In CM Punk We Trust
When it comes to the relationship between the professional wrestler and the wrestling fan, there’s always appeared to be a barrier between them. For the most part, that has to do with that a wrestler’s persona is manufactured; as if to say fans are told from the beginning who is the face (good guy) or heel (bad guy) so they can cheer accordingly. Sure, wrestlers do get over naturally, but it’s always under the same structure, under the watchful of Big Brother, played by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment these days (WWE is the only wrestling promotion that is still close to mainstream). In short, fans may cheer or boo wrestlers because of traits or personality, but history shows there has never been a wrestler that stood for the fans and their cause. What is that cause? In my opinion, it's for a wrestler to speak and fight on their behalf. There have been panders and phony’s who have seemingly stood for it, but only “Stone Cold” Steve Austin ever really came close to being a wrestler for the cause of the people. And yet, even Austin’s beer drinking, hell raising rebel was more about himself than the fans, he just happened to get cheered. Thus, it must come to a shock that the wrestling world has finally found a wrestler who maybe, just maybe, is the man who stands for the fans, even if his own company insists he doesn’t.
That man’s name is Philip Brooks, a man most wrestling fans know better as CM Punk. Born in Chicago, Punk surged through the independent scenes during the last decade, becoming known for his great in ring ability and his straight edge lifestyle (which means he avoids the use of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, medication, ect.). Signed by the WWE in 2005, Punk would go onto have a solid, yet uneventful career with the wrestling powerhouse. Sure he won titles, was the leader of two groups (Straight Edge Society and the Nexus respectively) and headlined events, but the impact was ultimately minimal. Punk seemed destined to be a guy who remained in close to the main event scene, but never quite breaking through. It was infuriating for the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community, the most loyal and most bipolar group of wrestling fans), who had championed Punk for many years thanks to his great work in the independents (most notably super indy promotion Ring of Honor). As it turned out though, no one was more infuriated with Punk’s treatment than Punk, which led to one of the most shocking and inspiring sequence of events wrestling had seen in a long time.
Those events took place over a year ago, during a feud between Punk and the WWE Champion of the time, John Cena. Punk, at the time, was reportedly leaving WWE after failing to sign a contract extension, and his match with Cena at the Money in the Bank pay per view seemed like his last hurrah. After costing Cena a match one night on WWE’s flagship program RAW, Punk walked back up to the entrance stage and sat Indian style on the cold floor. He then unleashed a forth wall breaking manifesto, tearing into almost every higher up in the company, including Cena, McMahon, Stephanie McMahon (head of WWE creative), John Laurinaitis (then Executive Vice President of Talent), Triple H (top wrestler and chairman in waiting of WWE due to his real life marriage with Stephanie McMahon) and even The Rock. By the time Punk was cut off as RAW went off the air, the IWC in sheer ecstasy, and the promo was so massive that even ESPN talked about it the next day in some of their shows. A friend of mine and non wrestling fan instantly gravitated towards Punk, identifying with his rage and emotion from that speech. Punk was storyline suspended for the next week, but returned two weeks later for a live contract negotiation with Vince McMahon, in which he once again stole the show and delivered another captivating performance. Less than a week later at Money in the Bank (held in Punk’s hometown of Chicago by the way), Punk would defeat Cena for the WWE Championship in one of the greatest WWE matches in the past ten years. As he promised, Punk left the WWE that night with their title, and the possibilities for where the story could go seemed endless.
As it is with the wrestling business, the good moments tend to be thought about long after they have occurred. For me, Punk’s four week run last summer has stayed long after most wrestling moments should have. Part of this is because of how great it was and how disappointing and irritating wrestling (and I mean WWE in particular here) can and has been since. The main reason Punk’s manifesto and the subsequent weeks that followed have stayed with me though is because of what they stood for. Punk’s grievances were no different than any that the older wrestling fan had, and with his words and actions it seemed like Punk was ready to carry the hopes and dreams of wrestling fans everywhere on his shoulders. It was dumbfounding, beautiful and revolutionary. We assume every wrestler loves what they’re doing, but no one had ever seen a wrestler show as much love and fandom towards what he was doing than Punk had. It was ultimately what made him a star, and showed the wrestling world why he was better than Cena, fourth wall broken or not.
Cena, for those who don’t know, is the WWE’s preferred golden child, a muscle bound superhero for the WWE’s PG audience (which they converted to largely because of Chris Benoit’s murder/suicide and the Senate campaign of owner Vince McMahon’s wife Linda) who is colorful, a hard worker and a damn good performer. But for all of Cena’s positive attributes, he is overprotected by both WWE, due to a fear of losing merchandise sales (Cena has been a top merchandise seller for years), and the IWC, who despite having disdain for Cena seem down set on making sure he is properly respected. It’s one thing to respect Cena, his hard work, ability, and his devotion to helping people as seen by his contributions to the Make-A-Wish foundation. It’s another, however, to ignore what he is, which is a protected, hypocritical character who gets cheers because the WWE has forced him onto little kids that don’t know any better. Cena’s wrestling character isn’t real; it’s a manufactured piece of work the WWE has become accustomed to creating instead of letting the fans create stars on their own. It’s what ultimately separates Cena and Punk; one is a dream, the other is real.
In the end, the WWE ultimately chose the dream over reality. Punk would return a few weeks after his Money in the Bank victory, and ultimately would see his momentum drown in a series of poor booking decisions (term for putting together storylines and matches), which seemed to have been made to make sure nothing strayed far away from the status quo. Punk did recover and has gone on to have a record setting WWE Championship run, but he has remained behind Cena on the card, main eventing only one match since becoming champion in November. Now, a little more than a year later, we are back to where we started. Punk is again the bad guy, thanks to attacking The Rock at RAW’s historic 1000th episode, and Cena is the good guy looking for to be the champ once more. The two traded great promos to close RAW this past week, but it again showed the difference between the two. Punk spoke truths; he had been held down since becoming champion to Cena and had been in some part disrespected, before asking Cena to declare him the “best in the world” (Punk’s slogan) in order to get a title shot. Cena spoke what appeared to be truth, saying he had already earned respect (unlike Punk) and that he wouldn’t give in to Punk and call him the best in the world, saying he wouldn’t force a title match. The irony of course was that Cena has only the respect of the younger fans, and that he then proceeded to try and shame Punk into forcing a title match. How is Cena convincingly the good guy here?
That’s a good question to ask, and it may not be an easy one to answer. No one knows where this storyline goes from here; reports are saying Punk and Cena will likely feud through the rest of the year, with one of them likely to face The Rock at Royal Rumble (Rock announced he has a guaranteed title shot for that event on RAW 1000) in January, while the other facing the winner of that match at Wrestlemania (WWE’s Super Bowl event). I find myself one way or another hoping something good is in this for Punk in the long run. He wasn’t molded or created by WWE like Cena was, but instead fought his way up from the bottom. He is also completely real; I cannot tell you where the real John Cena and the wrestler John Cena begin or end, but I can tell you that there is no difference between Phil Brooks and CM Punk. They are the same man; straight edge, punk rocker, wrestler, wrestling fan. It’s ultimately why the older fans will continue to cheer Punk over Cena, including at the upcoming Night of Champions pay per view in Cena’s hometown of Boston. It’s also why in one moment, whether during a match or promo, the Punk from last year could wave into the camera once more and send the forth wall crashing to its knees. Viva la revolution!
The WWE has for years been looking for the next great wrestling hero. They thought they had created it with Cena. But if the WWE would just look closer, they would notice they’ve had it all along, waiting and willing to be the wrestling hero the fans have always needed and the hero they deserved. Phil Brooks, CM Punk, Best in the World.