If CM Punk has delivered his last roundhouse kick for WWE, he leaves a legacy that begs to be admired and debated.
Punk will be remembered for amassing a collection of classic matches, reinvigorating fandom during "The Summer of Punk" and being one of WWE's best mic workers ever. While he is assured a spot in the company's Hall of Fame, he won't crack history's top tier.
He was never a big enough star to warrant a spot on WWE's Mount Rushmore.
The abruptness of his exit and the lack of an official statement from WWE have left fans unsure if he's truly gone for good. Should this be a permanent departure, it will be strange to have to start referring to Punk's career in the past tense.
For the last few years, Punk has been a vital part of WWE.
It was just a few months ago that he put on what WWE.com named the best match of 2013 and just a year ago that he completed the longest WWE title reign since Hulk Hogan in the '80s. Suddenly, the audience has to go from cheering him on to thanking him for the memories.
Complaints about him leaving WWE in the lurch and the perception of him reacting childishly about his issues with the company will fade. Memory often zeroes in on the positives.
Verbal jabs, convention defying and unforgettable, dramatic work in the ring is the legacy he leaves behind.
Dangerous with a Mic
Whether playing a delusional messiah wannabe or a slippery, conniving villain, Punk has always been fascinating as a talker. Even if he doesn't come back to add to his resume, he leaves behind an all-time great anthology of promos and interviews.
In a feud with Jeff Hardy in 2009, Punk made the most of the contrast between the two enemies.
He portrayed Hardy as a pill popper and was so gratingly self-righteous about his own drug-free status that it was equal parts fun and frustrating to watch. On SmackDown, Punk once came to the ring dressed as Hardy, reveling in the fact that his foe was no longer around.
The ever-evolving Punk soon morphed into more of a cult leader.
His beard and hair grown out, his wrist tape marked with two black X's, he flourished in his new role, one uncomfortably close to a mockery of Jesus. He preached about the power of banning alcohol and drugs from one's life. His initiations of new members was one of the most intriguing elements of WWE programming each week.
He was repulsive and magnetic at the same time.
It was the 2011 version of Punk that got the most people talking and will be the centerpiece of his legacy.
Punk then veered away from the over-the-top and toward reality. The way that "Stone Cold" felt like an amplified version of who Steve Austin really was, this new version of Punk seemed to come from a more genuine place.
He spoke of being frustrated with WWE, a company that he claimed underestimated and undervalued him.
During promos that felt all too real, he shared his grievances with the audience, challenging authority and demanding better treatment and ice cream bars.
This angle spoke to the audience. For anyone who felt the same about their own jobs, this was a cathartic experience. Most folks don't get a chance to handle a live mic and go after their bosses.
It was thrilling to watch Punk do it, and do it so well. It was the speech he gave after attacking John Cena on June 27, 2011 that pushed him from superstar to megastar.
It was a moment that fans knew right away was momentous.
What followed was a narrative that saw Punk interweave reality into the script, building a feud with Cena and Vince McMahon around his contract expiring. ESPN's Bill Simmons called it "the most brilliantly executed storyline in recent wrestling history."
Punk will be remembered for how this story recaptured drifting fans' attention.
He went on to fire more what he dubbed "pipe bombs" in various feuds. His emotive delivery, charisma and quick-firing tongue made him a reliably great talker.
Those performances, along with his mastery in the ring, will be what fans grow wistful for when they look back on his career.
Churning out Classics
Just as WWE could throw Punk out on any given Monday to fill a block of time with his chatter, the company could pit him against just about any opponent and count on excellence.
His greatest hits collection is not as long as Shawn Michaels', but it's easy to see why he claimed the nickname "The Best in the World."
He had a number of standout clashes against Hardy during their 2009 rivalry, making it hard to pick a favorite.
Punk and Hardy had a great TLC match at SummerSlam that year and ended Hardy's WWE run in dramatic fashion in a cage match on SmackDown. No match from Night of Champions 2009 thrilled more than their world title bout.
Infusing Muay Thai into his wrestling offense made his work intriguing, but beyond that he was always fantastic at milking the drama out of matches.
So often, his bout felt like the most important of the night, drawing fans in with pained facial expressions and body language that told a story.
When reflecting back on Punk's career, fans will likely think first of Punk's match against Cena at Money in the Bank 2011. Those two had the kind of electric chemistry wrestling bookers dream about.
Many of their meetings were phenomenal, but their battle in Chicago was the perfect merging of a top-notch story, star power and frenzied fans. Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer gave it a five-star rating, via ProFightDB.com, the first time he had done that for a WWE match since 1997.
Punk's entrance alone begs to be rewatched again and again.
A year later, when he met a peer with skills akin to his, the result was a masterpiece as well. WWE fans will always treasure Daniel Bryan vs. Punk at Over the Limit 2012.
It featured high-energy, seamless mat wrestling and drama that locked everyone's eyes on the screen.
Punk's greatest stretch in the ring was in 2013. He contributed many of the year's best bouts.
He had very good matches against The Rock early in the year and then topped that with a battle against Cena on the Feb. 25 edition of Raw that ranks as one of the show's best ever.
Against The Undertaker at at WrestleMania 29, Chris Jericho at Payback and Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2013, Punk excelled again and again. Few men have put together such an impressive array of in-ring performances.
Summing it up quite well, Jim Ross wrote of Punk, "He's earned super star status via having numerous, main event classic bouts in WWE rings on huge stages."
Just Below the Pantheon of Greats
As tremendous as Punk was at both trash talking and throttling his opponents, he has to be placed below men like Austin, Cena, Hogan, The Rock and Michaels in terms of all-time greatness. He reached the cusp of being the company's top wrestler, but never quite reached that pinnacle.
Even when he was WWE champ for 434 days, it was often Cena who remained the man on the marquee.
At Over the Limit 2012, Cena vs. John Laurinaitis served as the main event, not Punk vs. Bryan. At No Way Out 2012, Cena vs. Big Show headlined over Punk's match. When WrestleMania 28 came around with Punk still champ, The Rock vs. Cena supplanted his title defense as the night's biggest match.
Punk never headlined a WrestleMania.
One could argue that being passed by for bigger stars is the result of a lack of opportunity. Whether or not the company was right, WWE didn't believe in Punk enough as a draw to put him in these spots.
That may have ultimately been what drove him away.
It didn't matter what Punk produced, WWE continually doubted him. They instead leaned on Cena, on The Rock and in the case of WrestleMania XXX, Batista.
If all that is left to accomplish is the mountaintop and one is not allowed to set foot on it, what's the point of fighting on?
Along with his Hall of Fame resume, Punk's legacy will be a series of "what ifs." What if WWE gave him the top spot at some point; would he have succeeded? What if he had stuck around and continued to excel; would he eventually have been regarded in the same light as The Rock and Cena?
Fans hope not to have to answer those questions now, but instead to welcome back Punk and watch him extend and shift his career's narrative.