It's hard to believe now, but for most of the first two years of CM Punk's WWE run (from his debut to his first World title win), he didn't get a lot of promo time. While he had great matches on the independent scene, his speaking ability was his calling card and what everyone singled out as being what could get him into WWE.
He made due with the time he had and possessed enough charisma to make him a lot more popular than his push. He made great use of facial expressions and body language, but he needed to be able to talk to become a big star.
Slowly but surely, and especially once he turned heel, he got what he needed, and parlayed it to superstardom. Let's take a look at some of his best work, both from WWE and the independent scene.
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Early in the aughts, it was not uncommon for the Insane Clown Posse to show up at independent wrestling shows out of nowhere and wrestle. Since a decent number of their fans (lovingly referred to as "Juggalos") would follow them where they went, it brought in a bunch of paying customers who wouldn't be there otherwise.
Like everyone else who isn't a Juggalo, but is aware of their existence, CM Punk hated them. Unlike everyone else, though, he got to tear into them in public as part of his job.
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One night before a CM Punk vs. Chris Hero (now Kassius Ohno on NXT) match in Charlestown, Indiana, the microphone being used by ring announcer Jim Fannin wasn't working. Punk wanted to cut a pre-match promo, so he pantomimed holding a microphone and...just watch it, because I won't spoil what happens for anyone who hasn't seen it before.
CM Punk spent much of 2003 feuding with Raven, with the idea that Raven—who was brought into ROH specifically for the feud and was was open about his history with drug addition—was Punk's polar opposite. The feud lasted for much of the year, albeit during a period where ROH was running shows about twice a month.
They were a few months in when Punk cut this promo after he and Colt Cabana defeated Raven and Christopher Daniels. Here, he made it crystal clear why he hated Raven: Raven was just like Punk's father. Obvious, yes, but also rooted in reality, and Punk channeled those emotions into what is still one of his greatest promos.
When CM Punk got a shot against ROH Champion Austin Aries, it was well known he was leaving for WWE, and most fans expected that show to be his last. Either he'd put over Aries on his way out or he'd get the title and surrender it to set up a tournament.
Nobody expected what actually happened.
He won the title and cut the expected emotional promo before weirdly getting sidetracked into sharing a parable with the fans:
"There was once an old man walking home from work, and he's walking in the snow and he stumbled upon a snake frozen in the ice. He took that snake and he brought it home, and he took care of it. And he thawed it out, and he nursed it back to health. And as soon as that snake was well enough, it BIT that old man. And as that old man laid there dying, he asked the snake, 'Why? I took care of you. I loved you. I saved your life.' And that snake looked that man right in the eye and said, 'You stupid old man. I'm a snake.'"
To sum it up, Punk's entire time as a babyface had been a ruse. He was building up fan support to help him get a shot at Aries, and once he had the belt, he dropped the facade. Not only that, but he was taking the belt with him to WWE.
Christopher Daniels (in a surprise return after an absence when TNA wasn't letting ROH book their talent) then showed up to stand up for ROH, but Punk ran away with the belt. Punk continued to defend the title for a couple more months, cutting awesome promos throughout (including one where he signed his WWE contract on the belt, which unfortunately isn't online) and eventually lost the belt to James Gibson (Jamie Noble in WWE).
Gibson was soon re-signed by WWE, but promised to do the opposite of what Punk wanted to do: As long as he held the title, he wasn't leaving. About a month later, he dropped the belt to Bryan "Daniel Bryan" Danielson.
If you want to see the storyline play out, it is featured in the "Summer of Punk" DVD set.
This one is short by WWE standards, but pretty awesome. In 2009, CM Punk finally turned heel in WWE by cashing in his Money in the Bank contract against World Heavyweight champion Jeff Hardy immediately after Hardy won the title in a ladder match against Edge. At first Punk pled innocence: After all, nobody minded when he cashed in against Edge the year before, right?
It was promos like this one that made him a full-fledged heel. Instead of talking about being straight-edge as a point of inner-strength that made him a role model, he was a bully who cruelly insulted Hardy about his drug problems.
At the time of this promo, Punk had claimed to suffer an eye injury in their previous match. As he got ready for his match against the Great Khali, Hardy was at ringside as a guest color commentator. Punk took out his bottle of prescription eye drops and explained that unlike the drugs Hardy knows, this was a legitimate prescription he got from a doctor to treat an actual medical condition.
Moralizing heel Punk in his element.
After a great feud that lasted a couple months and included three World Heavyweight title changes, Jeff Hardy had to leave WWE due to the stipulations of a cage match on Smackdown. The next week, Hardy's music hit and he danced to the ring...or did he?
The close-ups of both Punk in his disguise and the kid who's disgusted by the shenanigans still make me laugh every time I see them. The promo itself is very quality, but it wouldn't be nearly as memorable in a different context. Nothing wrong with that, because Punk makes a grand entrance here.
I think you all know this one.
On the June 20th, 2011 edition of Raw, about a month before his WWE Title shot again John Cena at the Money in the Bank PPV, CM Punk had a very special announcement: Not only was he winning the title from Cena at the July 17th PPV, but he wasn't renewing his contract, which was expiring at midnight the night of the show.
While it had gotten out that Punk was leaving, this type of acknowledgement on WWE TV generated a lot more interest in the match. especially since hardcore fans noted the similarities to his departure from ROH. Nobody was expecting what came the following week, though.
It started as a traditional wrestling angle: Punk interfered in the non-title Cena vs R-Truth tables match main event, costing Cena the match. Instead of laying a beating on Cena, who was writhing in pain from being put through a table, Punk walked to the stage and sat cross-legged with a microphone in his hand.
He cut the greatest and most famous promo of his career. It's often branded a "shoot promo" or part of a "shoot angle." While it was presented as something that "wasn't supposed to be happening," it was more like an old Memphis angle than something Vince Russo would book:
- Everything was plausible within the confines wrestling logic.
- The more obscure statements were given context so everyone could figure what they were: Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling are other wrestling companies, Colt Cabana is Punk's friend in Ring of Honor, John Laurinaitis is an unpopular WWE executive, etc.
- Most importantly, wrestling was never referred to as anything other than a legitimate competition.
I can't do it justice, so just watch it again.
Punk was really going to leave, but this promo shot made him so much of a bigger star and so much more desirable to WWE that they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He won the title, left for a week, and came back to set up SummerSlam. Two years later, he's set to main event SummerSlam again, this time against Brock Lesnar in one of the biggest matches of the year.