It takes a great deal of pathos to quit the thing you’ve dedicated virtually your entire life to becoming good at. There are a great many reasonably principled human beings who would eat every plate of shit their benefactors pushed their way if it meant securing themselves a successful dream job, justifying it in a variety of ways. “They’re dealing the cards and I’m on the player’s side of the table.” “I’m just paying my dues.” “Every career sucks sometimes.” In pursuit of whatever American Dream we have for ourselves, many of us would grin, bear it, and wipe our mouths.
But there comes a point where enough is enough. The minutiae of the daily grind and the excessive amount of administrative politics have a way of wearing down both our bodies and minds in ways we can’t imagine when we’re 12 years old and throwing a baseball or playing Tiny Tim in a local theater during the winter holidays. Once you’ve reached the peak of the highest mountain, you realize you can’t build a house there, and you have no other choice but to go back down.
I imagine the stress involved with being a professional wrestler by trade is why the window for lasting success is so narrow. It’s physically grueling to get thrown around on a 20’x20’ box spring with tightly-wound ropes and turnbuckles that feel like car seat headrests -- or on the concrete floor, or through a rigid table -- 275 nights out of the year while maintaining a statuesque physique (if not that, then at the very least a marginally healthy body) and hitting cities in various corners of the world on an endless loop. It’s mentally taxing to hold a persona without the benefit of an actor’s off-season. (Imagine if Jon Hamm was contractually obligated to be Don Draper live, every single Monday, for five or six years straight.) It’s downright demoralizing to face down a massive sector of the populace who sees you as a fake athlete instead of a real artist. Far too many people have been taught to live with surgically reconstructed body parts or driven to madness because of their desire to participate in the wrestling industry.
CM Punk, a household name in the “sports entertainment” world for the past three years and one of the most notable talents in the business for far longer, walked out on WWE January 27th, the day after this year’s Royal Rumble, one of the company’s signature events and the divisional playoffs to Wrestlemania’s Super Bowl. In the wake of his abrupt departure, there has been article after article explaining Punk’s significance to the culture of professional wrestling, but he carries a similar (albeit seldom acknowledged) importance to the culture of punk rock as well, not just through association -- garnering the steadfast approval of bands such as Against Me! and punk musician wrestling super-fans such as Fucked Up’s Damien Abraham and Rancid’s Lars Fredericksen (the latter of whom Punk considers to be a close friend) -- but also in the refusal to be complacent. You’re probably wondering how a person could fashion themselves both a professional wrestler and a true punk rocker. You’re probably wondering how the genres could possibly coexist. Punk rock and professional wrestling could seem like two completely different worlds, but the more you know about both, the more parallel those worlds become.
If you or your interests exist on any sort of outlier of the white, heterosexual male establishment, the world of pro-wrestling (which, presentation-wise, has always skewed toward the mainstream) has historically thrown shade in your direction. Take, for instance, the legions of African-American wrestlers packaged as either jokey rapper types who have no discernible rapping talent or huge, muscular dudes from the “mean streets” of wherever. With the track record of mainstream wrestling, it wouldn’t be surprising if a character called CM Punk was given a screamo haircut and referenced Warped Tour in their in-ring interviews. It’s a testament to Punk’s scrupulous attention to detail that his character has been an aesthetic revelation.
The wrestling business has long elicited a deluge of age-old adages, so here’s one that applies greatly: The best wrestling characters are merely the wrestlers’ real-life personalities “turned up to 11.” This is not to say Hulk Hogan flexes his muscles and tears off his tank-top every time he enters the shower (though he might), but there’s some deep truth to the idea of wrestlers as method actors, imbuing themselves in their creation (or in the case of many WWE stars, a creation likely made for them) and blurring the lines between themselves and who they play on TV.
Adopting straight-edge at an early age, Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) was so dedicated to its way of life that three of his most notable tattoos are direct nods to it. Of course, he has the “Straight Edge” rocker on his stomach and the “Drug Free” knuckle tats, but the one that garners the most attention from wrestling fans the world over is the huge Pepsi symbol emblazoned atop his left arm. It’s a reference to the Coca-Cola tattoo of Minor Threat’s Brian Baker. The tattoos would be there regardless of what job he held, but as a wrestler, he started taping his fists and putting an X on each hand. When he walks to the ring, he stops at the end of the stage and screams, “It’s clobbering time!” -- of course a reference to the Sick of It All song of the same name. (An aside: Punk, a noted comic book fan, also acknowledges it as the battle cry of The Thing, admitting it’s a double-reference.)
For about the first half of his career, Punk took the hoity-toity aspects of the straight-edge lifestyle as a method to create the image of a truly original wrestling heel (or “bad guy”), taking the beer-drinking, “meathead” wrestling audience to task while crediting straight-edge as his path to character-perceived moral superiority over the fans. The straight-edge gimmick was so novel because there was so little crossover between hardcore punk fans and wrestling fans; most of the latter had very little knowledge of grassroots artistic subcultures because, again, wrestling has mostly aspired to be a mainstream concern, and many of the latter were of the impression that wrestling wasn’t any sort of art, let alone its potential to be treated as high-art.
A vast portion of wrestling fans have been raised on WWE’s product, which has more or less become an industry of its own in the years since the brand last had any significant competition. Before national brands like WWE and its erstwhile rival, World Championship Wrestling (the Atlanta-based, Ted Turner-owned company whose chief concern during the historic Monday Night Wars was to put the then-named World Wrestling Federation out of business) became the industry standard, the landscape of American wrestling was divided into territories.
To continue our punk rock/pro wrestling parallel, territories were basically regional scenes headed up by a top promotion (some notable names were the Minneapolis-based AWA, Jim Crockett Promotions running out of North Carolina, Dallas/Fort Worth’s World Class Championship Wrestling, and New York territory World Wide Wrestling Federation -- run by Vince McMahon Sr. until his son bought the company and slowly sculpted it into the world-beating conglomerate it is today). Just as punks and first-wave indie-rockers often made overtures to SST and Dischord if they wanted to play shows in Los Angeles or Washington D.C., if a wrestler wanted to make money somewhere outside of their stomping grounds, they’d know to try and get onto a card in the Mid-South territory.
Once territorial wrestling was dissolved in the fierce turf war between WWE and WCW and the latter company was subsequently bought out by Vince McMahon (for a complete history on this matter, I would recommend finding a copy of the, ahem, WWE-produced documentary The Rise and Fall of WCW), World Wrestling Entertainment became an empire and everything beneath it splintered into a smattering of independent promotions with varying degrees of national reach. It was in these years where the current landscape of wrestling was formed: WWE as a fully self-contained industry, and dozens of independent promotions that generate nowhere near as much money or exposure, but as a place where wrestlers and fans go for the love of the art.
“Old-school” wrestling figureheads to this day lament the loss of territories as a breeding ground for professional wrestling, where starving artists could ply their trade and learn the ins-and-outs of that world by clocking in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice. This still happens today in the underground of pro wrestling, where promotions like Pennsylvania-based Ring of Honor serves as not only an incubator for possible WWE stars of the future (current stars such as Cesaro, Seth Rollins, and WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan have all spent time there; CM Punk was one of its biggest stars and even ran its training school for a spell), but as the stomping grounds for a litany of extremely talented wrestlers who will likely never get called up to professional wrestling’s “big league.”
The spectacle of professional wrestling is what most casual fans know about the industry; the entrances, the theatrics, the pre-match hype. But a good wrestling match has a certain set of rhythms which are entirely dependent on not only the capabilities of the people in the ring, but the psychology of their characters as well. There are mechanics set into place that indicate when a competitor should climb to the top rope and hit their opponent with a move, when and how to reverse a hold, and how the match should finish. Usually the latter is predetermined by whoever is in charge of the outcome (the wrestling term for this is a “booker,” but WWE has a full creative team to deal with such matters), but it’s generally up to the people constructing the match (sometimes this involves just the participants in the match, sometimes it involves someone to help with the planning, often called an “agent”).
It’s difficult to explain what makes a wrestling match “good.” That usually depends on whoever’s “working” in the ring. (At the risk of turning this entire article into a handy dictionary of wrestling lingo, I have to point out that “work” is how wrestlers qualify what they do in the ring. If someone is a “good worker,” that means they’re very talented at crafting matches and pulling off moves.) Sometimes, it’s a marvel of technical proficiency, full of hold reversals, good fundamentals, and strategic finesse. Sometimes, it’s an emotional narrative, the culmination of two colossal forces of personality on a collision course. Sometimes, it’s simply just two huge, musclebound dudes beating the crap out of each other. It’s an art, and art is subjective. But the goal of every wrestling match -- and the thing it achieves when it’s good -- is to make whatever these performers doing so compelling that the choreography involved is a complete non-issue.
Even the most virtuosic professional wrestlers are performers that try their hardest to appeal to big-money crowds, even the ones that ply their trade in armories and high school gymnasiums, as they’re just practicing for their entrance into big tentpole show. A small percentage of wrestlers do what they do in order to appeal to those of us who gravitate toward the artistic aspects of the form, and fewer still do such things when they’re in the employ of World Wrestling Entertainment, where your primary responsibility is to connect with tens of thousands of fans on a near-nightly basis.
One of the ways CM Punk set himself apart from the pack was how he applied his knowledge of wrestling history and culture to bolster his persona. Using a melangerie of nostalgia, mixed-martial arts and Japanese pro-wrestling moves, the aforementioned in-ring psychology, and insider jokes. Inside the ring, Punk’s psychology is akin to how Capcom fashioned Mega Man: He swipes tricks from every opponent he’s stood against and adds them to his already-pretty-vast catalogue of moves. Inside the ring, Punk’s character is compelling because he’s smart; he’s almost never bigger and certainly not more muscular than any given WWE opponent, and lack of natural athleticism causes him to often look like a scrapyard dog when he fights. But it’s believable when he wins matches because CM Punk the character has been developed as a craftier-than-most student of the game. In terms of plausibility, fans believe Punk can beat his opponents because they believe he knows exactly how to beat his opponents.
The subversion of expectations is a standard practice in all good art. Inside the ring, CM Punk delivers compelling matches because he’s aware of the left turn he could take precisely when spectators expect him to turn right. On the microphone -- by far his greatest talent as a pro wrestler -- he delivers surprising moments by the same means.
When Punk left Ring of Honor for WWE in the summer of 2005, he was booked for a World Title match in what was thought to be his final match for the company. The expectation -- as with all departing stars -- was that he was going to be booked to lose. But he won, grabbed the microphone, and told not only an epic fable about a man and a snake, but revealed what would later become his signature phrase: “This microphone in the hands of anybody else is just a microphone. In my hands, it’s a pipe bomb.” It was the wrestling equivalent of Walter White watching Jane Margolis choke to death on her own vomit, a marvel of storytelling where you had no idea where the story was going to go.
This was the beginning of a hugely successful storyline where Punk ran through his last weeks in Ring of Honor as the most hated performer in the company before being showered with streamers in his emotional final match for the promotion on August 13th, 2005. The storyline was dubbed “the Summer of Punk,” and many independent wrestling fans look back on it as fondly as the memories of the summer before their first year of college.
Punk -- whether he was fashioned as an anti-establishmentarian hero or egging fans on to boo him, even the “smart” fans who cheer whoever they think is good, whether they’re a hero or a villain -- CM Punk used his run in the wrestling mainstream to create an avatar for the fans who appreciate the artistic merit of the medium, its history, and the underground in which WWE willfully ignores in favor of establishing itself as its own industry. He was always good, but he became important when he realized he could use his experiences in and knowledge of the independent scene to his advantage, bringing the grassroots movement of contemporary independent wrestling into the blinding lights of WWE’s mainstream.
Ever since the days of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin driving a beer truck to the ring and spraying gallons of Miler Lite onto his boss (at some point, WWE Chariman Vince McMahon knew he could usher professional wrestling into an era past the old model and into a more “reality-based” show by turning himself into an evil boss caricature) over fifteen years ago, the anti-corporate, anti-hero wrestler archetype had been an unexpected and very successful way to resonate with fans.
But CM Punk took that model to different places simply by being a scrawny punk rocker with myriad tattoos adorning his arms, with his feet planted firmly in the land of larger-than-life men who look like they were crafted from the hands of Adonis himself. (Another wrestler once famously said he looked like a Waffle House short order cook.) Moreover, he took what he learned as a punk rocker -- to defy authority in order to preserve his principles -- behind the scenes and eventually into a disaffected state that led to what made him a star.
Punk had seen the politics of the professional wrestling business and was creatively and professionally uninspired. With every opportunity he had received, he was given the short end of the stick. (For example: His first run as World Heavyweight Champion ended with him getting written off a pay-per-view the day of the event with a backstage kick to the head by another wrestler; he lost the title in favor of a bigger name and wasn’t even allowed to compete in the match to lose it.) He knew he was good, but was never given the chance to show what he could do. So he was going to let his current contract expire and leave the company. Until he was given the opportunity to make a change.
Not long ago, I was thinking about how Kurt Cobain was basically my entry point to a whole world of music I wouldn’t have known existed without him. I grew up in central North Carolina as a child, miles upon miles away from the burgeoning Chapel Hill scene, only knowing of the music I heard on the radio. And then this magical figure came from the heavens (rather, the evergreen trees of Washington State), with this style of music I had never heard before. And I would read interviews and find so many more compelling bands: Sonic Youth. The Velvet Underground. Shonen Knife. The Melvins. Bikini Kill. The Raincoats. I could seriously go on and on about this, but the point is I had an avatar that ushered me into a lifetime of enamor with punk rock music and eventually the hard-working, do-it-yourself ethos that came along with the lifestyle.
CM Punk had all of the same ethos; he was a kid who started out putting on backyard wrestling shows in his friend’s backyard. He’s logged in thousands of driving hours to get from one tiny venue to the next in order to give wrestling fans a show they’ll remember. He’s wrestled 90-minute matches for tiny promotions for the love of his craft. When I became aware of his background, I was immediately convinced punk rock was firmly in the core of his heart, his spirit and sacrifice and his steadfast insistence to do things on his own terms.
So when his star-making moment came, of course I thought about another punk rocker who was thrust onto front street and brought an entire subculture with him.
The night of June 27, 2011, CM Punk was scripted to interfere in a Monday Night Raw match between his then-burgeoning rival John Cena, causing Cena to lose the match. Immediately after, he took a microphone, walked back up the ramp, and sat cross-legged on the stage. What happened when he opened his mouth was one of the greatest off-book promos in the past few years of wrestling.
It’s standard practice in the wrestling world to talk about your opponent on the microphone, but it’s usually centered around whatever match the competitor is supposed to be promoting (hence the term “promo”). CM Punk achieved this particular task tangentially at best. The meat of this landmark monologue careened toward a variety of tangents, including but not limited to John Cena and Dwayne ‘the Rock” Johnson being two of the biggest stars in the history of the professional wrestling business due to sycophantic overtures toward Vince McMahon, threatening to defend the WWE Championship in New Japan Pro-Wrestling (often cited by wrestling purists as the best wrestling organization in the world) and Ring of Honor, saying hello to independent scene mainstay (and his real life best friend) Colt Cabana, basically offering McMahon as a kindred spirit of The Office’s David Wallace, and throwing slight jabs at his heirs to the WWE empire -- McMahon’s daughter Stephanie and his son-in-law, wrestler and real-life company COO Triple H -- after he opined WWE just might be better off when McMahon dies. “The reason I’m leaving is you people,” he said. “Because after I’m gone, you’re still going to pour money into this company. I’m just a spoke on the wheel.”
And after an entire career of being held back by backstage politics for frivolous things such as not having the bodybuilder look endlessly reported as the body type McMahon prefers for his main event talent and his friendship with Paul Heyman (founder of the long-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling and holder of a reputation for going against the grain), Punk was caught in a hailstorm of mainstream media attention unseen since Mike Tyson’s far more scripted altercation with Steve Austin. CM Punk cast his grievances into the world for six-and-a-half minutes and instantly thereafter became the biggest star in the industry.
It’s not that breaking down the fourth wall (in wrestling terminology, this is called “breaking kayfabe”) is anything innovative. Wrestlers have been acknowledging real-life stuff and backstage politics for years. And any fan with even a passing knowledge of wrestling -- even the kids; it’s a lot like when they find out Santa Claus is not real but still get excited when you see presents under the tree Christmas morning that weren’t there the night before -- knows the matches are choreographed and predetermined. So when a wrestler openly acknowledges that, hey, this is a business, fans for the most part gravitate toward it.
But in spite of the age of this practice, CM Punk’s second “pipe bomb” promo was still a great moment in post-millennial wrestling history due to the fact he stumped for the underground on the world’s biggest wrestling promotion’s flagship television show. Sure, CM Punk was invited to be on Jim Rome’s show and interviewed by GQ, but more importantly, Colt Cabana probably gained a million new Twitter followers that night. It was a huge win, not just for Punk being able to cement his status as a main-event star, but for the indie culture that nurtured him, who themselves had a representative in the mainstream who would not only acknowledge, but celebrate and represent that culture.
And I was pleased by the thought of kids working their way through Ring of Honor matches and being captivated by New Japan, taking me back to when Kurt Cobain would talk about Kim Gordon with such reverence and I listened to nothing but Sonic Youth for days.
We’re all aware that most punks’ greatest dream is achieving success on their own terms. CM Punk, a true punk at heart, never expected to be one of the marquee names of a billion dollar industry. Not having the prototypical size of a top wrestling star, he saw the glass ceiling and expected it would be how far he would go. But then he broke it. And then another. Soon, he was on top of the mountain and (sometimes) the card, and after a monumental 434-day reign as WWE Champion (monumental solely because it showed WWE’s commitment to Punk), he was pushed back down. He was even held down while he was WWE Champion, usually working in the middle of the card instead of the main event, where the champion should always be. In the fourteen months he was WWE Champion, Punk was only in the main event five times. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Probably even more so than any field except for celebrity culture, the world of professional wrestling is a hotbed of gossip and hearsay. If you read ten different “dirt sheets” (wrestling lingo for insider newsletters and websites, which specialize in dealing with industry commentary and the aforementioned gossip) on any matter, at least nine of them would give you a different, entirely speculative answer. Some say Punk walked out on WWE because he was uninspired by an impending midcard Wrestlemania feud with Triple H (whom he’d already had a match with at pay-per-view Night of Champions in 2011). Some say it was wear-and-tear on the body, as the only time he had taken off since that fateful night in June 2011 was for two weeks, starting the night he had won the WWE Championship (in his hometown of Chicago about two weeks later) and two months after Wrestlemania 29 in April 2013. The truth is, very few people know why Punk left, and only he knows why he’s still gone.
(If you are interested in the full scope of CM Punk’s WWE sabbatical/hiatus/lover’s spat/departure, allow me to direct you to Brandon Stroud’s A Non-Wrestling Fan’s Guide to Why CM Punk, One of the Sport’s Biggest Stars, Just Quit Abruptly. As far as wrestling writers go, few are more engaging and insightful than Mr. Stroud.)
At the time of writing this article, CM Punk has been off WWE programming for almost four months. None of his colleagues in the industry are aware of his status. His friend Natalie Slater, in an article straightforwardly titled “My Friend is Famous and It Sucks ,” described him as “recently retired.” Fans have been unsuccessfully predicting his comeback pretty much since the moment they heard the news of him walking out. Since his abrupt departure, the only official statement on his status with the company was Vince McMahon’s curt response on an investors’ conference call: “He’s taking a sabbatical. Let’s put it that way.” Punk’s unexplained powder break has put the entire business on eggshells.
But it’s a testament to his strength of character that he simply walked away instead of just crafting shoddy work and cashing checks. Most wrestlers are just fine with easing themselves into the system and doing what they’re told, in fear of being pushed to the bottom of the card or even released. There are so many wrestling talents, not just in the WWE, but also the ones probably dying to get into WWE as well, that would never do anything to rock the proverbial boat. But punk, at least to me, is above all else about sticking to your principles in the face of society preaching conformity, in the face of society threatening ostracism, in the face of everything anybody could throw at you, and CM Punk isn’t just some name Phil Brooks came up with; the latter part of his name is his way of life. Punk lives by a code, he doesn’t want to adjust to anyone’s ideals if they’re not in line with his vision. Does that make him selfish, or does that make him righteous?
In CM Punk’s WWE-produced documentary Best in the World, Lars Fredericksen told a very resonant story. During the contract disputes that more or less inspired what happened on that summer night in 2011, Punk was legitimately considering leaving WWE. He was asking for advice as to whether or not to stay. Fredericksen told him about how Johnny Ramone called him and said he wasn’t going to accept his induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “You have to go,” Fredericksen said. And after an impassioned rant about how the Ramones -- in spite of the fact people often talked about how they couldn’t play their instruments -- inspired legions of kids to pick up instruments and play punk-rock music and how punk rock is the true rock ‘n roll, he added something that, as a punk, would stay with me forever: “One of us made it.”
Regardless of whether or not CM Punk comes back, he battled against the odds and represented punk culture and ethos on a mainstream stage. Not only the truest punks, but the best artists have made the wider world come to them instead of the other way around. CM Punk fits both of those categories, and regardless of whether or not he decides to lace up a pair of wrestling boots again, he embodies what it means to be punk by making it to the top of the mountain without compromising himself, and choosing a fate as drastic as exile over waffling on his principles.