On June 27, 2011, CM Punk sat cross-legged at the top of the ramp of Monday Night Raw and changed the wrestling landscape. He gave the wrestling world a shot of adrenaline, brought back a lot of WWE fans that had drifted away after years of monotony and grabbed the attention of the mainstream consciousness that had long since forgotten that wrestling still existed. It was that night when he adorned a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt and began to outline, as the character CM Punk, what he thought was wrong with the WWE and promised that he was leaving the company for good, such was his contempt for the WWE product in the 21st century. Fast forward two and a half years and it appears that all the things said in that promo, coupled with wrestlings all too notorious toll on its wrestlers’ bodies, has caught up with Punk as he finally ‘split’ the company hours before an episode of Raw and a day after the Royal Rumble. This time the real-life CM Punk has remained very quiet and while CM Punk the character went out with a momentous bang in 2011, the 2014 Punk has disappeared without a trace at all but still managed to get the wrestling world talking again.
Even before his game-changing promo, Punk was a fan favorite. His work with Jeff Hardy and later the Straight Edge Society were both the most entertaining storylines in the WWE at the time. Punk was praised by fans because he was something different from the neverending dance between John Cena and Randy Orton as they hogged the spotlight and the WWE force fed this eternal routine down the throats of a jaded fanbase. During his time with the Straight Edge Society Punk was without a doubt the hottest bad guy in the WWE and his work with Rey Mysterio reinforced the crowd’s venom towards him when he walked down the ramp. But just like what has become an all too frequent occurrence with the WWE, upper management did not capitalize on Punk’s popularity and hatred from the fans. It was almost like he had been given free reign on the B show (Smackdown) that no one really cared about but as soon as the higher-ups realized he was catching fire, they scrambled to put an end to it; quite literally as it turned out when Big Show single-handedly killed the Straight Edge Society and Punk’s momentum.
The pipe bomb established Punk as the antihero and began the most engaging time in sports entertainment since the halcyon days of the Attitude Era. After being moved to the primetime show (RAW) in late 2010, Punk was shunted up and down the card and thrown into different feuds and storylines with mixed results, until Punk was settled into a program with Orton leading into Wrestlemania. If you believe the murmurs at the time, this shuffle that saw The Miz and John Cena headline Mania irked Punk considerably as he felt more deserving of The Miz’s spot on the grounds that the Wrestlemania main event should be between the best bad guy, which he certainly was at that point, and the best good guy at the time. This idea of ‘more deserving’ wrestlers being overlooked is something that had plagued Punk since his debut and would continue to until his 2014 exit. It’s also something that directly led to his original dissatisfaction in 2011 when he was so unhappy that he had every intention of leaving the WWE until, as Punk described himself, WWE officials handing him a microphone to air his grievances on live worldwide television, in the main event slot no less.
The pipebomb itself was not only one of the best promos of all time, but it was also one of the best wrestling segments period. In it, he was able to tap into the die-hard wrestling fan’s consciousness and give bullet points to why fans had grown exhausted with the product and why a guy like Punk was being underutilized. The central idea in the six-minute, uninterrupted diatribe towards Cena and the WWE was that Punk wanted change in the company and its culture. The promo touched on what fans had felt for a long time, a boredom with being told who to like and who to dislike, while their actual favorites continued to play second fiddle to whoever the WWE wanted to promote.
The promo was important and Punk cemented himself a spot in history because it legitimately changed wrestling though perhaps not in the way Punk may have hoped. While more ‘deserving’ wrestlers, guys with stronger work ethics, more polished ring work or dedication to storylines began to get more spotlight, it was aesthetic window dressing as the WWE continually resorted back to its formula of tired beefcake. Even so, the change that is not debatable is the transformation in the fans and most specifically the live audience. The fans, whether WWE will admit it or not, are part of the ‘show.’ The performance is completely based around making the audience care and after the pipebomb, the fans were more vocal than ever. Fans felt more invested in the product than ever and became increasingly determined to vocalize their displeasure with the product. CM Punk became more than an anti-hero, he was the anti-Cena or more specifically the anti-WWE machine.
In 2014 Punk is still the anti-Cena and the fans are as rowdy as ever but not much else has changed. Punk went on to hold the WWE championship for 434 days but did so awkwardly as he continued to be in the shadow of John Cena and then the returning Rock. For most of the last year, apart from his great match with Brock Lesnar and his program with Paul Heyman, Punk has been drifting with no real purpose or agenda as he slipped further away from the main event. For the last four months, he has completely treaded water as rumors about his deteriorating body and general dissatisfaction gathered steam. On top of his own lack of direction, he also had to sit and watch his friend Daniel Bryan also be overlooked for the main event of Wrestlemania in a year Bryan became wrestling’s hottest commodity as Punk once was two years ago. Once again a returning superstar, this time Batista, was inserted directly into the biggest match of the year upon his return and deliberately killed the momentum of an upstart fan favorite.
Despite the endless speculation and discussion from the Internet Wrestling Community over the last few weeks, it’s no real mystery as to why Punk walked away from the company. Punk is banged up after spending the majority of his 35-year life in a wrestling ring and was even talking about early retirement this year due to nagging injuries and general soreness the business has tolled on his body. He is genuinely unhappy about the way WWE works and has made this clear to management which has seemingly ignored his concerns. By all accounts, the diabolical fan reaction to January’s Royal Rumble and WWE’s horrible foresight and planning coupled with his own character’s direction meant enough was enough for The Best in the World.
And it all comes back to that pipe bomb promo that acted as the prelude to his storyline split from the company in 2011. Punk explained how he was just another spoke on the wheel of the WWE machine, a wheel that continues to turn no matter what, with the fans continuing to tune in each week and Vince McMahon continuing to make money despite himself- a funny coincidence in a fortnight where a worldwide PPV event was being rejected by its entire live audience, past WWE superstars were in the headlines for nefarious circumstances and one of its top superstars walked out the same time that the WWE stock price rose to its highest peak ever due to the release of it’s WWE Network. CM Punk accepted he was just another piece of the machine but one that would rebel against what was being offered to him and presented to the fans. The fans ate it up, after all, Punk was fighting for cause and for change, not to mention sticking it to his billionaire boss that would have made Stone Cold proud. Just like Punk Rock was once seen as a dangerous symbol of youth rebellion when it first emerged in the 70s and 80s, CM Punk gave people a reason to care and take notice of what was being given to them. Then some record executives took its popularity and figured out a way to defang it, make money off it and absorb it into the mainstream.
The same thing has happened to CM Punk and happened probably sooner than he might like to admit when as soon as that pipebomb finished WWE capitalized on the mass popularity and began really manipulating the Internet fan.
So now the self-proclaimed voice of the voiceless is gone from the WWE for the time being. This might yet turn out to be another example of WWE manipulating the Internet fan but in any case, the machine will roll on with some initial backlash from its live audience. Daniel Bryan will fit into Punk’s anti-establishment storylines and will be more popular than Punk would have been anyway. People will chant for CM Punk, no question, but WWE have their Bryan card to play at all times now unlike 2011. WWE will continue to tell its fans who to cheer and who to boo and there is the horrible feeling nothing will have been learned from the whole last month of controversy.
Still, this is the best thing CM Punk could have done for his career. Stone Cold Steve Austin among others have passed comment on the situation and said that Punk has made a mistake by walking away and leaving money on the table. But heading into Wrestlemania 30 Punk was an afterthought and a shadow of that guy that sat cross legged at the top of the ramp. All his punk rock counterculture and anti-authority motifs had been worn away from years of being a spoke on the wheel of the McMahon soap opera. Not only was real life Punk’s body and mind tired but so was his character. Yet with one silent move, Punk has reestablished himself as everything that promo made him out to be and more. He became the biggest headline in wrestling again and reinforced the fans distaste of the current product. He has every die hard wrestling fan waiting to see what happens next.
And all with no pipebomb.
AEW and the Way Forward for Pro Wrestling
With their first PPV success in the books, a new TV deal signed, we crystal ball what is in store for AEW, as well as predict the future for WWE.
In the second part of our AEW special feature, we continue the discussion of fledgling professional wrestling promotion All Elite Wrestling. In our first part, we covered their new television deal with WarnerMedia channel TNT- once home to WWE’s chief competitor and losing pugilist in wrestling’s Monday Night Wars that took place in the late 90s.
We now turn our focus on AEW’s future in the ring and talk about the current and future stars of the promotion and ask the question, who will be their rising star and first champion? We also spotlight the year ahead for AEW and what fans can, and should, expect from the company before wrapping up the feature with our look at the next 5 years of professional wrestling. We crystal ball what is in store for AEW and the mountain of sports entertainment, WWE.
Who Will Be the Rising Star of AEW?
It is perhaps a bit strange to nominate Kenny Omega as a rising star, considering he’s been widely regarded as the best wrestler in the world for several years now and was subject to a huge cash offer to join WWE, but the reality is that Omega isn’t really known to people outside the Internet Wrestling Community. With the might of the TNT corporate muscle behind him, it’s time for the Best Bout Machine to be delivered to the masses.
Beyond Kenny Omega, the most obvious pick to be a breakout star is Pentagon Jr. From his days on the much loved Lucha Underground where he transformed from evil villain into badass anti-hero, Pentagon Jr has already developed a cult following that seems ripe for expansion. With the best catchphrase in wrestling (Cero Miedo) and an incredible moveset, it won’t take long for Pentagon Jr to get over with the crowd despite the language barrier.
Managing Fan Expectations
So far AEW hasn’t put a foot wrong; it’s constructed an exciting roster of talent, signed a big TV deal and its first show was a runaway success. Since Double or Nothing, social media has been awash with praise, rave reviews and think pieces about AEW’s golden future. Yet all the positivity and good vibes need to be taken with a grain of salt. While Double or Nothing was a terrific show, it was made to feel all the better against the drivel that WWE is force feeding its audience. Anything looks brilliant when compared with the current state of affairs in Stamford and it’s not surprising that fans are flocking to AEW and its promises of a better, more intelligent wrestling product.
But it’s worth remembering that the highest point is reached just before the fall. Fans will need to prevent their emotions from running too far ahead. AEW will have missteps along the way. Some storylines won’t go exactly to plan. Some angles will not work out and some feuds will be disappointing. It will be important for fans to expect some bumps in the road and to keep a fair perspective on the product before rushing to snap judgments in the heat of a social media moment.
Who should be the inaugural AEW Champion?
In the aftermath of Double or Nothing, it was announced that Chris Jericho will face off against Hangman Adam Page for the honor of being the first wrestler to raise the championship belt that Bret Hart debuted to a shocked Las Vegas crowd. The match will take place at their next major show, All Out, in Chicago at the end of August.
This booking is smart. Jericho is the legend whose presence automatically brings legitimacy not just to AEW but to whoever he’s in the ring with, while Page is immediately been pegged as one of the young studs that AEW is hoping to build around.
Diehard fans will want to see Page be crowned champion, but pro wrestling is all about, long term storytelling, gradual builds, and delayed gratification. Page is undoubtedly championship material and AEW is wise to hitch their wagon to his star, but he’s still a relative unknown. What better way to build him up by having him lose to Jericho in their first match, most likely through nefarious means, then tell the story of the rookie chasing down the veteran over several months.
Jericho winning now will give prestige to the belt and make Page’s eventual victory all the more meaningful and satisfying for the crowd. As wrestlers since time immemorial have always said: “the money is in the chase.”
Predictions for the next 12 months
Last week Jon Moxley gave a tell-all interview on Chris Jericho’s podcast Talk Is Jericho. Over 90 minutes Moxley pulled back WWE’s curtain to reveal a stifling and idiotic creative process that has seemingly led to several unhappy performers biding their time until they can escape WWE for pastures new. Fans were shocked by what they heard, yet they weren’t surprised by what Moxley said, rather they were shocked by how much Moxley’s revelations corroborated the rumors and innuendo that have been haunting WWE’s creative process for over a decade.
Naturally, upon hearing Moxley’s account, fans immediately began fantasy booking all the wasted WWE talent that will be gracing an AEW ring in the near future. Yet while we can’t stop rampant speculation over who might jump ship, we shouldn’t expect more than a handful of WWE stars to switch to AEW. There also won’t be any main event or upper card talent leave WWE. What we can expect is to see some overlooked and wasted lower-card performers move over. Tag teams such as The Revival and The Club seem tailor-made for AEW and now that they have a viable alternative to languishing in the WWE doldrums, there’s a good chance that some of them will head to TNT’s new show.
The great unknown is Sasha Banks. The victim of misuse and bad booking, Banks is allegedly unhappy with her status in the company and wants out. In the past, WWE might have granted her wish, comfortable in the knowledge that there wasn’t anywhere she could go, but now that AEW is on the scene, there is no way WWE will fathom allowing someone like Sasha Banks and her potential for megastardom to join their competition. If WWE was unwilling to release the unused and forgotten Luke Harper from his contract despite not having anywhere near the star power of The Boss, there’s zero possibility of WWE setting Sasha Banks free.
TLDR: One or two ex-WWE talents will join AEW at some point in the next twelve months but don’t expect a stampede. Instead, AEW will need to rely on its creative booking and match quality to build their roster of unknowns into stars.
What will wrestling look like in five years?
The last few years really have been the best of times and the worst of times for pro wrestling. The standard of in-ring action has never been higher with breathtaking athleticism almost taken for granted in every match, the WWE roster has never been this loaded top to bottom with incredible performers and thanks to the power of the internet, indie wrestlers have been able to build huge fanbases by themselves that would have been impossible even a decade ago. Wrestling has also gained a level of mainstream recognition that it hasn’t had for twenty years and in October WWE’s second show, Smackdown, will debut on Fox Sports in a huge multi-million dollar that will flood Vince McMahon’s wallet with even more cash.
Yet for all that, there is an undeniable smell about the WWE product. Repetitive booking, various members of the McMahon clan putting themselves over at the expense of the actual wrestlers, a never-ending series of pointless and meandering promos that always end up with a three-man tag match that already happened the previous week and that’s just the first hour. Then when you factor in the prevalence of juvenile and childish angles at a time when the wrestling audience is skewing towards older men who want more logical and sophisticated storytelling that doesn’t make them feel stupid for spending their time watching men and women fake punch their enemies, it’s unsurprising that there’s considerable dissatisfaction with WWE.
It’s in this context that the arrival of AEW has been so eagerly anticipated among wrestling fans. Given the state of WWE, AEW has a golden opportunity to carve a market share for itself.
While it’s nigh impossible that AEW will ever supersede WWE as the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world, the very presence of AEW on a major television network will force WWE to look more closely at what it’s presenting to audiences on a weekly basis. For the first time in nearly twenty years, WWE is facing external competition. If AEW can garner any kind of critical acclaim and further momentum behind it, logic suggests that WWE will be shaken from its creative stupor and begin rejuvenating its storylines to keep pace with the upstart company from Jacksonville and keep the attention of a fanbase that will suddenly have a viable alternative to WWE.
What could this rejuvenation look like? Believe it or not the best wrestling brand on the market right now, isn’t AEW and it certainly isn’t Raw or Smackdown but rather it’s WWE’s third brand, NXT.
While NXT is still nominally WWE’s development brand where young prospects hone their craft and characters before being promoted to the bright lights of Raw or Smackdown, NXT has grown into something far more than that. Its incredible matches and long-form storytelling that add layers to the characters and culminate in the quarterly Takeover specials have become the modern pinnacle of the artform. NXT by itself is enough to justify a subscription to the WWE Network.
So far NXT has existed mostly in its own little universe and none of its unique flavors has found its way to Raw despite its obvious success. The emergence of AEW could force the WWE to integrate more elements of the NXT style into the rest of its products and finally put aside the stale and frustrating crutches that have plagued Raw and Smackdown for years.
Long term it’s hard to project where AEW will be in five years. There are so many variables. Its best wrestlers could get godfather offers from McMahon, the ratings may not be there or TNT might decide to pull the plug. Regardless, wrestling fans can’t lose. More wrestling shows means competition and competition will compel WWE to stop resting on its laurels and lift its game. Even if you’re the biggest WWE mark this side of a McMahon family dinner, you should be cheering for the success and good fortune of Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and AEW because their already considerable achievement of building a wrestling promotion from nothing will go a long way to determining the quality of the wrestling we will be watching into the future.