In the summer of 2011 I barely knew who CM Punk was, and I had long since stopped paying attention to WWE.
I would check in from time-to-time. There might be a Monday night where I would check the web for Monday Night Raw results. Every March or April, I’d look in on what was going on with WrestleMania. I didn’t care.
And then, in the middle of the night on Monday, June 27, 2011, a buddy of mine hit me up with an instant message.
“Dude. You used to follow wrestling, right? Have you seen this CM Punk thing?”
CM Punk, CM Punk, I thought to myself. He’s that indie guy, right?
He explained that Punk had cut a promo on that night’s Raw where he eviscerated WWE. Apparently, Punk had trashed Triple H, complained about how he was booked, and just as he was about to bury Vince McMahon, they cut his mic.
But Punk also took the time to publicize his upcoming title match with John Cena at Money In The Bank. And he mentioned that his contract was up after that show and that he would be leaving the company as champion.
Of the two of us, I was still the more “knowledgeable” wrestling fan, so the questions were posed to me. And they were questions that fans would ask for that entire week.
“Was that real? Would they just let him say all that stuff? It’s live, so they can’t just cut away, right? He’s hyping a match, so it’s part of the story. But they cut his mic. That part of it was real. Had to be. Right?”
With one angry promo, CM Punk turned the pro wrestling world on its head, and in the process he made Money In The Bank 2011 a can’t-miss show.
Historically, WWE doesn’t dabble too much in blurring the lines. Not really. They made off-hand references to insider terms during the Attitude Era, but everything was played so over-the-top that you never wondered what was real and what wasn’t.
This was noticeably different. Since the mid-2000s, WWE has been a heavily (heavily) scripted product. Off-the-cuff promos don’t just happen in a vacuum, and Vince McMahon isn’t exactly known for green-lighting them. So it’s no surprise that Punk’s diatribe caught so many viewers as a pretty abrupt shift.
The dust settled in the following weeks, and it became clear that Punk’s promo was approved, if not exactly “scripted.” Punk would even say in the 2012 WWE documentary Best In The World that he was given free reign to speak from the heart.
Even as WWE made McMahon’s desperate attempt to re-sign Punk and to keep the WWE Championship in WWE part of the obvious storyline, we were still wondering. And for the first time in a long time, we had a reason to tune in to Raw.
We had to find out what CM Punk would say or do next.
The month went by, and fans were speculating, both about the on-television product and about what was happening behind the scenes.
Will Punk sign a new deal at the midnight hour? Would he refuse the deal and find himself buried in his match with Cena? Could WWE rip off the Montreal Screwjob … again?
Most of these questions would be answered on July 17, 2011, in Chicago at Money In The Bank 2011. Punk and Cena faced off in an all-time classic for the WWE Championship. The atmosphere is unlike that of any other match in WWE’s history.
Seriously, go find this match on the WWE Network now. Granted, Punk is performing in his home town, but I challenge you to find a crowd reaction in any era that matches the ovation Chicago gave CM Punk on his entrance.
And to those who say Cena can’t wrestle, again, I challenge you to watch this match. You might go in with that attitude, but you won’t come out with it.
After a fierce back-and-forth battle, Punk defied the odds (and Mr. McMahon) to win the WWE Championship.
As soon as the match ended, Vince rushed to the announce table and shouted, “Send out Del Rio! Send him out now!”
Alberto Del Rio won the Money In The Bank ladder match earlier in the night, and McMahon demanded that he come out and cash in. Del Rio made his way out, but by then, Punk was already making a B-line for the ringside barricade.
He jumped onto the barricade, looked back at Vince, blew him a kiss, and went home with the WWE Championship, leaving McMahon (and us) wondering, “What happens now?”
This match was everything that pro wrestling storytelling should be. Setup, conclusion, payoff, and a thread to pick up on later.
Of course the thread that they picked up on was confusing and stupid and wound up involving two WWE Champions, a mystery text either to or from Kevin Nash (who remembers?), and Triple H coming out of retirement to bury Punk in a match only to go back into retirement.
But for one month that culminated with one show, I remembered that wrestling could still pull a fast one on me and that it could still entertain me. I still tune in regularly, because the build-up and payoff to this one show made me resolute.
No matter how many times they disappoint me, I’ll keep giving WWE the chance to surprise me.
All images courtesy of WWE.