For the past few years, WWE programming, specifically its flagship RAW show and PPVs, has consisted of largely predictable affairs, or even worse, written with the intent of swerving the viewing public for the sake of the swerve itself, with plot holes big enough for Steve Austin to drive a beer truck through. For a company that prides itself on being youth-oriented, WWE has been stale.
Part of the problem has been the company’s top babyface, John Cena, who while charismatic and capable of having great bouts with the right opponents (e.g., an HBK or a Chris Jericho), turns off many of the WWE’s desired core audience: the coveted male 18-34 demographic. Certainly, Cena moves tons of merchandise and deserves a spot near the top; however ,he’ll never capture the imagination of a huge cross-section of the fan base in the same vein of Austin or The Rock…or even Hulk Hogan in his ’80s heyday. And because of the company’s lack of depth–largely because of its reluctance to truly elevate the right guys to main events–there has not even been a strong secondary guy in the fans’ eyes, with the possible exceptions of the aging HHH, the dead-character-walking, often-injured Undertaker and the misused babyface Randy Orton. Edge was close before his untimely retirement, but he always seemed to work best as a slimy heel.
Of course, some things have been out of the company’s control. Shawn Michaels retired just in time as the sun was setting on his brilliant career, Batista left WWE just when he was finally hitting his stride as a heel, Chris Jericho again suffered burnout after successfully reinventing himself as the smarmy heel from hell, while The Rock has continued to tease us with taped promos that illustrate just how uncharismatic most of the current roster really is.
An experiment with the Miz on top as WWE champion, while daring, was disappointing despite his creativity on promos and crossover appeal with the mainstream media. Not to slight Jerry Lawler, but the 61-year-old was involved in two of the biggest programs for months heading into WrestleMania and delivered the most memorable moment on RAW in ages when he literally had the WWE championship in his grasp when he nearly defeated the Miz in a ladder match on the Nov. 29 show. Somehow amidst all the chaos, Michael Cole emerged as the biggest heel on RAW before the company wisely backed off the push when the decision was made to keep him in the announcer’s booth, which was starting to transform into the wrong kind of heat–when viewers simply change the channel.
During that time, arguably the most talented all-around WWE performer has been lost in the shuffle, losing most of his high-profile matches and leading the biggest band of misfits since the BWO. Despite being mired with mediocre material and the new Nexus, CM Punk has endured.
That all changed on June 27, when Punk was allowed to “shoot” his mind and get some things off his chest, speaking for many fans when he spewed that he was sick of the “idea of John Cena being the best.” He lamented the fact that he has not been positioned as a top guy despite being the company’s best talker and in-ring worker. (Gasp–he actually used the supposed banned word “wrestler” as well!) Punk complained of being held back by McMahon, whose “yes men” like John Laurinaitis, WWE’s longtime executive vice president of talent relations, and others don’t speak up for him. He seemed to acknowledge the WWE’s lack of depth and that he was, ironically, going to leave the company just when his golden title opportunity arrived…and take the WWE championship with him, perhaps to defend it on Ring of Honor (his old indie stomping grounds). Hinting of the storyline to come, Punk maintained that WWE would carry on in rote fashion even after Vince finally died and his “idiotic daughter” and his “doofus son-in-law” (HHH) took over. While it was pretty clear to most observers this was a work, some weren’t so sure (Jim Rome included); however, it doesn’t matter which side you fell on. It was the best promo on RAW in ages and lit a spark of excitement and unpredictability that used to be a staple of the Monday Night Wars. The era of the “worked shoot” hit its apex in the late ’90s before it got old fast, though that hasn’t stopped less intelligent, less talented performers from continuing to try it (see virtually any episode of “TNA Impact” in the last year). But Punk pulled it off. (This wasn’t surprising to me–I’ve been singing the guy’s praises for ages.)
As is typical when WWE gets hot, there was some concern about how the company would follow it up. It seemed to be an Air Jordan slam dunk with Punk’s WWE title match scheduled to be taking place in his hometown of Chicago at Sunday’s WWE Money in the Bank PPV. Would WWE kill Punk’s heat in his hometown, as they’ve undercut so many superstars in the past? Or would they create a WWE moment that would be talked about for years? The company pulled the trigger as the crowd exploded and thousands of the “I Want Wrestling” movement rejoiced over the Internet.
Of course, they couldn’t resist teasing yet another Montreal screwjob in the process, before Cena released Punk from his STF to clock Laurinaitis and prevent him from ringing the bell as instructed by McMahon. After Cena stared down McMahon, upon re-entering the ring,the Champ was hit with Punk’s Go to Sleep finisher for the pin. The bout was one of Cena’s best and the atmosphere was far more electric than most WrestleMania main events of the last five years. Most important: Punk was elevated to that top level,dispatching RAW MIB winner Alberto Del Rio, who was attempting to cash in on his moment, and seemingly kissing McMahon and WWE goodbye as he disappeared into the throng of his adoring masses with the WWE title in his grasp as McMahon closed his eyes as if he were having a bad dream. (I’ve had that same feeling watching many a WWE PPV in the last two years.)
The next night, McMahon ordered a tournament to crown a new champion; however, before it could be completed, his “doofus son-in-law” appeared to relieve him of his duties and assume command of the day-to-day operations as mandated by the board of directors. Trips went a little overboard with the “Pops” comment, but the moment was saved when a bawling McMahon was saluted by the fans with chants of “Thank you, Vince!” after initially being treated as just another angle with the singing of “Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”
I would imagine Punk will kept off TV for a while, perhaps while WWE does indeed crown a new champion in his absence to set up a triumphant return to determine the “real” titlist as early as SummerSlam. I even expect Punk will show up as promised on other promotions’ TV with his WWE title, stirring the pot. One thing’s for sure: I haven’t been this interested in a WWE storyline in ages. With Rock coming back for at least one live appearance in the fall to “kick Cena’s ass,” Triple H in a fresh role, Cena’s babyface status possibly in limbo, Daniel Bryan going over as the MIB winner on SMACKDOWN!, Christian regaining the World title from Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio carrying the MIB briefcase on the RAW side, and the emergence of the new anti-hero, CM Punk–WWE champion–the company’s programming has the potential to be red hot for the rest of 2011 and heading into next year’s WrestleMania.