By Justin Henry
“Vince (McMahon) once told me, in a moment of lucidity, “All I wanted to do was be the biggest wrestling promoter in the world. And I am. But I fucked myself. There’s nowhere for my young guys to come up and get seasoned; I’ve got nothing but green boys who had no idea what to do in the ring. It’s embarrassing.”
-Dan Madigan, screenwriter, author, and former WWE writer
Vince McMahon walking into an Ohio Valley Wrestling locker room in 2007 would be akin to Dom DeLuise ambling his hefty hind into an Old Country Buffet: it all looks so good, and they wouldn’t even know where to start.
A quick rummaging through OVW results in January of that year does yield some diamonds. Nic Nemeth, Jake Hager, Boris Alexiev, and Cody Runnels would all transmogrify into Dolph Ziggler, Jack Swagger, Santino Marella, and Cody Rhodes over the next two years, thus providing WWE with its eventually-reliable upper midcard. A developmental territory that can churn out world-class performers such as that quartet would consider it a source of pride, much like oft-overlooked SWAC college Alcorn State being able to brag about producing Steve McNair and Donald Driver as future National Football League All-Pros.
But it’s not like the OVW roster was packed with thirty Zigglers or thirty Santinos. In the timeframe that such future stars were honing their crafts, they were sharing locker rooms with future WWE washouts like Justin “The Ox” LaRoche, whose peak achievement was serving as Chavo Guerrero’s bearded gastropod of a bodyguard in 2008, under the name Bam Neely. Alongside the monstrous LaRoche, one would find other muscleheads like Charles “The Hammer” Evans (think Terry Crews without the charisma), the bulky-biceped Mason Raige, the even more grotesquely-chiseled Chett “The Jet” Jablonski, and a seven foot tall bland wonder known as Jacob Duncan (who competed as Ryan Wilson and Trytan in TNA during the company’s salad years).
Also littering the developmental landscape at this point were Shawn Spears, who you missed during his 2008 ECW run if you blinked. Alongside him was the charmingly-named Atlas DaBone, who looked like a mad scientist’s rendering of Chuck Palumbo and Carlito as a hybrid creature. He too was an ECW scrub, better known (only slightly) as Ricky Ortiz. And it wasn’t just WWE that had the “honor” of calling up so many also-rans. TNA had the misfortune of picking up tag team "standout" Ramon Loco, who gained notoriety as Anarquia, the Mr. Pibb to Homicide’s Dr. Pepper.
In short, sparing honor students like “The All-American American” and “Dashing Cody”, Ohio Valley Wrestling could be seen as little more than a breeding ground for clumsy bodybuilders, flavorless flakes that had a nice look, and, in general, wrestlers that could have benefitted with a time machine to take them on a swing through the old-timey territorial system that Vince McMahon systematically squashed.
“Stephanie McMahon sees Daniel Rodimer as "the new Diesel" and she wants to group him with Edge and Randy Orton. There are already RAW brand house shows being advertised with DX vs. Edge, Randy Orton and Rodimer in 2-on-3 matches. Rodimer has only been wrestling since August.”
-Wrestling Observer Newsletter, December 2006
Who is Daniel Rodimer, you may be asking? Even fans who’ve sworn allegiance to dirt sheets, message boards, and other websites all-things-wrestling are likely rifling through their mental Wikipedias, seeing if Rodimer even has an entry. After all, Rodimer IS somebody that Stephanie McMahon, creative’s head-bitch-in-charge, was purportedly championing as, well, a likely future champion.
Rodimer would be the sinewy fellow depicted above. At 6’7”, and hovering around the three-hundred pound plateau, his story reads as a tale of unrealistically high expectations, followed by an abrupt end, and then, ultimately, a brisk sweeping into the dustbin of wrestling history.
Sharp-eyed fanatics may recognize Rodimer from the laughable fourth season of WWE Tough Enough, wherein he, The Miz, eventual winner Daniel Puder, and others performed inane in-ring tasks on Smackdown, like trying to hit on Hardcore Holly while costumed in drag. Rodimer didn’t win, but he would be signed by the company on July 12, 2006, optioned to Deep South Wrestling.
Within three months of his signing, Rodimer would be on tour with the Raw brand as an apprentice to ring veteran Val Venis for on-the-job training. Generally speaking, other than a tryout match or two, developmental wrestlers are almost never brought on to tour with the main roster with such little seasoning.
Barely five months after signing with World Wrestling Entertainment, without so much as a TV appearance or a clamoring from fans to see him called up to one of the three brands, Daniel Rodimer’s name was being bandied about by Vince McMahon’s daughter for involvement in a major storyline.
That’s one hell of a vote of confidence.
Those house show matches with D-Generation X and Rated RKO never came to fruition, perhaps because of Triple H’s quadriceps tear suffered weeks later, but Rodimer did find other ways to get face time.
Repackaged as Dan Rodman, the chiseled youngster from Clearwater, Florida lost a Sunday Night Heat match to Val Venis in April 2007. Rodimer’s resume swelled during this period, as a tour of Europe with the Raw roster netted him matches with Johnny (Morrison) Nitro, Super Crazy, and tag matches alongside Kenny Dysktra against Ric Flair and Carlito. The following month, Rodman continued his drive to eventually making it onto Monday Night Raw, working with Venis and Eugene at live events. On May 21, Rodman defeated Eugene on Sunday Night Heat.
The pinnacle of Rodimer’s WWE tenure would take place on Sunday, June 17, 2007, in Raleigh, NC. Less than a year after rejoining the company, with minimal experience under his belt, Rodman would lose a house show match to WWE Champion John Cena.
You’re no doubt wondering, “Man, WWE sure had a lot of faith in this guy. He’s 6’7”, 300 lbs, looks like a star, toured with the Raw roster less than three months after signing with them, was considered for a run with four of the company’s biggest stars, and even got a house show match with the top dog of the company. Whatever happened to this Daniel Rodimer?”
There’s a simple answer to that: he asked for his release.
On August 22, 2007, Rodimer left World Wrestling Entertainment, taking up a career in real estate. PWInsider intimated that Rodimer was getting frustrated in waiting to be fully integrated to the main roster, and was looking to interests outside of wrestling. The release was, apparently, mutual as WWE felt that Rodimer hasn’t progressed enough from an in-ring standpoint to where they were ready to make him a featured player on television.
There would be no “jumping to TNA” in three months, or giving Ring of Honor a shot, or looking to hone one’s skills in Japan, or even a prodigal return to WWE. Rodimer left the business completely, two months after his match with Cena, eight months after Stephanie developed a booking hard-on for him, and barely a year after re-signing with the company.
What Rodimer was given, and for what some in high WWE circles were anxious to give him, a man would defile his soul for.
But wrestling fans who possess good taste, and know a winner when they see one, could name a guy that could be considered the “anti-Rodimer.”
Oddly enough, while the office was fawning over would-be realtor, this particular individual was already on the main roster, waiting for his turn to shine.
"Don't let these tattoos fool you. I'm straight edge. I'm a man of great discipline; I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs. My addiction is wrestling. My obsession is competition. Discipline. My name is CM Punk."
- CM Punk, July 4, 2006, ECW on Sci Fi
America celebrated its two hundred and thirtieth birthday on July 4, 2006. With firework displays filling skies overhead barbecues and family reunions nationwide, a shipment of pipe bombs had been delivered to the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, PA. Fitting that, in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed by America’s founding fathers, a man who champions free speech more than any wrestling personality since the late Brian Pillman would make his WWE debut.
In a thirty second introductory aside, renowned independent darling CM Punk made acquaintance with the home viewer. In a matter of seconds, Punk established exactly who he is: straight edge, and addicted to but one thing: wrestling.
To get to this moment, Punk, like the aforementioned wrestlers, had to navigate the channels of Ohio Valley Wrestling. However, unlike Rodimer, Punk wasn’t splitting his time between OVW and tours with the Raw roster, with gleeful jocksniffers in the elevated catacombs of management hoping to nurture him into a main event role. Instead, Punk did what he’d been doing for the previous six or seven years: he wrestled. From September 2005 until his call-up, Punk stood out in the ocean of average commonality, waging a lengthy war over the OVW Heavyweight and Television Championships with Brent “Gunner Scott” Albright, and consistently having top-shelf matches with the likes of The Miz, Ken Kennedy, and others. Within months after his debut, Punk, originally a heel, had organically turned himself into the company’s biggest hero, thanks to his wrestling know-how, obvious passion, and charismatic self-confidence.
Not since John Cena and Randy Orton cut their teeth under Jim Cornette’s watchful eye had OVW seen a young talent that possessed such potential
Potential or not, most debuting WWE wrestlers have a rather sizeable obstacle to overcome: breaking the silence barrier. Cena and Orton were given introductions in 2002 that were designed to have the future champions hit the ground running (Cena stood up to Kurt Angle, Orton upset wily veteran Hardcore Holly), but it would take some character tweaks, as well as time, before either man would be accepted on a main event level.
But Punk? They say ‘timing is everything.’ On August 1, 2006, Punk debuted on a live episode of ECW on Sci-Fi, wrestling former ECW Champion Justin Credible. Working to the 27-year-old’s favor was that the episode was filmed inside the Hammerstein Ballroom in downtown Manhattan. Those who know their wrestling are cognizant of the fact that a) New York City boasts extraordinarily passionate wrestling fans, and b) given that the region has an appreciation for top quality indy wrestling (classic ECW, ROH), Punk would be viewed as a conquering hero by the NYC faithful.
And he was. In front of 2500 cheering fans at the home of ECW One Night Stand’s I and II, Punk displayed complex submission wrestling, and generally a style not seen in everyday WWE. By the time Credible submitted to the Anaconda Vice, a star seemed to be born. This star would continue to notch his belt with victories over fading ECW greats like CW Anderson, Stevie Richards, Danny Doring, among others, to ascending respect from WWE fans that didn’t follow the indies regularly.
And then came Survivor Series.
Located in the just-as-passionate Philadelphia, PA, the very city where his introductory vignette aired five months earlier, Punk was able to check off another item on any longtime fan’s bucket list: he was a part of a traditional Survivor Series match.
But this wasn’t just any team Punk was on. His four partners are among the ten or fifteen most popular, fan-approved stars of the last fifteen years. Co-captained by Triple H and Shawn Michaels, and amplified by fellow team members Matt and Jeff Hardy, Team DX would reign over a team led by Edge and Randy Orton, with everyone, Punk included, surviving.
But the real story of the match was what happened before the villains even made their entrance. During the D-Generation X revival, it was customary for Shawn and The Game to eat up the clock with lengthy, self-indulgent, yet self-effacing, ring introductions. This was no exception, as all five heroes played to the crowd, which began a chant. Was it “DX”? Was it “ORTON SUCKS”?
Instead of chanting what most other crowds might have chanted, they chanted “C-M-PUNK!”
In a ring where multi-time World Champions, and merchandise kings, Shawn Michaels and Triple H stood, as well as teeny-bopper darlings the Hardy Boyz, the youngest man with the least amount of face time on WWE television, had just outpopped them all.
It wasn’t just Philadelphia and New York that were clamoring for Punk, Punk, and more Punk. With every win, every effort, every appearance, the roots of the “Straight Edge Superstar” were fed organically by a swelling fanbase. Punk’s character was indistinguishable from Philip Jack Brooks himself: both ambitious in their intentions, guile in their demeanor, and crisp in their execution. Those who followed Punk’s career pre-WWE knew he was capable of watershed performances, thanks to his breakthrough run in Ring of Honor, and associated common-law indies like IWA Mid-South. But now those weaned on sports-entertainment, the living, breathing cartoon known as World Wrestling Entertainment, were warming up to this unique marvel, a tattooed novelty on a landscape of manufactured drones.
After breezing through OVW the way Lennox Lewis would handle an armless opponent, Punk was shining quicker and brighter than any call-up in recent memory. It seemed inevitable that Vince McMahon, the promoter who fast-tracked the likes of Steve Austin and The Rock as soon as he saw glimmers of superstardom radiate from them, would be fast-tracking the Chicago native as well.
But the sad truth is CM Punk’s growth was about to experience arrested development.
“No, we think Lashley is the next guy: the Punk chronicles.”
-CM Punk, February 18, 2012, when prompted to come up with book titles about his career, via Twitter
On December 3, 2006, the contents of Vince McMahon’s Sunday dinner were shat upon the legacy of Extreme Championship Wrestling. So hearty, gooey, and viscous was this bowel movement, that the stench would never evaporate. From that moment, until the day WWE’s decidedly tertiary brand (or is it turd-tiery?) was shut down in February 2010, ECW would never regain the mythic luster that its glory years as a trendsetting indy possessed.
On the provided date, the ECW brand aired an exclusive PPV, December to Dismember, just one week after Punk’s glorious reception at Survivor Series. It was on this night that the ECW Championship would be at stake in an “Extreme Elimination Chamber”, with rotund champion Big Show defending against Punk, perennial brand hero Rob Van Dam, ‘Attitude Era’ relics Test and Hardcore Holly (the latter replacing the advertised Sabu, who was “attacked” to start the night and hastily replaced, to loud “BULLSHIT” chants from the Augusta, GA crowd). The sixth spot went to WWE pet project, Bobby Lashley.
The show, up until the main event, was such an atrocity that, had it been written by Vince Russo and directed by Joe Eszterhas, they would have demanded Alan Smithee credits.
The night began with a damn fine tag team challenge between The Hardy Boyz and MNM, none of whom were ECW brand performers. However, their patronage, all twenty-something minutes of it, would be the lone highlight of the show. From there, Balls Mahoney and Matt Striker had an average match, followed by Elijah Burke and Sylvester Terkay squashing the FBI in a horrible one. At one point, Terkay executed a ‘muscle buster’, Samoa Joe’s trademark coup de grace, and the bored fans chanted “TNA!”
From there, Shawn Daivari, nothing more than a bootlick and undercarder for two years, defeated ECW’s heart and soul, Tommy Dreamer, and the crowd let loose with the lividness. One match later, Kevin Thorn and Ariel defeated Mike Knox and Kelly Kelly in what seemed to be WWE’s attempt to stuff the ballot last-minute for the worst match of 2006.
Did I mention that the previous four matches weren’t even advertised ahead of time?
No wonder the show had the lowest buyrate (90,000 buys) in WWE history.
But hey, a big finish in the main event could make up for it. A great showing there, coupled with a damn good opening match, would have equated December to Dismember with, say, a tremendous In Your House event, or a really, really good secondary PPV.
By the time Punk entered the chamber, with the fans ready to sink their teeth into ANYTHING to redeem this shit-on-ciabatta bread that they’d been served, he, RVD, and Holly put on a rather lively exhibition, as RVD did his famous “Spiderman” routine on the chain-link wall, and he and Punk engaged in some suitably “extreme” chair play. Finally, the fans were buzzing.
Until minutes later, when Punk was the first man eliminated, in the first televised loss of his WWE career.
Minutes later, Test pinned RVD, the only other man in the match fans would have been happy to see win.
In the end, Bobby Lashley overcame the odds, beating Test, and then Show, to become ECW Champion to a noticeably lukewarm reaction. During the waning moments, fans were even chanting for Big Show out of spite, as Lashley had been pushed hard, despite noncommittal from the majority of the viewership.
Early on in his WWE run, there seemed to be much to look forward to in a Lashley push. At 6’4, 275 lbs of top-to-bottom carved muscles, and with an extensive background in amateur wrestling, it seemed that Lashley had the potential to fill the void left at the top of cards by the runaway Brock Lesnar. Hell, they even had the same initials; perhaps it was an omen?
Lashley certainly got Lesnar’s bulldozer-like push. Debuting in the fall of 2005, Lashley steamrolled over the likes of Simon Dean, Orlando Jordan, and other expendables. In the 2006 Royal Rumble, Lashley gave Sylvain Grenier what may have been the greatest elimination of all time when he merely THREW Grenier approximately eighty-five feet in the air. That’s an exaggeration, but barely.
Throughout 2006, Lashley may have had difficulties coming off as a main eventer, particularly on promos (his monotone lisp became stuff of ridicule and parody), but WWE booked him in the upper tier anyway. On May 23, Lashley defeated JBL in less than ninety seconds to become United States Champion. He competed in the finals of the revived King of the Ring tournament, losing to Booker T, only on account of chicanery at the hands of Finlay. At No Mercy on October 8, Lashley even competed in a four way match for the World Heavyweight Championship, although Booker would come out victorious.
That’s a lot for a freshman year, especially when the performer doesn’t connect with the crowd on a level other than “he’s big, and he dominates smaller foes with ease.” Lashley didn’t possess anywhere near Lesnar’s intensity, as Brock II: The New Batch often looked bored when he was supposed to convey passion and desire. When Lashley did finally show some aggressive facial tics, he often looked as if he was desperately trying to keep a straight face in a staring contest with Don Rickles.
When Stone Cold Steve Austin threatened to whoop someone’s ass, he came off as a complete natural. Bobby Lashley shooting a promo was about as smooth as the genital region of a Jersey Shore housemate.
A week after No Mercy, Lashley was moved to ECW. And why not? Being on Smackdown with crowd favorites like Rey Mysterio, Batista, and The Undertaker, all of whom the fans accepted for their character dimensions and fine-tuned performances (yes, even Big Dave), was only going to expose Lashley for what he was: an amateur wrestler, in more than one sense of the phrase.
Even on ECW, Lashley wasn’t as accepted as the heralded Van Dam or the organically-rising Punk. Diehard sections of the audience loved Sandman, Sabu, and Dreamer as much as the cheer-who-you-tell-us-to portions were warming to Lashley, so on the common sense depth chart, Lashley was a few rungs down from lead dog.
But for Vince McMahon, common sense is a disposable parameter. Lashley would be ECW Champion within six weeks.
If anything, the general apathy toward an unpolished teacher’s pet as Lashley only fortified McMahon’s desire to make him a megastar. At WrestleMania XXIII on April 1, 2007, Lashley was booked opposite WWE Intercontinental Champion Umaga in a special “Battle of the Billionaires” match. The contest was signed after Donald Trump and Vince McMahon had a few public spats, and they each selected their own warrior to fight on their behalf. But instead of betting paltry sums like Mortimer and Randolph Duke, Trump and McMahon were each betting their trademark hairstyles. With Stone Cold Steve Austin serving as referee, and with the world-famous Trump backing Lashley, WWE could not have done more to get Bobby over.
Lashley won, but the match lacked flavor, thanks to general inexperience of Lashley and Umaga to have a match of such high magnitude. In the end, when Austin, Lashley, and Trump forcefully shaved McMahon’s head, the expectation would be that 80,000 fans at Ford Field would have erupted in glee at Vinnie Mac’s comeuppance. Maybe it’s the fact that Vince being embarrassed is an overdone concept, or that the match proceeding the moment was bland, but that record-setting crowd was barely above a hum on the decibel scale.
When you consider the amount of hype that went into the entire storyline, one would have to consider it a flop.
Oh, but since McMahon doesn’t take failure lightly, this story was far from over. Four weeks later, McMahon would pin Lashley in a three-on-one handicap match, with Umaga and son Shane as partners, to become ECW Champion. That charade went on for five weeks until Lashley regained it back on June 3 at One Night Stand. The use of McMahon is generally done to build sympathy for the babyface, who has to overcome a bureaucracy of bullshit to succeed. It worked for Austin, it worked for Rock, and it sort of worked for D-Generation X. Obviously, we know now that Lashley is none of those guys.
On July 22, one month after the Benoit family tragedy, Lashley came up short against John Cena in a WWE Title match at Great American Bash, in what was Lashley’s best match to date. Eight nights later, Lashley would tear his rotator cuff in a loss to Ken Kennedy on Raw.
It would be the last time Lashley would ever been seen in a WWE ring. In January 2008, Lashley posted the following on his MySpace:
“Circumstances which are out of my control left me no decision but to leave the WWE. I can’t go into details of this now but like I said before sometimes people will hate you personally and try to destroy you which has happened here. Evil has prevailed however like I said before if you continue your struggle doors will open around these people.”
It’s not crystal clear what caused Lashley to leave WWE, but there are theories floating around. His current wife, former WWE diva Kristal Marshall, was released during Lashley’s recovery period, allegedly for refusing a sexually-charged storyline. Top WWE writer Michael Hayes allegedly blocked Lashley’s return, due to odds between the two men (Hayes has come under fire in the past for racial unpleasantries, although linking the two here is merely speculative). Lashley even expressed his dislike of Hayes on Voice of Wrestling Radio, after his departure.
So to score this entire stanza, WWE pushed Lashley hard, to moderate reaction. So they moved him to ECW, to moderate reaction. They made him champion, to moderate reaction. Then he became Donald Trump’s avatar, to moderate reaction. He feuded with Vince McMahon, to moderate reaction. And then he feuded with the hated John Cena, to moderate reaction.
All the while Lashley was getting this push, CM Punk was putting over the heatless John Morrison in ECW Title matches, and struggling to get on the same page with the flakish Elijah Burke.
But hey, at least Punk was getting more than a moderate reaction, right?
"Based on independent information received from investigators from the Albany County, NY D.A.’s office, WWE has today, under the penalty provisions of its wellness policy, issued suspension notices to 10 of its performers for violations. It has been WWE’s practice not to release the names of those who have been suspended, but notice has been sent to all WWE performers that names of anyone who is suspended under the Wellness Policy as of November 1 will be made public."
-Statement issued by World Wrestling Entertainment, August 30, 2007, concerning WWE superstars revealed to have purchased drugs illegally from Signature Pharmacy.
In slasher movies, there will generally be a core group of six to eight teenagers, filling various stereotypical quotas, seeking alcohol-fueled debauchery. Over the ensuing ninety minutes, some grotesque fiend in a hockey mask will show up and, one by one, whittle the group down to a lone male and female. In between the opening and the climax, the moviegoer will hear such standard horror movie quotes as “Hey, have you guys seen Alyssa?” and “Where’s Jeff?” Of course, they don’t know, but we do, that Alyssa has a hatchet embedded in her face, and what’s left of Jeff is strewn about the woods in mangled chunks.
In September 2007, WWE’s roster took the form of a horror movie, leaving audiences to wonder what had happened to some of its more recognizable stars.
Ken Kennedy, who had sworn on cable news shows that WWE, in its neoteric form, did not have a drug problem, vanished after it was revealed he had illegally obtained drugs as late as February 2007. WWE Intercontinental Champion Umaga was on the list, and he disappeared after losing the gold to Jeff Hardy days later. Booker T was immediately suspended, but he maintained his innocence, up until he demanded his release in mid-October. Centerpiece stars like Edge and Randy Orton showed up on the list, but neither were punished. Edge was still injured, not returning until November, and Orton was allowed to continue his pursuit to the WWE Championship.
By year’s end, both men were holding the company’s World Heavyweight and WWE Championships respectively.
But the third most important title, the ECW Championship, would be held by a man you could bet your life’s earnings would never put him in such a position.
Less than forty-eight hours after the Signature Pharmacy story exploded across the news wire, CM Punk would defeat John Morrison for the title. Since they first met on June 24 for the vacant gold (Morrison subbed for Chris Benoit, who….yeah), the former Tough Enough winner with the good looks, both natural and cosmetic, was booked to have Punk’s number at every turn. For three straight PPVs, the “Tuesday Night Delight” would upend Punk to groans from the crowd, who just wanted to see Punk win his first title with the company. At Summerslam, match three of the series, the promo video preceding their match barely showcased Punk at all, instead focusing on Morrison’s poetically arrogant jibes and his thrashings of his challenger.
Would Morrison have continued to dominate the feud if not for Sports Illustrated namedropped him as a client alongside Kennedy, Orton, and the rest?
We’ll never know, because six nights after Summerslam, Punk plowed Morrison with the Go to Sleep in Cincinnati to become ECW Champion, in what could be considered the best match either man had in their WWE tenures to that point.
World Wrestling Entertainment, at this time, was walking on eggshells. The Benoit scandal, the scrutiny from cable news on the US Government (however fleeting) into the company’s Swiss cheese-like Wellness Policy, and the revelation of a good portion of their roster being tied into an illegal drug ring (and these are just the ones we know about) were enough to force Vince McMahon and company to clean up their image.
Pushing Edge and Orton in championship roles was done with the hopes that, if weaned off of steroids and HGH while still maintaining a TV-friendly look, they’d still be stars. The November 1 proclamation from the earlier quote was seen as a “detox, or else” deadline to the roster. While it’s likely that a number WWE stars still juice to this day (including talents whose names look similar to ‘Rason Myan’), the possibility of another scandal is supposable in an age where secrets are hard to keep, and news travels fast digitally.
In short, should there be an individual on the roster who could be trusted as a top guy, both because the fans want to see him there, and because he’s virtually guaranteed to never piss black, then it would be in WWE’s best interest to strap their rocket to him, and take their best shot with him.
In 2008, CM Punk would begin his ascent up the WWE ladder, but with babysteps, and not gallant strides.
"I'm sorry, Jeff, I'm a little taken back right now. I mean, this is… this… this is what it comes to? People actually cheering because you haven't failed a drug test in a year? This is not an accomplishment! Maybe it's an accomplishment to you, Jeff, so congratulations. You haven't failed a drug test in three hundred and sixty-five days. You can start writing your Hall of Fame speech right now."
-CM Punk to Jeff Hardy, July 14, 2009, Friday Night Smackdown
Among the hoopla of Undertaker’s transcendental WrestleMania streak extending to 16-0, as well as Ric Flair wrestling his final WWE match at age 59, CM Punk pulled down the Money in the Bank briefcase in WrestleMania XXIV’s second exhibition. With it came the guarantee of a WWE or World Heavyweight Title match; neither of which he’d ever had before.
On June 30, 2008, Punk would indeed cash in his privilege on Monday Night Raw, defeating Edge to become World Heavyweight Champion within the show’s first twenty minutes. The gimmick was that Smackdown had possessed both championships, thanks to Triple H being drafted there, and Edge already being the brand’s kingpin. The previous night, at Night of Champions, both men retained their gold over Raw’s John Cena and Batista respectively. As Edge taunted the fans and the brand, saying Raw had no champions, Batista appeared, mauling the champion into a limp mass of bone fragments.
With Edge deader than disco, “This Fire Burns” blared across the arena speaker system and Punk, a Raw talent, hit the ring in a hurry. One GTS later, and Raw now had a championship, with Punk presiding over the show as the man to beat.
For the next three years, Punk’s momentum would ebb and flow like the most bipolar of tides. Though he was champion, he beat a man that was virtually unconscious. Despite being the champion, he struggled in matches with Batista, who was also a babyface, and generally looked weak in comparison to the more time-tested main eventer. Punk lost the gold on September 7 without actually losing it, as Randy Orton viciously attacked him, allowing Chris Jericho to replace him in a scramble match. Jericho would win the gold, beat Punk in a forgotten cage match on Raw (Batista gets 6,000 return matches, so why not Punk?), and that was the end of Punk as a main eventer, first wave.
The fact that Punk spent the next six months dicking around with the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships, feuding with Legacy and William Regal, gives you an indicator of what WWE was presenting him as: a fluke World Champion that was lucky to have survived two months with the gold.
After losing the IC Title to JBL in March 2009, Punk was given another chance by winning the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania for the second year running. This time, the fans actually booed Punk’s victory, as many in Houston were pulling for the returning, rejuvenated Christian. After a sidetrack feud with Umaga (in what was the big man’s last run with the company before his death months later), Punk would embark on what would be, until 2011, the most important run of his WWE career.
On June 7, at Extreme Rules, Jeff Hardy bested Edge in a TLC match to become World Heavyweight Champion. Punk, also a babyface, gave Hardy a grace period of mere seconds before storming the ring, getting an impromptu match, and clocking Hardy with the GTS for his second World Title.
This time, the weasel nature of the magic briefcase came in handy, as Punk turned into a self-righteous villain who forced his straight-edge beliefs onto the crowd. The feud with Hardy was especially noteworthy because of the unintentional truths that it revealed. Punk chastised the fans for cheering Hardy, an out-of-control drug addict whose run-ins with the company’s testing policy were widely known. Hardy’s in-character retorts had little comeback to offer, as, well, Punk was right.
At Summerslam, Punk finished off Hardy in a TLC match to regain the title (Hardy won it back from Punk the previous month), and then forced Hardy to leave WWE via winning a cage match that week on Smackdown. Hardy’s WWE exit was peculiar when it happened, as he was near the top of the merchandise charts with John Cena. However, on September 11, 2009, Hardy would be arrested after a drug raid on his home turned up painkillers, steroids, cocaine, and other assorted drug paraphernalia.
The CM Punk we were told to hate had spent the summer honestly breaking down the walls of a supposed hero, by pointing out his degenerative and self-destructive activities. Isn’t the heel supposed to be a liar, a cheater, and a scam artist?
After losing the title weeks later to The Undertaker inside Hell in a Cell (reportedly, Punk flouted the company dress code, since John Cena never had to dress up, and this was his punishment), Punk was back to being a supporting player. But since his brutally honest tirades, confident speaking manner, and natural ability inside the ring were all obvious plusses, he was given more time to expand upon this new character he had been given: himself.
Before his heel turn that summer, Punk was a pretty generic babyface, never getting to say much more than the Mad Libs version of babyface promos. Having shown fire as a teetotaling zealot, Punk’s promos seemed to feature far less scripting, and much more wiggle room to ad lib. After recruiting lower carder Festus as a rechristened Luke Gallows (explaining Punk had “saved him” from drug abuse), as well as buxom brunette Serena Deeb as his “Straight Edge Society”, Punk was proving to be wrestling’s most effective cult leader since Raven led his band of goons around ECW and WCW.
So effective was Punk as a speaker in this role that when he injured his hip in the fall of 2010, sidelining him for a few months, he would join the commentary desk on Raw, offering frank opinions against both faces AND heels, shedding the David Koresh image completely. Compared to the wooden company-line towing of Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, the self-amused Punk systematically riffed on rivals and opponents, while adding intelligent commentary to the matches at hand.
You know WWE thought a lot about him as a speaker, because when he returned to action, he was the leader of another group: The New Nexus. Since Mason Ryan, Husky Harris, Michael McGillicutty, David Otunga, Heath Slater, and Justin Gabriel (the latter two quit the group early on) were as effective at cutting promos as a dead armadillo, there was hope that having Punk do the talking for them would be an integrating measure.
Punk remained in neutral in 2011, putting over John Cena and Randy Orton in the early months of the year, while verbally helping his gaggle of one-dimensional roster call-ups along as an act of charity.
Creatively, at this point, WWE was lacking. Cena and Orton were played as heroes. Undertaker and Triple H were finished as full-time performers. Edge had just retired due to spinal injuries. The fans on the internet were furious that Christian’s emotional World Title win on May 1 was kneecapped by Orton two nights later. Zack Ryder was building a head of steam as an online personality, though WWE was slow to acknowledge anything that they didn’t create. And Punk was still a midcarder, despite of all his potential to be more.
But clearly, WWE wanted to do something with Punk, because his contract was coming due on July 17, the same day Money in the Bank was being held in his hometown of Chicago (it’s unclear whether the contract actually expired on this date, or whether WWE and Punk simply played it up for dramatic effect). Punk was rumored to have wanted to take a sabbatical, much like Chris Jericho was prone to doing, and come back when he was much more highly valued.
"He's a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he's not a billionaire? It's 'cause he surrounds himself with glad-handing, nonsensical douchebag yes-men like John Laurinaitis who's gonna tell him everything that he wants to hear. And I'd like to think that maybe this company will be better after Vince McMahon's dead, but the fact is it's gonna get taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family!"
-CM Punk, June 27, 2011, Monday Night Raw
Life in WWE strolled along at a less than strenuous pace through early 2011. Other than The Rock re-emerging, regaling the voracious audience with his world-famous booming speeches, World Wrestling Entertainment was generally a calm sea, an agreeable entity that didn’t seize throats athrottle.
John Cena and Randy Orton were dual champions, cornerstones of an era much like Rock and Austin were a decade earlier. The only difference is the modern kingpins were much farther removed from their primes, especially compared to the relatively shorter glory days of The People’s Champion and the Texas Rattlesnake.
Between Rock and Austin, the first time one of them won a World Title was March 29, 1998 (Austin), and the last time either man was champion was August 25, 2002 (Rock). Between the two men, their combined age upon the throne was less than four and a half years. Juxtapose that with Cena/Orton, when the first time either man was champion was August 15, 2004 (Orton), and the last time either was on top was October 2, 2011 (Cena). That’s over SEVEN years, and there exists a chance either man wins gold in 2012 and beyond, due to both still being young and fairly popular.
Cena was spending his time as champion predictably overcoming onslaughts from The Miz and R-Truth, much the same way Hulk Hogan would put away Paul Orndorff and Bob Orton a generation earlier. The “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” and “Never Quit” edicts were gathering mold, leaving many to wonder what would happen first: an apocalypse predicted by an ancient civilization, or Cena’s permanent excommunication from WWE rings.
Orton, meanwhile, was having a series of tremendous matches with Christian, but with a catch: “Captain Charisma”, as mentioned earlier, had become Champion May 1 in a truly emotional moment. After years of being an entertaining bridesmaid, the 37-year-old finally got to have his moment. That moment lasted all of 48 hours, when fellow babyface Orton trumped him in a great Smackdown match. The internet fans were none too pleased to see a fresh face used as fodder to get a known locker room malcontent over, especially when Orton dominated subsequent rematches, and Christian was hastily turned into a villain, despite fan tastes.
It seemed as if nothing was changing in WWE. Cena and Orton reigned. Dolph Ziggler, Kofi Kingston, John Morrison, Jack Swagger, Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, and Rey Mysterio wandered around without so much a rhyme or reason to be there. With boring three hour ‘special’ Raws, an endless cycle of repeat midcard booking, and Michael Cole acting like Michael Cole against anyone’s best interests, Raw and Smackdown seemed to be in more of a holding pattern than a flight with jammed landing gear.
WCW was in a similar holding pattern in May 1996, as Hulk Hogan and his merry band of WWF vintages ran amok over the company, while the exciting cruiserweights gasped for air time. Though as history will gladly remind you, on May 27, 1996, Scott Hall cut through the canvas backdrop of the lame productions, bringing an element of danger to World Championship Wrestling. Add his cool-as-ice companion Kevin Nash as a fellow invader, and complete the picture with Hulk Hogan-gone-bad, and the New World Order shook WCW to its core, killing the idea of a serene, yet sterile, wrestling company.
Far be it for CM Punk to commit an act similar to an alcoholic, an uncool balding has-been, and a man he would blame for killing WCW, but on June 27, 2011, that’s pretty much what happened.
With a title shot against Cena on July 17 looming, as well as knowledge of his contract’s rollover date becoming public, Punk cost the champion a non-title table match against R-Truth at the conclusion of the show. But the REAL main event was to take place seconds later.
Wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt (allegory much?), Punk situated himself on the entrance stage, sat in his trademark Indian-style position, and spent several minutes painting WWE, Cena, McMahon, and the power structure with unsavory strokes and colors of contempt. Fans in the arena sounded off disbelievingly, while the internet wrestling community nearly experienced a China Syndrome.
W-was…..was this REAL?!?!
Fans who don’t remember the original ECW or the nWo or Austin 3:16 or Russo at his peak were astonished. Even those who DID remember such classics were so used to WWE being homogenized, that Punk’s speech came off as a switchblade straight up the ass. It wasn’t real, but it wasn’t scripted. Punk, never one to bite his tongue, merely levied any and all criticisms of his employer that he could think of, and made sure to give a shoutout to bosom buddy Colt Cabana at home.
But the bottom line of the promo was simple: Punk hated what WWE had turned into, since it didn’t suit the best interests of a non-corporate underdog like him. So on July 17, he was going to beat Cena for the gold in Chicago, and then walk out, telling WWE to go fuck themselves en route.
McMahon would insert himself into the angle, first firing Punk, then rehiring him at Cena’s suggestion. Then, six days before the event, Vince would try and re-sign Punk, only to get a heavy dose of Pepsi-flavored acid spewed upon his pastel suits. Fans were eating it up, as Punk 2011 looked like a tattooed, slickhaired Austin 1996, and thus he stood out in a world of THX-like drones.
In an odd note, it seemed as if WWE was intent on keeping Punk a heel. During negotiations, Cena came out to protest Punk’s wants, rightly pointing out that some demands (ICE CREAM BARS~!) were self-serving, and thus Punk was only looking out for himself. At the conclusion, Cena slugged Punk, and the firebrand ran away like a cowardly villain.
Then came Chicago.
At Money in the Bank, both Punk and Cena would each have their greatest match ever (though one could say Punk’s best match was with Samoa Joe in 2004). Adding to the surreal nature was an incredibly hot Chicago crowd, that literally may have rioted had Punk lost. For thirty minutes, the two men wrestled a fast-paced, near-fall-filled contest, with Cena showcasing some of the best wrestling he’s ever put forth. In the conclusion, McMahon and John Laurinaitis attempted to screw Punk as Cena had the STF applied, via the Montreal Bell Trick. Cena prevented it, but fell victim to the GTS seconds later, giving Punk the title to the roar of the Windy City.
Eight months later, Punk is still WWE Champion, albeit in his second reign. The momentum of his heartfelt promos, the fans who will never stop cheering him, and his earnest workmanship have made him a must-keep in the main event scene.
“In a personal aside, this really trips me out, because who ever would have thought that CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, two kids who met ten years ago down the street at the Murphy Rec Center would ten years later be standing in a WWE ring as the WWE Champion and the World Heavyweight Champion?!”
- CM Punk, December 19, 2011, Monday Night Raw
American Dragon supporters were aghast at the series premiere of WWE NXT, airing February 23, 2010. Bryan Danielson, name spoonerized into Daniel Bryan, entered a WWE ring as a decade-long vet who traveled the world, becoming one of the most respected technicians in modern times.
He was immediately an indentured servant to The Miz, a reality TV icon who worked hard for his push, yet still had the luster of an in-house sports entertainment goof. To have him mentoring Bryan was to have Pauly Shore offer to teach Adele how to sing. Compound this bizarre relationship with Michael Cole suddenly taking a heel slant in his commentary, proclaiming Bryan to be a hero to bingo hall dwellers, and it seemed WWE was stacking the deck against Bryan early.
It didn’t help that Bryan lost an ass-ton of matches early in his NXT tenure, generally presented to be inferior to the batshit insane Michael Tarver and the Cletus Spuckler-inspired Heath Slater. Fans kept him in the competition, in spite of his futile won/loss record, though he would lose out eventually. Either WWE was booking Bryan to be the ultimate underdog, to have him come back and dominate later at the expense of The Miz, his abusive mentor, or the company was enjoying taking the hero of a sector of the audience they dislike and presenting him as an utter loser.
On June 7, 2010, after Wade Barrett won the competition, the eight contestants banded together and annihilated Cena and Punk, as well as the ringside staffers, at the end of Monday Night Raw. In a scene reminiscent of the nWo’s mob mentality chicanery, the group (soon to be called “The Nexus”) destroyed the ring, the set, the wrestlers, the announcers, and everything in sight, as if a tornado had blown through the arena.
Days later, Daniel Bryan was released from World Wrestling Entertainment.
Though some amateur Alex Jones types out there think his firing was a work (which I concede is possible), Bryan was cut off due to his actions during the Nexus rampage. After the Chris Benoit tragedy, simulated strangulation became a company no-no, and Bryan was seen choking the obnoxious ring announcer Justin Roberts with his own necktie.
Fans cried foul, correctly pointing out that Cena had done the same thing with a handcuff chain to Randy Orton just nine months earlier at Breaking Point. Of course, Cena has his own rules due to his status, but the fans did have a point. Nexus rolled on with a mostly ragtag group of generic FCW call-ups, much like Rodimer and Lashley in their blandness. Bryan was the most over of the eight men, and yet he had the least impressive physique.
Kinda like how Punk had to work to get his push, as compared to some of the jacked-up specimens that made it through WWE’s meat factory.
But Bryan would return, due to either the company pulling its head out of its ass, or the overwhelming fan sentiment, or both. He would align against the Nexus at Summerslam two months later, and then upend The Miz at Night of Champions to win the US Title. Throughout the fall, Bryan was a fighting US Champion, a bearded Hitman, a crewcutted Benoit.
Hard work and a dedicated fan base ultimately led Bryan to win the Money in the Bank briefcase the same night as Punk’s big win over Cena in Chicago last summer. Five months later, Bryan was pinning a wounded Big Show to become World Heavyweight Champion, putting him on the same level as new icon Punk.
Ten years earlier, both men were indy rats, performing in front of hundreds, not thousands. Punk and his piss-blonde hair and workout shorts looked indistinguishable, at first glance, from any other rebellious youth that splattered his body in rings throughout the community centers of America. Bryan was waltzing to the ring to Offspring’s “Self Esteem”, fresh off a release from WWE’s developmental program in 2001.
Both men took very different paths to the top of the professional wrestling summit in 2012, but both got there through hard work and a level of passion that isn’t found in every talent handpicked to train in WWE’s developmental fortress. Each under 220 lbs, both averse to chemical enhancement, they are the embodying antithesis of the company’s idea for what a main eventer is supposed to be.
A quick gander at the current Florida Championship Wrestling’s roster today shows a much different depth chart than OVW in 2007, or even FCW just a few years ago. The muscleheads are phasing out, and the male models are becoming passé. In their place are a number of talents that left their blood and tears on independent mats, just as Punk and Bryan did for years.
Look at the parade of tomorrow’s stars: Former ROH Tag Team Champions Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli, the Kings of Wrestling, one of the greatest teams on the planet, have been rechristened Kassius Ohno and Antonio Cesario. The names may not be perfect, but they’re there, and a silly moniker never stopped physical and verbal talents before.
The current FCW champion is Seth Rollins, formerly Tyler Black, an ROH World Champion in 2010, and a purely talented individual. Already, Rollins has earned Intercontinental Title shots at Cody Rhodes at house shows. Maybe WWE got their faith in him from his showstealing matches with Dean Ambrose, aka former CZW standout Jon Moxley. In the summer of 2011, Rollins and Ambrose had the FCW equivalent of ECW’s Malenko-Guerrero showdowns, and both men became stars on the rise as a result.
Current FCW Tag Team Champion Corey Graves made his bones as Sterling James Keenan for years on the indy circuit, and is quite the innovator of offense. Xavier Woods may be familiar to followers of TNA’s X Division, when he was the mushroom-afro’ed high flyer Consequences Creed.
And as if WWE hadn’t had their fill of indy darlings, the company reportedly went after Adam Cole and The Briscoe Brothers from ROH earlier this year.
Of course, tomorrow, Vince McMahon could always bury these kids, put the kibosh on their careers, and make fools of them, similar to ways Punk lost many pointless matches in 2007, and the way Bryan was made to be a foolish nerd all through his NXT run. But for right now, let’s take an optimistic view and assume that the company, Triple H especially, understands that clumsy bodybuilders and clueless pretty faces will never connect with the crowd like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have worked to be able to do.
By investing in the vast ocean of independent wrestling, you’d have to think WWE would love to find the next “Straight Edge Savior” or “American Dragon” out there somewhere.
Because it’s not every day that two former ROH Champions, considered “too small” by the standards of some, will be defending World Titles at WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year.
The Age of Honor has arrived.
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