Professional wrestling is a brutal business. You’re constantly on the road far away from your friends and family with little time off. You’re constantly putting your body through relentless punishment, more so than outsiders realize. You’re constantly interacting with members of the press relentlessly promoting your character, your current storyline, the next pay-per-view, the next live event, the next DVD and the prime-time shows you appear on, all for the company you work for. You’re constantly competing with other talent for the top spot on the roster. And you’re constantly fatigued thanks to early wake-up calls, late night sleep times, long interviews, long matches and inevitable creative differences.
In short, professional wrestling is not for everybody. Only the truly gifted, the truly creative, the truly athletic, the truly dedicated, the truly determined, the truly passionate and, dare I say, truly stubborn are able to thrive for any amount of time in such a dangerous industry.
But even the best in the world have their breaking point.
Earlier this week, CM Punk reached his. According to online accounts, The Straight Edge Superstar personally told WWE owner Vince McMahon he was done and he was going home. (He didn’t appear on Raw or Smackdown nor at any recent house shows.)
It’s not hard to understand why.
The Chicago native has been battling numerous injuries in the last couple of years and, with the exception of a two-and-a-half month break after WrestleMania 29 in the Spring of 2013, has worked through pretty much all of them. At a recent Comic Con Q&A session, he said he’s also been battling a mysterious illness that has baffled the WWE medical staff. (Hope it’s nothing serious.) Furthermore, ever since his worked feud with longtime friend and mentor Paul Heyman concluded last fall, he’s been adrift creatively. No world title shots or reigns, no hot programs comparable to his past work and despite being a popular babyface, his other longtime friend Daniel Bryan has supplanted him as the ultimate good guy in the eyes of the fans, even more so than the polarizing John Cena, Punk’s greatest rival.
According to TMZ, Punk isn’t too thrilled with his friend Dave Batista coming back to possibly headline WrestleMania. The Animal won his second Royal Rumble last week and will face the winner of the recently announced six-man Elimination Chamber match for the unified WWE World Heavyweight Title at the thirtieth annual Showcase Of The Immortals in April. (Champion Randy Orton defends against Bryan, Cena, Antonio Cesaro and the returning Sheamus and Christian at the EC event later this month.)
Punk, who was the first entrant in the Rumble, lasted almost an hour before being eliminated by Kane, an Authority stooge he had been feuding with in recent weeks. (He had already eliminated The Devil’s Favourite Demon earlier in the match but the big man stuck around at ringside to get his timely revenge.) According to the online “dirt sheets”, Punk was ultimately going to rekindle his great, but short-lived 2011 program with Triple H for a rematch at WrestleMania 30. (The Game defeated him in a very good No DQ encounter with the COO job on the line at Night Of Champions 2011 before teaming with him in a losing effort against Awesome Truth at Vengeance that same year.)
But the real-life Phil Brooks wasn’t happy about this plan. It’s been well known for quite some time now that he wants to main event WrestleMania, one of his last major goals before retiring. An encounter with Triple H will most certainly not be booked as the final match to go on that night.
Then, there’s the matter of compensation. The WWE finally announced the launch of their long delayed on-demand TV Network (happening near the end of this month) which will feature every future pay-per-view starting with WrestleMania 30. According to this, it’s not yet certain how the wrestlers will benefit from this new arrangement. (PPVs will cost subscribers just 10 bucks per show compared to the 50 dollars they currently fork over.) Punk is reportedly not entirely satisfied with how he was paid for previous high profile shows. It’s not hard to imagine further disgruntlement over future, possibly smaller pay days thanks to this significant PPV price cut.
Finally, there’s Punk’s contract. As he revealed recently, it officially runs out in July. Despite being absent from TV and live events lately, there’s a lot of uncertainty about his future right now. Is his current departure just another much-needed extended break that will result in a later return for one more run? Will he renew for a couple more years? Will he ask to be let go before then? Will he ultimately wrestle elsewhere? Or will he try his luck with MMA or some other creative venture?
For now, his absence is clearly being felt by WWE fans. They’re constantly chanting his name at tapings and live events, and they continue to bring signs in support of the former WWE Champion which doesn’t always please the powers that be.
If anything, this story embodies a much deeper problem, one that neatly ties in with a recurring theme in Punk’s career.
When he turned heel in 2012 in the middle of his second WWE title run, he demanded “respect” at every turn. Obviously, because he had turned on the fans, he wasn’t getting a lot of it. Many years earlier behind the scenes, it was the same situation.
As well documented in the terrific CM Punk: Best In The World DVD documentary, many influential players in the WWE saw little potential in him when he first joined the company in 2005. He was a smaller guy with two many tattoos and a major chip on his shoulder. To them, he didn’t look like the future of the business. Were it not for Paul Heyman routinely championing him, it’s clear he would never have been given a chance to shine in the first place. (Not mentioned on the DVD: Shawn Michaels was also a major supporter.)
In 2011, when the WWE finally gave Punk an opportunity to do what he does best – vent his very real frustrations articulately in character – it made him an overnight sensation. His feuds with John Cena and Triple H finally elevated him to the top of the card as he received two WWE title pushes, the second of which lasted for more than a year.
But how often did he headline pay-per-views during that reign? Rarely. And who did he end up putting over for the championship in a disappointing encounter at last year’s Royal Rumble? The Rock, a full-time movie star back for a part-time title reign and only to pass the belt on to Cena at WrestleMania 29. Punk lost the rematch at the 2013 Elimination Chamber and when he challenged Cena for his WrestleMania title shot on Raw, he lost that one, too.
Despite working highly regarded programs and matches with The Undertaker, Chris Jericho and Brock Lesnar last year, the excitement that once surrounded Punk’s ‘face turn in the summer of 2011 was long gone. The explosive promos that heavily incorporated real-life elements into his storylines greatly toned down. Punk was no longer the unpredictable rebel who represented angry, disappointed fans better than any other wrestler in the business. To paraphrase a line from his 2011 pipe bomb, he became another “spoke on the wheel”, another hired hand the company depended on whenever they needed him.
But here’s the thing. CM Punk deserves to be more than just a reliable mid-card utility player. From the way he looks to the way he talks to the way he works in the ring, he’s unlike any other performer you can think of. Despite being heavily influenced by guys like Harley Race, Roddy Piper, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle and Bret Hart, among numerous other talents, Punk is smart enough and distinctive enough to stand out in this more family-friendly era of wrestling. In a company that thinks like Nickelback, he’s a Sex Pistol.
But the WWE has never fully appreciated his talents, despite all of his success, just like they’re not fully appreciating the natural phenomenon that is Daniel Bryan. If it were up to me, Punk would still be the WWE Champion, and The Yes Man would be challenging him for that title in the main event of WrestleMania 30.
Obviously, that’s never going to happen. Why? Because the WWE isn’t listening to its audience any more. With little serious competition from any other organization, they see no need to push boundaries or challenge our expectations. They keep bringing back past-their-prime performers to juice sales for their biggest show of the year, not realizing that those numbers would be just as high, if not higher, if they ever bothered to properly and consistently push the next generation of superstars currently languishing in their mid-card.
They punish talented, outspoken guys like Dolph Ziggler and hold back first-rate athletes like Tyson Kidd so The Old Age Outlaws can enjoy yet another tag team title push and the 50-something Sting can finally work a WrestleMania.
Judging by the visceral disapproval collectively voiced by the audience who attended the Royal Rumble recently, CM Punk isn’t the only one who can’t take it anymore.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, February 2, 2014