It’s hard to tell whether CM Punk was born of the wrong era, or if he came along at precisely the right time.
On one hand, his brash demeanor, tattoos and conversational promo skills would have fit right in during WWE’s late 90s Attitude Era. It’s quite easy to imagine Punk engaging in memorable (and profitable) feuds with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, HHH and The Undertaker, among many other stars from that era.
On the other hand, perhaps Punk is best suited to shine as a lone wolf in professional wrestling’s modern-day, toned-down, PG-rated era, where “superstars” (i.e., politically correct merchandise movers) like John Cena, Kofi Kingston and Rey Mysterio curry more favor than do malcontents like Punk. In 2011, Punk’s rebellious tone, “voice of the voiceless” mantra, and underdog backstory have fused together to create what is unquestionably wrestling’s biggest “lightning in a bottle” movement since Austin captivated viewers more than a decade ago with his brash, no-nonsense style. In fact, Punk is appealing to those very same fans, many of whom moved on from WWE when Attitude Era stars like Austin and Rock exited stage left.
The Summer of Punk culminates on Sunday night, August 14, when Punk and Cena square off in the main event at SummerSlam, emanating from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. You know the story. Punk rode a wave of momentum and epic promos to a thrilling championship victory over Cena at last month’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view, then took the belt with him out the door as his contract expired. Vince McMahon, who was later “relieved of his duties” in favor of son-in-law HHH, instituted a WWE title tournament to replace the departed Punk. Cena won this tournament. Punk returned, having gone on a two-week guerilla campaign in his time away, claiming to still be the rightful champ. Enter a title unification bout at SummerSlam, with HHH (now WWE’s storyline Chief Operating Officer) as the special guest referee.
The buildup to this bout has been textbook. Both Punk and Cena have starred in their respective roles—Punk as the lifelong underdog who came up on the independent scene and values championships over merchandise sales and wrestling over sports entertainment; Cena the corporate face who moves more merchandise than any wrestler in the game today. They have torn down the “fourth wall”—code for what goes on behind the scenes in professional wrestling—and have referenced previous real-life confrontations, fired wrestlers, corporate cronies, wives, girlfriends. the list goes on.
This dichotomy has created a unique conundrum heading into one of the most hotly anticipated WWE matches in the last decade—there is no clear-cut babyface, nor is there a clear-cut heel/villain. Cena, who appeals to women and children, is loathed by teenage boys and men who view him as a corporate puppet. Punk, meanwhile, has sparked a cult-like movement among males age 18-34 while eliciting a negative reaction from younger fans.
How will it all go down on Sunday night? I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. Punk has been steadfast in his opinion that marks and online know-it-alls should just enjoy the ride and let the storyline unfold, and I’m prone to agree. Whether the Punk-Cena feud extends beyond SummerSlam and into the fall is uncertain.
Whether it’s helped breathe life into a stale product by showcasing two of the game’s top talents in their respective primes, meanwhile, is a certainty.