Since becoming Sports Entertainment, WWE tries to hide a lot of things from its history, for obvious reasons. Professional wrestling is an insane fictional real world of insane people, that is occupied by insane fans, promoters & wrestlers. The origins of pro wrestling are mysterious but it more or less seems to have sprung up around the world in various different ways, the documented separation of "worked", i.e. purely performative, choreographed wrestling ("admitted fakery" or "kayfabe") from competitive sport begins in the 1920s, so this must have been going on for millennia.
In professional wrestling, kayfabe is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as "real" or "true", specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged. The term kayfabe has evolved to also become a code word of sorts for maintaining this "reality" within the direct or indirect presence of the general public.
The breaking of this kayfabe 4th wall is very recent & was exacerbated by the internet, to the point where Undertaker has shoot interviews with Joe Rogan, something that would have seemed unfathomable to a guy that went through airports in character for decades. Most people believed wrestling was real to the point of physically harming wrestlers, there’s various stories of wrestlers like Jake The Snake Roberts, Roddy Piper, Bruiser Brodie & much, much more, getting stabbed, threatened & having guns pulled on them by crazy fans because of their heel personas.
Growing up, we all thought wrestling was real. It didn’t need to make sense, life often didn’t make sense, but when The Great Khali crushed Rey Mysterio's head with his bare giant hands on television, you could not tell 8 year old me that wasn’t real.
Soon after that moment my whole family & I began going on the internet and were shocked to find out that pro wrestling was scripted, but we still tuned in every week because it was still a great show, & we loved pro wrestling. Soon after, specifically from 2009-2011, WWE devolved into more & more childish gimmicks & the more access to YouTube I had, the more I was able to see that wrestling had gone through drastic changes & was just coming off of its golden era which I had unfortunately missed because I had been born into the safe post PG world of WWE Sports Entertainment.
Due to various reasons like Linda Mcmahon running for senate & the untimely and horrific deaths of Chris Benoit & Eddie Guerrero, WWE had completely abandoned it’s 18-34 year old fanbase that it focused on during its Attitude Era. The PG Era, after the great Ruthless Aggression era, came with rigid restrictions that made the product mostly stale & lifeless, creative refused to take risks, their were various backstage politics that are frequent in pro wrestling, WWE relied heavily on celebrity appearances, the audience itself was regressed to a previous incarnation of itself. Monday Night Raw is the longest running weekly episodic television show in history, & as you can expect, it has it’s down periods.
WWE is an ongoing world alongside the real world, which means real world implications will always affect the product. Last year there was a pandemic & it had to make its way into the storyline because that hyperreality exists alongside the real world. At the height of the worst points in the PG era, the fans were treated as though the world was still in the 80s, like the attitude era didn’t happen, like the internet didn’t exist, like fans didn’t have a clue this was fixed & would fall for the same storytelling tricks that were used during the Hogan era.
Chris Benoit's name was banned from television, they removed him from all of their packages, John Cena was an All American hero & Brodus Clay danced every night. Highlights of Raw would feature Jerry Lawler vs Michael Cole with Jim Ross barbeque sauce on their feet, I am not exaggerating. The product was just bad, stale, & bland, most of the time, outside of some great brief moments. Then suddenly, a wild CM Punk appears.
I’ve always been a CM Punk fan. I was an angsty middle child, as a kid, CM Punk represented everything I felt I was. He was this outcast that didn’t look like anyone, his music, size, tattoos & piercings instantly separated him from WWE’s usual top guys. CM Punk made it to where he was through refining his Wrestling skills around the world due to his love, respect & admiration for his craft, it wasn't a gimmick or a character, & there was decades worth of footage online to prove his love for his craft, & he genuinely became one of the best storytellers in the entire world. CM Punk got me into ROH, indie wrestling and a world outside of WWE. The Samoa Joe & CM Punk trilogy started my full entry into teenage wrestling nerd hood. CM Punk made me understand this was really a culture, outside of the gimmicks & characters, there are people who hone this art form, & CM Punk was one of those savants.
CM Punk did not look like the typical WWE superstar, which is very important to the subsequent events that transpired due to his existence on WWE television. Vince Mcmahon is very precise with representation, he knows that whoever he chooses to be the face of the company had to represent the company, & he usually liked larger than life big guys with huge muscles & over the top characters like Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin, John Cena & Roman Reigns. Smaller guys like CM Punk could only get so far. Vince had a very high prejudice against independent wrestlers specifically, feeling they were injury prone, & generally any wrestler that made a name for themselves in any promotion (or method) that wasn’t his, he wanted his talent homegrown in WWE, he wanted to own all of their intellectual property, & he wanted them to look a certain way, which is why he’s been able to monopolize the wrestling industry. WWE would never even mention the existence of other promotions (outside of WCW & ECW, both of which they own) until CM Punk. CM Punk was allowed to keep his indie name, he was the first & one of the very few.
CM Punk's goal was to steal the show on every level, in the ring, on the microphone, in character, his goal was to tell the best story, & he did that around the world & in WWE. I remember every single one of his title reigns & gimmicks in WWE because they were all storylines that I watched closely & kept up with. At certain points they were the only entertaining things on television.
The drive that compels someone to pursue any artform as a valid career option is already insane. Dedicating yourself to making music, doing stand up, writing, performing, touring, sleeping in dirty motels, lugging around expensive equipment, barely sleeping & making scraps, while facing the highest barriers of entry known to man is insane, now imagine deciding to become a professional wrestler.
Anyone that decides to become a professional wrestler, even if they are extremely lucky and are scouted because they were already famous in another field, had to decide at one point in time that they would live in an alternate reality full time. They have decided to method act, put their body in harm's way every single night, take years off their lives, barely sleeping & eating, making $30 a night at bingo halls, because they love this artform.
These people are passionate performers with a love for the storytelling, the movesets, the performance, the technique, the ring. There is not a single human being who could be a professional wrestler, let alone an independent wrestler, without loving professional wrestling, it’s a daunting prospect unless you romanticize it. When professional wrestling works it's the most sincere connection between consumer & artist, the audience gives everything with their reactions & the artist plays for their reaction, the more the performer gives, the better the story, the more energy the audience gives, silence is the worst reaction.
Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Mick Foley, Samoa Joe, Chris Jericho, Nigel Mcguinness, Terry Funk, Tommy Dreamer, Kenta Kobayashi, Chris Hero, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit & so many more would tour around the globe honing their skills, mastering their crafts, creating classics before they ever stepped foot in a WWE ring. They became some of the best storytellers this planet had ever seen, because when wrestling works, it's more than art, its a way of life. They went through the necessary 10,000 hours through hazings & hardships, politics, power games, insane personalities & promos for decades, because they love the craft. They were crystalized performers by the time they made it to WWE & to hardcore pro wrestling fans, CM Punks presence was a win for the culture.
But CM Punk, just like Bryan Danielson & various other smaller wrestlers & guys coming in from the independent circuit at that time, were mistreated, buried, & even as champions their reigns were always treated as midcard segments.
CM Punk's infamous pipebomb is what officially differentiated him from his peers & shaped the next decade of professional wrestling. As all of my childhood wrestling heroes are either retired, part timers or in the later stage of their careers, it’s much easier to look back on certain things.
WWE has always tried pushing Randy Orton & John Cena as the Austin-Rock of our generation, & while they were great, in reality, it was John Cena-CM Punk. This feud would go on to define professional wrestling as it exists today, lead to CM Punk's early retirement & make John Cena actually earn his spot as one of the greats for his pro wrestling abilities.
As the PG Era waged & John Cena’s clothing became more colourful, as part timers returned, great talent were buried, fired, misused & mistreated, you could always count on CM Punk to be a beacon in every WWE show & provide show stealing matches, edgier gimmicks, promos, with better stories & moments. From the straight edge society to leading Nexus, CM Punk was consistently great. His character always made sense, he never treated the audience like idiots, his motivations were clear, he was the most over babyface since Steve Austin & the most hated heel who rubbed Paul Bearer's ashes on his face when he wanted to be, even his wrestling style was more authentic. To the hardcore fans, CM Punk represented the Anti-Cena.
Every time John Cena comes on Television there are people simultaneously cheering & booing. There's the “Let's Go Cena” crowd & the “Cena Sucks” crowd. Wrestling fans have special bonds with the performers, you watch people dedicate their whole lives to this craft & their position completely depends on your reaction. If you are supposed to be the good guy, but the audience is booing you, it typically meant you were doing a bad job & needed to change your position. The Rock came in attempting to be a babyface, he got Die Rocky Die chants because the fans hated his gimmick, then he came back with the dynamic egocentric heel The Rock character, that became so widely loved that he turned into a babyface, until he went got so big that he went to Hollywood, got booed for selling out & became a heel again, until he came back and became a babyface again, it’s all very complicated. John Cena was different.
John Cena had become Superman by the late 2000s. He was unbeatable, he would use the same generic moveset to defeat every single opponent. He would get beat up for a while and then come back with the 5 moves of doom & end it. John Cena is a great performer but after a while it felt like there were no stakes for the character, there was no anticipation, John Cena wins in the end. The odds were always "stacked against him" which after a certain point quite literally meant nothing because regardless of what happened in the story, John Cena would win at the end, it was as anticipating as a power rangers episode. The vocal fans begged for John to change, for years, but he never did, because it always worked.
John Cena as a brand had become a titan for the WWE. Nobody sold as much merchandise, or had as much marketability. His catchphrases were ideologies that would make him the most requested Make-A-Wish celebrity of all time. John Cena carried the company on his back, he was on cereal boxes, and that meant keeping him over, night after night, against all challengers. In hindsight I admire John Cena as a performer, but as an angsty teenager I booed John Cena's guts at every live show.
I spent my parents' hard earned cash to scream Cena Sucks at the top of my lungs every chance I could, because I love pro wrestling & despite being the highlight of most shows, as CM Punk would go on to describe, at that time, John Cena as a concept represented everything that hardcore fans of the art of professional wrestling, that weren't 6 years old, were starting to hate about WWE’s product.
On June 27, 2011, in a now infamous promo, CM Punk took the microphone & said everything hardcore professional wrestling fans felt about what WWE was doing to it, in a way I wouldn’t have been able to articulate as a 12 year old at the time. CM Punk talked about John Cena as the metaphor for this banal, generic, rhythmic, unambitious, uncreative, mass produced, sports entertainment product that WWE had become at that time, & due to Vince Mcmahon's monopoly of the industry, what professional wrestling had become.
CM Punk was actually leaving the company, he aired out his grievances in a shoot promo that was then recuperated back into a storyline, it blended reality & fiction in a way that would make Vince Russo proud. The feud led to the highlight of both men's careers in a now legendary 5 star match at Money In The Bank 2011.
John Cena represented so much more than the performer or character, because John Cena is an incredible performer. John Cena is an idea that is prevalent in every industry after a level of monopolization. Everyone gets comfortable, the staff gets bigger, the attention to detail leaves & there’s no reason to work as hard on the product & innovate, you can just go from 1 camera to 3 cameras, they'll still buy the phone. The goal goes from being passionate about what you’re doing & telling the best stories, to a business that’s there to make money & sell product, & it showed in how it treated various performers & storylines around John Cena.
Competition breeds excellence, iron sharpens iron, when WCW was actively opposing the WWF, & kicking their ass on a weekly basis, it created some of the most creative television in history & reached unparalleled levels of success. The infamous Monday Night Wars were very real. Every member of each brands roster took the feud extremely personally, their own friends were being poached, their livelihoods were at risk & it led to each person vying for a main event spot to up their game tenfold, guys like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, Undertaker and Triple H put their bodies on the line every week in order to keep WWF on top, the wrestlers were given more creative freedom & leeway to perform, it was war time & everyone from the writers to management acted like it. Then Vince ran WCW out of business, poached all of their talent and proceeded to bury them for the next 30 years, and the WWE no longer had a reason to innovate.
Guys like John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista, Edge, The Hardys, Brock lesnar, Dolph Ziggler, The Miz, Alberto Del Rio & a whole host of others would keep WWE entertaining, but from 2009-2011 the product had clearly taken a severe hit, and aside from a few really great segments, the show had become overly scripted, overly produced and at times, plain goofy, but it didn't care because it brought in revenue.
Newer wrestlers would often be buried in favour of older more established & part time wrestlers, storylines would lead nowhere, have no stakes & just be unreasonably silly without being fun. Guys like Zack Ryder who would not get any screen time would take to the internet to get legitimately over with the fans in a once in a lifetime way, & they would be buried for getting themselves over, despite the fans wishes. After a certain point it seemed as though WWE was turning on its audience in favour of their rigid, safe plans & backstage politics, instead of taking chances with unproven & exciting prospects because the pay was steady. Promising prospects like the Nexus faction would show up, & then every single member would be defeated singlehandedly by John Cena, instead of grooming this promising group towards the next generation, management decided to use them as fuel to keep Cena over, which happened quite often. WWE would sign the best performers in the world, like the legendary American Dragon Bryan Danielson, & have them in goofy game show segments.
CM Punk almost single handedly changed the culture of modern pro wrestling with that pipe bomb & the subsequent real life effects. After the pipe bomb CM Punk would go on to have the WWE version of the Summer of Punk, which would culminate in a strange & terrible storyline that ends with Triple H & Kevin Nash coming out of retirement to bury CM Punk. WWE would go out of their way to diminish CM Punk's wave, he would often play second fiddle to whatever segment John Cena was in, but it didn’t matter. CM Punk brought passion back into wrestling & at Wrestlemania 28, after Sheamus defeated Daniel Bryan in 18 seconds, it signified a change.
The night after Wrestlemania has historically been a big deal, but this was the first night since Wrestlemania 21 where fans hijacked the show & attempted to change the storyline themselves, en masse, something that would go on to define the next few years in WWE. The fans were so upset that Daniel Bryan, the heel going into the match, lost in 18 seconds, that they hijacked every segment that Bryan was not in, for years. To this day you'll hear CM Punk chants at various shows around the world that he's not at.
For a brief moment in time, due to the fans pleas, CM Punk was WWE champion, Zack Ryder was United States Champion, Daniel Bryan was world heavyweight champion, & that lasted all of a week, their reigns were disregarded, there were certain highlights, but it wa