THE SUMMER OF PUNK AND HOW IT EXPOSED WWE'S FLAWS
The stars are aligning. The United Center in Chicago has been booked for an one off Rampage taping a couple of weeks before All Out. The name of the night is "The First Dance", a nod to the Michael Jordan documentary that came out in 2020. It can only mean one thing.
Ok, maybe not. A man can only wish.
CM Punk is expected to debut at The First Dance and the wrestling world's eyes will be glued on what will happen not only on this night but what happens after. Media websites that have increased their coverage of events in the wrestling bubble in the past 10 years will also pay attention to Punk's first steps in All Elite Wrestling, a decade after the events of "The Summer of Punk" helped shift the coverage of wrestling in the changing media landscape now focusing on the internet.
The seeds of the growing attention to wrestling from media outlets were planted on the day of the death of Randy Savage. I remember listening to talkSPORT on a Friday night and during the hourly news bulletin, the death of "Macho Man" was announced, a rarity in a world where you would get your news about deaths in the wrestling world from websites like F4W Online and PWTorch exclusively.
The next 24 hours saw articles on popular sports websites eulogising the life of the former World Champion. ESPN debate shows such as Pardon The Interruption and Around The Horn paid homage to Savage. It was an unprecedented amount of coverage to a death in wrestling that didn't involve murder or suicide.
It was an insight into what was shaping the perspective of editorial rooms of websites and talk shows. Fans of wrestling during the Hulk-a-mania era and the Attitude era were now in the newsrooms of a growing internet media and one night on June 27, 2011 those newsrooms would be set abuzz by a single promo.
When CM Punk won a No. 1 contenders match against Rey Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio, it felt like Punk was part of just another run of the mill John Cena title defence. Punk's announcement that his contract was up a couple of hours after the end of the Money In The Bank PPV would add intrigue especially after the events 6 years earlier when CM Punk on his farewell night for Ring Of Honor before his move to WWE, won the ROH Title starting a period of time where he defended the belt in what was referred to as "The Summer of Punk". Surely lightening couldn't strike twice?
After costing John Cena a non-title Tables match against R-Truth, Punk grabbed a microphone and made his way to the stage where he sat cross-legged and delivered one of the most talked-about interviews in wrestling history.
Following the premise of the "worked shoot" interview, Punk uses storyline motivation as part of his grievance.
Punk talks about being the best in the world and while parts of the Internet community might have felt that he had reasonable justification for his belief solely based on his in-ring work, Punk's win-loss record in the first half of 2011, only bettered by the two World Champions in WWE (Randy Orton and John Cena), Rey Mysterio and The Miz with Kane and Sin Cara on significant winning streaks but with a strength of schedule that you would be forgiven for thinking that Nick Sabin had picked (a college football joke for some of you) make his beliefs that he is the best legitimate in WWE canon. His talk about feeling undervalued links into kayfabe with Punk's complaints of his face not adorning merchandise meaning he is earning less money and mentions of Dwayne Johnson is a gateway to his anger that he isn't main eventing WrestleMania but that was when the kayfabe ended
"I don't hate you John. I don't even dislike you. I do like you. I like you a whole of a lot more than most people in the back"
Those words would contradict the events of early 2011 when Punk and Cena feuded and in the months since, both men were still on the opposite ends of the face/heel divide so Punk's words jar in the minds of some.
Mentions of Cena kissing Vince McMahon's ass goes against the canon. Mentions of Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar, two guys who left WWE on bad terms open the eyes as do mentions of Ring Of Honor (the first time since Matt Hardy's namedrop of the company in an angle with Edge in 2005) and New Japan Pro Wrestling which was the first mention of that promotion since the end of the working relationship in 1985 but it's not the last portion of the promo that makes for interesting listening.
"Vince is a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he's not a billionaire? It's because he surrounds himself with glad-handed nonsensical douchebag yes men like John Laurinaitis"
I'll always believe that the Laurinaitis mention was pre-planned to introduce the former All Japan star who was the Senior VP of Talent Relations at the time as an on-screen character. but in 2021 the yes-man comment hits accurately.
As WWE ratings have gone downhill and the company would face new competition from AEW, Vince McMahon has ended up going back to faces and voices he is familiar with in Bruce Prichard and John Laurinaitis instead of a fresh voice from outside the WWE bubble. It was reported that it was the trio of McMahon, Prichard and Laurinaitis that executed the purge of NXT talent that shocked the wrestling world on 6/8/21 which would correlate to Punk's next line.
"And I'd like to think that this company would be better when Vince McMahon's dead but it's going to get taken over by his idiot daughter and doofus son-in-law...."
In the days after "The Massacre of NXT" a lot of discussions circulated to how the events of Friday night had come to pass. What had become the hottest property in wrestling was now the piñata of the higher brass of WWE.
What was supposed to be the gateway to the WWE main roster and the sure-fire way to find the next big thing in WWE had become a defensive tactic to ward off Ring Of Honor and especially All Elite Wrestling but in the case of All Elite Wrestling, that tactic failed spectacularly and by proxy the Performance Center, Triple H's baby, had become a failure in the eyes of some.
Triple H had become the saviour-to-be of WWE in the minds of its most internet savvy fanbase, with its weekly NXT show seen as the best show in wrestling and their Takeovers must watch television, but a change of schedule and format from taping 4 one-hour shows in one night for the WWE Network to producing a live 2-hour weekly show for the USA Network going head to head with AEW Dynamite, exposed Triple H's flaws as a creative mind, from the failure to build on the momentum of the likes of Rhea Ripley and Keith Lee to presenting illogical storylines such as the Indi Hartwell/Dexter Lumis love story. Triple H's stock in the company is at an all-time low and CM Punk's words feel extra prophetic a decade later.
The buzz after The Pipebomb on the same sites that reported on the death of Randy Savage brought an extra attention to WWE that had been lacking for a long time. Bill Simmons, a big voice in the US sports media landscape wrote in his column for his new website, Grantland, that Punk had produced "an interview for the ages" and with the extra attention, Punk was a man in demand but with options that were limited.
NJPW in 2011 was not the company that it would end up being a decade later, TNA was not an option after a burning of bridges on his exit from the company in 2004 and ROH would mean a significant pay decrease. The only two options were WWE or not wrestling and the feeling was that a burnt-out CM Punk was taking a break from wrestling.
JOHN CENA VS CM PUNK- 17/7/2011
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Punk was heading to the Money In The Bank main event as the face based on the pre-match build-up package. His entrance in front of a hometown Chicago crowd makes him look like a main event babyface star.
The Chicago fans make this match what it becomes. They are desperate for Punk to win, everything Cena does gets booed even when he locks in a chinlock early in the match—part of the early story of the match when Cena actually outwrestles his opponent.
Neither man would get a prolonged period of dominance with control shifting between each man throughout. You watch this match on mute (there were times during the commentary that this option didn't seem a bad idea) and you would have a hard time determining who the face or heel was. Punk plays the hometown hero babyface to perfection. Cena is the reluctant heel with the weight of the world on his shoulders with a stipulation set by Mr. McMahon, desperate for Punk not to win the WWE Championship hanging over his head that should Punk leave the PPV as WWE Champion that he would be fired.
Punk would work on Cena's neck when in charge while Cena used his power-based moveset in his periods of control, at times going to submission moves such as an abdominal stretch which was as ugly as a bowling shoe in its execution.
As the match entered its final moments, Cena and Punk exchanged their primary submission holds, the STF and Anaconda Vice and when Cena got the upper hand hitting his Attitude Adjustment finisher after Punk escaped an earlier attempt , the kick out at 2 prompted an insane reaction from the crowd only bettered by a second kick out from another AA and Punk's victory, coming about when McMahon and Laurinaitis came out distracting Punk giving opportunity for Cena to get in his STF. On the orders of McMahon, Laurinaitis ran to the timekeeper to initiate another Montreal Screwjob (how original) but was met by Cena's forearm smash which in turn enabled Punk to take advantage of the distraction to hit the GTS for the 1-2-3.
McMahon would go to the announce table yanking off Jerry Lawler's headset (I wished he would have done that earlier) putting it on, demanding that Alberto Del Rio who had won the Money In The Bank briefcase earlier in the night come out in what was a really cool format breaker.
Punk would see Del Rio coming, hitting him with a high kick and running off with the WWE belt in hand, blowing a kiss to Vince before running into the night leaving McMahon distraught.
VERDICT: This match would get the Dave Meltzer 5-star treatment, the first to do so since March 2006. Does it deserve it? In my opinion, this match isn't even the best match in the Punk-Cena collection. Their 25/2/13 RAW match is a better match than this one but as an occasion it is superior to every other match in North America in this era. The connection between Punk and his fellow Chicago natives is something to behold and Punk puts in a hometown hero performance that should be studied by other wrestlers. Cena, while showing his weaknesses at times in his in-ring work, plays his role to perfection as the "away team" going into the lion's den. Also, credit to Vince McMahon, who displays the heartbreak of seeing someone running out of his company with his title perfectly. Does it deserve the full 5 stars? No. Some of the in-ring work is a bit rough around the edges but the background of the 15,000 fans in the Rosemont Horizon and the performances that feed off it makes this one of the most memorable matches in modern times.
John Cena was not fired after the events of Money In The Bank. Instead, Triple H—in storyline—told Mr. McMahon that the board of directors had removed him from power, replacing him with his son-in-law in a scene that saw acting that wouldn't qualify for a school play. As for the WWE Title situation, Rey Mysterio beat The Miz to win the belt but John Cena later on in the episode of RAW, 8 days after losing to Punk, beat Mysterio to win back the title. It was immediately afterwards that the opening chords to Cult Of Personality from the band Living Colour rang out and CM Punk strolled out with RAW closing with both men lifting their own WWE Title belt.
The 8 day turnaround from Punk blowing Mr. McMahon a kiss goodbye to his reappearance will always feel like a lost opportunity. The longer Punk was going to be away the bigger his reappearance would have been and the further between the Money In The Bank match and the eventual rematch to unify the titles, the more that match would have meant. Instead their SummerSlam match is just very inferior to the match a month before, and the end just stinks. Punk wins after a GTS but Cena has his foot on the ropes as special guest referee Triple H counts the 3. The post-match starts with a tease that Triple H will turn on Punk which doesn't materialise and then Kevin Nash attacks Punk leading to Alberto Del Rio cashing in his briefcase to win the title.
The events of SummerSlam led to the next few weeks of a "who done it" storyline regarding who texted Kevin Nash asking him to beat up Punk with the conclusion being that Nash text himself. Tension between Triple H and CM Punk led to a match at Night Of Champions which Triple H won while Vince McMahon ended up regaining control of WWE after another Board of Directors intervention. CM Punk would win back his title at Survivor Series beating Del Rio starting his 434 day reign but in line with the writing of WWE at the time, Punk would only get his title shot after locking Del Rio into the Anaconda Vice, forcing Alberto to give him a shot at the title, all this an hour after Punk lost to Mark Henry in a match in which if he won he would get a title match against Del Rio.
The wasted opportunities of the events post Money In The Bank were typical WWE and the problems would only increase in the next decade leading to a fall from 4.95 million watching RAW the week after the Pipebomb to 1.79 million watching Monday Night RAW in the first Monday of August 2021. All with WWE still enjoying coverage on the sites that covered the death of Randy Savage and the Pipebomb promo.
The great irony looking back at that promo on the 27th June 2011 is that CM Punk was given the platform to air his grievances on how creatively bankrupt WWE was and in the months after, WWE would prove his grievances right.
We can only wonder how the Summer of Punk would have turned out in the shape of hindsight fantasy booking but on Friday 20th August 2021 when CM Punk is expected to start the Autumn of Punk in AEW the world will be watching, wondering if Punk can produce one "Last Dance"