The following clip is from the July 11th, 2011 Monday Night Raw.
CM Punk returned to the WWE following a week-long "suspension" for his now infamous Shoot Heard Round The World.
Perhaps now more than ever, this is a fascinating segment to observe.
It begins with Punk's eloquence.
There is an energy in the arena that is unlike anything we experience today. Not even Dean Ambrose, the WWE's currently rising star, generates this kind of interest and attention. There is a sense of far-reaching importance to this moment, the same kind of serious and significant tone one might experience before racing across a field of battle.
At this point, in 2011, because of Punk, the WWE seemed poised to undergo a massive transformation, an exciting renaissance that brought the product back into the public consciousness.
Punk's remarks even address this fact, and the reaction he gets from the crowd is deafening - a raucous blend of emotions, ebbing and flowing between cheers and jeers.
There is dramatic tension and focus, and this is also an unusual, unique scene that would be taken for granted today, for Punk gives audiences a glimpse "behind the curtain". Punk's character exists here as an entity outside of the protypical wrestling fiction, airing the secrets and dirty laundry of the business so as to shed its old skin and move forward into a new, reality-bending form of pro-wrestling storytelling. He is not a heel. He is not a face. He is, very simply, a man who is frustrated with not only his boss, but with a corporate machine that threatens to destroy the art that he loves.
And then John Cena, Punk's rival, the Superman to Punk's Batman, enters the scene.
At first Cena sounds like a caricature, letting a false Boston accent slip through with purposefully dropped Rs, but then, gradually, even he becomes authentic as the dialogue progresses to a place of good, old-fashioned pro-wrestling bravado.
The time-tested trope of warrior vs. warrior grounds the larger reality-bending fiction in a straightforward contest for the right to be called champion. The macrocosm and the microcosm unite in a powerful way. We are treated to a scene that explores what wrestling means to the world at large, and what wrestling means to itself as a theatrical medium.
And that's when "The Anonymous Raw General Manager" chimes in, threatening to ruin it all.
While everything excellent about the previous promo isn't entirely undone, it's unavoidably tainted by mediocrity.
The majesty, the significance of Punk's revolution is surrounded by cheap gimmickry and lame storytelling (such as that Anonymous Raw General Manager).
As I sat down to watch this promo, I genuinely forgot the Anonymous General Manger had ever existed. I only enjoyed watching Punk's speech, marveling at how unlike anything else it remains even to this day. And then, when I heard that familiar bloop-bloop sound followed by Michael Cole's, "Can I have your attention please..." my heart sank, my soul deflated.
I recalled why my old RAW REVIEWS were littered with complaints and frustration - I remembered how unsupported the quality of Punk's character was.
This kind of intrusive, obnoxious authority figure, combined with intrusive, mediocre talents would go on to mar an otherwise amazing run for Punk, dismantling what should have been an even more significant era in pro-wrestling.
One wonders what this segment would have been like had it just remained focused on John Cena and CM Punk. One wonders what story those two talents could have told without the intrusive, ridiculous Anonymous General Manager or non-performers like John Laurinaitis or Alberto Del Rio's Money in the Bank cash-in or Ryback's "Feed Me More" or The Rock's "Once in a Lifetime".
There were certainly a handful of stellar months and excellent stories throughout Punk's final years in the business (and we should not forget that creative did keep the belt on him for 434 days), but when one looks back on those years and remembers the consistently poor foundation upon which the greatness of CM Punk's revolution stood, it becomes clearer why the WWE did not seemingly capitalize on what they had.
Punk was a tower of talent rising out of a poorly constructed, rotting ground-floor.
Put simply, Punk was, and remains, ahead of his time.
He was a renaissance-man in a world that genuinely did not even understand how to support his renaissance. His existence is tantamount to an extra-terrestrial being appearing in the center of Manhattan bearing disease-curing gifts. Such would inspire mass hysteria as much as joy. That extra-terrestrial would likely be ripped to shreds by a mob, and then that mob would say, "There's nothing to see here, this never happened, keep believing in your Gods and that you are the only form of life in the universe."
The powers that be in the WWE very obviously recognized that Punk could generate money for the company, but the storytelling tenets and the corporate demands of the time very obviously did not understand how to adequately support the character. And perhaps they simply couldn't given the lack of adequate talent on the card.
When we fans look back on the "pipebombs" and Punk's matches, we experience a very specific, vertical slice of excellence. It becomes easy to forget the mediocrity, to reminiscence, and even misremember the poor storytelling and bad booking that surrounded Punk during this time.
There were ill-conceived angles that make today's booking look stellar.
While fans might bemoan the wrestling bunnies and alligators and part-time-talent of The Reality Era, the product is wholly better from top to bottom. Flaws and all, there is a far more solid foundation now, and the WWE is more focused and much more supported by a wide breadth of superb talent. This blend of superb talent helps each other, even if they don't directly put each other over on the mic or in matches from one week to the next.
Consider that Dean Ambrose gets to thrive on a card where Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Cesaro, Paige, AJ Lee, John Cena, Brock Lesnar and the like all simultaneously get to thrive (or, at the very least, simply exist and attempt to grow). These wrestlers can play off of one another or simply benefit from the momentum of one another, the atmosphere of youth and enthusiasm, the energy and excitement of a single-focused roster. And consider that these talents also have another entire roster of competition on the come-up from the increasingly important NXT.
Punk, on the other hand, was Picasso, set adrift on a raft, alone (save the time he spent with Paul Heyman), painting masterpieces with no wall to hang them on.
And so these masterpieces drifted across the dark water, devoured by an indifferent ocean.
It's certainly easy to wonder "What if?" What if the WWE had supported Punk in the way he obviously should have been supported? What would the product look like today had the revolution Punk started been recognized immediately for what it was? What if that revolution hadn't slipped through our fingers?
Regardless of the "What if?" the squandering of Punk's revolution may, in itself, function as the fuel for change.
Even with the poor creative decisions the WWE made during Punk's final three years, he still managed to change the business for the better.
His one Shoot Heard Round the World is responsible for several years-worth of good content. In that promo the seeds were planted for the excellent John Cena/Paul Heyman/Brock Lesnar rivalry we now enjoy (without that promo we never would have had Heyman tempting John Cena to become a "Paul Heyman Guy" - the best promo work since Punk's worked-shoot).
In that promo the seeds were planted for wrestlers like Dean Ambrose to carve out a niche and stake their claim for that elusive main event opportunity. In that promo the seeds were planted for The Authority stable, a launching pad for characters like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns.
|Almost every "character" mentioned in Punk's first "pipe bomb" has played a roll in programming ever since.|
Punk's reach has extended into nearly every facet of the WWE, and it's been for the betterment of the company.
This demonstrates exactly how talented and significant Punk is as a performer.
Even though he was Picasso painting paintings on a raft set adrift in an indifferent sea, many of those masterpieces still washed up on shore and found their place in history.
Despite the fact that he was booked as a midcard champion, despite the fact that he could never be the guy the company supported fully in a PG-Era, despite the fact that he worked in an era with poorly defined characters and poorly pushed talent, despite the fact that he was surrounded by mediocrity, despite the fact that part-time-talent transformed the WrestleMania main event into a "monster of the week" episode, despite the fact that he unceremoniously departed the business and remains seemingly embroiled in a quiet, heated battle with the WWE, despite all of this he shall forever remain one of the most memorable, important characters in the history of the professional wrestling medium.
Punk once said, "You boo me now, but you'll all be calling me a genius in twenty years."
Like any good revolutionary, Phillip Jack Brooks was a prophet.
And he was right.
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All photos screen-captured via WWE archive footage.