The Autumn of CM Punk
Two years ago, CM Punk was very angry. He was told to air his grievances, so he sat cross-legged and turned a microphone into a pipe bomb. He called Triple H a dufus and referred to Vince McMahon’s death, his voice bitter and brave. He promised that he would beat John Cena for the WWE title and leave the company with the title. I thought to myself, “Of course not.”
His entrance at the AllState Arena in Chicago must have broke the decibel record for a crowd reaction. It was the most unanimous, passionate reaction I had ever seen for a wrestling match. After winning that WWE title, CM Punk blew Vince a kiss good bye, cabbed it home, and put the belt in his fridge next to the barbeque sauce.
"Do I have everyone's attention now?" It was more of a challenge than a question. For a long, buzzworthy moment, Punk blurred the lines between sports entertainment and reality. He had everyone's attention, and for the first time in a long time, we had no idea what would happen next. It was The Summer of Punk.
Fast forward to this year's Money In The Bank PPV. I became oddly mesmerized by Punk as he entered the ring. Something was different about him, beyond the new reverse goatee. As the camera went to Punk one last time before the bell, it hit me: his facial piercings were gone. The sleep-deprived bags under his eyes were gone. He looked focused, but the rage was gone. I realized that we have entered The Autumn of Punk.
For the sake of my theory, let's refer to the beginning of Punk's career as The Spring of Punk. Born a backyard wrestler, Punk blossomed into a bold storyteller in the ring. His time in IWA Mid-South, Ring Of Honor, and TNA were crucial to Punk’s development. For every uncensored minute of promo time, and every one-hour match fought to a draw, CM Punk was building his repertoire. He wisely tucked away the good ideas for another time and place.
Given the cult-like status he had achieved in the smaller feds, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Punk was ready for WWE. After two years of toiling in developmental and ECW, Punk appeared stunted in his growth. To continue the Spring of Punk metaphor, he had been transplanted into less-hospitable ground. The suits were sour on the Straight-Edge antagonist – and his frustrations took root. Fearing a missed opportunity, Paul Heyman argued that CM Punk had WWE-calibre talent and marketability. If only given the chance.
I remember the first time I saw CM Punk. For a few years, life was so busy that I didn’t even have cable TV, and only watched wrestling on occasion. As a special treat, I splurged for the Wrestlemania 24 PPV. As soon as Punk hit the ramp, his super-ragey music blared and the crowd rejoiced. I immediately wondered what I’d been missing. He won that Money In The Bank ladder match, and the next one at Wrestlemania 25 – where I rejoiced along with the crowd in Houston. I liked CM Punk because for all his efforts, he didn’t come off as desperate. He was cool.
WWE had no idea what to do with him. Punk was a new specimen, one of a growing number of grapplers who were small but mighty nonetheless. After several brief title reigns, I thought he’d found his niche as the Straight Edge Society's greasy leader. He was so confident on the microphone; there was no question he could command an audience. For 10 entertaining months, Punk played a condescending messiah to unwashed perfection. He had amazing synergy with his followers Luke Gallows and Serena, and it was a tragedy when the story sputtered out. Punk felt he wasn't getting the chance to realize his potential. At a time when WWE was showcasing its respectable-but-stale veterans, Punk's disgruntlement mounted. He was ripe for the picking, and the fans were starving for something fresh. The Spring of Punk was heating up.
It began with a pipe bomb and a kiss good bye. Was walking away the smartest thing Punk ever did? His entrance at Summerslam was heralded by the triumphant "Cult of Personality" track and fans awash in "Best In The World" shirts. CM Punk was finally the guy he always knew he could be, and he was blazing hot. A few false starts (like Nash and Laurinaitis) threatened Punk's momentum, but it was full throttle thereafter. "Cult of Personality" was a fitting anthem for the man who rode in a luxurious private coach and adorned the WWE '13 video game case. The company produced an autobiographical DVD that was as gritty and authentic as Punk dictated. It seemed that Vince McMahon was paying attention to the guy holding the microphone.
Punk threw out the first pitch for his beloved Chicago Cubs, and was Grand Marshall for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. He barely slept, because the Gig Life was now more than just a road trip to a wrestling match. It was radio shows before dawn and Comic Cons on days off. GQ Magazine called; even they had heard about the pipe bomb. Their article mentioned his latest girlfriend, Beth Phoenix – another talented, underused commodity who looked like a comic book heroine come to life. It was a hot summer fling, a wrestling fairy tale.
And then there was the 434-day title reign. The agitator had staying power, and every day that passed made his achievement all the more impressive. The likes of Del Rio, Ziggler, Jericho, Bryan, and even the cyborg Cena left the ring empty handed. Clean wins or murky wins, Punk kept us watching. He launched a slow-burning protest that he wasn’t getting enough respect, but people still cheered for him. How do you turn a crowd that's so greedily drinking your proverbial Kool-Aid? Well, you clothesline The Rock and then hire Paul Heyman – both intelligent decisions that kept all eyes on Punk.
And then there was the other streak. After losing his title to The Rock, Punk set his sights on The Undertaker's streak at WrestleMania. If The Summer of Punk marked the 18 months following his pipe bomb, I would argue that his match with The Undertaker was like Labor Day. It was an opportunity to celebrate everything that had come before. He had everyone’s attention leading up to the match, challenging our notions of decency in professional wrestling (by riffing on the recently-deceased Paul Bearer). How can you possibly make a 20-match streak unpredictable? Insert CM Punk. It didn't matter that he lost the match; he got the validation he sought, and perhaps it marked a necessary turning point.
Like Labor Day, change can come whether you want it or not. Punk had taken the odd break due to injury before, but now he needed some real time to make repairs. With a hug good bye this time, Punk left Paul Heyman in the ring, and the rest of us watching. He left on the kind of quiet, unquestioned and unanswered terms that only the most respected wrestlers can do. He healed. He lived a life not ruled by the road. He reunited with Amy Dumas (Lita), someone with whom he'd sown his wild oats already in The Spring of Punk. Instead of threatening ignorant fans on twitter, he became a wide-eyed fan himself at hockey games, purposefully oblivious to his name being invoked back on RAW. Punk hadn't turned his back on wrestling. Just as he’d done during his ascent to fame, he was fighting for what he deserved: in this case, a break.
If this is The Autumn of Punk, what can we expect? Don’t jump to the conclusion that by Autumn I mean a time of fading away. On Monday night, CM Punk showed us that he is far from withering, but he has indeed changed. Paul Heyman himself acknowledged that the Undertaker match was a turning point – imagine my chagrin to hear his speech after I’d already written that part of my column. For the purpose of Heyman’s storyline, it makes sense to point to WrestleMania as the last time he and Punk stood united. But regardless of the words coming from Heyman’s mouth, there’s also what I saw with my own eyes. CM Punk is more grounded, more mature, and he is also more vulnerable. A body that’s been allowed to rest will be stronger than an overworked one. A man with a more well-rounded life has more to lose. This CM Punk may be better equipped to face Brock Lesnar, and I cannot wait to watch.
The Autumn of one's career isn't a bad place to be. Far worse to hold on too tight to Summer, when it's time to move on. Am I completely off base on my theory? Throw me your thoughts in the comments below, on twitter @kickyhick or by email at email@example.com.