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There's a saying that's been attributed to everyone from Pablo Picasso to William Faulkner to TS Eliot: "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Several times since his return to the ring in September of last year, CM Punk has been noted for repurposing spots from classic matches for his own use—primarily (so far) from Bret Hart. Coming up on one of Punk's biggest matches yet—the second dog collar match in AEW, Punk's revenge match for his singular loss since his return, and the climax of an amazingly built feud—let us examine his matches so far since his return, in the context of these homages, to see if we can learn anything about what we may expect out of the big match tonight.
Below is the average percentile use by Punk and Friedman of different categories of offense in all of their standard-rules singles matches in AEW so far:
Normally I would analyze the potential meaning of the differences and similarities, but these averages are far less useful for analysis than usual for two reasons: Tonight's match is very far from a standard-rules match, and (as we shall see) CM Punk's individual matches vary greatly!
CM Punk vs Darby Allin
CM Punk's AEW debut against Darby Allin is the match most noteworthy in its use of homages from a classic match, specifically Bret Hart's defense of the WWF World Championship against Sean Waltman, the 1-2-3 Kid, on WWF Raw in 1994. The two match-ups had some before-the-fact commonalities that suggest why he might have chosen it as a touchstone: the size and age difference, both competitors being honorable fan favorites... But there were also distinctions: Punk wasn't champ, and the Punk match was midcard of a pay-per-view, rather than main event of a flagship weekly TV show.
The similar spots of the two matches are extensive enough that there is no question that the Punk/Allin match is a deliberate homage: Bret and Punk each using the same nonplussed expression after an armdrag right at the start, and Allin and Kid keeping a hammerlock on through attempts to counter out are the most noteworthy. But the two matches are far from carbon copies. The Bret match has a false finish due to Kid having a foot on the ropes. Punk's has a great bit where his finish knocks Allin out of the ring.
Below are the percentiles of offense from the two matches:
Comparing the two matches along the lines of types of offense used, the biggest similarity that jumps out at you is actually between Waltman and Allin. Both smaller men use a high volume of technical offense, both holds and counters, and both fly a great deal. And both use unorthodox offense and "grapple" throws the least. The biggest difference between the two is in striking: Kid uses a high rate of knockdown strikes, while Darby strikes very little, but still uses volume striking a bit more than the Kid.
Punk and Hart aren't quite as obviously similar, but the parallels are there once you look closely. Obviously both use submission holds the most, while Punk uses a lot more counters than Bret. While Hart uses a lot higher volume knockdown strikes and grapple moves, they are the next go-to for both men outside of technical wrestling, with one exception. While both men take to the air little and use dirty tactics not at all, straight-laced Bret also avoids taunts, while the edgier Punk uses them at about the average rate.
Taking a look at a similar match-up between Punk and Sydal, also a respectful match against a smaller man who often flies but is more focused on his technical game, we can see a very different strategy emerge from Punk when not specifically cribbing from Hart's playbook:
While Punk still uses a lot of technical wrestling and mind games and eschews fouls, he uses a much more balanced mix of all of the other types of offense, with the exception of volume striking.
While this is all generally relevant to the point of how Punk fights and uses homage, it's not very specifically applicable to the match tonight, which will be as far as imaginable from a respect match. The blowoff of Punk's heated feud with Eddie Kingston may prove more germane...
Eddie Kingston vs CM Punk
Unlike tonight's match, Punk's fight with Eddie was contested under standard rules. However, their dispute was so personal and heated that it played out with the blood and bloody-mindedness more associated with a stipulation match. Below are the two combatants' mix of offense for the match:
While Eddie focuses on rapid striking and dirty tactics to the exclusion of all else, Punk uses a high volume mix of every type of offense except for technical to get the better of the in-his-feelings Kingston in the end.
CM Punk takes on the Pinnacle
In order to get at the reluctant Friedman in their first battle, Punk had to fight his way through every member of his faction, the Pinnacle. In the penultimate match he faced MJF's jacked bodyguard, Wardlow. This was the first time we had seen Punk dominated by his opponent, as you can see in the mix of offense below:
It was also the second time we'd seen Punk take a page from Bret Hart's book, this time cribbing the surprise roll-up from the Hitman's Summerslam confrontation with Diesel. Punk made no attempt to match Wardlow strength for strength, giving up stand-up fighting entirely to the larger man, to focus on Wardlow's weaker areas in the air and on the mat. This didn't save him from a vicious beating, but it did preserve his undefeated record.
This skin-of-teeth victory led to Punk's hometown matchup with the man himself, Maxwell Jacob Friedman. In Punk's very first AEW loss we see (as usual) a different mix of offense, but the same types of strategic considerations behind that mix:
As in the Kingston match, we see that Punk is willing to fight fire with fire, utilizing dirty tactics when and if they are first used on him. And as in the Wardlow match, we see that Punk does not attempt to match strength for strength, in this case ceding the technical wrestling to Friedman and focusing his efforts where Maxwell does not—specifically strikes and aerial attacks.
Normally, in a rematch like tonight, we would look to the losing side to change up their strategy while the winner of the first match likely goes back to the well. But the addition of the brutal dog collar stipulation throws all of those considerations out the window.
The Dog Collar Stipulation
My premise in this piece has been to look at Punk's homages and what they may tell us about tonight's match. The two specific ones, in his matches against Darby Allin and Wardlow, have been to classic Bret Hart matches.
However, in the lead up to the Revolution Match the allusions have not been to Bret Hart, but to Roddy Piper.
Roddy Piper is a personal hero and inspiration to both Punk and Friedman, and his acclaimed Dog Collar match against Greg Valentine at the very first Starrcade is the inspiration for tomorrow night's stipulation, so that match is certainly a place Punk may be looking to for inspiration.
There is a lot of similarity in the circumstance that lends itself to using this match as a model. Roddy, like Punk, had more often played the antagonist, but in this moment was beloved by the crowd and out for revenge against an even-more-hated villain. But there are also significant differences. Piper and Valentine were generational peers, debuting within a year of one another and their dispute was over a vicious injury to Piper's ear which the match played to, both as Piper's motive and Valentine's strategy.
Contrariwise, tonight's match is a generational battle between the inspiration and the inspired:
There is another Dog Collar match that may be more relevant in some ways, the one between a younger CM Punk and one of his own inspirations: Raven.
The Piper/Valentine match started with both competitors pridefully pulling back on the chain, testing their neck strength against each other. Where the Raven/Punk match started with the younger man on the mic, trying to talk his way out of putting the collar on. And both matches ended with the losing man putting a post-match beat down on the winner. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the character-based aspects of tonight's clash draw more off the more recent matchup.
However, the match itself is another matter. While the Piper match is looked back on as a paragon of inventiveness and brutality, the Raven match was really a bit of a schmozz, with Colt Cabana interfering on behalf of his buddy, Punk, and Danny Doring coming out to counter this interference and chase Colt out. Part of me hopes that Punk and MJF keep their fight a bit more pure, but at the same time it would be interesting to see which side Colt would take now!
Notably, it was Piper the protagonist who got the win in his Dog Collar match, while good-guy Raven got beaten by villain-at-the-time Punk. Raven ended up getting the upper hand post-match with the assist from long-time frenemy, Tommy Dreamer. But Punk beat down and restrained Raven at first, leading to the incident of pouring a beer in the mouth of a recovering alcoholic that Punk referenced as one of the actions he regrets in a recent promo. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these fraught incidents we may see callbacks to tonight!
There are only a few hours before the show begins, but I hope this piece has shown some of the possibilities and considerations behind a match I expect to see go down as a classic!