About the stuff we lack
Dwell upon our memories
But there are no facts”
-Minor Threat, “Salad Days”
Neither the Straight Edge Superstar nor the promotion have issued a formal comment, leaving fans and editors to speculate as to why.
Without formal comment, reports of Punk “leaving” WWE are also speculative. Punk’s contract is set to expire in July, but there is no confirmation from either party that this departure concludes the business of that contract or if both sides will try to come to terms.
It would not be the first time negations between WWE and Punk went down to the 11th hour. Punk’s initial contract with the promotion was set to expire on the night of the 2011 Money in the Bank pay-per-view, where Punk was headlining against John Cena for the WWE Championship. As he related in the documentary portion of the WWE Home Video release CM Punk: Best in the World, the delay was due to Punk being genuinely conflicted about re-signing, and he did not put his name on a new contract until sometime during the actual broadcast.
The prevailing notion regarding the Jan. 27 departure, based on Punk’s despondence about the WWE product during a comic book convention panel prior to the Royal Rumble, is that he was frustrated with the creative direction, specifically in WWE’s baffling decision to keep fan-favorite Daniel Bryan from headlining WrestleMania.
“So you hate me
That's the way it goes
What the f***?
I guess I'll never know”
- Minor Threat, “No Reason”
No Superstar since Punk has whipped WWE audiences into a frenzy as much as Daniel Bryan, in spite of byzantine, incoherent and frustrating storytelling on the part of WWE Creative that has done all it can to derail Bryan’s momentum. By all accounts, Bryan is a gifted ring general and a reliable backstage presence, making WWE’s failure to capitalize on his fandom—from a company that had no issue capitalizing on the fandom of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and John Cena—one of the greatest train wrecks in wrestling history.
Instead, just as they have for the two previous WrestleManias, WWE is hedging their bets on a former champion and current Hollywood star. After an abrupt retirement and four-year absence, Batista, soon to appear in the Marvel Comics adaptation Guardians of the Galaxy, returned to the WWE, declared his intentions of winning the undisputed championship and was subsequently entered in and won the Royal Rumble. This distinction, for the past decade, entitles him to be in the main event at WrestleMania.
Batista coming back is a huge deal, and WWE wanting to capitalize on the eventual movie buzz is understandable. But why Batista had to come back and be part of the title picture—again, from a storyline perspective, usurping Daniel Bryan’s momentum—only demonstrates how little faith WWE producers have in their current product.
In turn, the WWE Universe is vocalizing how little faith they have in WWE producers, as demonstrated by drowning out the end of the Royal Rumble with jeers when Bryan failed to be revealed as an entrant. Batista’s victory celebration was greeted with the same overwhelmingly negative reaction, causing the newly crowned Rumble winner to verbally lash out at fans in attendance.
The overshadowing of Bryan has not gone unnoticed by professionals such as Punk and WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley who, in his “disgusted” reaction to the Rumble telecast, wondered aloud on Twitter, “Does WWE actually hate their own audience?”
The feel-good moment of Daniel Bryan winning the Rumble and then the unified championships at WrestleMania would have been a fan-friendly conclusion to the end of the wrestling year and could have set up an intriguing matchup with the newly minted champion facing his biggest threat in the former champion Batista. Instead of stoking fans with the positive anticipation of WrestleMania, fans felt Bryan had been screwed again and let WWE know. WWE can only take the rug out from under fans so many times before fans make their feelings known not by arena jeers, but by changing the channels and spending their entertainment budget elsewhere.
“So what now? Do we shake hands,
And go our separate ways?
Or do I open my mind,
And follow you into the haze?”
- Minor Threat, “Betray”
CM Punk has been one of the bright spots of WWE programming for the past several years. His famous “pipebomb” promo on the Jun. 27, 2011 Raw sent such a shockwave through the wrestling industry that it received mainstream press coverage.
Before that promo, it is difficult to recall another main eventer, faction leader, two-time Money in the Bank winner and multiple-time World Heavyweight Champion who was still such an outsider to the WWE’s upper echelon of heavily promoted stars such as John Cena, Triple H, Batista, Rey Mysterio and Randy Orton. Punk was the photobomber in every class picture.
After the promo, Punk’s career finally gained the traction it needed to break through the glass ceiling—just as his contract was set to expire, and he had no intention of re-signing. After weeks of electrifying, unpredictable television segments, backroom negotiating and soul searching, the iconoclast signed a new contract with WWE and has been recognized as a “top guy” ever since, most notably by becoming the longest-reigning WWE champion in a generation.
With a genuine connection to manic crowds, Punk’s promos alone were often a highlight of WWE broadcasts, especially when trading verbal jabs with equally talented performers such as Paul Heyman. The Rock had fun jawing with John Cena in anticipation of their WrestleMania encounters, but at no time in 2013 did The Rock look like he had something to prove more than when he was standing in the ring with Punk, microphone in hand. The intensity from both men bled from those segments.
As a performer, it was not uncommon for Punk’s name to be listed multiple times on best matches of the year compilations. He is pictured front and center on the recent WWE Home Video release Best Pay-Per-View Matches of 2013, and Pop Culture Times ranked his matches against Undertaker at WrestleMania and Brock Lensar at SummerSlam as the No. 2 and No. 1 matches of 2013.
Recent weeks, at least behind-the-scenes, seem to have dampened Punk’s enthusiasm for WWE. At the Portland Comic Con prior to the Royal Rumble, ProWrestling.net reported an attendee quoted Punk’s attitude to current promos as, "I show up. Someone tells me what to do and I just go out do it and leave."
This is a far cry from the passionate performer in the documentary, who cared enough about his craft to watch Paul Heyman produce OVW programming when all the other wrestlers had gone home, would tear up scripts from WWE writers without even reading them, developed the Straight Edge Society storyline and was unafraid to confront Vince McMahon about why Bobby Lashley was a poor choice to be ECW champion before leaving the meeting agreeing to disagree.
Unfortunately, Punk’s disillusionment with WWE is not an uncommon road for WWE Superstars to be on. Today, Vince McMahon credits another iconoclast, Stone Cold Steve Austin, as the biggest star in the history of the business. However, like Punk, Austin walked out on the Jun. 10, 2002 Raw after telling Vince McMahon he disagreed with the creative decision to have Austin lose to Brock Lesnar on free TV, rather than promoting their first encounter and making it a must see match for pay-per-view buyers.
It was not a spur of the moment decision so much as a last straw, as Austin made his feelings known about what little respect he had for WWE writers, even ranting about them on a WWE.com produced program. An article from The Sun UK (via thewrestlinggame.com) detailing the ill will between Austin and Creative quoted Paul Heyman relaying how the Rattlesnake showed his fangs:
One Friday afternoon, he tore into the Raw team as if they ate his last protein bar. Where's the new, must-see matchups? Where's the fresh blood in the main event? Why aren't you exploiting your resources? What's so 'raw' about Raw nowadays? It was a brutal ass chewing. I'm not saying [they] didn't deserve it, but they got it, that's for sure.
Twelve years out, one could almost envision Punk saying the same thing.
McMahon went on television and buried Austin, saying he owed the fans and WWE an apology. In the documentary portion of the WWE Home Video release SCSA: The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time, Austin admitted that in retrospect, maybe he would have handled the situation differently, but he never recanted on the intent behind it.
Austin was welcomed back to work with WWE on numerous projects over the years, and he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by McMahon himself.
Punk, Austin and Foley are all guys who have an unabashed love for wrestling who want to contribute, and who, at one point or another, got so burned by WWE that leaving the company was the better option than staying and hitting their heads against a wall.
Punk’s departure from WWE, however long, and the vocal agony of professionals and fans should be a wake-up call to WWE that things, especially in Creative, need to change.
To drive a crown jewel talent like Punk away, and to alienate fans week after week, PPV after PPV, is not good for business—the fact is: it’s not good for anyone.