CM Punk, AJ Lee and the Art of Cutting a 'Pipebomb' Promo

Ryan DilbertWWE Lead WriterSeptember 3, 2013

(Photo: WWE)
(Photo: WWE)

A sharpened tongue, heavy doses of truth and a passionate delivery make up the key components in the "pipebomb" promos CM Punk and AJ Lee have tossed at their foes.

AJ's recent dismantling of her Diva peers has many WWE fans remembering Punk's infamous performance in Las Vegas in 2011. What separates these "pipebombs" from everyday wrestling trash talk?

The art of the worked shoot promo lies in blurring the lines between entertainment and reality, digging so deeply into an opponent with words that fans question if what they're seeing is scripted or genuine. It takes an especially searing performance on the microphone to grab our collective attention the way AJ's promo did.

Listening to a speech like hers makes the audience feel as if it's privy to a private spat, as if it's hearing the kind of visceral, verbal attacks one might only hear backstage.

After Natalya and Brie Bella's match on WWE Raw, the Divas champion stood at the entrance ramp and mocked all the women in and around the ring.

She made fun of them for being on Total Divas, for having daddy issues and said that "Natalya's fiance isn't much of a man." At that comment, the crowd seemed to perk up. Perhaps they collectively realized that AJ was truly about to let loose.

Using the common critiques of WWE's Divas over the last few years as ammunition, AJ fired away in a heartfelt and vicious address.  In calling Brie, Natalya and company "cheap, interchangeable, expendable, useless women," AJ sounded like she was no longer playing a character. Was this her veering off the script pages, lashing out at women she genuinely disliked?

The fact that many watching had to ask that question points to the success of her promo.

It felt so personal, so intense that it seemed to have been based on some backstage bad blood. That's exactly what AJ's predecessors did in previous "pipebombs."

Punk grabbed hold of us in a similar way when he sat cross-legged on an entrance ramp on June 27, 2011.

When Punk talked about how much John Cena was pushed to the top of the company, while he was never as heavily promoted, fans took notice because this no longer seemed to be a work of theater but instead a man venting in public.

He called The Rock "Dwayne" and then acknowledged that he'd broken the proverbial fourth wall. This felt like a signal that Punk was serious about everything he said including that WWE would only improve after Vince McMahon was dead.

That controversial statement didn't like seem like something McMahon would approve and so it helped with the illusion that Punk was going rogue with this performance, that we were hearing things the company didn't want us to here. Having his microphone go out mid-sentence only helped it all seem real.

This is the heart of these kinds of promos—simulated genuineness.

It's the same tool Joey Styles used when he quit on the air of WWE Raw.

He made it feel as if he was set to break all the rules because he was on his way out of the company. Styles talked about how WWE had humiliated Jim Ross in the past and questioned why he wasn't good enough to call the Backlash pay-per-view.

His anger came through on the screen much like AJ's disdain and Punk's frustration after him.

Styles ranted that he was through with McMahon's vision of wrestling, shouting "I am sick of sports entertainment!" This was believable, partly because of how close it tight-roped the border between truth and script. Having come from the edgier, less corporate ECW, it was more than plausible that he'd be frustrated with WWE and was now letting us witness his final act of defiance.

One thing that's clear when looking back at these promos is that McMahon has no issues with being the recipient of a "pipebomb." He was one of Styles and Punk's main targets much as he was when Paul Heyman berated him in the ring in the fall of 2001.

Watching Heyman attack McMahon in that ring was an uncomfortable sight.

Here were two real-life business rivals armed with microphones on live TV. When Heyman talked about McMahon stealing his ideas, he wasn't playing a character, he was mining the truth. This promo built on the explosive tension between this men and Heyman ignited it.

He called McMahon out for running wrestling's other promoters out of business, tossed in a Montreal Screwjob reference and used McMahon's father's death as fodder for his speech.

The power of Heyman's delivery and how much of the subject matter rang true had the same effect that Punk, AJ and Styles had later on, shocking the crowd. Suddenly the crowd forgets that it is watching characters and is sucked into a speech that seems to be breaking all the rules.

Fans have to know that it's all a work, just like they have to know that a magician isn't really sawing his female assistant in half. Still, we watch in awe, worried for her life.