Love him or hate him, there’s no denying the impact that CM Punk made on the world of professional wrestling. He walked out of WWE the day after the 2014 Royal Rumble, and hasn’t set foot in a ring since, yet wrestling fans all over the world still speak his name. Some miss him, some are glad he’s gone, but to say he wasn’t a damn good “sports entertainer” is just untrue, and here’s why.
CM Punk: The King of Kayfabe
People always talk about how “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was so beloved because he represented the anti-authority figure. Fans all over could relate to him, and because of that, he was wildly popular. While I wouldn’t be the first person to compare Stone Cold to CM Punk, I think that one similarity they have is what made them such huge stars.
With CM Punk, everything felt real. You knew that wrestling was fake, and that everyone was just acting out a storyline, but with Punk, it didn’t always feel that way. Punk masterfully blended the lines between what was real and what wasn’t. During a time when WWE’s biggest star was a cartoon, CM Punk was Breaking Bad. And that began long before he signed with WWE.
Straight-Edge Means I’m Better Than You
CM Punk first started getting over in the indies with an anti-drug heel gimmick. On the surface, that sounds preposterous. Drugs are bad for you, drinking is bad for you, how could someone opting to live a healthy lifestyle be a bad thing? Well, it was the condescending, elitist, snobby way that he insisted his sobriety made him better than everyone else that just rubbed people the wrong way.
But that’s the thing, CM Punk is straight-edge. He really doesn’t drink or do recreational drugs. And without making too many personal assumptions, this lifestyle choice was born from resentment of his father’s alcoholism. So when Punk got on the microphone and started talking about his sobriety, he was speaking from a very real place, and he at least partially believed everything he was saying.
The Reeaaaaaal Summer of Punk
But as great as that gimmick was, arguably the best heel run outside of WWE in the last twenty years was the original “Summer of Punk” arch in Ring of Honor. Taking advantage of the fact that social media was evolving and people were more aware of the “behind the scenes” aspect of wrestling than ever, Punk took advantage of the fact that the fans knew he had signed with WWE.
In what was rumored to be his last match, CM Punk won the Ring of Honor World Title and cut arguably his best promo. He mocked the fans for buying into his act, and claimed he was taking the Ring of Honor World Championship to WWE with him, kicking off one of the best heel runs in recent memory. It was hardly kayfabe. He was going to WWE, and there was nothing the fans could do about it.
The King of Kayfabe
Punk has always been able to take a seat in the crowd, and read their minds. He knew what what the fans wanted, and what would make them angry. As great as a complex move-set is, it’s useless if you’re not using all of those moves to tell a story. And that’s what made Punk so great. He could easily manipulate the crowd, and part of that was always that he believed what he was saying, and that’s what made his WWE run so fascinating.
Skipping over the time WWE dropped the ball with both the straight-edge gimmick and the straight-edge society, Punk’s best work with WWE came between the summer of 2011 and spring of 2013. Halfway through 2011, Punk was fed up. He was sick of the way he was being treated, he was sick of repetitive booking, and he was frustrated with how the company seemingly refused to reward him for his hard work.
And can you blame him? Imagine working tirelessly at your job for years and years, and constantly being passed over for someone less deserving. It’s not that hard. Many of us have poured our hearts and souls into our work, only for someone that put in an eighth of the effort to get the big promotion or job opportunity.
Well, one day, he realized enough was enough. His contract was coming up, and he simply wouldn’t re-sign. He was burned out, and tired of not being appreciated. If WWE weren’t going to properly reward him for his hard work, then they’d have to find someone else to do it. That’s when the Pipe Bomb happened.
I don’t have to tell you what the Pipe Bomb promo was about. If you’re reading this article, you can probably recite the entire speech verbatim. We’ve even written articles about the promo itself and the way it changed WWE. But Punk went out there, and using the platform he resented, aired his grievances. He let everyone know that he was fed up, that he was done, and that things just weren’t good enough. In the pipe bomb promo, Punk announced that his contract was coming to an end, and that he was leaving WWE forever.
Again, WWE really thought that this was going to make him a heel. They believed that fans would think Punk was deserting them. But instead, it galvanized the WWE universe. Punk wasn’t a deserter, he was a martyr. He was willing to walk away from everything, blowing it up in the process. It helped that the Money in the Bank pay per view was in Chicago, his home town, but fans were cheering Punk everywhere the WWE went.
The King of Kings
Perhaps the most interesting feud that Punk had in WWE was the one with Triple H. Rumors about the contempt the two held for each other were running wild long before their brief program in the second half of 2011, and they continue to this day. In fact, the rumors were essentially confirmed by Punk in his infamous podcast appearance on Colt Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” show. Go back and watch the promos between Punk and Triple H now, knowing the two men genuinely dislike each other, and realize they’re basically just shooting.
Perhaps the most underrated promo in Punk’s WWE run happened towards the end of his 434 day reign as champion. Building into his match with The Rock, Punk broke down what a pipe bomb truly is. He explained that it was the truth, that it was the unfiltered truth, and he relived the last year and a half of his career. He broke down how it didn’t matter if you were the best wrestler or talker or performer, and that everyone was limited by the glass ceiling.
Punk continued to attack the WWE’s infrastructure, and despite the fact that everything he said was cruel or rude, he wasn’t wrong. He trashed gimmicks like Brodus Clay’s Funkasaurus routine or Daniel Bryan’s catch-phrases. And while it doesn’t have the same fame as the Pipe Bomb, it was arguably just as powerful.
Crowd Manipulator Punk
The best thing about CM Punk as a performer was that he was playing himself. The best of the best all play themselves, just turned up to 11, but perhaps nobody has ever done it as well as CM Punk did. The difference between heel CM Punk and face CM Punk were minuscule because at the end of the day, he put kayfabe in the Anaconda Vice and got everything out of it that he could. Punk said he was the best in the world, and he tried to be. We may never see him in a wrestling ring again, but his legacy shouldn’t just be that he walked out. It should be that he walked out exactly the same man he was when he walked in, and not everyone can say that.