The score was 17-9.
Tom Brady had just taken New England on a 79-yard touchdown drive to extend the Patriots’ lead in Super Bowl 46. New England fans were certainly happy, but none more so than former Patriots quarterback and current radio broadcaster, Scott Zolak.
Following the touchdown, Zolak shot down media week’s Tom Brady vs. Eli Manning debate, screaming, “ANYBODY STILL TAKING ELI?!?!”
You know, Scott, now that you mention it…
The beauty of professional sports lies in its meritocracy. Accolades are achieved, honors are earned, and championships are won. The best are the best because they are the best.
Pro wrestling operates a little differently.
Whereas the 2010-11 Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup on their own merit, WWE higher-ups select the WWE Champion.
A myriad of factors ranging from charisma and in-ring skill to merchandise sales and politics can affect a superstar’s chances of becoming the figurehead of the WWE.
The company prefers its champions to fit “the mold”. For example, not only does John Cena look like a champion but he possesses a persona that WWE desires in its head spokesperson.
Cena is much different from CM Punk, whose tattoos, lip ring, and naturally villainous demeanor, make him one of the most unlikely babyface (fan favorite/good guy) champions in WWE history.
He is also, arguably, the best pure wrestler in the world.
Unfortunately, WWE often values eccentric characters and entertainers over pure wrestling ability, thereby devaluing Punk’s worth as a performer.
Fed up with this inefficiency in the market, Punk grabbed a microphone on Monday Night Raw last June, and delivered a historic “worked shoot” interview, airing out his beef with mainstream pro wrestling. (In wrestling, a “shoot” is something off-script; a “worked shoot” is something on-script that is designed to look off-script.)
Punk feels adamant that wrestling should be the focal point of a wrestling company; super-man personalities and extracurricular entertainment belong on Broadway, not in a WWE ring.
Most of all, he reiterated to everyone that he is the best wrestler in the world.
By arguing his case in front of a live audience—and millions of YouTube viewers once the video went viral—Punk did something else as well.
He raised the bar for himself.
No longer could Punk fly under the radar as an internet darling whom WWE refused to push. He created a buzz for himself and with the pressure on, the onus was on him to back it up
“You think you can carry the company,” they told him. “Prove it!”
Punk proved it.
After his momentous promo, Punk became the crowned jewel of the ensuing eight months of WWE programming. Week after week, his matches and interviews stole the show.
He recently headlined Wrestlemania XXVIII as the WWE Champion.
Today, CM Punk is the face of his industry. He is the best wrestler in the world.
All it took was a microphone, some proclamations, and an elite athlete backing it up with the greatest year of his career.
Two months after Punk’s promo, another athlete used a microphone to kick-start a similar evolution in his sport. This time the microphone did not belong to Vince McMahon’s television show but to Michael Kay’s radio show.
Kay asked his guest, one of five active quarterbacks with a Super Bowl MVP Award, if he considered himself an elite quarterback.
The player responded as anyone would. Of course, he considers himself an elite quarterback.
The quarterback was Eli Manning.
From that point forward, the prevailing theme of the 2011 season became where Manning ranked amongst his peers.
While I was surprised by Kay’s question, most people were surprised by Manning’s answer. Media and fans ridiculed his confidence. “How dare Eli consider himself in Tom Brady’s class?,” they wondered.
“You think you are elite? Prove it!”
Manning proved it.
By putting his reputation on the line, Manning made the 2011 season bigger than it would have otherwise been.
The season became about backing his words up and his performance on the field spoke louder than anything he told Michael Kay. With the pressure on, Manning delivered—just as he always does.
Manning was the rock in an otherwise inconsistent Giants season.
He was marvelous in the big moment, playing every 4th quarter as though his performance in that quarter alone—the one where he set an NFL record for most touchdown passes in a single season—would validate his quotes to Kay.
Making it even more fitting that Manning’s best season came after the commotion that his preseason interview caused.
Eli thrives off pressure. Better yet, he solicits it.
Unlike his brother, Peyton, who avoided the ghosts of his father en route to becoming a Tennessee Volunteer, Manning embraced the challenge of playing in Archie Manning’s footsteps at Ole Miss.
Unlike his brother who decided that an extra year at Tennessee was more appealing than playing in New York City when the Jets held the first pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, Manning orchestrated one of the largest draft day trades of all time to play for the New York Giants in the media capital of the world.
Each time, Manning welcomed the same pressure that Peyton avoided.
Eli could have played for any college in America without having his father’s legacy looming around each corner. He could have thrived in a small market like San Diego knowing that his performance would never be criticized as harshly as in New York.
He could have told Michael Kay that it is not his responsibility to rate quarterbacks.
Peyton would have.
Six months after his interview with Kay, Manning defeated Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl for the second time. No other quarterback has done that once.
Like Punk, Manning raised the bar for himself. Like Punk, he backed his words up.
Like Punk, he is the best in the world.
So the next time somebody asks if Manning is an elite quarterback, make sure to clarify whether they mean the brother with two Super Bowl MVP awards or the brother with one.