It isn't always easy to understand the importance of a situation or an era when as it's happening, and that is especially the case with professional wrestling. CM Punk has been the WWE Champion for over a year and, believe it or not, he's now the greatest champion the company has ever seen.
Almost every iconic name in the history of wrestling has held the WWE Championship at one time or another. There are far too many to list, but Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Bret "Hitman" Hart, Shawn Michaels, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock and John Cena are probably a few of the names that come to mind when thinking about the best WWE Champion of all time.
There is no question that all of the aforementioned wrestlers were great and worthy of high praise, and most of them are better than Punk in an overall sense, but none was a better champion than the self-proclaimed Best in the World. Not everyone can distinguish between being a great wrestler and being a great champion, but there is most definitely a difference.
Punk is obviously a great wrestler, but he has been an even better champion. When he defeated Ryback and Cena at Survivor Series, it extended his title reign to a year in length and by the time TLC rolls around, he will have held the WWE Championship longer than all but four men. Considering the fact that the title has been in existence since 1963, that is an absolutely incredible accomplishment.
Even more impressively, Punk has champion for over a year during an era that isn't conducive to long title runs. Punk is the first man to be WWE Champion for that length of time since Cena held the belt for 380 days from late 2006 to late 2007. In fact, when Punk inevitably surpasses Cena, his reign will be the longest since Hulk Hogan was WWE Champion from 1984 until 1988.
These types of title reigns used to be commonplace in the 1980s and prior, but changes happened much more frequently in the 1990s and by the time the Attitude Era came around, it wasn't uncommon to see a few different champions over the course of a single month. Punk's reign could very well make long runs with the belt en vogue again, however.
While Punk's current reign as technically lasted just over a year, he has dominated the WWE Championship scene longer than that. He won the strap for the first time at Money in the Bank 2011. He dropped it at SummerSlam only because Alberto Del Rio cashed in his Money in the Bank contract, but he regained it a few months later when he defeated Del Rio at Survivor Series.
In terms of making the title feel important, Punk has already outflanked the likes of Austin, The Rock and Michaels. It isn't fair to say that Punk is inherently better than any of them as a superstar, but they certainly weren't better champions. Austin and The Rock in particular held the title on several occasions, however, the fact that they played hot potato with it made the WWE Championship feel less important.
Also, Punk's title reign doesn't measure up to Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hogan or Pedro Morales and it likely never will as each of them held the WWE Championship for at least 1,000 days. Punk is a more complete superstar than all of them, however. Not only is Punk considered by many to be the best in-ring competitor in the WWE currently, but he is also the best on the mic and is among the most popular guys in the business.
Sammartino, Backlund and Morales had great in-ring prowess in their own right, but none of them had much personality. That trait wasn't quite as important during their respective heydays, but a wrestler has to have a little bit of everything currently in order to be considered great. Hogan, on the other hand, could go toe-to-toe with anyone on the mic, but he was far from a technical marvel with regards to his wrestling skills.
Punk has a little bit of everything that is needed to constitute a great champion, and not many others can stake claim to that. The 1970s and 1980s saw plenty of long title reigns that helped make the title seem sacred, but the men who held the title often lacked charisma. Many wrestling fans remember the stars of the Attitude Era fondly because of their entertaining characters and matches, but they had no longevity with the belt.
Punk, on the other hand, is the total package in terms of talent, he has been in possession of the belt for an unprecedented amount of time in his era and he has helped return prestige to the WWE Championship as well. On top of all that, Punk's title reign has been split in that he started off as a face and has since turned heel.
That shouldn't be discounted because it is a fairly rare occurrence. Savage did it after he won the title at WrestleMania IV and had a falling out with Hogan, however, there aren't many more examples. Punk wasn't the top guy as a face champion because of Cena's presence, but he did move a ton of merchandise and receive the most fan support of his career by far.
He transitioned seamlessly into the WWE's top heel, however, when he took out The Rock on the 1,000th episode of RAW and he hasn't looked back. Punk has his fair share of detractors, but he has it all and has done it all as WWE Champion.
Some will argue that he can't be consider the greatest champion due to the fact that he just started headlining pay-per-views, but he's a victim of circumstance. There isn't a single guy in wrestling who could usurp Cena in that regard and Punk has been a victim of that.
Punk may not be as big of a star as Cena, but he will soon have a longer reign than Cena ever did, and most would agree that his skill set is more impressive.
I'm not suggesting that Punk is the perfect champion by any means, but there has yet to be such a thing in wrestling. It may not be apparent to most until several years from now, but taking everything into consideration, CM Punk is the greatest WWE Champion of all time.