Monday, July 17, 2017

Six Years Ago Today, WWE's Greatest Missed Opportunity

A date that shall live in infamy
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On July 17, 2011, CM Punk won the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank in his home area of Chicagoland, blew a kiss to Vince McMahon, and walked out of the arena, providing the first culmination point of a story that began when he won number one contendership and announced that he was nearing the end of his contract and didn't know if he'd re-sign with the company. The match, where Punk won the title from John Cena, was the main event of what many people regard as one of the best, if not the best, pay-per-view/Network special events in WWE history. It looked to be the spark of the next great age in WWE history, and in many ways, it was. The current era of WWE started out with and was built upon this angle, which included the infamous "pipe bomb" promo that really kicked the heat for the feud, which was less Punk/Cena and more Punk/Vince McMahon, Triple H, and Stephanie McMahon.

However, for all the mainstream attention the story got, for all the interviews and attention that Punk himself did in the aftermath, WWE bungled its potential. A quick and dirty timeline of the events saw Rey Mysterio win an interim WWE Championship tournament, which Cena won from him right after he won the one-night tournament, and then Punk returned to WWE two weeks after walking out to set up a SummerSlam main event. Punk won the match, but was beaten to holy hell by a Kevin Nash suckerpunch that set up Alberto del Rio cashing in his RAW Money in the Bank briefcase. Punk blamed Triple H, who insisted that he wasn't involved. Triple H won their match, while Cena traded the title with del Rio under the cloud of The Miz and R-Truth wreaking havoc all over the place. Thanks to Punk crossing the picket line and asking to put on Triple H's jacket when the rest of the roster struck over The Awesome Truth's shenanigans, the heat shifted from those two fighting to Trips going on to feud with Nash, ending in a tables, ladders, and chairs match at TLC. Meanwhile, Punk would defeat del Rio at Survivor Series for the title in a match overshadowed by Cena teaming with The Rock. He'd hold the title for 434 days, with Cena's exploits routinely overshadowing him and his reign.

Distilling the timeline down to one sentence, CM Punk announcing that he had intended to win the WWE Championship and leave the company paid off with Triple H defeating Kevin Nash in a tables, ladders, and chairs match in 2011. If one statement could distill the hubris and shortsightedness of WWE booking into one group of words, it's the preceding one. It clipped the wings from a rising star just to rehash old feuds with aging wrestlers who weren't even that popular in their respective eras. Meanwhile, that rising star received the theoretically the most important booking macguffin in post-Hulk Hogan WWE history only to have it rendered meaningless because WWE decided the top title would be "having John Cena's DNA." Everything had to be orchestrated not in service of a simple narrative, but to placate egos and muddy the waters just to keep the audience guessing, as if Vince Russo never left.

Of course, counting missed opportunities for WWE has been a pastime becoming of the critical wrestling fan for as long as critical thinking about pro wrestling has existed, or at least for as long as critical thinking about pro wrestling among those who knew it was a work has existed. For as many times as Triple H's suspected backstage machinations foiled the rise of a hot babyface or the times Vince McMahon decided he'd go with the dead-eyed golem over the smaller but better at wrestling technician, Punk's tale represents a nearly objective case for the biggest missed opportunity in WWE's history. Rob van Dam wasn't going on nationally distributed interviews, and Kane wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire with his crossover marketability, at least at the time. Punk, however, represented a figure who stoked flames both in the arena and out of it. He was the key to unlocking engagement in "hipster" culture (I hate that term but I can think of none better right now), a dude who wasn't jacked but still was presented as incredible at his sport/art. And people responded to him.

One could and probably will argue given how much certain sects of so-called "pundits" like to guzzle the corporate McMahon mule, will say that people did respond to him and WWE capitalized on it. However, WWE never capitalized on Punk himself, who should've had the grand opus with Cena at WrestleMania, who should have been positioned as the company ace, or at least an ace with equal importance, who should have at least gotten a test run to see if his crossover appeal would've amounted to anything. Odds are, he may not have reached Hogan/Attitude Era heights, given where the wrestling industry and entertainment in general has headed from that point until now. That being said, WWE never gave Punk the chance. By the time he was headlining WWE PPVs as Champion, he was doing it against Cena, or as a stooge heel hiding behind Paul Heyman against Ryback, and everyone knows how that overall feud turned out.

So when someone points out that Daniel Bryan got his moment (as a direct result of Punk walking out), or that The Shield was the biggest thing in WWE and pushed as such both as a group and in the aftermath, or that the paradigm of who can be a top WWE guy has shifted so that Punk's peers like Samoa Joe and AJ Styles get the ball now, it's still not the same as saying WWE did well with Punk. Odds are, if WWE wasn't such a dire and politically perilous place to work, Punk could still be there as the elder statesman instead of a zombie serial afterparty talk show guest and failed mixed-martial artist. Who knows what kind of memorable moments WWE, the company that likes to "put smiles on faces," could have provided if it had changed course and wasn't so rigid about keeping the main event for WrestleMania XXIX intact for the year it did. Imagine how much the narrative could have been diversified for the better had Punk been treated as Cena's equal instead of some dude who got cheap wins over him and was, at best, a plot device for putting over Cool Dad Trips.

Of course, sacrificing the hard work of labor for the benefit of management or capital has been a WWE staple ever since the company lost the thread on what made Mr. McMahon, evil authority figure, such a tour de force. When it happens to someone like Curtis Axel, it's unfortunate, but when it happens to Punk, then it's WWE blowing off its goddamn foot with a bazooka. Who knows what kind of position WWE would be in right now, especially with its Network and diversified slate of content, if it got the Summer of Punk II: Punk Harder right. It's a fantasy meant for daydreamers who aren't afraid to give themselves agita over corporately sponsored professional wrestling.