There was a period in the early 2010s when you may have been forgiven for thinking you were back in the warm, fuzzy, muscular, tattooed arms of the ‘Attitude Era’.
First, in January 2010, Bret Hart returned to the WWE to settle the score with Vince McMahon. A year later, The Rock returned to host Wrestlemania and begin his iconic feud with John Cena.
Then on June 27 2011, CM Punk, dripping with ‘attitude’ and decked in a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt, sat at the top of the ramp and delivered the promo that would go on to be known as ‘The Pipe Bomb’.
CM Punk made his WWE in ring debut in 2006 under the ECW umbrella. He won multiple world championships, Intercontinental and tag team gold and the Money in the Bank ladder match twice. He had memorable feuds with Jeff Hardy, Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton. However, it was in June 2011 when he set the wrestling world on fire.
A few weeks before he was scheduled to face John Cena for the WWE championship at MITB 2011, he cost Cena a tables match with R Truth. Full of raw emotion, Punk picked up a microphone, sat at the top the ramp and delivered one of the most memorable promos in company history, taking aim at Cena, Vince McMahon and more.
Punk told Cena in no uncertain terms that he was better than him and Cena’s true talent lay in ‘kissing Vince McMahon’s ass’ – just like Hogan and just like ‘Dwayne’.
Sick of being overlooked, he told the stunned crowd how out of touch Vince and his inner circle were. He endorsed Brock Lesnar for leaving the company and said he would be doing the same when his contract expired at Money in the Bank. However, he planned to beat Cena and ‘leave with the WWE championship’ – he even threatened to defend the belt in NJPW or ROH (Hi Colt Cabana!).
He signed off wondering aloud if the WWE would be a better place once Vince was dead, before remembering that next in line were his ‘idiotic daughter and doofus son in law.’ This produced a huge ‘Oooh’ from the crowd. Soon his mic was cut and the show went of air with him screaming into the camera.
In reality, Punk was negotiating a new contract with the WWE and they knew he would be delivering a ‘shoot style’ promo, but in just 5 minutes, he had become the most talked about thing in wrestling.
Was it real? Could he leave with the belt? What was Vince’s reaction? The story also garnered the mainstream media attention that the WWE crave from the likes of ESPN & GQ.
What separated this promo from the ‘off script’ nonsense you saw from Vince Russo’s WCW run, was not only the authenticity displayed by Punk, but the fact the promo content was woven into Punk’s motivations to win at MITB, meaning there was an actual direction in the story rather than just shock value.
Punk and Cena went on to have a bona fide classic at Money in the Bank. The Chicago crowd gave the hometown hero a huge ovation as he entered the ring. Punk emerged victorious and blew a goodbye kiss to Vince McMahon as he exited through the crowd. Punk was the WWE Champion and now a free agent.
Punk followed this up with a run in during a WWE panel at Comic Con where he traded barbs with HHH to a huge reaction. Within a month Punk had delivered one of the most talked about WWE promos ever, had a classic pay per view main event with the company’s biggest star and was bringing an air of excitement to the product that hadn’t been seen in years. The future was looking bright for Phil Brooks.
Punk returned to a WWE ring four days later with a new contract and new entrance music from Living Colour. He set up a match with John Cena for the undisputed WWE championship at Summerslam.
Punk would emerge victorious again, but a sneak attack by Kevin Nash (yes, Kevin Nash) and a MITB briefcase cash-in by Alberto Del Rio meant Punk would lose the title just minutes later.
The next night Punk began a feud with Nash. However this was aborted when Nash, who was not cleared to wrestle was replaced by HHH. Punk lost to The Game at Night of Champions, a decision that annoyed Punk for the rest of his tenure at the company.
The following month at Hell in a Cell Punk was pinned again by Del Rio in a triple threat for the WWE title and then at Vengeance, Punk tagged with HHH against the Awesome Truth and was pinned again, this time by the Miz.
At the start of August Punk was the hottest star in company and the talk of the industry. By October he had looked at the lights for four pay per views in a row.
He was still having memorable exchanges with HHH and John Laurinaitis and enjoyable matches with Cena and Del Rio, but by the time Punk recaptured the WWE title from Del Rio at Survivor Series in November, his momentum had derailed significantly.
The story is often in the babyface chasing the heel, however Punk already had the belt in August and was on fire, he should have been given a strong first WWE championship run like the one Drew McIntyre is on now.
It should be noted that after reclaiming the gold in November, Punk went on to have a 434-day run with the WWE championship, which at the time was longest reign in the modern era and culminated in a mega main event against The Rock at the 2013 Royal Rumble. This was followed by high profile matches with The Undertaker, at Wrestlemania 29 and Brock Lesnar, at SummerSlam 2013.
However, Punk’s frustrations with the WWE continued to grow due to various reasons from creative, money and what he perceived as a general lack of care and respect from management.
This came to a head at the Raw after the Royal Rumble 2014, when he walked into Vince’s office to let him and HHH know exactly how he felt. By Punk’s own admission he “no longer wanted to be there.”At age 35, CM Punk walked out that day and has not been seen in a WWE ring since.
CM Punk had a fantastic career in WWE and achieved more than most. He was given opportunity and exposure. He won many championships and created a great body of work.
It seems strange to rue missed opportunities for a guy who held the WWE title for 434 days. However, there is still the huge question of what could have been, if the WWE had gone all in with him following the ‘Summer of Punk.’