during John Cena’s entrance at Wrestlemania 22. You can see him at around 32 seconds.

Punk finally got on television during the short-lived WWE’s revival of Extreme Championship Wrestling. He put on great matches and did great mic work, but a recurring theme in his career involved the lack of faith in him from the WWE’s creative team. They didn’t think he looked big or strong enough to be given championships, and they didn’t think fans would support a guy that didn’t drink or do drugs (Punk lives a straight edge lifestyle in real life and has used it to give himself one of the best heel gimmicks of all time (which is ironic, the man telling your children NOT to do drugs or drink booze is the bad guy (this was especially poignant during his 2009 feud with Jeff Hardy, a man who has done enough drugs for everyone ever yet was the good guy (weeeeeeee parentheticals!)))).

This bearded, tattooed homeless man has never done drugs or touched a drop of alcohol. Seriously. 

Punk finally found gold in the WWE, but only because ECW’s champion at the time, John Morrison, violated the company’s wellness policy (he failed a drug screening).

Through all this, Punk was one of the best things in the WWE, but the higher-ups couldn’t see it. The fans knew, and some of the lower-level creative staff knew, but their opinions didn’t matter in giving Punk a push to the big time.

Sense finally prevailed in the back, as Punk won the WWE’s Money in the Bank match, giving him the right to challenge for a World Championship match any time he wanted. He used his opportunity to defeat Edge in 2008 for the World Heavyweight Championship, and his ascension seemed complete. He even repeated his feat the next year, again winning Money in the Bank and cashing in and winning. A third title reign in the previously mentioned feud with Hardy concluded a tremendous stretch for Punk from 2008-2009.

Then, things got stale. The WWE, even before this time, had relied heavily on guys like John Cena and Rey Mysterio. Their faces are the ones on posters, cups, programs, and any number of promotional material even now. Punk was never that guy, partly because of his heel persona, and partly because the WWE’s “PG” initiative has led them to pushing the more kid-friendly wrestlers on their roster.

Punk saw himself relegated to stable duty, where he was put in place as the leader of a few different factions. He led a group called The Straight Edge Society and played a sort of self-righteous messiah for the drug and alcohol fueled masses. Once that group broke up he left the show he had been on for years, SmackDown, and made his way to RAW on Monday nights.

RAW is where things happen in the WWE. RAW is live every week, while SmackDown is taped on Tuesday. In the era of the internet word gets out quickly as to what happened at the SD taping, and the incentive to watch for many is tempered by that and the fact that it airs on Friday nights. RAW on Monday lends an air of unpredictability, where the viewer has no idea what’s going to happen. This made Punk’s change seem like a sign of big things to come.

Shortly after his transition, however, he was injured and forced out of competition. He found a way to stick around, however, by joining the commentary booth. During his time behind the mic he was the best damn thing about professional wrestling. He was funny, informative, and commanding with the headset, all things that had defined his wrestling career. He looked like the future.

But the WWE didn’t see it that way, as they stuck him on a sinking ship as the new leader of The Nexus, a group of rookie wrestlers that had caused havoc around the company by…having more people on their side when they came to beat you up (to be fair it was terribly compelling for several months). By the time Punk joined the group they were already starting to break apart, and eventually the story was relegated to throw away segments. It seemed almost pointless for Punk to wear his Nexus armband, as the group never REALLY acted like a group anymore.

And that is where CM Punk’s career was. Two years of babysitting and being underutilized in a company that was starved for main event talent. In real life his contract was running out as well.

Rumors swirled around the internet as to what kind of deal he was being offered and how much he wanted, but word never came down in regards to a new contract. Still, the WWE wouldn’t let a three-time champion just LEAVE right?

This is when Punk acknowledged on RAW that his contract was almost up, and that he planned on leaving the company with the WWE Championship. He then grabbed a microphone and made the WWE relevant for the first time in years.

With one little microphone and six and a half minutes Punk set Twitter on fire and turned RAW into compelling, must-see television. He blurred the line between kayfabe and reality, he talked about things that many fans had never heard about, he complained about things that wrestling fans over the age of 12 complain about. He became a voice for many, many WWE fans who thought they were going to be forever voiceless. He told RAW’s general manager to watch him make snow angels in the ring and demanded the WWE start making licensed ice cream bars.

He talked, and he talked, and he talked. And people ate it up. His raw charisma shone through, and he talked about how all he ever wanted was the power that came with a microphone, because with that little piece of equipment he could control an arena. And he was right.

Punk has been a heel most of his career, and he is unbelievably good at it. But on July 17th in his hometown of Chicago, he was the favorite, he was the guy everyone in the arena wanted to win. WWE golden boy John  Cena was booed lustily, something that he hadn’t experienced in years. Just listen to the crowd in the video below and imagine having to be the other guy in that environment for 40 minutes of wrestling.

Both men rose to the occasion, as they put on a five star match that kept fans on the edge of their seats. Punk wound up victorious, and Chicago went nuts. He escaped from Vince McMahon through the adoring crowd, never to be seen again.

Ah who am I kidding, of course he came back. This past week Punk returned after John Cena won a title match to get the “new” WWE Championship, missing just one week of television to remind the world that Cena’s was a false belt, a paper championship, the real thing in Punk’s taped up mitts.

In his return Punk debuted a “new” entrance theme. The song “Cult of Personality,” a theme he had used in his Ring of Honor days, signalled his arrival. The song could not be more appropriate.

Punk’s personality shines through in his work, his passion. What you see on TV is a reflection of his true self, something rare in a world where two Canadian best friends can be vampire siblings before turning into kazoo-playing surfer dudes and nobody blinks an eye. Punk’s character is himself. He’s straight edge and straight talking, a man who is confident because he KNOWS he’s the best at what he does, and he knows this because he loves what he does enough to care about quality.

He’s still portraying the bad guy, but he gets the biggest ovation every week. He’s threatened to leave and never come back, and he was going to take the WWE’s crown jewel with him. And we loved him for that.

Think about that for a second, what if, say, the Boston Bruins said they were going to stop playing hockey after this season, and they were taking the Stanley Cup with them forever. Not a person on the planet would root for them, not even Bostonians.

But Punk’s personality, his brilliance on the mic, made EVERYONE cheer him. Following his victory, while he was “unemployed,” he even crashed a WWE panel at Comic Con filled with fans of the WWE, fans who should hate him for what he did. Of course the room exploded with applause the second he entered.

Not only that, he has become a household name, and he’s got people tuning in and shelling out money for the WWE. He’s been on Jimmy Kimmel, interviewed in GQ, and appeared on Bill Simmons’ podcast in the past few weeks. The man is everywhere, and we still can’t get enough.

This whole story isn’t over yet, and there are still some surprises along the way, I guarantee that.

Right now we are all cult members being led by CM Punk, and the feeling is The Best In The World.

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