Fun fact: CM Punk has been WWE champion for the past 534 days.
Well, not really, but it took you a second to realize I was lying, right? I really hope so, or else this is was a very poorly executed introduction.
But the truth (and my point) is that CM Punk has held the WWE championship for a very long time—since November 20th, to be exact. He’s had the longest reign as champ since John Cena held it for over a year, from September 2006 to October 2007.
Of course, when a title reign reaches the length that Punk’s has, there will naturally be questions about when the champion will finally drop his title. Some signs indicate that the answer to that question might be "soon," and one of the main beneficiaries may be Daniel Bryan.
According to WrestlingObserver.com (via 411mania.com):
WWE is reportedly very pleased with the way Punk has performed as champion, even though his title defenses are not headlining PPV events. But WWE officials are also very high on Daniel Bryan and there is a feeling that Punk chasing Bryan could make for a better feud.
Now, it should go without saying that this particular news item shouldn’t be accepted at face value as a completely accurate indication of the WWE’s feelings about Punk, Bryan and the future of the WWE championship. Still, it raises an interesting question: Would a Punk/Bryan feud be more compelling if Punk were chasing Bryan for the championship?
There isn’t a right answer to that question, of course. That said, it may be interesting to see how the Punk/Bryan feud could be better (or worse) if the title switches to Bryan.
The Case For Punk Chasing the Title
It comes down to this: It’s a lot easier for fans to root for an underdog than a juggernaut.
Not to presume anything, but I’d imagine that most wrestling fans—heck, 99.9 percent of the people in the world—have a) some kind of goal they're chasing, and b) have to deal with an “antagonist” of their own lives that is more powerful than they are.
So pretty much anyone can empathize with and root for a version of CM Punk that is a) chasing the title and b) having to deal with the more powerful (by virtue of holding the WWE championship) Daniel Bryan.
As we’ve seen with John Cena, may fans will almost always eventually react strongly against anyone who appears too strong and too unbeatable. I’d wager that out of everything John Cena does that can possibly annoy anyone—poop jokes, wearing overly bright T-shirts, humiliating announcers who haven’t really done anything to deserve it—his apparent invincibility is what really bothers people.
So if Punk became this kind of unbeatable champion, would the crowd turn on him like they turned on “Super-Cena”?
There’s reason to believe they wouldn’t. At this point, Punk doesn’t seem to be the divisive force Cena is; all of the fans still seem to be on his side, while Cena’s fans are generally divided along lines of age and gender.
The way Punk is being portrayed now—as the wiseguy who seems to win every argument he’s in, while still being able to back up his talk in the ring—is, I think, a lot easier to root for than Cena, who is at least as dominant as Punk is in the ring but doesn’t “win” all of his verbal confrontations in the same way.
(Quick note: When I say Punk “wins” his verbal confrontations, I’m referring to the general crowd reaction to his arguments. Whether his points are actually better than whomever he’s sparring with isn’t relevant, because if the crowd perceives Punk to always be right, it doesn’t really matter whether he has legitimate points or not.)
It’s not easy to empathize with Punk at this point, but it’s easy to root for him because, well, he’s cool. He makes other people look stupid when he’s talking, and he makes other people look stupid when he beats them in the ring.
Cena, meanwhile, has arguably never been perceived to be as cool as Punk is right now. If he ever was universally viewed as cool, it was almost a decade ago, when he was bragging about his Ph.D. in Thuganomics.
So this is all to say that because of the way Punk is being portrayed right now, even if he continues to be a dominant champion, there's no guarantee that the fans turn on him. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if most of the fanbase continued to love him.
Of course, even if there is less of a risk of the crowd turning on Punk, the risk still exists. Punk himself helped explain why while talking to Cena in the lead-up to their match last summer at Money in the Bank 2011 (via WikiQuote):
What you've lost sight of is what you are, and what you are is what you hate. You're the 10-time WWE Champion! You're the man! You, like the Red Sox, like Boston, are no longer the underdog! You're a dynasty. You are what you hate. You have become the New York Yankees!
And that’s the thing. Most people hate the Red Sox and Yankees because they’re juggernauts. They get all of the media attention and spotlight, and most of the time (the last one-and-a-half years of Red Sox baseball notwithstanding), they win.
The thing is, both of those teams have some players who might be cool and fun to root for. Dustin Pedroia’s cockiness and bombast make him beloved by Red Sox fans. Yankee fans probably love Nick Swisher’s sense of humor.
Still, it seems fair to say that most baseball fans would root against both players because they play for teams they root against. Their personality quirks might even bother opposing fans to the point where they root particularly hard against Pedroia and Swisher.
Pedroia’s “Laser Show” thing might be fun if you root for Boston, but if you don’t, it can come off as very, very annoying. And for what it’s worth, I bet if Pedroia ends up playing for New York someday, Red Sox fans will be more annoyed by him than by any other player on the Yankees.
Yes, I understand that baseball and professional wrestling are entirely different things. But the point remains: Fans will turn on something that becomes too powerful, and what used to make us love an athlete can just as easily make us hate them.
With this in mind—conceding that CM Punk might be more popular than ever right now—it seems like taking the title off Punk, before he becomes too powerful, might be a good idea. Because no matter how fiercely fans seems to love him now, if they turn on him, the backlash might be even more fierce.
The Case For Punk Keeping the Title
So far, I’ve made a couple of major (in my opinion, valid) assumptions. One is that the WWE wants to keep Punk as a face for the foreseeable future. The second is that if Punk becomes too much of a dominant champion (a la John Cena), then a large portion of the fanbase will turn against him.
Therefore, to keep Punk a face, he must maintain that underdog, everyman quality that skyrocketed him into the main event scene last summer.
So the question is, can he maintain that type of quality while being a dominant champion?
As I just spent way too many words theorizing in the previous section, not necessarily. But there is some reason to believe that Punk can actually stay an underdog while remaining champion and Best In The World (which, by the way, is actually quite different than Chris Jericho being Best In The World At Everything He Does).
As I said before, in some ways, Punk represents what most of the WWE audience aspires to be: someone who can “beat” everyone they come into contact with, whether that contact is verbal or physical.
But even when Punk is winning everything he does, he still has characteristics that anyone can empathize with.
For starters, Punk looks a lot more like a regular human being than most professional wrestlers. This isn’t to say that he’s a skinny fat-ass, as Triple H so eloquently opined many months ago, or that he looks weak or out of shape or anything like that.
But put it this way: You’ve probably met people that have similar bodies to Punk in your own life. You’ve probably never met anyone who looks like, say, Mason Ryan, who I’m 95 percent sure is a CGI creation anyway.
Point being, Punk may be a dominant champion, but he doesn’t look like a dominant champion, and that will help him keep an underdog quality going forward.
The other major reason Punk may be able to continue to be seen as an everyman is that he’s conditioned us to believe he is.
Not that it’s appropriate to speculate on the overall legacy of Punk, who, if he wants to, probably has a number of good years left in wrestling. But if his career were to end today, I’d guess that he’d ultimately be most remembered for his feud with Cena that culminated with him winning the title at Money in the Bank 2011.
And one of the most memorable aspects of this feud was Punk’s promos, whether it was the Cross-Legged Manifesto he delivered on the entrance stage or his attack on Vince McMahon for not giving the WWE fanbase what it wanted—the same promo where he referred to himself as “the voice of the voiceless.”
As recently as last week on SmackDown, Punk referred to himself as “the voice of the voiceless” again, even though as time has passed, Punk has moved away from trying to create change and his role as a representative of the fanbase—you know, “the voiceless.”
Still, the crowd didn’t seem to show any doubts about the validity of his assertion, continuing to cheer him throughout the promo. Thinking back to that special Monday Night Raw from last July, where Punk declared himself to be the voice of the voiceless and Cena to be a dynasty, it’s easy to think that the labels have stuck, even if Punk is now closer to being a dynasty himself than he would like to admit.
You may have noticed that there’s been zero discussion of Daniel Bryan in this article, even though he’d obviously be at least sort of important in a Punk/Bryan feud.
That’s because I feel like Bryan will do well in whatever role he’s placed in, whether that’s the role of the cocky reigning champ or that of the wronged challenger who made Punk tap out but still wasn’t able to win the title.
Ultimately, I think the success of any Punk/Bryan feud comes down to whether Punk is able to keep the fans on his side, which is no small feat considering how much charisma Bryan has been showing lately.
As Punk comes closer and closer to being the dominant, John Cena-type champion he claimed he wasn’t less than a year ago, I think the smart move would be to have Punk chase Bryan for the title, which would get Punk closer to the oppressed, underdog, not-taking-any-crap-anymore persona that all of us fell in love with last summer.
And if they take the belt off Punk soon, then maybe he can go back to being the real Voice of the Voiceless before anyone realizes that he was only pretending to be that voice over the past few months.