Long time fans of professional wrestling need one character trait to stay sane. That trait is to have a short memory. It is important as a fan to have a short memory because you will see a lot of things that’ll make you scratch your head and you will see golden money-drawing storylines dished out on a silver platter and somehow not even reach the dinner table. In other words lots of golden opportunities get squandered by bad timing, bad creative or internal politics. As a fan you can’t always dwell in the negative and you have to move on from this phenomenon and praise the creatives in the business when they absolutely get it right. When they get it right it creates a magic beyond description and reminds each and every one of us why we became fans in the first place. With that being said there is one major storyline WWE could have gotten so much mileage out of and made money hand over fist. If done properly it could have changed the face of the business for years to come and even though it took place almost a decade ago now (yeesh…it’s been that long?) it is a botched run that I am still mad about to this very day.
That storyline I am referring to is the now infamous Summer of Punk in 2011. If done properly the whole way through the WWE arguably were on their way to having the second coming of Stone Cold Steve Austin on their hands. While CM Punk was the complete opposite of the Stone Cold character their anti-hero traits and dedication to the business were oddly similar. I strongly believe some of the fans who walked away at the tail end of the Attitude Era could have come back at the end of this and the business may look very different now. Unlike Nicky Martin I do not like to hold on to petty grudges. But going back and watching what the company did right with this angle just makes me more furious as to how they pretty much pissed away all the momentum it created. Later on I will explain how it likely all boils down to internal politics and personal jealousy, the two cancers the wrestling business just can’t seem to rid itself of on any level. But before we reach the tipping point of the Summer of Punk we must rewind to early 2011.
I want to paint a picture of where the main players in this story are at the beginning of this year. It will make the revelation of how their became intertwined with one another all that more perplexing. In one of the many cases of ‘Vince being Vince’ the Royal Rumble this year was extended from 30 to 40 competitors. Don’t really know why other than a chance to maybe pop a butyrate or two. The roster was kind of thin to begin with and it was in Boston…the aforementioned hometown of John Cena. He seemed like a shoe-in to win however the event was won by Alberto Del Rio who in hindsight was the Mexican equivalent of the JBL character. The first half of the match though was the most entertaining part of the Rumble and was dominated by CM Punk. At this point in time Punk was in a creative limbo. In 2010 he had an awesome stable called the Straight Edge Society who would be inexplicably buried and disbanded late in the year and Punk would then become the leader of The Nexus who were also floundering after being pushed huge and suddenly dropping down the card. Punk and his Nexus cronies manipulated and controlled the first 1/3 of the Rumble match and while he easily could have been book to win he did not. Punk was getting extremely frustrated backstage with a lack of a main event run and repeatedly failed ideas he was presented with at this point. Also to get a nice nostalgia pop Kevin Nash returned in this match as ‘Diesel’ and I’ll admit the old get-up, the theme music, and the shoe-polish looking hair dye was cool. Nash got a good pop and it made for a memorable moment…sadly his involvement would not end here….more on that later
Fast forward to April and the biggest show of the year WMXVII. Since rejoining the wrestling world as a fan in the summer of 1998 I hadn’t missed watching a WM live between 1999-2010. However for this year’s edition I couldn’t get the night off work and I really wasn’t that interested. It would go down as the weakest Mania in modern history and the product itself would slowly stagnate throughout the rest of the spring. Given the fact I was working late nights and raising a toddler at the time I wasn’t in a rush to follow watered-down pro wrestling on TV so I would temporarily tune out after the month of April.
In the meantime here is how the cast of characters faired on this card. Del Rio the Rumble winner would face Edge for his World Title….not in the main event but in the opening match. It was a fine match but Del Rio lost and Edge would vacate the title being forced into retirement a couple of weeks later. This clearly put a snag in Del Rio’s momentum of getting a push. CM Punk had a fairly good match against Randy Orton. The story was based on Punk using Nexus to get revenge on him for punting his head and taking his title all the way back in 2009. Good continuity however I don’t think a lot of people remembered that from nearly a year and a half ago so while the match is good the storyline and placement on the card (4th match in I believe) hardly make it memorable. John Cena, who did NOT win the Royal Rumble in Boston would main event against the WWE Champion, The Miz. At this point in time it was revealed we would get the epic Rock / Cena encounter in Miami at next year’s Mania. Since this one was sold out and had a thin roster I believe Vince put The Mic in that main event spot because it wouldn’t affect business and he wanted to troll some of the fans and the boys. This match was clearly a setup for Rock / Cena in Miami….with The Rock, the show’s ‘guest host’ intervening directly in the finish. On a more positive note HHH would tear the house down in a No Holds Barred match with The Undertaker. Again this would be a prequel to their excellent Hell In A Cell Match a year later in Miami. This match would get lost in the shuffle of their legendary careers because there are so many other good ones but it stands out head and shoulders above everything else on this show. Taker doesn’t compete for another year and it is clear HHH is not on the full time roster anymore and is transitioning to his current corporate backstage role. He will only come out and wrestle for the big shows moving forward.
Before I get to that legendary Las Vegas RAW at the end of June a quick word about the spring of 2011. I wasn’t watching a lot at this point in time but it was a strange time. Edge had to retire, which set up a short-lived but very intense feud between Del Rio and Christian. Punk and Mysterio rekindled a short feud and Randy Orton and Mark Henry seemed to be moving up the card. Other than that I don’t remember much happening on TV that was memorable. A lot of fans were getting disgusted and agreeing that the product in the PG era was starting to get stale. WWE in the corporate world was also going on one of their weird ‘we aren’t a wrestling company’ phases but laying out bizarre PR campaigns and press conferences about how they were ‘entertainment’ in a ‘sporting capacity’ or something….basically trying to distance themselves from the world ‘wrestling’. Also behind the scenes CM Punk was finished….his contract was set to expire in the middle of July and he wasn’t going to renew. In the digital age word of this travelled pretty quick and it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that his contract was set to expire on the day the company was set to hold the Money In The Bank PPV in his hometown of Chicago. Surely the company wouldn’t acknowledge this and would just bury him until he faded into obscurity right? Or would they humiliate and job him out in one last match in his home city? It’s been done to many before and at the current climate of the business it wouldn’t have shocked anyone. But what was to come would literally shock the wrestling world….and beyond….and before we get there it is worth noting the construction of the Pipe Bomb…
2011 was one of those years where WWE decided to do more than 12 PPVs and judging by the numbers nobody asked for or wanted to see these extra shows. Following WM ended up being a decent Extreme Rules show but the next two PPVs before MITB were Over The Limit and the much maligned Capitol Punishment. OTL did poor numbers in buys and attendance CP did a little bit more but has become one of the most hated PPV’s of the modern era. The reason being is that it was treated as just filler before the summer programs began and included a horrendous ‘comedy’ skit with Booker T. and a Barack Oboama lookalike doing a spinarooni to the delight of nobody. Punk had a match with Rey Mysteiro and said in a backstage interview he was going to do the most ‘honest’ thing in wrestling starting on RAW tomorrow night. In fact after a forgettable Capitol Punishment (a PPV WWE never did again btw) the following night’s RAW began with CM Punk sitting in the ring. He said he would not leave until he got one last title shot at Cena in his hometown of Chicago…and he mentioned that his contract was running out and set to expire that day. Two weeks before the Pipe Bomb Punk shares a hilarious and awesome backstage segment with Stone Cold himself. He thanks Austin for granting him the match with Cena and says ‘he has set in motion something that his going to change the landscape of the WWE forever…and that’s the bottom line…’some truly amazing foreshadowing here but still…nobody knew was was coming!
June 27, 2011….Las Vegas, NV. Being forgetful as usual Nicky Martin left this entry out of his well written blog on promos. I will gladly take you through this one right now. The main event is set between R-Truth and John Cena with RAW Roulette. It is a tables match and Punk causes Cena the match and while John lays in the broken rubble Punk takes the mic and sits on the ramp in a Stone Cold t-shirt (the irony is not lost on this) and proceeds to make history. In case you have been living in a cave over the last decade and have not seen the historical Pipe Bomb promo you can watch it here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OS9wZGb_3g). As a wrestling fan the greatest moments usually happens when you least expect them. This was no different and not only did it set the wrestling world on fire but mainstream sports media began to cover it. The controversy factor was so high as something like this truly had never been done before. It sounded convincingly like someone who was going to leave and never return. He laid it out all on the line like someone who had nothing to lose. I remember the shock factor of watching this online. I believe my brother shared it with me because like I said I wasn’t watching at the time and I was utterly floored by this. Not only the promo itself but how it proceeded to break the entire damn internet. This promo was the defibrillator needed to take the WWE out of a creative coma. Even though Punk went out of his way to insult the fans and remain as the heel in this program with Cena, a funny thing happened. People began to like him…a lot….in the Pipe Bomb he said so many things that the fans also felt frustrated with. Nearly overnight he had become the new anti-hero of wrestling calling out whoever got in his way in the same fashion Steve Austin cut his ‘Austin 3:16’ promo after winning King Of The Ring. Both men were rebelling against the tyrannical wrath of Vince McMahon. One in the storylines and one outside of the storylines that became dangerously real.
In the coming weeks WWE did something that it wasn’t able to do in quite sometime. It made some really compelling TV. All of a sudden I was glued and had to PVR RAW every week until that big show in Chicago. I knew as a longtime fan I was experiencing something special. Back in the day I was drawn to ECW because of the violence but I stayed because of the dangerous spontaneity. Paul Heyman produced a product where you didn’t always know what was going to happen or what was going to be said. Pro wrestling needs to have a bit of a danger factor, and I don’t mean guys trying to kill themselves with more extreme weapons and stunts. I mean that ‘it’ factor that puts you on the edge of your seat without quite knowing what will happen next. This program between Punk and Cena was perfect because the fantasy world and reality had been blended together so beautifully that you really weren’t sure how they were going to do it. Punk also released his new ‘Best In The World’ t-shirt (side note: I got a steal on one at Taleze for $4.99 in 2013…who donated that? Seriously) and WWE.com could not keep them in stock. There were also some with the MITB date and city on it…I believe they sold out within an hour or less. The merchandise sales are always an indication as to when you have a new hot phenom on your hands.
Punk would reveal in his 2012 DVD release they he didn’t sign a new deal until the middle of the show in Chicago on July 17. This really kept the suspension of disbelief alive and the buildup to this show was solid. The engagements between Punk, Cena and McMahon were gold (at the beginning Cena’s promos were too joke-ridden but got better as this program progressed). If Cena lost he was fired which raised the stakes even more. I won’t spend too much time summing this up but the 2011 Money In The Bank is one of the most electric and emotionally charged PPV’s you will ever see as a wrestling fan. The card from top to bottom is solid and that crowd is hotter than the Highway To Hell reaching an insane crescendo during the main event. Dave Meltzer would give Punk / Cena a 5-star rating and whether you like Dave or not you have to take into context that he doesn’t give that review out freely especially in 2011. I have to say giving this match anything less is hard to disagree with and all the stars aligned together and ended with the right finish and the right guy winning…CM Punk. He ran out of the arena after a man who won a Money In The Bank briefcase earlier in the evening Alberto Del Rio and as far as the fans knew….he no longer worked in WWE…they ended this program on top and as usual the only way to go after reaching the mountain top is down…
Just like that CM Punk was the hottest talent in all of professional wrestling. Masterfully like the RAW after the Pipe Bomb WWE kept him off of TV leaving the fans wanting more and building the mystery. Would he return? Would the WWE Title show up on another promotion’s TV like he teased? Would he destroy the belt? In his absence an amazing segment aired where HHH returned as a corporate entity and told Vince he was ‘relieved of his duties’ because of how he mishandled the title situation. Vince was nearly in tears and the crowd chanted ‘thank you Vince’ as the show went off the air. HHH said he was taking his place and in my opinion this should have been the end of the Mr. McMahon character on TV. What a powerful and lasting impact that segment would have had. A week later what we got was a tournament that should have been to name a contender to face Cena…instead the winner won the ‘new’ championship and defended it against Cena. So Rey Mysterio won the title and lost it later in the show to John Cena. I have no issue with Cena winning the ‘new’ title but it didn’t need to go down that way. During his celebration Living Colour blasts over the PA and Punk is back wearing the WWE Title he won in Chicago and this is where things get a little screwy.
It’s obvious at this point that Punk extended his deal and Summerslam will be headlined by a Punk/Cena rematch. But having the ‘double champion’ scenario go down the way that it did and have Punk return and not take the title to another promotion to build heat was a mistake in my books. Then HHH flexes his power muscle and places himself as guest ref. of the Summerslam match while telling the two of them that they are ‘crying like little girls’ over who the real champion is. Uh oh….given Hunter’s history to meddle and the weird booking of the last month what was known as the Summer of Punk could seriously end up in jeopardy…however as long as they tear the house down as Summerslam and Punk goes over they can move past this speed bump and retain the potential momentum they had going into Chicago. Could they repeat the magic they had on that July evening and have Punk become the new undisputed champion? They did…until the ending when it all fell apart.
While it may not be as good as the July match the Summerslam one goes down at a very high level until the finish. The crowd is hot and Hunter plays the role of business as usual referee very well. In fact an awesome moment in the match is when he teases a double cont-out and tosses both guys into the ring and says no way…there must be a winner. The crowd pops huge and it adds a dramatic effect without being a distraction. What happens next has to be seen to be believed. Not only did the golden platter fall on the floor before reaching the table it got stomped into the floor repeatedly for no good reason. Imagine the potentially greatest meal of your life got lost and there was no replacing it….this is how I feel after witnessing this sequence of events…
Punk his Go To Sleep. Cena puts his foot on the ropes and Hunter counts to three (while blatantly seeing Cena’s foot on the rope might I add). Everyone is in a state of confusion and Punk’s music hits. It is beyond belief that this epic feud ended on the finish equivalent of slipping on a banana peel. When Hunter presents the belt Punk refuses to shake his hand but gets his hand raised as the winner. Nobody seems happy about this and I am waiting for Hunter to unleash the Pedigree and become Punk’s first challenger. Instead we get a run in from Kevin Nash. That is not a type-o, Kevin Nash who at age 52 and appeared in the Royal Rumble as a piece of nostalgia has now inserted himself into what was the hottest story line in wrestling. This parasite gives Punk the big boot and runs away….crowd is kind of hot for this but still utterly confused. Then Alberto Del Rio comes in and gives Punk an enziguri to cash in on his briefcase and becomes the new WWE champion….huh????? At this point the crowd which was nuclear hot is now in stunned silence. Punk went from being the hottest commodity in wrestling to getting a cheap victory, selling a big boot from an old man with bad knees, and went down to an unproven main event player after one move. This could not be real, this was some surreal hallucination….oh I wish it was my friends and what would take place in the following months is hard to comprehend…
The title picture in the coming months is Del Rio vs. John Cena. Punk gets stuck into a program with Kevin Nash. Nash paid his dues early on and created a nice run for himself in the business but at this point he is nothing but a parasitic vampire trying to suck the life out of talent and story lines he doesn’t seem ‘fit’ for business. After weeks of pathetic television (the story line is so far beyond stupid I won’t even summarize it here) it gets revealed that Nash isn’t medically cleared to wrestle and Punk will have to face HHH instead. Now, Punk and HHH have a really good brawl at Clash of Champions but Hunter ends up winning. Remember how Hunter was a corporate employee of the WWE who only came out for big time matches? Explain to me what beating someone like Punk does for the good of business? Especially leaving your corporate role for it….yeah I can’t figure out the logic either….Nash would also interfere in this one and it would lead to a Sledgehammer Ladder Match in December (once again that is not a type-o) that I assure you if you choose to watch is the longest 18 minutes of your life. Then he would never be seen again in a WWE ring after that.
Punk would then get pinned by Del Rio in a Hell In A Cell Triple Threat against Cena. Then in the second PPV of October 2011 (Vengeance) Punk would get pinned (see a recurring theme here?) while teaming with HHH against Miz and R-Turth who needed heat as they were going to face Rock and Cena at Survivor Series. So since Punk become an icon at MITB he won a fluke title match, had to sell for a guy with was never medically cleared to be in a ring, lost to a man who many would say cashed in too early, got pinned by Hunter, pinned in a triple threat by Del Rio (a second time) and pinned in a tag match alongside a partner who pinned him back in September. Wrestling fans don’t get behind losers, that is just fact however in Madison Square Garden Punk would get the last laugh for a long time. He would beat Del Rio for the title and hold it for 434 days, the sixth longest streak in company history. Although he would get some inferior opponents and not always be featured in the main event his title run would be unforgettable until he lost to The Rock at the 2013 Royal Rumble. Arguments can be made it didn’t have to end this way however Punk would tear the house down with The Undertaker at that year’s Mania….so some sliver lining after all.
So if you’re still with me…I thank you. It’s a long read but it is insane how the company derailed the momentum of one of the coolest story lines they’ve ever had. So why in fact did this happen and what did it do to business? In terms of business I don’t think MITB did the number they hoped it would however I believe it did around 150,000 more buys than the Capitol Punishment debacle. This angle and character were legitimately reigniting fans interest in the product and by the end of the next PPV they killed it. Del Rio was quite a talent in the ring with endless potential but at that point in time fans just weren’t ready to buy him as a main event player no matter how much the company forced it. In fact The Vengeance PPV did less than 200,000 buys which at the time was the second lowest buy-rate in company history. Sure It was the third PPV since August at that point and I’m sure people were burning out but it was headlined by Cena / Del Rio for the title. I’m sure the numbers declining since Summerslam 2011 had something to do with how the Summer of Punk got ruined. Which will bring me to the why…
CM Punk is said to be an abrasive person who is hard to get along with. I also believe for a number of years Steve Austin was pegged the same way as when he was on top he was choosy about who he wanted to work with and how he wanted to be portrayed. That is no fault of either guy as to be on top in the wrestling business you need to be protective of your on-air identity. But after watching Punk’s DVD and in his Pipe Bomb promo it was abundantly clear he was never expected to make it this far in WWE. Paul Heyman ran OVW their developmental territory at the time and knew what talent and drive Punk possessed. After numerous false starts with mundane title runs and the burial of The Straight Edge Society it appeared Punk was done for in terms of ever being a constant main event player in the WWE. According to Punk when he cut the Pipe Bomb promo the creative team said you have a live mic for this long at the end of the show, so say whatever you want. I strongly believe that Vince set it up this way to see how Punk was really feeling about things and if he had the grapefruits to actually say them on air. Needless to say he passed that test, made money hand over fist and for a brief period turned the business upside down.
If this didn’t happen Punk would not have had a lengthy run on top. Numerous reports say that HHH and Punk never got along fully and that Hunter’s alleged main problem was that Punk didn’t have a ‘muscular physique’ and allegedly went as far to say that he thought he had a ‘fat ass’ (seriously…wtf dude?). Yes, Punk did not have the physique of a Cena, HHH or even Rock or Austin. I believe Kevin Nash said the first time he ever saw Punk in the indies he thought he was just ‘one of the fans’. While wrestling is a very cosmetic business this whole mentality of someone not getting their due because of a ‘lack of muscles’ is plain BS. Punk was always in ring shape (he did back-to-bck 60 minute draws with Samoa Joe in ROHon back-to-back nights) and had the heart and determination to succeed. Also he cut quite a good promo if you haven’t already gathered that. But like HHH and all top people he lived and breathed the business. It was his life and that’s what made him so good. So we can hear all the excuses we want but the main reason I believe Hunter had an issue with Punk was that he got over on his own terms while not being handpicked by Vince McMahon himself. We may never know the answer but some weird personal and professional jealousy had Hunter right in the middle of the hottest story line in wrestling when he wasn’t even active and would put measures in place (ie: Nash) to completely bury and derail Punk’s momentum. But tenacious as ever Punk overcame these obstacles the best he possibly could until he was ready to be buried for good in early 2014. He would leave the company (likely to never return) and walk about on what was going to be a WMXXX program with HHH himself. According to Jim Cornette Punk responded to this proposal by saying that ‘you need to work with me but I don’t need to work with you’ which according to Jim is the ultimate jab to take at someone in the wrestling business.
Punk went through a rough time late in his WWE run but I will argue that he won in the end. Despite how many obstacles and ridiculous politics got in his way he persevered, got over and stayed over. He also quit on his own terms which most never ever get to do in the wrestling business. Many want him to return but I think he may be along the mind set that ‘they need me to work there, but I don’t need to work there’ and if so, good for him. He may not get into the WWE HOF for a long time or ever, but his name lives on as a protest chant from the WWE Universe for when they are angry or bored at what they are seeing in the ring. This is why Punk won because even when he is gone from television his name still resurfaces organically, especially when they are in Chicago which cemented his legend forever on a blistering hot July evening in 2011. While the Summer of Punk ended prematurely his legacy lived on and what we can learn from this cautionary tale is that if you catch lightning in a bottle in the wrestling business hold on to it. You never know how effective that lightning bolt can be until it’s gone. Thank you for reading another edition of The Grand Slam…this is Phil Gordon wishing you a magnificent week.