Updated: Sep 12
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.