Hello PCU wrestling fans, and welcome to a new weekly segment called: “Great Moments in Championship History”. With the wrestling coverage slipping a little, to which I take a large chunk of the blame on, I wanted to get something going that will never run low on topics. That in mind, while this initial post will cover a WWE Championship moment, this is not specific to that title, or WWE. Without further hold up, let’s get to our first moment.
It’s week one, and I’m already cheating. This is more of a month in time, rather than a single moment. Some background before we get into it. Back in 2011, and more or less today, CM Punk is a “smart” wrestling fan or “smarks” favorite, having earned his way through the ranks of Ring of Honor onto the main roster of WWE. He turned heads with incredible matches with the likes of Austin Aries, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, and Colt Cabana; as well as becoming one of the strongest villain characters of the time. In WWE, he seemed to not be getting the push his talent was warranting; not something new to the company. In the meantime, John Cena was… John Cena. Ever since ascending to the top of the company in the mid 2000s, he’s never left the main event scene. Toward the end of the 00’s and early 10’s, the product on the whole got a little stale. A lot of that had to do with the main event picture becoming stagnant, built around Superstars that had to leave, like Edge, or the same few guys, see Orton, Triple H, and Cena. After the New Nexus storyline, which was led by Punk, it became clear that Punk was unhappy, and he took that unhappiness to the mic, exclaiming his contract was up at the end of Money In The Bank, and he wouldn’t be resigning.
While the outside the ring drama was all too real (check out CM Punk: Best In The World on the Network, one of the best docs done which goes deep into this subject), the on screen drama was walking along a thin line of reality or work. Punk saying he would leave with the title seemed to be story, but the reality of the situation was bleeding through. Then, on June 27th, 2011, Punk dropped the “Pipe Bomb”. In a shocking promo that shook the wrestling world to it’s core, Punk managed to deconstruct the entire WWE hierarchy, while John Cena sat in the ring, genuinely shocked. I’m not going to summarize, take the time to watch it if you haven’t. Much like Stone Cold with his famous “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass”, this promo not only put Punk at the top of the roster, it blew up anyone in his path. This was a once in a generation moment; where the thoughts of all disgruntled fans and talent was aired publicly, and WWE had no choice to embrace the pied piper in Punk.
It cannot be overstated how important this moment is to the modern landscape of wrestling. After the Ruthless Aggression era of the early 2000s, WWE was struggling for excitement. Everything, excluding a select few storylines of the span of about 5 years, just felt stagnant. The in ring product got a little slow, and the style that was fostered in Ring of Honor and other like companies never seemed to be able to break through. This moment changed all that. Punk’s Ascension gave way to guys like Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn after him. The style of wrestling became more “indie” and spot heavy. It’s not hyperbole to say that without this landmark moment, there is not NXT in the form we know it today. It’s lightning in a bottle. When we say that WWE is “keeping something down”, this is an example of something, like Stone Cold, like Mankind, that refused to be held down.
The storyline ended up dictating a WWE Championship match at the Money in the Bank PPV in the following weeks. As we got closer, the stakes were upped with Vince McMahon told Cena, win this match or “YOU’RRRRE FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRED”. Trapped in a tight place, WWE still made Punk out as the heel. The only way you’d know that is through the announce team, who would go out of their way to attack Punk. That said, what were they going to do? Punk went after them directly, as well as the crowd. It’s a testament to Punk that the crowd absolutely refused to be against him. Punk was playing the heel, probably better than anyone in a long time and up until Seth Rollins. He’s just too good to hate. Also, this was the early-ish stages of HATING John Cena. He’s basically Superman, and his goodness/inability to ever lose is easy for smarks to loath. When put against an anti-hero like Punk, the crowd reaction is not malleable. That said, Cena took it in stride, and continued to be as strong a baby face as he could.
The match itself was a kind of perfect storm. Punk was actually refusing to sign his contract up until midway through the Money in the Bank event, and the tension between him and management was palpable. The event being in Chicago, Punk’s hometown, made the atmosphere even more electric. When Punk comes out, the crowd reaction is frenzy-like levels. Right off the bat, you know you’re watching something special, and you’re carrying that with you for the entire match. It was also funny to see Punk’s buddy and indie wrestler Colt Cabana (named in the Pipe Bomb) at ringside, adding to the 4th wall breaking. Everything seemed so real, in a way we haven’t had since the Attitude era. Watching this match now, with the talent on the current WWE roster, it’s incredibly slow. The first half of the match has some plodding, methodical offense, with what looks like a gassed Cena. However, they BOTH build the tension with excellent ring psychology. The idea of Cena winning was still strong. Even though not the smartest move, if Punk was actually leaving, no way is he winning the title. On top of that, Punk publicly went after Vince; hard to get a title after that. Due to that, and especially when Vince and John Laurinaitis came out, anything seemed possible. This, however, led to a distracted Punk GTS, where he picks up the win. Punk wins his first WWE Championship, in his crazed hometown, while the CEO stands on the ramp, dumbfounded. This is what you want in WWE wrestling. Also, the image of Punk blowing a kiss to the shocked Vince, and escaping through the crowd, is one of those once in a lifetime wrestling moments. I have chills just typing this out.
In the moment, and in hindsight, this was a company altering moment for WWE. As I said before, the fan favorites we know today would not exist without this. AJ Styles may not have even been signed without this; and it all came from Punk just being told to air his grievances. Even when we look at Cena, this made him a significantly better in ring worker. The skill of guys like Punk, and later Bryan, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, etc, have made him step up his game. Cena, love him or hate him, is one of the best workers in the company; it’s not debatable anymore. Even though this moment for Punk would be fleeting (this title run soon be ruined, like many things, by Kevin Nash) and only a few years later would he leave the company, not getting to headline a Wrestlemania; Punk will always be considered one of the greatest. While retirements like his aren’t always permanent, it’s going to be some time before he graces us with his presence in WWE. That said, he’s a defining figure in the modern WWE Era, and I know I’m not alone in saying this moment brought me back into wrestling. Here’s to more Pipe Bombs in the future.