It all began so well.
Ironically, it was only at the end of CM Punk’s time at the WWE that allowed him the freedom to begin anew; in turn revolutionizing the industry, and providing the spark that was so sorely missing from the product. At least for a while.
CM Punk’s ascension within the WWE after his now legendary “shoot” promo is undeniable. With a single microphone he successfully reinvented himself and shook the very foundations of the WWE’s status quo. So how did CM Punk go from wrestlings pseudo-Phoenix, rising from the ashes of an unfulfilled, disgruntled career, to what he has become today; a pandering, pantomime inspired, super babyface?
What exactly happened to the renegade anti-hero and his pipe bombs?
In The Beginning
A microphone and some open time to speak his mind, that’s all it took in the heavily scripted, and rescripted, world of the WWE for CM Punk to completely reinvent himself. What Punk did wasn’t the first time we saw, or heard, this kind of anti-establishment tirade. Was there really no coincidence in the fact he was wearing a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shirt? Punk provided something that the WWE product at the time was sorely lacking; a genuine edge. Suddenly; up was down and black was white, as the status quo was thrown into complete disarray. This kind of thing wouldn’t have been out of place with ROH era CM Punk, but for the WWE iteration of Punk, the same mid card ECW superstar from just a few years ago it was almost unimaginable.
CM Punk’s good buddy, Colt Cabana, puts it succinctly; “We said that wrestling needs some kind of spark. And you never know where it’s going to come from. Thank God it was from an unscripted promo. It wasn’t from some writer telling Punk what to do. It was unscripted, live television, and I hope this has the ability to turn wrestling around if done right.”
Cabana wasn’t the only one to see the potential. Suddenly the decision makers were paying attention. McMahon was listening and CM Punk knew it: “I always thought I was a main event player. The difference is now he knows I’m a main event player.”
Mr. Money In The Bank
Money In The Bank 2011 and, more importantly, Chicago, will always be remembered as a defining moment in crafting what would become CM Punk as he is now. Coming in as a hometown hero, and over with everyone beyond belief, CM Punk would go on to win the WWE Title off of a defending John Cena and, staying true to his word, leave the company with it.
This caused a wonderful dilemma for Raw; what would happen to the brand without a champion? This tantalizing idea however was almost instantly scuppered, never to be fully explored, as the WWE held a tournament on the July 25th 2011 edition of Raw to crown a new champion with Rey Mysterio initially winning the championship, only to lose it to John Cena later that same night. It took the WWE only 8 days to jump the gun with CM Punk, bringing him back to Raw and into the main event with a new title feud with John Cena.
Rolling off of this momentum, Punk would initially go from strength to strength until a stymieing feud involving both Triple H and Kevin Nash. Arguably the only stumbling point in CM Punk’s journey to the top, it involved Punk dropping the title at Summerslam to Alberto Del Rio, after successfully defeating John Cena to ‘unify’ the WWE titles, after Del Rio cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase.
This debacle led into Punk blaming Nash, claiming that Nash and Triple H were conspiring to keep Punk away from the championship. This would eventually lead Punk into a match against Triple H, originally meant to be Kevin Nash, at Night of Champions 2011. Intending to get Punk over, the weak finish (featuring run in’s by Nash, The Miz as well as R-Truth) left fans cold, and CM Punk looking weak. This wasn’t helped the next month after Punk would go on to lose in a Triple Threat match against John Cena and a successfully retaining Alberto Del Rio, only to be assaulted from behind once again by The Miz and R-Truth.
The WWE brought CM Punk back into the fold after only 8 days away, and then booked him on a losing streak after having him drop the title to Alberto Del Rio. The WWE was making it difficult for people to remember why they had wanted Punk back so badly. The only silver lining to come out of this however was the inclusion of John Laurinatis as the interim Raw General Manager.
By giving Punk an authority figure to collide with, this allowed him to get back that edge he had lost since the summer as the self proclaimed “voice of the voiceless.”
No Chance In Hell
Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: ass kicking anti-hero stands up for himself and, in turn, becomes a representative of the people as he decides enough is enough and decides to confront his tyrannical, power abusing employer.
So far, so “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs Mr. McMahon.
The problem with the Punk iteration of this story however was that over the course of their feud together, culminating in Punk giving the GTS to John Laurinatis on the January 23rd edition of Raw, we saw him transition from the Pipe Bomb dropping renegade into a watered down, shadow of his former self.
Suddenly, in order to get over on Laurinatis and garner support for himself, we were watching Punk pathetically pander to the crowd, turning his promos from must watch TV into pantomime performances. Punk himself states in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “I’m certainly not a baby kissing, hand slapping, rah rah good guy. I definitely think there’s more of an edge to my character.” This statement however is contradictory to the CM Punk we have seen as of late in the WWE; gone are the Pipe Bomb’s, gone is the spark that made him so exciting to watch and, in turn, gone is the unpredictability of him as a character and Raw as a show. We are, once again, back into the WWE’s status quo.
CM Punk managed to expertly maneuver himself from a frustrated mid carder to, undeniably, one of the top babyfaces in the company right now. He currently fills a role that superstars like Batista and The Ultimate Warrior were familiar with: second place to a bigger, more marketable superstar. In Punk’s and Batista’s case it is John Cena, with Warrior it was always Hogan. Despite the amount of merchandise Punk sells, despite his continued, but diminishing, popularity with an older, and male, demographic and despite being the current WWE Champion, it will always be John Cena who is the company’s top draw.
Corporate Made Punk
As CM Punk’s popularity grows, the tenacity and edge that singled him out above the others in the locker room has declined. It is now becoming commonplace to hear the same higher pitched voices of the women and children who support John Cena now chant “CM Punk, CM Punk” in support of their uber babyface hero.
Punk has managed to climb the corporate ladder of the WWE, and he did so by initially demonstrating why he was such a unique talent: his ability. Not only in the ring, but on the mic as well. The WWE have now seen what they have with Punk, but instead of allowing him to continue, they have in essence commercialized his gimmick.
The Pipe Bomb’s are now scripted, with perhaps a little leeway given for Punk, the merchandise sells like hot cakes, and he has the support of the core PG demographic that the WWE are so desperate to maintain. CM Punk is now so mainstream popular within the WWE that he even adorns the cover of the new WWE videogame; WWE 13. David Levin, of the Bleacher Report, writes: “[…]now that he is being used more as a marketing tool, Punk is as valuable to the company as he has ever been, but his persona may be stale.”
And herein lies the dilemma: as CM Punk’s mainstream appeal grows, everything that made him special as an ‘alternative’ superstar, one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, diminishes. With each passing day, we are watching him transform himself once again; from a rebellious, exciting, no nonsense Chicago Made Punk, into a conforming, stale, script abiding Corporate Made Punk.
And it all began so well.