I am a huge pro wrestling fan, most notably of the Mexican lucha libre variety.
I have a vision buried within the black matter of my brain. Depending on the day, it can take place anywhere, from big arenas to small arenas, domes to zones—it sometimes even goes down in a temple. The premise is simple; a group of baby faces are getting beat down by a dastardly group of bad guys. It’s bad; we’re talking nWo in 1996 bad.
There doesn’t appear to be any hope, only you know that someone is coming, because that’s just the way it works. All you’re hoping for is that whoever runs down for the save is someone pretty cool. And just as you’re thinking that the lights go off, and an old familiar song begins to seep through the speakers.
There are three different reactions to this song. Some people have no idea what it means, others are confused initially but slowly figure it out and, a third group catches on immediately, initiating a small but notable roar within the audience.
As more people catch on and the song swells and swells towards the climax, a tingle of joy runs down your spine. You imagine the heels in the ring, covered in the shade, wondering what the hell is going on, unaware of the hell that is about to rain down upon them. For a brief moment, you catch yourself realizing that once the music ends and the light comes back up, nothing will ever be the same again—hopefully for the better.
That’s when it happens—the song's climax concludes, and the lights come up. And there in the ring is CM Punk, gazing a hole through the enemies standing across from him. The crowd loses its mind in the sort of ovation that makes it all feel like a dream. Maybe because that’s all it is . . . for now.
I have been watching wrestling for over twenty years now; that's most of my life. I’d like to say I’ve seen everything (an inaccurate statement), including some of the most exciting performers to ever grace the wrestling ring. But I sit here today before you to say there are only two wrestlers I’ve seen who are unlike anyone else ever created.
The first is the legendary luchador Atlantis, a luchador filled with such ability to invoke emotion that watching him feels like watching an opera. If you haven’t guessed by now, that second wrestler is CM Punk. I first remember hearing about Punk back in 2005 as a hot prospect WWE had scooped up and—ironically enough—a guy Triple H wanted to take under his wing.
I remember when I first went looking for info on him that I thought I was going to find a masked wrestler because the name, CM Punk, seemed to give off that vibe. Instead, I found a long-haired punk-rocker with a Pepsi tattoo on his shoulder who lived something called a "straight-edge" lifestyle. I had already been into punk and alternative rock, but I’d never known what being straight edge was until I read about CM Punk. It instantly hooked me.
While I had never planned to smoke anything in my life, I had planned to one day drink; I loathed the possibility of it but foolishly (I was still a teenager at the time) thought it was something people did because it was expected of them. Reading about Punk, as corny as it may sound, made me realize that it didn’t have to be that way—that it was alright to be whatever the fuck you wanted to be. And so I became (officially) straight edge, have remained so, and will forever remain so, despite what some of my wacky Scott Steiner stories have suggested.
I also became a fan of Punk, and unlike most wrestlers I’ve enjoyed, that particular fandom never quite petered out. Maybe it's because he was, in many ways, a representative to guys (and gals) like me; maybe it was because in a dull as holy hell era where everyone seemed like a cartoon drawing, Punk was the only performer who, for better or worse, you knew was real.
Whatever it was, I stuck with him, and eventually, the rewards were massive. I like to think there’ve been three stages of my wrestling fandom. It started with WCW, which showed me that wrestling was capable of being art. It's continued now with Lucha Libre, Lucha Underground, and Atlantis, who have showed me that wrestling can move your emotions in ways that I didn’t think were possible.
But the middle section—the one with Punk—is perhaps the most notable. In an age in which even the most diehard WWE fan will admit watching RAW or Smackdown was a Herculean struggle, Punk showed us (or perhaps reminded us) that wrestling, in the right hands, could still be great and stay great all the time. He did it first with the Straight Edge Society and then did it again for four weeks in late June/early July of 2011 when he blurred the lines between kayfabe and real life in a way Vince Russo only wishes he could’ve.
Even now, when I look back on those four weeks, from the pipe bomb to the contract negotiation (perhaps my favorite WWE segment in wrestling history) to Money in the Bank 2011 to the invasion of WWE’s comic con booth to his speech to Gregory Iron to his return, I can’t help but feel it was perfect. I can’t explain it any more than I can explain how Ric Flair’s return to WCW in 1998—a dreamlike moment that moves me to tears every time I watch it—is perfect. But rest assured those four weeks were, and it was even more than that.
CM Punk didn’t just give us flawless storytelling and flawless pro wrestling—he gave us the hope that every time “This Fire Burns” or “Cult of Personality” hit or any time he picked up a microphone, something extraordinary was going to happen. He gave me hope. He made me believe in wrestling during the only time I seriously contemplated never watching any professional wrestling again.
Five years later, CM Punk the wrestler is dead; he died backstage in the Quicken Loans Arena when he defiantly told Triple H and Vince McMahon he was going home after those four perfect weeks in the Summer of 2011 turned into wasted potential. Well, at least they did to me. As a wise man once said, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain and damned if CM Punk hasn’t essayed that to a T.
I don’t need to tell you that wrestling fans turned on Punk because if you’re reading this, chances are you did too. You felt he abandoned you, you felt he disrespected the company and the business that gave him everything; basically, you felt he was an asshole. I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong for feeling any of that. But am I here to tell you that’s not what I saw.
What I saw instead was an all-world performer putting a company on his back, only for them to have 50+ year old Kevin Nash and corporate suit Triple H squash him (without Punk ever getting his revenge on either guy), followed by a title reign that, while impressive in length, saw him relegated to B-level status at times behind a stale John Cena taking on the likes of Big Show and John Laurinaitis, all while keeping him out of the main event of Wrestlemania in favor of a Rock-Cena feud that, aside from two nights, seems more like a WCW-style quick fix than something that actually helped the business or any WWE wrestler.
If that’s too much for you, let me simplify it: I saw CM Punk go from a man who, on his last night of Ring of Honor, was so into pro wrestling that his emotions got the better of him to someone who couldn’t stand the sight of the business in less than a decade. Maybe CM Punk is an asshole and was an asshole during that time, but if you truly believe WWE did everything with him correctly and that they’re completely in the right, well, my friend, you’re an asshole too. Or at least a really misinformed fan.
Later, fans sat down to watch Punk, now with UFC, step into the Octagon for the first time to take on some dude named Mickey Gall in—irony of all ironies—the same place his wrestling career ended two and a half years ago. CM Punk has nothing to prove to me; to step into an environment like that takes balls of solid rock, and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit and would probably be literally full of shit if they tried it.
But like everything with CM Punk, I’m interested in what comes next, in or out of the Octagon. Because here’s the thing: whether he knows it or not, CM Punk still loves wrestling. Trust me on that one, sports fans. You can deny it, you can run away from it, and you can burn all the wrestling t-shirts you like, but once professional wrestling becomes a part of you, it never stops. You will love it until the day it kills you.
I guarantee you that CM Punk is the same. Maybe he doesn’t love WWE anymore, but, as too few people realize, there’s more to pro wrestling than just WWE (somewhere, a sad strange little man in a Harry Kane jersey just yelled bollocks. As usual, no one cared).
And whether Punk wins tonight to kick off something unbelievable, gets his teeth kicked into his skull or goes the distance en route to becoming a punk rock Rocky Balboa, all roads lead to the moment where the itch returns and some lucky promotion gets CM Punk to walk through their door. All roads lead to that vision of mine, or something along those lines, coming true once again.
That’s why everyone who watches will tune in tonight and why people like me will be glued to the computer screen to find out whether or not Punk can hang. Because even after all the years and all the hate there’s few people associated with professional wrestling that grab you by the balls and pull you in the way CM Punk is going to do tonight. The Best in the World, the greatest storyteller in the history of professional wrestling and the best wrestler I’ve ever seen is ready to begin another story. I for one cannot wait to see it play out. It’s why after all these years I still believe in CM Punk, a man who set out to become the best without sacrificing the two most important things; his soul and his dignity. And maybe it’s the sixteen year old straight edge kid in me talking, but as of now, he hasn’t.