How CM Punk Saved Wrestling (For Me)
To understand where I am coming from, first we must go back to my wrestling viewing past. I am 29 years old and I can first recall watching wrestling somewhere between Wrestlemanias IV and V, though I do know that I was watching before that. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area in California was nice in that there weren’t any strong regional loyalties (NWA San Francisco officially closed the year before I was born and the American Wrestling Association, which had run shows in the area over the years, was dying a very slow death as was seen on ESPN). What made this so fun is that I could watch the WWF and the NWA/WCW without feeling any twinge of guilt, one way or the other.
When it came to the WWF, I was your basic young kid in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I cheered all the faces and booed all the heels. It was simple in those days. Of course I liked Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Why wouldn’t I? When it came to the NWA, that’s when things were a bit different. You could say that I was a downright weird kid. While I loved Sting and the Road Warriors, I also liked the Four Horsemen, Cactus Jack, the Great Muta, and Vader. How I was able to make that leap in one promotion and not the other at that young age, I do not know. When the NWA stars would cross over to the WWF, my allegiance to them would remain the same. This came to a head when in the 1991, I saw the WWF Champion Hulk Hogan take on Ric Flair (The “Real” World Champion) in Oakland, CA. The crowd was evenly split noise and number-wise, but I was probably the only kid rooting for “The Nature Boy.”
Wrestling was fun back then. There were so many great characters/wrestlers that it was hard to not enjoy what was going on. This was the end of the ’80s boom that was ushered in, largely, by Hulk Hogan. He carried a torch that was passed down to him from Andre the Giant (Wrestlemania III was when it became official, though it happened earlier than that). During the zenith of my first go-round of watching wrestling, he would pass that very torch to my favorite guy at the time: the frantic, nonsensical powerhouse Ultimate Warrior. The two would face off in a classic match at Wrestlemania VI. It was a match, whether you knew it was “real” or not, where you didn’t really know who would win. When the Warrior finally pinned Hogan to win the WWF Championship, I was on cloud nine. This, along with Ric Flair winning the Royal Rumble to win the vacated WWF title in an epic performance, was the high watermark for me as a young fan. It simply couldn’t get any better than that.
Around this time, Flair would return to WCW. Hogan would join him soon later. The Warrior would basically disappear. This would be my first dead period. I still paid attention, of course. Cactus Jack was being crazy, yelling his signature “Bang bang!” which I loved. He even had a brutal feud with another one of my favorites: Vader, who ran through everyone in WCW until the arrival of Hogan. Vader and WCW would never quite be the same for me after that (and as a fan, it’s something I never really forgave Hogan for). With Hogan came an influx of WWF guys. What made NWA/WCW different were that they weren’t just characters, they were wrestlers, too. Hogan’s appearance changed all of that and I don’t recall much from WCW from this time period.
The WWF faired much better with me. I very much enjoyed watching the emergence of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, but the appeal was wearing thin as I found other things to occupy my time briefly. As we shall see, wrestling always finds a way to bring me back.
Luck plays a huge part in this story. I started watching again after a bit of a dark age. The players were basically the same in both promotions; some were just in different spots. Wrestlemania XII was a big show for me as I watched Bret Hart wrestle Shawn Michaels in a 60+ minute Iron Man match for the WWF championship. With that show, I was much more invested in the product, but it was something that WCW would do that would make me love wrestling again. A few months later, Scott Hall (who I would know as Razor Ramon in WWF) and Kevin Nash (or Diesel) would shockingly arrive during WCW shows. It actually felt like the WWF was invading WCW. When Hogan would turn heel to join them and from the New World Order, I was hooked. This was must-see TV, after all. You never knew who would show up at any given time. With this backdrop, I would learn to appreciate other talents as well: Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio Jr., Ultimo Dragon, and many others. WCW’s Monday Night Nitro had it all. WCW also had an IRC chat that would introduce me to the Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) for the first time.
While WCW was off and running, there were still rumblings going on in the WWF. They still had Hart, Michaels, and the Undertaker, plus Cactus Jack was there as equally great character known as Mankind. They also had a wrestler named Steve Austin. I used to enjoy Austin back in his “Stunning” days in WCW (it was his “illegal” Stun Gun move that made me take notice). He was slowly picking up steam as this character that didn’t take “nothing for nobody.” I think any fan from this time period will remember the first time they heard the birth of Austin 3:16. While WCW had the story and wrestlers that brought me back, it was Steve Austin who would become my (and millions of others’) guy. It was also during this time when I was introduced to Extreme Championship Wrestling via American Online. I would have to get out the old rabbit ears to watch ECW’s Hardcore TV (along with Memphis Championship Wrestling as a “bonus”) via antenna on the America One channel. Needless to say, I was hooked again.
I don’t really need to go into the next part. It was the Monday Night Wars (plus ECW). It was another boom. There was so much great stuff going around, such creativity, so many hungry performers that it’s easy to forget some of the terrible stuff that happened along the way during this time period (Mae Young. Hand. ’nuff said.). While I did watch both shows, I was definitely more pro-WWF during the Monday Night Wars. Austin took the world by storm. The Rock would follow suit. WCW began to flounder due to some very bad decisions (Starrcade ’97, I’m looking at you; plus the NWO angle was completely out of control at this point), but they always had the wrestlers (including the likes of Chris Jericho by now, before he would become Y2J) to keep me watching. ECW always seemed like cutting edge stuff, where you could look to see the future of the business. It truly was a great time to be a fan.
Before anyone realized it, it was all over. Sure, the signs were there: WCW kept slipping in the ratings and PPV buyrates as the WWF continued to skyrocket to higher heights never seen before. Soon, Vince McMahon (owner of the WWF) would buy WCW. ECW would close shortly thereafter. The WWF had won and created one of the best rosters ever seen. It wouldn’t last. Austin would retire. The Rock would go off to make movies. The WCW (and ECW) Invasion angle was such a colossal failure that it’s still being talked about ten years later. Even new stars would be short lived: Brock Lesnar would leave after the travel was too tough for him (though would go on to do very well in the UFC). The now christened WWE would open their own version of ECW, but after Paul Heyman (who not only owned the real ECW, but also booked/wrote some great stuff on Smackdown) was “let go,” it just wasn’t the same.
My interest became less and less. I stopped watching Smackdown and ECW altogether. Eventually RAW (WWE’s flagship show) would become background noise that was on more out of habit than anything else. After a little while longer, I stopped watching that as well. I kept up on things via the internet: who was signed, who was let go, who was doing what, etc. I would check for events like Bret Hart returning to RAW and would usually watch Wrestlemania. It is Wrestlemania, after all. However, nothing really triggered me to come back. I found some of it entertaining, sure, but nothing to warrant me investing time into the product. Enter CM Punk (and a bit of luck again, which is for “losers,” I know).
I moved from California to a suburb of Las Vegas in the fall of 2010. It was a much needed change of scenery. One of the many perks to living here is all the entertainment that is constantly going on (most of which is within 25 minutes driving time, including traffic). One such event was Monday Night RAW was coming to town in late June 2011. I decided it would be a nice gesture to take my dad to the shows (as they taped a second episode that night, too) since he had taken me to quite a few when I was younger (not to mention all the PPVs he bought). I started watching again, just to familiarize myself with the product. It was alright. There were some new guys I liked (Alberto Del Rio with his own personal announcer Ricardo Rodriguez, Dolph Ziggler, Kharma was starting to destroy the Divas, The Miz surprised the heck out of me, and R-Truth would start a much needed heel turn), but I especially noticed CM Punk. I had always heard of Punk and enjoyed the stuff I did watch him do (via youtube or on Smackdown during his feud with Jeff Hardy, though I largely missed his Straight Edge Society stuff). He was very entertaining. I may have even kept watching after that RAW I was going to in person because of him, but nothing could prepare me for what would happen that night.
First, we got to watch some matches meant for one of WWE web shows Superstars. We were lucky in that we got to see three solid to very good matches: Beth Phoenix vs. Gail Kim, Chris Masters vs. JTG, and Zack Ryder vs. Drew McIntyre. To start off RAW, Shawn Michaels would return to hype his new show on the Outdoor Channel. Seeing him come out was something special for me. It’s always fun seeing legends come back from time to time, but I never really saw “HBK” in person past his time with the Rockers. His confrontation with Punk in this segment was very fun, but would be forgotten for obvious reasons. We had a short cage match with Del Rio (sans Ricardo, sadly) vs. the Big Show which featured Mark Henry coming out, ripping off the cage door and hitting Show with it, breaking the cage in the process. We also got a great Tornado tag match between Rey Mysterio (no longer “Jr.” in WWE) and Alex Riley vs. The Miz and Jack Swagger.
While the second show would feature the return of Sgt Slaughter (it was the 4th of July show) and Vince McMahon himself, the highlight of the night was the live show’s main event between WWE Champion John Cena and R-Truth. Not so much for the match, but for CM Punk, of course. That promo he gave was laced with so much energy and venom, it was shocking. It was amazing. The thoughts going through my head during it, to paraphrase from the great Booker T, “he did not just say that!” As soon it was over, I got my phone out and sent a text to my friend Donnie with, and excuse my language here: “I don’t know how much of that made the air, but Punk just went the fuck off!” His reply was something like, “The entire thing made it. Let me know what happens, I think he just got fired.” It felt real and it got the entire wrestling fanbase buzzing. Once again, I was hooked.
What a minority of people in the IWC don’t seem to realize is that Punk represents something many fans (mostly adult males) are feeling. The product was stale. It needed a shot in the arm and Punk gave it just that. Not only that, but he was saying things that the IWC have been grumbling about for years now (which, I assure you, is not coincidental). Suddenly, we had our guy again. Punk gets how we feel. As he would go on to say, he was the “voice of the voiceless.” It’s a character that was blurring the lines of reality: what’s real and what isn’t? Like is usually the case, Punk hasn’t really been acting all that differently, it’s just who he has been directing his actions towards that has changed. Steve Austin and The Rock were exactly the same. That’s why this works so well.
The following PPV (Money in the Bank) gave me a feeling that I haven’t felt in a long time. There was an emotional connection, one which didn’t exist for roughly ten years for me. I felt like a kid again watching Hogan/Warrior twenty years ago. I didn’t know who was going to win and I loved that feeling. I could sit there and calculate the various scenarios that they could do, but ultimately, I had no idea. The PPV was already a great one, but as soon as Punk’s music hit in front of his hometown of Chicago, it reached a whole other level altogether. The place simply exploded. I get chills just thinking about it (the volume of the booing John Cena received upon his entrance was something else, too). The match itself was a fantastic one. It’s not quite among the very elite, but it was on the level below that. The crowd definitely helped, but the story they told, how the drama built up was incredible. I don’t know how many times I caught myself yelling, “No!” or “Yes!” during the match. I cheered loudly as Punk got the pinfall victory. I cheered even louder when he left with the belt through the crowd. I was a fan again. Not a jaded one, either; just a plain fan and, yet again, my guy had won.
Punk, whose contract was up (even though he was the WWE Champion), would go on to mock WWE via twitter and even crashing Mattel and WWE’s San Diego Comic Con panel in a great moment. Very soon thereafter, Punk returned to RAW with brand new music to remind everyone who the true champ actually was (Rey Mysterio had won a tournament only for John Cena to beat him later that night. Boo!). One could argue that Punk returned too soon. Punk himself has said he would have loved to stay away longer, but business is business after all. The WWE needed him for SummerSlam, their second biggest show of the year. It’s understandable. It’s easy to be cynical about this, but I know I started to get hyped when “Cult of Personality” started playing and got even more hyped when Punk emerged from the back, arms stretched out to the side (he is our savior, right?).
When most of us thought Vince McMahon was only a lowly play-by-play announcer, he had a saying, “ANYTHING can happen in the World Wrestling Federation.” For too long that wasn’t the case anymore. CM Punk has changed all of that. For that, I’d like to thank him. In less than an hour, SummerSlam will begin. Just like Money in the Bank, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I plan on trying to just sit back and enjoy the show. I urge all of you to do the same. Besides: