That changed on Tuesday when he was moved to the alumni section. Seeing as it's been three years since he re-signed with the company on the weekend of Money in the Bank 2011 in Chicago, it wasn't exactly a surprise.
When I started watching Punk wrestle in 2002, it was considered a given that he would end up in WWE sooner or later.
He was tall, he could talk, he could wrestle and while he wasn't the most polished guy in the world, you could see how—down the line—his in-ring style would mesh better with WWE's than most notables on the indie scene.
His best friend since wrestling school, Colt Cabana, had many of the same positives with arguably fewer negatives, as he was the better athlete.
Punk has said he expected Cabana to be signed first, but Punk got the nod in 2005.
He had the luxury of timing being on his side, as Paul Heyman had recently been installed as Ohio Valley Wrestling booker. Heyman was very familiar with Punk, as he kept up with the indies and Punk's home promotion when he signed (Ring of Honor) was booked by Heyman protege Gabe Sapolsky.
Less than a year later, on a whim, Heyman somehow talked Vince McMahon into restarting ECW as WWE's third brand.
Of course Punk was along for the ride. Heyman held off on debuting him until a TV taping at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York to guarantee a favorable reaction. It worked, and a star was born—sort of.
As good of a talker as Punk has always been, it's been almost completely forgotten that he was around in WWE for a long time before he really got a chance to cut loose on promos.
Writers were more concerned about his charisma and booking his debut in such a way that he'd come off as a big star. He generally cut short, overly rehearsed promos about how "My only addiction...is competition!" while the camera was zoomed in on his face too much.
The highlight of his out-of-the-ring antics in ECW was when he interrupted a backstage promo being cut by "The Prince of Punk," Shannon Moore. He declared, "You're a poser" and slapped him. Yes, a three-word promo.
He was involved in a number of feuds, but didn't get much time at all to do his thing.
There was always a sense that he could do more in ECW, and occasionally—like when his undefeated streak was unceremoniously ended by Bob Holly—it seemed like he was being sabotaged.
As such, it was quite the pleasant surprise when he won the 2008 Money in the Bank match. A few months later, he was drafted to Raw.
On his first night in, he cashed in his shot to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship from Edge.
It was a brilliantly crafted angle: Edge came out to gloat that Raw had no world champion—as both champions were on SmackDown—Batista attacked him, and then the segment started to drag conspicuously. Why are they spending so much time showing Batista walking to the back? Wait, are they...OH MY GOD!
Remember, this was just the fourth Money in the Bank cash-in. The previous three involved Edge using it on a compromised opponent (twice) and Rob Van Dam asking for a championship shot at the second ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view.
A babyface doing what Edge did wasn't just new, it was karmic payback in this case and the perfect way for Punk to cash in. That night, he also beat John Bradshaw Layfield in the main event, and it seemed like he was finally a legit main eventer.
Then WWE started to book him in completely backwards fashion.
Instead of being any kind of traditional babyface champion, he was a guy who was able to hang on to the belt thanks solely to his good luck.
This included using finishes typically earmarked for heels, like winning cage matches by being knocked out the door. He even lost a non-title match in Chicago to Chris Jericho, and it didn't go anywhere. It was counterproductive.
In his first big title program, he and Batista went to non-finishes, with JBL being the biggest star Punk got to beat.
When it came time to lose the title, he didn't even lose it in the ring. Legacy (Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes, Ted DiBiase Jr. and Manu) attacked him before a Championship Scramble match, Jericho replaced him and won the title.
On the surface, I guess it sounds like a blessing to not lose a title in the ring. In reality, Punk was treated as an afterthought, and it was embarrassing.
So, when he won Money in the Bank again, it came off almost like WWE was at a loss with what to do with both him and the MITB gimmick, so it just repeated the previous year's script.
However, there was a plan in place. Punk cashed in on Jeff Hardy after a brutal Tables, Ladders & Chairs match, putting him on the road to a heel turn.
After three years, the real CM Punk was in WWE.
As a heel with a real issue to sink his teeth into while in a legitimate main event program against a real top babyface, he thrived and completely came out of his shell. The promos were great. After all, he did the same thing to Edge.
Why did cashing in on Hardy make him a bad guy?
The best heels think they're babyfaces, and he ran with that idea—especially once he got to talk about Hardy's history of drug problems and criticize him as a role model. He was doing the best work of his career up to that point and was the best heel in years.
Even a weird title loss to an obviously broken-down Undertaker couldn't derail him this time. He formed the Straight Edge Society, grew out his hair and beard to look like the commonly used imagery of Jesus Christ and repackaged himself as a cult leader.
Joined by Luke Gallows, Serena Deeb and Joey Mercury, all of whom he handpicked, they were the best act in the company.
All of the little things were brilliant: It was declared that, as Festus, Gallows was actually an addict constantly fed pills by his cousin Jesse, and Punk saved him from a life of catatonia.
For all of the improvements outside of the ring, Punk had also made strides inside of it. He was smoother than ever, feuding with Rey Mysterio in a series of brilliant matches during which Punk looked like he was by far the best all-around performer in the company.
While moving on to feud with Big Show felt like a step backwards, they had a lot of fun matches and angles together.
Then, in quick succession, Mercury got hurt, Serena got fired for disciplinary issues and Gallows was inexplicably turned babyface before being fired.
Punk was treading water, and it was never more evident than when he replaced Wade Barrett as the leader of the Nexus on Raw, doing a badly de-fanged version of what he did with the Straight Edge Society on SmackDown.
He made the most of it and had an excellent WrestleMania match with Randy Orton, but there was seemingly no reason for him to re-sign when his contract would run out a few months later.
You know the rest of the story: WWE decides to extend his contract a few days, presumably because the PPV the month his contract ended (Money in the Bank) was in his hometown of Chicago. He's given the main event against John Cena, announces it as his last night in WWE and gets everyone buzzing.
Then he cuts "That Promo."
The two months on both sides of that show were the craziest and funnest for WWE fans in recent memory. Traffic at every wrestling website went through the roof—beyond WrestleMania levels.
Punk was the hottest wrestler in the business, even getting a lot of mainstream attention. WWE squandered it by panicking over the fact that it didn't have a SummerSlam main event after his departure as champion.
After a cool angle during which Punk invaded a WWE panel at the San Diego Comic-Con, he was back in a week.
Then he lost the title to feud with Kevin Nash of all people.
Then Nash couldn't be cleared to wrestle, so Triple H replaced him for no apparent reason.
Then Triple H beat Punk, also for no apparent reason.
Are you starting to get an idea of why he got so worn down by politics over time?
Even when it seemed like the company made up for it with a great, memorable start to his year-plus reign as WWE champion, there were immediately signs that he wasn't being protected in the same way that someone like John Cena was.
Before the match during which Punk won the title from Alberto Del Rio, he memorably brought out Howard Finkel as his personal ring announcer to counter Ricardo Rodriguez. I was there, and the crowd went nuts for the surprise.
When I got home and watched the PPV, the moment was ruined by Michael Cole and the other announcers bullying Finkel with comments about his weight gain, being overcome with emotion and nervousness that led to a brief false start before he introduced Punk.
Do you think that would happen if Cena brought out Finkel?
That's the story of Punk's WWE career. He was never protected the way he should have been.
WWE didn't get Punk. It didn't get the type of connection the fans had with him, the same way it didn't get why someone who grew up on WWE would want Finkel's voice bellowing "and...NEW WWE champion!" when he won the title.
He was normal—not the same way Daniel Bryan is normal, but he got over for very different reasons than someone like Cena or Orton did.
He wasn't the archetype of a modern WWE Superstar on or off camera. It made him a huge star, but it also meant he'd never reach the level of stardom he felt he deserved.
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