Compared to Daniel Bryan, CM Punk has the better WWE career right now. However, Bryan will eventually catch and surpass him.
The two former Ring of Honor world champions, real-life friends and on-screen rivals will forever be linked because of their history together on the independent circuit. Fans will always compare them because of their connections and similar paths to the promised land.
The debate about who is the better overall superstar now is easier. The question of who will end up being the bigger star and having the most impact on the company depends on issues of opportunity and longevity.
Punk has won multiple world titles, two Money in the Bank matches and delivered several unforgettable promos.
His career is already worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. To project that Bryan will outdo him is to project Bryan's recent upward trajectory to continue and to roll with the assumption that Punk's WWE career won’t last as long.
At 34 years old, Punk still likely has a good decade ahead of him in the ring. In that span, he could accomplish a litany of things with WWE. He could continue to climb the list of the greatest stars in company history. He may not use all the gas in his tank, however.
In an interview in March with Pittsburgh's 105.9 the X (via WrestlingInc.com), Punk was asked about how long he would wrestle. He sure didn't sound like he plans to follow in Ric Flair's footsteps and wrestle way past his prime.
"I don't want to be a lifer. I don't want to do anything, but I get bored easy. So I'm like what's the next hill to climb, what's the next mountain to conquer?"
Punk's potential early departure leaves room for Bryan to fatten his WWE resume to the point of exceeding Punk's. He is three years younger, which, barring injury, means he'll get in significantly more chances to shine than Punk.
Punk has left a trail of classics in his wake, but given ample opportunity to do so, Bryan will match and outdo those fantastic bouts. Punk's battle with Bryan at Over the Limit 2012 was a display of how great both men are in the ring.
Bryan does this sort of magic with every opponent.
Once he begins to get the big matches that Punk has received recently, Bryan's resume should begin to outshine Punk's. If WWE pits Bryan against John Cena at pay-per-views, he should be able to create comparable matches to Punk and Cena's previous work. Bryan's versatility and in-ring mastery will lead to him having better matches with Ryback and Kane and whoever WWE sends out at him.
This wrestling acumen, combined with his entertainment value, will have Bryan in line for WWE title shots, marquee feuds and consistent WWE prominence.
Bryan has recently become one of the funniest and most entertaining stars on the roster.
His goofy, tongue-in-cheek humor comes at the perfect time. Had he attempted to wrestle fake bears and do lame magic tricks during the apex of the Attitude Era, he likely would have been stuck in a midcard role.
In WWE's current, kid-friendlier direction, Bryan's endearing charm and simple-to-digest humor could put him at or near the top for a long time to come.
It feels as if Bryan is just tapping into his potential as a speaker and an entertainer. If he works as hard at that part of his game as he has with his mat skills, he should spend the rest of his career soaring.
Punk is a better talker than Bryan. He's more eloquent and a better actor. Their ring skills are mighty close, even if most fans would give Bryan the edge. However, it may not be skill that ends up determining who is the most accomplished and popular star of the two.
Bryan just may get more chances.
If Punk does indeed leave WWE before his body forces him to, his incredible list of accomplishments will stay unmoving while Bryan gathers more and more of his own. If Punk goes out to find another mountain to conquer, Bryan will swoop in and best what Punk has done.