Punked?

Posted: September 25, 2011 by Keith Stone in CM Punk, wrestling, WWF


When CM Punk did a series of promos a few months ago and seemingly shattered the fourth wall of professional wrestling, it appeared a new era was about to begin. It couldn’t have come at a better time. After the over-the-top Attitude Era, where blood and references to tits and ass were more prevalent than the Brooklyn Brawler’s defeats, the WWF transitioned into a more family-friendly place. Programming was rated TV-PG instead of TV-14 and it became stale and boring. John Cena became the people’s champion of a younger and younger demographic. He liked to rap, yo.

Wrestling has always been full of characters, and for good reason. George Steele is a fat old man. George “The Animal” Steele is not. Characters drive ratings and put asses in the seats.

But the times, they are a-changing. With the rise of reality TV and social media, as well as an ever-cynical society, wrestling was at a crossroads. The fans know it’s a show (at least most of them) and can access Twitter to find out what their favorite wrestlers are doing in their real lives and communicate back-and-forth. It’s like seeing the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. This openness had never been had before.

And then Punk cut his first shoot promo. He was breaking all the rules. He used wrestlers’ real names, talked about never-before-seen executives, and aired his grievances live on the air. It was well-known that his contract was expiring and he was likely to leave after the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in his hometown of Chicago. Was this all a part of the show or was a fed-up Punk going rogue knowing that he only had a few weeks left with the company?

The message boards and tweets were exploding. Nobody knew what was happening, but one thing was assured. Everyone would be watching next Monday. One of Punk’s main targets in his diatribe was John Cena. He said what most of the fans had been thinking for a while. Cena was lame with his silly moves and catch phrases. Only little kids liked him. And who the fuck still wears jean shorts?

But then Punk went in a different direction. He criticized the storylines themselves. Cena loses the Title to a random bad guy, gets the shit kicked out of him by said baddie leading up to a rematch, then rallies to beat him at a big PPV. Lather, rinse, repeat. The WWF was more predictable than a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson. Punk claimed the fans deserved better. Everything was so meta, the cast of Community was taking notes.

Imagine Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie were both appearing on Letterman and got into a catfight. Maybe they had planned it. Maybe they still really wanted to beat the shit out of each other. Maybe they had new movies coming out. I bet you’d know the names of the movies after that. That’s what happened at Money in the Bank. The Cena-Punk Championship match was the most anticipated in a long time.

It wasn’t so much because of the quality of the wrestlers although both men are very talented. CM Punk and John Cena just didn’t seem to like each other very much. Punk had called out Cena, both the man and the wrestler. Yes, Cena surely knew what was coming but words cut deep, especially in front of millions on TV. With all the plotlines the WWF has used over the years, from “You kidnapped my daughter!” to “I want to be your best friend!” (make sure to watch the 1:30 mark for a great announcing call), nothing beats “These guys do not like each other!” especially if they really don’t.

Punk ended up winning the Title and left, his contract expired, but he wasn’t gone. Soon after, he tweeted a picture of the Title Belt in his fridge. Then, he showed up at ComicCon with the Strap. While the WWF held a tournament to find a new Champ, Punk was creating more interest than ever. Was he still under contract? Would he ever show up at WWF event again? What crazy stunt would he pull next?

At a time when wrestling fans had seemingly figured out everything to know about the business, Punk had turned it on its head. That’s why wrestling had become so big in the first place. Nobody knew if it was real or fake. That element of surprise was back again 25 years after Vince McMahon deemed the enterprise “sports entertainment.” It was great and worked so perfectly in today’s reality-obsessed world. Sure, we weren’t going to start calling Kofi Kingston by his real name (you don’t want to know—it’s long) but it was an exciting change.

Rey Mysterio ended up winning the Championship tournament and quickly lost the Title (big surprise!) to John Cena. Right on cue, like a beacon from the heavens, Punk made his dramatic return and everything seemed to point towards a Champion vs. Champion fight at SummerSlam, the second-biggest PPV of the year. With a few weeks of (mostly) real-life beef and shit-talking, it would be a match for the ages. And then Triple H showed up.

As we saw on TV, as a result of CM Punk’s antics, the WWE Board of Directors decided to fire Chairman Vince McMahon and replace him with Triple H as new Chief Operating Officer. The Game, who is actually an executive officer of WWF (although not COO), became a mediator in Punk and Cena’s feud along with another real-life exec, John Laurinaitis, who was rarely seen on camera since he hung up his boots. Again, it looked like Punk had influenced the proceedings, with the actual company officials running the show instead of a “General Manager” like Vickie Guerrero or a computer (the 8:00 mark is priceless).

At SummerSlam, it all went to hell. With Triple H serving as special guest referee, Punk got the victory despite Cena’s foot being on the ropes, which meant the match should have continued. While confusion reigned, a giant figure emerged from the crowd and slammed Punk to the canvas. It was Kevin Nash, a legit 90’s superstar who was sporadically seen in past years but nonetheless was good friends with Triple H.

Suddenly Alberto del Rio, who had won a match guaranteeing him a shot at the Title whenever he pleases, came down to the ring and made short work of Punk, who had been the undisputed Champ for about 90 seconds. Del Rio left with the Belt. The events were surprising, yes. Realistic, no.

In the past few weeks, it feels like the WWF is up the creek without a paddle. Nash claimed he received a text message to take out the winner of the Cena-Punk match and later revealed he himself sent the text because he didn’t like all these new-fangled wrestlers. Punk forgot about Cena and fought Triple H with his COO title on the line. The same day, Cena won the Title for the 83rd time.

Meanwhile, Laurinaitis has been meddling in everybody’s business and has been engaged in a power struggle with Triple H. It’s like something from 10 years ago. Triple H and Laurinaitis probably still listen to Hootie & the Blowfish. Both men are firing wrestlers left and right, and Triple H is leveling fines like he’s Roger Goodell for various misdeeds such as beating up the refs, even though attacking the refs in the WWF is as commonplace as one of John Cena’s movies going straight-to-DVD.

CM Punk’s shining beacon of reality has dimmed almost as quickly as it first came onto the scene, overtaken by storylines even more cartoonish than the physiques of many of the wrestlers. The WWF has botched can’t-miss angles before, like the ill-fated WCW Invasion, but there was so much hope. Nobody wants any more mysterious text messages. It’s belittling. Every fan (again, except one) would agree. We want what made the two Cena-Punk matches so great: two guys that just didn’t fucking like each other.

There’s still hope. I honestly believe that CM Punk cares about the wrestling fan and will do everything in his power to make future matches more exciting and accessible. However, it’s going to be hard. Professional wrestling has been operating one way for almost a century, and although Vince McMahon has made it more open, there’s still a lot of resistance to change. At the same time, industries that don’t adapt usually fail. Right, newspapers?

Punk’s mantra is straight edge. No drinks, no drugs. The WWF needs to be more straight edge. No bullshit. Even with a fat new contract, Punk needs to continue to push for what he believes in. It will be the fight of his life.

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