“John Cena, while you lay there hopefully as uncomfortable as you possibly can be, I want you to listen to me. I want you to digest this because before I leave in three weeks with your WWE Championship, I have a lot of things I want to get off of my chest.”
CM Punk is about to set the wrestling world alight. He sits cross-legged at the top of the ramp looking down on John Cena, microphone in hand, about to launch into one of the greatest pro wrestling promos ever. Over the next five minutes he will change the course of wrestling history, fundamentally alter the company he is in and unleash a beast that still rages today, even five years after Punk left the squared circle for good.
Right now though he looks a little odd. Who does a promo sitting down in Vince McMahon’s WWE? Who does it like that anywhere? Who addresses their opponent this way? Who admits they are leaving just before their championship match? The guy isn’t even wearing his own merchandise.
As the name would suggest CM Punk has never been a man to do things like other people. He’s the straight edge guy in an industry renowned for its drugs and drinking, an introvert in a locker room of extroverts and is notoriously prickly and opinionated in a company that rewards sycophants.
However in the WWE in the early 2010s it will someone like him to create change, a man who can not only see what is wrong but isn’t afraid to call it out. Steve Jobs created the iMac and the modern Apple ecosystem because he couldn’t stand what computing had become in the 90s. Bob Dylan would not only bring politics and grittiness to early 60s pop music before anyone was ready for it, a few years later he would then betray the same fans that saw him rise to prominence when he went electric. Hell, in his own time it was Vince McMahon taking a sledgehammer to the status quo of territorial pro wrestling. In 2011 it would be CM Punk.
It is hard to understate the change that CM Punk and his pipebomb would bring to the WWE. For a start most of the other stories I’ll be talking about over the coming weeks could have taken place in the world without Punk: Daniel Bryan and the Yes Movement, the rise of women’s wrestling, the emergence of The Shield and a generation of indy wrestlers come WWE competitors all owe so much to what Punk did and the glass ceiling he smashed. Not only that, CM Punk would be the driving influence of a creative style that would become the WWE’s main creative approach of his era and in the end he would go on to become something even more than a wrestler, he would become a martyr for pro wrestling.
Right now though, as Punk sits at the top of that ramp, that is all to come,
“I hate this idea that you’re the best. Because you’re not. I’m the best.”
The man lying in the ring of course is John Cena. Of late it has become fashionable to like John Cena, to appreciate everything he did for the WWE and even look back fondly on what he did in the ring over the years. It was not fashionable in 2011 though. Back then there was no one who represented the WWE status quo more than John Cena, a status quo that had grown stale, predictable and above all boring.
Since coming to the World Title scene in 2005 as a frat boy rapper, Cena had quickly morphed into the most bland paint by numbers ‘hero’ a corporate board could ever come up with. He stood for everything good, but wouldn’t ever define exactly what that was for fear he might alienate someone. He wore bright coloured shirts and caps that the kids would badger their parents for. And, perhaps most crucially, week after week, month after month, year after year, no matter what the obstacle, no matter how interesting the villain, no matter how big the task, John Cena would always find a way to win, usually exactly the same five ways he did last match. For years on end John Cena did very little but ‘overcome the odds’ and win, win, win, win, win.
No doubt he appealed to a certain demographic. However, to an audience of older fans that wanted to watch a show that surprised, excited and provoked them, he was utterly toxic, and for years the WWE force fed its audience the idea that he was the pinnacle of pro wrestling.
Concurrent to this was a systematic holding down of other talents that had proved themselves in the fans eyes but because they weren’t John Cena were ultimately beaten down until the audience stopped caring about them. Punk was no different, he proved himself as the hottest heel in the business in 2009 but was never given a consistent main event platform afterwards to capitalise on the momentum he generated and now he was up against Cena again.
At that moment, as John Cena lay in the remnants of that busted table, no one expected anything different from this CM Punk feud. Cena was on his way to the main event of Wrestlemania 28 against The Rock, a blockbuster match up no doubt, but one that promised another year of monotony and another year of no one else being allowed to rise to the pinnacle of the WWE.
What Vince McMahon didn’t plan on in 2011 was that CM Punk would start a raging inferno of audience support by standing against everything John Cena stood for, by calling out the plastic phoney nature of his character, by railing publicly against the corporatisation of the WWE and publicly calling out Vince McMahon himself. From his mountain top CM Punk preached chapter and verse what die hard fans had been saying for years and in the process gave a voice to a huge segment of the audience that for so long felt completely voiceless.
In a world that often felt completely fabricated, while facing the most fabricated champion the company had ever had, suddenly Punk felt like the most real man in the world. He was a man who loved wrestling as much as the die hard fans and was as pissed off as the die hard fans with what it had become. Finally there was a man these people could truly believe in.
“I’m leaving on July 17 with the WWE Championship and who knows maybe I’ll go defend it in New Japan Pro Wrestling, maybe I’ll go back to Ring of Honour.”
If Punk seemingly going completely off script and publicly airing his grievances with the WWE wasn’t dramatic enough, his feud with John Cena had the added tension of a ticking clock. As fate would have it Punk’s contract happened to be ending on July 17, 2011, the same night he was scheduled to face Cena for the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank. The reality of the situation electrified the story, finally people craving a champion for their cause had a man who would speak up for them but if they didn’t cheer hard enough then maybe he would disappear.
It also gave licence for Punk to say whatever he wanted, as a man on the way out who claimed he never wanted to come back, he had nothing to lose. In the weeks that followed the pipebomb Punk would get to mock Michael Cole, duel back and forth with Cena on the mic and face down Vince McMahon himself. If Stone Cold Steve Austin was living out the dream of every worker getting to beat up their boss, in the weeks leading up to Money In The Bank Punk was living the dream of every die hard wrestling fan by telling Vince McMahon where to go.
The weeks leading up to the match ticked by and for once no one in Connecticut leaked what was going on backstage. It probably helped that not even CM Punk, let alone anyone with a phone line to Dave Meltzer, knew if Punk was actually going to re-sign or not. Speculation ran rampant online, would Punk re-sign or would he leave just as he was in the process of completely changing the game? The vacuum of true information only meant intrigue grew. Even on the night of the match, if some knew backstage that Punk had eventually re-signed, no one let on. As Punk walked out to an explosive Chicago hometown reception, as he wrestled against Cena and everything the man represented, as he pinned Cena’s shoulders to the mat for the three count, as he jumped the guardrail, blowing a kiss to an irate Vince McMahon and ran off into the Chicago night WWE Championship in hand, no one knew his actual status with the company.
One thing that was clear that night though, CM Punk was a made man in the WWE, a genuine superstar who could talk people into the building and back it up when the bell rang. He had beaten John Cena cleanly for the WWE Championship and walked out of the company on the same night, just like he said he would. No wonder Vince McMahon backed up his money truck for him and thank goodness he did sign on the dotted line.
“I’ve grabbed so many of Vincent K. McMahon’s brass rings that it’s finally dawned on me, they are just that. Completely imaginary. The only thing that is real is me.”
Punk didn’t just grab the brass ring, he dropped his pipebomb and blew it off the roof, creating an event that would have fault lines stretching throughout the decade.
What Punk represented after the pipe bomb was so much more than just a guy who stood up to Vince McMahon. His story became a paradigm shift in the WWE where suddenly what was happening behind the scnes wasn’t hidden. The backstage politics and industry vocabulary wasn’t just spoken on TV as innuendo dropped here or there for those who may pick it up, with the pipebomb what was happening backstage was the story. When we talk about stories that defined the decade it is impossible to ignore the the kayfabe and fourth wall shattering influence the pipebomb had, the perceived reality backstage was no longer off limits. Furthermore the discourse of the die-hard online fan base was suddenly center stage and the ‘voice of the WWE universe’ would become as much a character in the stories as any wrestler.
Within six months in the biggest program in the company’s recent history The Rock and John Cena would start trading insults about things from their real lives, The Yes Movement two years later was driven by the simultaneous fan support of Daniel Bryan and frustration and his exclusion from a main event program, The Women’s Evolution owes its birth to a social media movement started by fans and adopted by the WWE, Brock Lesnar’s second reign would be dominated by wrestlers directly co-opting internet wrestling terminology, cutting promos about how he was a ‘part-timer’, Becky Lynch’s rise to the pinnacle of women’s wrestling and arguably the top of the WWE was fueled by fan outrage at her booking shortcomings and Roman Reigns career was hijacked by his backstage story becoming his in-ring story. That is just a handful of the highest profile stories that for better or worse all trace their lineage back to CM Punk sitting down on that stage on June 27, 2011.
The fault lines keep going beyond that though.
Not only did CM Punk give birth to the Reality Era, he was the first indy guy to become a bona-fide WWE main eventer. Punk was proof positive for a recruitment strategy that would become the WWE’s predominant recruitment strategy for the decade. Before Punk dropped the pipebomb indy wrestlers like Brian Danielson, Lo Ki, Claudio Castagnoli, Tyler Black and Jon Moxley had begun to filter into the WWE’s developmental system alongside the body builders and former athletes the WWE sought out for most of the mid to late 00s. However, Punk was proof these seasoned wrestlers the WWE had mostly ignored or confined to the midcard had the ability to become more than just ‘good hands’. Punk was proof they could transcend as true stars in the company.
With Punk’s rise the WWE realised there was a hunger in the hardcore fan base to see wrestlers with a reputation built outside of the WWE come in and wrestle on the biggest stage. By the end of the decade the WWE locker room would be overflowing with names like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Ricochet and Adam Cole, just a few amongst the army of former TNA, ROH, New Japan, UK and US indy talent the WWE signed. These wrestlers came in as near-complete projects, ready to wrestle, cut promos and with a ready made fan base keen to cheer them on. The very model of NXT as we know it today is built around signing these known quantities and with minimal tweeks, presenting them on a bigger scale.
Even eight years later the after effects of that now distant explosion are still being felt. On January 1, 2019 Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and Adam Page announced All Elite Wrestling, a new wrestling promotion backed by the billionaire Kahn family. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since 2011 but without CM Punk being the first of his generation to break through the glass celing, without his ascent to super stardom and without him clearing a path for others to follow through, it is very possible The Elite would never have found a billionaire who would bet they could do it too.
“Let me tell you a personal story about Vince McMahon. You know we do this whole bully campaign…..”
But back to July 17, 2011, back to the pipebomb and just like that, mid sentence, Punk’s mic was cut, just as he was getting to something truly juicy he was cut off. Legend says the cut out wasn’t scripted in but was done on the fly and it’s somewhat fitting given how his career with the WWE ended.
Sadly Punk would miss most of the change he created. Despite becoming the hottest name in wrestling overnight and maintaining that momentum for two years, at Wrestlemania 28 and 29 he would still find himself overshadowed by the box office match up of The Rock v John Cena. It is a curious case of foreshadowing the struggles that many of Punk’s contemporaries would have later in the decade as the annual appearances of big name veterans taking up high profile spots at the biggest shows of the year became commonplace.
For Punk the bitterness at being overlooked and underappreciated would drive him from the industry. In January 2014, the night after The Royal Rumble he would sensationally walk out on the WWE and in doing so CM Punk would become a martyr. From that date onwards in the WWE when fans wanted to voice their displeasure at what was being presented, chants of “CM PUNK” would inevitably roll around the stadium. Punk would be formally fired on his wedding day and his podcast a year later where he talked candidly about his time in the company would see the WWE take legal action against him. Despite rarely ever talking about wrestling and moving on to become an MMA fighter, his every tweet and interview would be dissected at exhaustive length.
Just as that pipebomb was cut short before it was truly finished leaving a question of what could have been, so it was for CM Punk’s career in the wrestling industry. Even with his recent return to the spotlight his fans never got closure on his career and the man himself never got that showcase Wrestlemania main event he worked so hard for.
No doubt now he is back in the WWE a big Wrestlemania match and Hall of Fame nomination awaits, however CM Punk’s legacy will never be defined by corporate honours. Instead his legacy will be the spirit of the rebel, the spirit of the black-sheep, the spirit of the pioneer, the spirit of the man who sat down on that June night and in just five minutes while armed only with a microphone, irrevocably changed pro wrestling history. The spirit of a punk.
Thanks for joining me for this week’s edition of Stories That Defined A Decade, make sure you check back over the coming weeks as I explore the stories that shaped pro wrestling this decade. I’d love to hear your memories of The Pipebomb and how it shaped the decade for you in the comments below or you can hit me on Twitter @Sir_Samuel.