CM Punk has become increasingly monotonous over the past few months, and his decline has become the embodiment of WWE’s ongoing problem with promoting heels.
Every interview segment Punk has performed since the intervention of Brad Maddox at Hell in a Cell has followed a similar pattern. He states what a great champion he is and then denies all knowledge of any outside interference. This leads to the crowd showing their displeasure at Punk, who, in turn, goes on a tirade about how unimportant they are.
Even after losing the championship at the Royal Rumble, Punk has not deviated from this pattern. He has simply replaced the “being the champion” segment with why he is still the champion, despite not having the gold around his waist.
Punk’s promos have become terribly predictable, and this has seriously diminished his effectiveness as the WWE’s top heel.
To be fair, Punk’s ability on the mic—along with some assistance from Paul Heyman—has hidden this fatal flaw admirably. He has delivered the same material in a wide range of styles—from calm and collected to angry—via every emotion in between. This has given the promos several twists, highlighting different points in his general mantra.
There has even been the odd “pipebomb” where Punk has broken the fourth wall. For example, he addressed the importance of merchandising sales to the WWE and how that affects how talent is pushed. Tactics like this certainly keep the fans distracted.
Yet Punk is still giving the same promo as three months previously.
In fact, CM Punk has barely changed anything since he successfully turned heel at Raw 1000 back in July. Those first few weeks saw Punk transition from beloved hero to devilish villain. His progression felt organic and left the audience with little doubt over his motives.
This was a brilliant move by the WWE, as everything Punk then did was for an obvious purpose. Even fans who were determined to carry on cheering for “The Straight Edged Superstar” became inclined to boo him.
Once the interference at Hell in a Cell happened—and Punk moved on to proclaiming his greatness due to the length of his championship run—ideas of progression were halted. Punk’s character got stuck in a loop and he became the bore he is now.
This stagnation of character is endemic across all of WWE’s heels.
Most have gone through what Punk has over the last few months. When the spotlight is on them becoming a heel, their character is given time to change. The same applies when wrestlers start with the company. In both cases, this chance lets them adapt to the challenges of the faces opposing them.
Once the focus is on someone else, the relegated heel comes out and restates an element of their character over and over again. They become predictable and increasingly unimposing, as this singular thinking allows the more adaptable faces to find their weaknesses.
The heels adapt neither their character nor what they do in the ring to counter their opponent. Eventually, wins over the heel becomes less and less important, and they slide down the roster.
Often, these characters only start winning again when they are reinvented. One chance for this is when a heel gets injured. Time off television allows the viewers to forget the huge number of losses suffered by that character. Yet this rebirth of sorts only guarantees the heel so much time in the spotlight before eventually falling away once again.
Wade Barrett has turned into just another big-man brawler after a push in the summer that appeared to be showcasing him as an intelligent giant. Much worse has afflicted Tensai, who has gone from monster heel to reinvention as a comedy character in less than a year.
Why the WWE does not periodically evolve their heel characters—especially when they are in long-term feuds against opponents—is baffling. Every sport where a player or a team plays regularly, they learn certain techniques to nullify their opponent.
One of the more intriguing explanations for this is the WWE’s fears over controlling the audience.
Important faces, most notably John Cena, have been booed before in favor of the heel. This display of free will almost appears to be considered insubordination by the fans, so to discourage it, the WWE makes its minor heels bland so they are harder to like.
Another possible reason is the overwhelming effect of so much television to provide each week. In a pay-per-view week, the WWE provides 10 hours of programming. This is discounting Youtube exclusives and material for WWE.com. The roster must be spread thinly to cover all these different aspects.
The only issue with this explanation is that the problem predates many of last year’s key additions.
One final possible cause is the WWE’s inability to alter the character of certain key protagonists on the face side. John Cena has been long designated as someone who will not change from his gimmick. Cynics out there will claim several reasons for this, but whatever the actual cause, it does limit what heels can do to counter the John Cena experience.
The Rock is another character who is inflexible. His other career as an actor limits the chances of him being bad on television or of displaying any obvious weaknesses. This severely inhibits what other characters can do around him.
CM Punk certainly has all these factors levied against him. Many fans still support him due to his indie background, and his breakout moment in 2011, so he is cheered intermittently. As one of the WWE’s most notable characters, he is on a lot of the company’s shows, and he mainly opposes faces who have little scope for vulnerability.
Heels have an essential role in making WWE great. Keeping them dynamic would quickly improve the overall product and may even be a key ingredient to launching a new golden age in the company’s history.
CM Punk is the top high-profile character to show the issues with the system, and his embodiment of this issue could well lead to the fix.