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Extra Mustard's Wrestling Career Arcs: CM Punk

CM Punk will come back someday. It won’t be this year, it might not be next year, or the next five, or ten years.

But CM Punk will come back. Because CM Punk loves wrestling.

We see it in his work, how he stole the brutal Go To Sleep from New Japan’s (now NXT’s) great Kenta Kobayashi, or did the flying elbow in memorium of Macho Man. You feel it when he stomps out to the ring in his Stone Cold shirt, or namedrops Colt Cabana on live television. The man is on record saying that pro wrestling (along with Jazz and comic books,) are the three great art forms America has given to the world. He’s fought in semi-legal shows in Illinois warehouses, and at the top of the WrestleMania card. Some people stumble into the business when a football career doesn’t work out or the modeling gigs dry up, but not Punk. His entire life has been dedicated to his craft. That might sound over-simplistic if it wasn’t true.

So that’s why, as CM Punk stormed out of the company earlier this year, we know his return is inevitable. He loves this work too much for whatever mental or physical ailments to keep him bitter forever. People like Punk don’t just stop wanting to wrestle. It’s in their DNA. There was a moment as I was rewatching the matches for this piece, where a young cult-leader Punk cuts a promo about how “his addiction, is professional wrestling.” It’s not something you can ever kick.

But for the foreseeable future, we’re living in a post-CM Punk world, and given the state of the product, a post-CM Punk world kinda sucks. With that, let us show you our selections of the most notable moments in the Best in the World’s WWE run. Get well soon, Punk. You deserve it.

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Vs. Samoa Joe, Joe vs. Punk II, 2004

Any recap of CM Punk’s career needs to include at least a moment of the prodigious amount of work he logged into promotions outside of the WWE. In fact, you could make the argument that the bulk of Phil Brooks’ best in-ring work happened in the converted high school gyms that housed Ring of Honor shows around the country. Obviously this article will inevitably focus on the mainstream, cable-network days, but let’s quickly remember that time when CM Punk fought Samoa Joe to a 60-minute draw in a gym somewhere in Chicago. It’s some of the best wrestling you’ll ever see, sure, but it also captures CM Punk at his hungriest. As a man who deeply, dearly loves to perform. His jilted exit from the public sphere may has been disappointing, mostly because we remember that streaky-haired Punk of the mid-00s, who’d happily destroy his body for little more than table scrapings. We were sad, because he seemed like a man who’d never lose that fundamental passion.

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Vs. Rob Van Dam, Test, Bobby Lashley, Big Show, December to Dismember 2006

And just like that, after years of unwavering celebration on the indie circuit, CM Punk signs with WWE and is immediately slotted on that brief, ill-fated ECW show on (what was then) the Sci Fi network. Here he was in an elimination chamber match, slotted next to a slew of has-beens, headlining what is undoubtedly one of the worst pay-per-views in wrestling history. December to Dismember was Punk’s first major WWE feature, and he found himself quickly and forcefully eliminated by RVD. An inauspicious beginning for someone who would go on to rewrite the rules of sports entertainment.

If you go back and watch this show now, you’ll watch as the crowd gets audibly deflated after Punk exits. They wanted something, anything, to be excited about, and instead they got Lashley.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was also the show that got Paul Heyman fired. Heyman, as you probably know, was a huge proponent of CM Punk and desperately wanted to see him go over. Vince McMahon was less convinced, and Vince McMahon has the final say. This would lead to a huge argument between the two on a plane trip from the show, and inadvertently plant the “nobody believes in me” seeds that would later make Punk into the most memorable superstar of the reality era.

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Vs. MVP, Mr. Kennedy, Shelton Benjamin, Carlito, Chris Jericho, John Morrison, WrestleMania, 2008

We jump ahead a couple years. CM Punk is enjoying the first inklings of corporate belief, and he’s found himself slotted in a Money in the Bank match at the grandest of all stages, WrestleMania. Buried at the beginning of the show, and featuring an entire lineup of people who are no longer with the company, it’s almost funny to see how definitively the crowd treats Punk like the next star. There’s mumbles, nacho chomping and seat-finding, Mr. Kennedy cuts a promo with a barely post-sex tape Kim Kardashian, and then Punk comes out with, quite literally, the only pop of the introductions.

The funny thing about this match is how Punk is barely in it. Seriously. Morrison and Benjamin do their trademark, best-of-brand, oh-God-did-he-just-kill-himself backflips, MVP looks angry, and Carlito makes weird faces. All Punk does is deliver a messy Go To Sleep and sneak in at the end to score the briefcase over an Jericho. People are happy, I’m happy, Chris Jericho is probably happy, and the internet would never be the same.

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Vs. Jeff Hardy, SummerSlam, 2009

Here was Punk at his most heelish, packing his holier-than-thou non-kayfabe straight edge ideals with a middle-school sneer to the (also non-kayfabe) drug problems that ravaged Hardy’s life and career. If you wanted to pinpoint the exact moment CM Punk laid the foundations for his world-changing, 4th-wall-busting John Cena feud, you’d probably point to that X’d-up, still stringy-haired shill in the dying embers of the last decade.

This would serve as the first match in a two-part program designed specifically to send off Jeff Hardy so he could heal from the variety of things he’s suffered throughout the years of his borderline suicidal style. Naturally acute medical risk didn’t slow him down, because, you know, he’s Jeff Hardy. He’s moments from a sabbatical and still climbing the tallest ladder I’ve ever seen in a wrestling match, and casting that battered, wrestling-aged body through the announce table. This match always felt more like a series of stunts, but who needs ring psychology when you’ve got athletes willing to sacrifice nerve-endings for pops?

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Vs. Rey Mysterio, Extreme Rules, 2010

Remember maniacal cult-leader Punk? When he’d shave people’s heads and scold the unwashed masses on their dirty non-violent crimes? It’s the root of his “Cult of Personality” vibes, a hairy, Christ-like false-flag who wrestled like a heel even though you wanted to see him win. Perhaps the best match of this phase came against the uber-religious Rey Mysterio at Extreme Rules.

What I like about wrestlers like Mysterio and Punk is how they don’t have to sacrifice any physicality for their quickness. It’s an issue that’s plagued guys like John Morrison who’ve never managed to get the requisite oomph behind their flashy, flippy offense. Rey Mysterio is the most agile person we’ve ever seen in the ring, but his moonsaults, the 619? They still look like they hurt. Punk is the same way, light on his feet while still packing what’s perhaps the single most brutal finisher in kayfabe history. You put them together in a ring, and great things happen. You’re essentially watching two guys improvise for 20 minutes, and you know what? That’s usually our favorite kind of wrestling match.

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Vs. John Cena, Money in the Bank, 2011

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This is my favorite wrestling match of all time.

I doubt I’m alone in this, it’s perhaps the only match of the decade that’s already been christened with legendary status, and to be honest, we knew that was going down from the first few seconds. That crowd man, that unforgettable Chicago crowd. Their prodigal son was returning, and they would bathe John Cena in fire. Those “If Cena Wins We Riot” signs? That wasn’t goofy texture, those were legitimate threats. 

Some context.

The story was this. CM Punk’s contract was going to run out the night of Money in the Bank. He planned on winning John Cena’s championship, and then leaving the company forever. We had idea if this was true or not, and in retrospect it might’ve been crazy to ever believe that the WWE would let a top star walk out of the roster on top, with a belt, with no short-term plan of bringing it back. But whatever, wrestling is founded on the core, fundamental values of wanting something to be real so bad that it hurts, and this worked that ache better than anything before.

Why? Because we had the Pipe Bomb.

I watch this promo again from time to time, because it reminds you that the scrutiny and mismanagement that plagues World Wrestling Entertainment will occasionally manifest in some true, unforgettable brilliance. Who knows how much of it was worked or not, but after that mic got cut we were living in a world where anarchic, smark-y, real-effing-talk could be displayed proudly in a marquee moment on Raw. The rules were permanently broken.

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The match itself was great in all those predictable ways. For all the hate that Cena get, the dude always shows up to play in big moments, and he dutifully jobbed about as cleanly as he ever would (before the Brock beat-down this year.) But mostly this is a match about the payoff of some of the best storytelling the WWE has ever delivered. At its best, wrestling builds hype for things that simply aren’t possible in actual sports. CM Punk was the most interesting man in the world, and a showdown in Chicago? After he’s roasted the company publicly and walked the line between reality and fantasy, heel and face, better than anyone ever has and ever will? That’s classic stuff, and it served as the highest of highs for Punk’s WWE career. Technically it was all downhill from here, but honestly you couldn’t really expect anything else.

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Vs. The Miz, Alberto Del Rio, TLC, 2011

After reading about that virtuosic, Viking-funeral of a John Cena match, you might think a title defense against the likes of Miz and Del Rio is a step down. And you’d be right! But only halfway, because this actually a bit of a hidden gem. It’s hard to excoriate people for not remembering a lower-mid tier PPV slotted at the end of the year, and starring a post-Mania Miz, but seriously, go back and watch this.

Not only does this match include one of the few (maybe the only?) instances I’ve ever seen of a man unscrewing the turnbuckle ropes so they fall limply to the ground, it’s also one of the best Del Rio matches you’ll ever see. When we talk about vintage, violent, wince-inducing Alberto, we’re talking about arm-locks through a chair. My personal favorite moment is a hand-cuffed CM Punk delivering an absurdly destructive kick to the back of a taunting Miz’s head. Basically I’m all for any moment where Miz slithers to the floor like he’s just been tagged with a tranquilizer.

In the end though, CM Punk was always going to be more interesting when he was fighting John Cena, but CM Punk couldn’t wrestle John Cena at every show, so matches like this are always going to get buried.

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Vs. Chris Jericho, Wrestlemania, 2012

It’s been interesting watching all of these matches back to back, because in a couple hours you go from a dude getting buried on an awful ECW show, to playing an uber-sympathetic character at the top of a WrestleMania. Remember Chris Jericho mocking CM Punk about his sister’s drug addiction, in a vain attempt to coerce out a disqualification? Punk used to shove his straight-edge theocracy down our throats, making him a giant heel to the beer-drenched masses. From tattooed false prophet to scrappy underdog, wrestling consistently has a short memory.

The best moment here? Jericho countering the GTS into the Walls, which was promptly countered into the Anaconda Vice. Those submission chains were always Punk’s bread and butter, and it worked so well with Jericho’s technical chops that they ran this feud back a couple times. In a perfect world, this year’s Night of Champions would feature Jericho and Punk going against each other again for old time’s sake. Don’t think about that too long, it’ll start to make you misty eyed.

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Vs. John Cena, Raw, 2013

The fix was in. We knew it. The marks knew it. The promoters knew it. There was no way the WWE was deviating from that huge, money-making juggernaut that was Cena vs. Rock 2. This number one contender’s match was a formality. A venue for Punk to gracefully job-out and pave the way for Cena’s eventual world-beating coronation.

It was an excellent match, one of the best of both their careers. 25 minutes to headline Raw. No frills, no real storyline, just two guys, a polemic and a workhorse, getting back together for one last hoorah. It’s almost melancholy now, knowing the obvious physical and mental fatigue that was plaguing Punk, putting his sour grapes on hold to open the doorway for his arch-nemesis. As of now, it stands as his last important moment in the WWE. On his back, unable to stop the machine, like all tragic heroes.

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Vs. Undertaker, Wrestlemania, 2013

We’d be remiss not to mention Punk’s failed attempt on the Streak. In which the writers force an ostensibly peaceful man to desecrate the memory of the late, great Paul Bearer in hopes of some bargain-bin heat. It worked, obviously, most of us wanted to see Punk lose, and Taker did the duty with some profound, late-millennial grace. Will the last great Undertaker match be inextricably tied to the guy who stormed out on the company? It looks more like it every day.

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Royal Rumble Match, Royal Rumble, 2014

And this is where we leave him. The Royal Rumble, which currently stands as CM Punk’s last moment with the WWE. First to enter, eventually thrown out by an already eliminated Kane, the seeds of a feud that would never sprout. CM Punk turned his back on his career on the same night Batista got a babyface push. It’s fitting, really. I remember after the news broke and we had countless back-and-forth “WORK!” “SHOOT!” debates. That’s classic Punk, keeping us guessing what’s real and what’s not to the bitter end.

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