It seems like such a distant memory now. When CM Punk was called up to the main roster as part of the ECW revival in 2006, he didn't get much promo time beyond some short pre-taped backstage videos.
Featuring the thankfully since discarded "My only addiction is competition!" catchphrase, they're fairly corny in hindsight. In spite of his personality being stifled by the lack of promo time and most of his promos being boxed into a level below what we expect of him now.
To break out of the pack, one of the changes he made was to his in-ring style, incorporating a lot of kicks and knee strikes since nobody else in WWE was doing it, as well as some new submission holds.
Since using the term "mixed martial arts" to describe his style would not have been politically expedient in WWE in 2006, Punk was billed as being proficient in Brazilian ju-jitsu (which he trains in) and Muay Thai (which he doesn't).
Aside from the knees, it's not really part of Punk's style anymore and hasn't been played up on commentary in many years. Still, he's a huge MMA fan who used his time off to travel to UFC events on three consecutive Saturdays when his hiatus started in April. He even re-enacted the finish of last year's Anderson Silva vs Chael Sonnen fight during a match with Daniel Bryan.
In a few weeks at SummerSlam, Punk will have one of the biggest matches of his career when he takes on Brock Lesnar. While the John Cena vs Daniel Bryan WWE Title match is a big deal, Punk vs Lesnar is the real main event.
Lesnar's presence usually signifies the main event, plus the angles and promos setting up the match have been fantastic with an air about them that's different from the average WWE feud.
I would bet on this match having more MMA flourishes than anything else Lesnar has done in WWE, including his return against John Cena. Punk is creative, loves MMA, and like Cena was, he's willing to let Lesnar hit him really hard. Punk is a better stylistic matchup for Lesnar than Triple H was and on paper, better than Cena was.
Expect a main event unlike few in WWE history, a whirlwind of drama and realistic violence, probably with MMA-inspired spots instead of the hardcore/weapons aspect of the Cena match.
While some fans balk at the size difference, I don't see it as a big deal: when Lesnar won the UFC Heavyweight Title from 220 pound Randy Couture, it was a competitive fight.
Couture was able to stop most of Lesnar's takedowns and while he lost by TKO in the second round, the punch that knocked him down was one that he slipped. It was just that Lesnar's giant hands and arms (the hardest thing to simulate in training camp) made it so the punch still connected on the ear.
No, CM Punk doesn't have Randy Couture's freaky athletic ability or wrestling pedigree, but it doesn't matter. WWE is not a real sport and so far, the fans buy into Punk being able to go toe to toe with Lesnar, as seen in the confrontation between the two last week on Raw.
I was at Raw last week at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, and as I noted the next day, the atmosphere in the building for the Punk/Heyman/Lesnar segment was amazing. Punk and Heyman were fantastic in the way they had the fans hanging on their every word in a very long segment.
The crowd reactions were unlike anything I've ever seen before at a WWE show: Heyman was held in utter contempt for turning on Punk and throwing out personal insults about his estrangement from his family. The fans passionately cheered for Punk with sympathy in the voices to reassure him that they really loved him.
And when Brock Lesnar came out? I never felt a "you can cut the tension with a knife" moment like that before.
While not every town will react like New York, if you weren't going to do that angle in Punk's home town of Chicago, it was the perfect venue. As much as everyone wanted to see Lesnar (and he got a big pop when his music hit), they wanted to see Punk beat him up even more.
In a way, it was just like just like the angle later in the night where John Cena asked the crowd who he should give the SummerSlam title shot. Having a hot crowd who would be into Punk and Daniel Bryan as superstars during those segments is key in trying to shape fans' reactions leading up to the PPV.
We probably won't see Lesnar again until the last Raw before SummerSlam, so as usual, Paul Heyman will handle most of the build-up. That's always a good thing, but the dynamic with Punk is completely different from any of the other storylines we've seen Lesnar in.
Sure, I guess Brock attacking Vince McMahon during the Triple H feud was "personal," but it didn't feel "real." We all know that Paul Heyman and CM Punk are best friends, but because everyone is playing their role so perfectly, it doesn't matter.
We want him to slay the giant and get revenge on the friend who turned on him, and we will pay $44.95 to see it happen.
That Punk was incredibly over in New York last week was not exactly shocking. What was a surprising that he got an arena full of cynical New Yorkers who did the wave during matches they disliked to genuinely, emotionally invest in him as more than just a wrestler that they enjoy watching.
Even now, Punk is still a better heel than he is a babyface. There's no shame in that, though, as being the top heel in WWE for a year made it easier for him to push the right buttons as a babyface.
That's the key to all this: Punk may be on the verge of becoming John Cena for adult males. He was over before, but now he's beloved. A win over Lesnar or even a sympathetic effort in defeat will put him over the top.