Last night was the most memorable and shocking Monday Night Raw in more than a decade. Period.
CM Punk’s reality-based tirade at the end of the show has wrestling fans buzzing at a level not seen since the beloved “Attitude Era,” with just about every article on this site and others this morning dedicated to recapping it and analyzing its impact on the sports entertainment landscape.
Punk accomplished something last night that many believed was no longer possible in this day and age of predictable storylines, smart Internet fans, and spoilers: he made us believe what we were watching was real.
All due respect to the Nexus and the invasion angle that took place one year ago, but everyone knew from the onset that the Nexus storyline, while brilliant, was all part of the show. The surprise factor there was how far Wade Barrett and his henchmen went in attacking WWE personnel and destroying the ringside area.
The shock last night came from Punk “breaking the fourth wall,” as he put it, bringing up other promotions and dropping names thought to be banned from WWE television. The delivery by one of the best stickmen in the business only added to the illusion that what we were seeing was a shoot from a guy with nothing left to lose, and not an ingenious work that has been in the making for weeks.
WWE must have been inspired by the recent release of its Best of Monday Nitro collection and the upcoming Montreal Screwjob DVD, because the company pulled off something we have not seen since those days last night.
Many today are comparing CM Punk to the legendary “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the similarities were hard to miss on Raw. We saw Punk wearing a Stone Cold t-shirt, ripping Mr. McMahon and his family, using swear words, and just generally not giving a damn. But rather than Austin, Punk’s diatribe last night was more reminiscent of Bret Hart’s heel promos from 1997.
While many fans point to WrestleMania XIV and 1998 as the ushering in of wrestling’s latest golden age, the pieces really fell into place the year before. Screwed out of the title time and time again, disrespected and underappreciated (sound familiar?), Bret Hart stunned wrestling fans with a new persona that broke barriers in what previously been a very tame and fairly predictable landscape.
For the first time, words like “bulls***” were spat into a live WWE microphone, and Vince McMahon was acknowledged on-air as the owner of the company. It was the best mic work of Hart’s Hall of Fame career. It was also clear that WWE had turned the page to a different, more mature brand of wrestling.
The product through 1996 had become stale and cartoonish, geared mainly towards children. The atmosphere was ripe for characters like Hart and Steve Austin to surprise audiences with adult-oriented storylines. Likewise, today’s PG product created a backdrop that only added to the jolt when Punk stepped outside the company’s perceived comfort zone.
Fans, just as they were 15 years ago, have been conditioned to expect WWE to do the “same old thing,” the safe thing. Last night, not only did it do something completely different, but it pulled it off so well that some are still wondering today whether or not it was actually real. That’s damn impressive.
But who deserves the credit for coming up with this angle, and how long has it been in the works? There is the creative team, obviously. Although many doubt their competency, this is what they get paid to do.
Some think that Punk is the mastermind, and the execution of last night’s promo combined with the dropping of names like ROH, Paul Heyman and Colt Cabana certainly indicate that he had his spoon in the pot.
Still, others wonder if this is the first major angle devised by Triple H, who was also mentioned in last night’s promo as the “doofus son-in-law” who will be taking over the company. Triple H’s corporate role has increased lately, and this may be the first indication that he is off and running with the McMahon family ball.
Regardless of who is the real genius behind the scenes, the thing to always keep in mind is that professional wrestling is an elaborate production, a staged show at its essence. While Punk was able to make even the most jaded fans suspend their disbelief last night, make no mistake that the entire segment was preplanned, right down to the Sopranos-like cut to black.
In fact, the planning probably goes all the way back to the earliest reports of Punk’s contract winding down. The weeks of speculation and backstage leaks were all planted by WWE to build up to last night’s climax. If that’s true, then something truly special is at work here.
For all the complaints of WWE being unable to slowly build a memorable storyline, this one can be traced back to Punk’s return to TV last November.
Punk was placed in a prominent position on Raw, first as an announcer, then as the leader of the New Nexus, a spot that kept him in the spotlight while still maintaining the illusion that he was being underutilized by the company. With the end of his real-life contract coming up, WWE fooled us all by making us think Punk was truly unhappy and on his way out, and leaked information confirming those suspicions.
When Punk tore into the backstage politics last night, he was playing to our preconceived notion of reality. That, along with a split from the predictable PG show we’ve become accustomed to, made the promo effective and believable.
Many are now predicting a return to the Attitude Era ways and pointing to Punk’s rant as a changing of the guard of sorts. However, fans must remember that times are different than they were a decade ago. I’ve always maintained that when wrestling hits it big again, it will be due to something we’ve never seen before, rather than a retread of what was successful prior.
WWE is in the advantageous position or having no real competition. Mentioning promotions like New Japan or Ring of Honor on the air isn’t going to hurt the WWE ratings or product.
Perhaps this is the dawn of an era where the backstage politics, booking, and Internet reaction all become part of the storylines. Maybe Punk does win the title and shows up in ROH with it. How does this possibly harm WWE, when all it would do is generate buzz for professional wrestling, an industry in which WWE is undisputed king?
Vince McMahon has shown a willingness to help smaller promotions in the past, like he did with ECW in 1997.
Whatever the outcome, it will be hard to argue that WWE doesn’t listen to its fans, as Punk basically spoke for the IWC last night. It is also clear that WWE has one of those rare opportunities to change the wrestling landscape and put itself back on the fast track to mainstream success.
There is no question that last night’s events will result in a boost for the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. If WWE delivers from now until that night, then the sky’s the limit for the foreseeable future.
This is an exciting time in wrestling not seen since 1997. Back then, sweeping changes in the WWE’s mindset and programming resulted in an unforgettable time known as the Attitude Era. Rest assured we will not see a recreation of that magic.
Instead, let’s hope WWE gives us something even better and more magical. Let’s hope WWE gives us the very thing we as wrestling fans tune in for week and week and year after year.
Something we’ve never seen before.