I’ve been as captivated as anyone by CM Punk’s departure from WWE. At face value, it’s a great story. Whether it’s real or not is part of the fun, especially since Punk’s done this before, only different. Is he the boy who cried wolf, and it’s all a repeat performance of The Summer of Punk? Is he Kaiser Sozé, convincing the world that he never existed? Within one week, whispers of conspiracies, concussions, and confiscated signs reached frenzied proportions. “People quit their jobs every day...how is this any different? Just because he is in the public eye?” asked TJR commenter Alan Porter. “He is entitled to his own life.”
So true. But when you see a movie or read a book or hear a song, and you find yourself coming back to it in your mind days later, it’s more than just a movie or book or song. It’s something artful that resonated, just as Punk did with a lot of wrestling fans. His departure was an unexpected plot twist in an epic tale that we’ve all been made privy to, “because he’s in the public eye.” In an era when we feel an almost-ownership of our entertainers, Punk was a guy who managed to hold us all in his grasp, while simultaneously keeping us at arm’s length.
Look at the top characters in recent shows, like Dexter and Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. They are all anti-heroes: people that you root for despite their selfish, rule-breaking tendencies. We can see their gross imperfections, and yet we are drawn into what makes them tick. While he’s no serial killer, CM Punk’s life is actually a far better story than any script they could dream up in WWE. And that’s why we can’t let go of it, or him.
“If I can’t get what I need from someone, I’m out.” When I heard those words, I sat up on the couch and laughed – a kind of self-satisfied giggle best enjoyed alone. I had thrown on Punk’s “Best In The World” DVD, something I’d already seen, but felt like watching again until I got tired. His words, referring to his biological family, made me sit up because they rang so true for what was happening right now with WWE.
As a youth, Punk was greatly influenced by his brother’s betrayal (he stole money from their jointly-run backyard wrestling promotion). Combined with the special treatment that Punk saw his brother as receiving from their parents, Punk severed all ties with them. Loyalty became a big deal to him, as did righting perceived injustices. We can still see those values in Punk today, as he has supported guys who Punk thought were deserving (such as Joey Mercury, Zack Ryder, Antonio Cesaro) and has made a point of maintaining close ties with the circle of adopted family and friends that took him in so long ago. The notion of what home means to him, and its importance, will play a role in his departure.
I don’t think CM Punk believes in a life dictated by obligation. His Straight Edge/Punk philosophies favor a non-conformist attitude; you make your own happiness and you reject anything that has a toxic effect on it. “You don’t have to be blood to be family,” says Punk, a sentiment he executes with purpose after a less-than-happy childhood. Joey Mercury calls him “unapologetically confident” and “fiercely loyal”, traits that have surely both won and lost people from Punk’s corner. These factors - the non-conformity, and the sentimental rather than obligatory notion of belonging – help make sense of why he could walk away from WWE.
Early on in life, he applied himself to wrestling wholeheartedly, more in pursuit of glory than money. This is a common observation amongst his friends interviewed for the DVD. He bailed on special occasions and sacrificed relationships because he was so dedicated to wrestling. It became the singular driving force in his life. On the DVD, Punk describes his early feud with Chris Hero as two men destroying themselves to make magic, and for the first time felt that he captivated the audience the way he’d always dreamt of doing. I think about how much he toiled, and how many people he let down, so that he could get that fulfillment he needed from wrestling. How many brick walls did he come up against, and smash through, only to discover another brick wall? How many walls do you smash before you decide it’s not worth the pain?
When he had achieved all he could on the independent scene, he set his sights on WWE, even bulking up to exemplify their physical ideal. That he was so keen to please the company speaks volumes about Punk’s desire to succeed (and his subsequent reaction when they demote him). He got sent “down” to OVW, where he formed that fateful bond with Paul Heyman. In a perversely hilarious clip from the DVD, Daniel Bryan says: “It’s not that he didn’t have the ability, it’s that he wasn’t what they were looking for.”
For several years, Punk fought against the corporate machine. When they finally turned him heel against Jeff Hardy, he was excited to prove how gifted he was at drawing heat. It was the first time he was handed scripted promos from the office, which he promptly tore up into pieces “to make a point”: only CM Punk could know what CM Punk should say. He seems to be a man of grand gestures to make a point, and too bad if you don’t like it. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t have a filter between his brain and his mouth. A great agitator for change, who doesn’t mind being the bad guy, and doesn’t suffer bullshit. If he was my friend, I’d probably admire him, while feeling terribly uncomfortable all the damn time.
In early 2011, he felt “the most pissed off and the most justified” for being that way. One of the main reasons cited was The Miz “getting handed” the main event spot at WrestleMania 27 – “a monumental slap in the face to someone with as much pride as I do”. Michael Hayes recounts that Punk said, “I don’t really want to leave here, I just don’t like the way things are.” When Hayes tried to reason with him, saying sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt, Punk replied with “No I don’t”. Sound familiar?
When asked what he wanted for the terms of the contract, he could only come up with, “I want to go home.” There’s that recurring notion of going home, so important to a guy who left home at a young age and made a new one with his non-biological family. He and his adopted family members all share the same tattoo design to represent their bond. Punk expresses pity for people who don’t have tattoos because to him they represent the strength of one’s beliefs – therefore if you don’t have tattoos, it means you don’t believe in anything strongly enough.
Enter the pipe bomb: he used it to acknowledge Cena, disparage The Rock, and make the term “Paul Heyman Guy” famous. He made it very clear where he stood: for the worker bees, against the Yes men, and even against the fans for pouring money into WWE no matter what the company did. He blew Vince a kiss good-bye, and came back two weeks later a WWE Superstar with (almost) all the accompanying fanfare. “It was 100% about respect,” he says. “Being placed on the card where I deserved to be.” Over the next two years, a lot of good things happened to Punk, most notably a record-breaking title reign and a commendable match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 29. But he could have rightfully argued that the respect wasn’t 100% there, not to his standards at least. He never main evented as he wanted to, and he watched washed-up part-time players come and take his spot.
Flash forward to 11 days ago, when Punk thanked fans for their support and said to keep “being” us. This just hours after fans in Pittsburgh raged loudly about the Royal Rumble, and probably around the time that Punk told Vince he was “going home”. Whatever his reasons – health-related, politics-related, or a combination thereof – I don’t think he’s coming back.
The first time he went home in 2011, Joey Mercury told him that he couldn’t change anything from his couch. It was one of the things that motivated him to return. Fifteen months after its release, the “Best In The World” documentary proves not that history is bound to repeat itself, but that we got the best possible ending to the CM Punk story. It’s an ending we couldn’t have predicted, but one that makes perfect sense.
All smirks, smarks, and snarks accepted below, or on twitter @kickyhick.