"History is the memory of things said and done." - Carl Becker
Nostalgia waxes our memory and gives it a shiny gloss. Heroes becomes legends while villains becomes tyrants before becoming a sort of legendary figure in their own right. Events take on lives of their own and becomes more than the sum of their parts.
Wrestling is no different in this regard. Matches from legends like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin have passed into the annals of wrestling lore as they should. However, what of recent events? Do things that transpired in so recent a memory deserve to be left behind.
No, they do not. However, they do require some hindsight before making that judgment. There needs to some time to digest the events before weighing them against the noted events of the past.
Sometimes, however, there are things that just demand that place. Great natural disasters and battles, first time events and the fall of empires and events that change the world can do that. More than that, they force themselves into that place.
In 2011 on a hot July night, CM Punk challenged the WWE Champion John Cena in a match that, to be frank, was the best I have ever seen and might be the best of all time. The drama of the moment, the emotion of the All State Arena crowd and the audaciously brilliant conclusion will leave it's mark in the annals of professional wrestling history.
It was as good as any Shawn Michaels match. It was as grand as any Steve Austin angle.
It might be bold to say, but consider a few factors. Just as human beings are more than a collection of biochemical reactions, a match is more than the combatants in the ring. It's built on the back of the storyline leading to the match and the aftermath it spawns. A great match without any lead in is simply just that: A great match.
What separates a great match from the best of all time is the build to it, the emotion of the events and the aftermath it creates.
Its logical enough to assume that the result of most storylines will be the resulting match. However, Cena vs. Punk at Money In The Bank represented so much more. It became a war for the heart of the WWE Universe.
The Landscape of the Empire
"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." - Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV Bible
Prior to Money In The Bank, the WWE was in the doldrums. Tired storylines were rehashed without shame and the once great empire was left a shell of it's former glory. Fully ten years removed from the fabled "Attitude Era" and with the old stars fading away, the WWE was left with an issue that all long time promotions counteracted.
They needed to reinvent the wheel.
Coming off a disappointing Capitol Punishment, the two top stars were top title holders John Cena and Randy Orton. The WWE again needed find it's niche. The WWE didn't have much in the cupboard with the abrupt retirement of Edge and newly minted star Alberto Del Rio becoming a victim of circumstances beyond his control.
John Cena, himself, was a victim of his own circumstance as well. Possessing the same gimmick since 2004 and the top money man in the WWE, he was enthroned in a position where he could not change a single thing lest if effect his status as the WWE's sacred cow. Such is the fate of all figurehead kings.
"Everywhere man blames nature and fate, yet his fate is mostly but the echo of his character and passions, his mistakes and weaknesses." - Democritus
Enter CM Punk.
Long time fans of Punk knew what the "Second City Saint" could do on the microphone and in the ring. His last stand in Ring Of Honor's "Summer of Punk" saga passed into the annals of the promotion's history as one of the best angles they'd ever done.
Punk was actually a multiple time World Heavyweight Champion by that time, defeating Edge and Jeff Hardy both on "Money In The Bank" briefcase cash ins. Punk would go on to feud with Hardy in PWI's 2009 Feud Of The Year.
But Punk was always overlooked in some form. He was never the strongest guy in the WWE and there were, at times, better wrestlers. But Punk always possessed an unshakable faith in himself and an iron will to be the best in the world.
To that point, however, Punk never broke the proverbial glass ceiling for whatever reason. Whether it was to hold the belt for Undertaker's return or some shortsighted stable formation, Punk never got that chance.
The Road To Fortune
"Trying to be somebody else is a waste of the person you are." - Kurt Cobain
Punk would not only break the glass when he got the chance, he would shatter the damn building.
On June 20, Punk acknowledged what was once just a rumor. He told the world that his contract was expiring. It's rare when the WWE actually acknowledges any rumors, let alone certifies them as real or "kayfabe." That raised a few eyebrows.
At that point, John Cena successfully defended his WWE Championship against R-Truth in a rather ho-hum main event at Capitol Punishment. Another match, another heel. The WWE angled Punk into the limelight and constructed the framework for an angle that quickly took on a life of it's own.
On June 27, Punk went through the motions of being a typical WWE heel. He interfered in the main event of Raw, causing a distraction which allowed Truth to spear Cena through a table and win the match.
Punk grabbed a microphone and went up the ramp. Ironically wearing a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin shirt, Punk casually sat cross-legged and started to cut a promo. What the WWE Universe expected was another of Punk's good dissertations. What they got destroyed the foundation of the WWE's world.
Punk launched a tirade that seemingly confirmed all the rumors that Internet fans had taken as truth. Trashing everything and everyone in the WWE, not a person was spared. Even the fans got a dose of his anger.
Afterwards, the show faded to black while Punk was screaming "you can't silence me!" Fans immediately crashed twitter and message boards. Was it real? Was it a work? Did it matter what it was? In the storyline, Punk was suspended indefinitely due to his tirade, but the shock of what transpired needed time to pass to fully understand.
The WWE didn't have time, though. The show must go on.
The follow up on July 4 left fans wondering what would happen. Cena confronted McMahon about Punk's suspension. Threatening to walk out if Punk wasn't reinstated. McMahon relented and reinstated Punk. However, McMahon threatened to fire Cena if lost to Punk at Money In The Bank.
Cena's follow up wasn't "groundbreaking" like Punk's promo, but was a nicely done bit of work.
The final confrontation took place in Cena's home town of Boston. Punk opened the show by reveling in his newly found "power" and even brought a megaphone to the arena. The fans ate it up as he turned it into siren mode.
Punk negotiated with Vince over a new contract that included some rather ludicrous demands including immediate production of "CM Punk: The Movie!" Punk held Vince by his "grapefruits" as he berated everything Vince held dear. Most of all, Punk made Vince publicly apologize to him.
Take that in for a second. Vince McMahon publicly apologized to Punk. McMahon only apologizes if he erred egregiously in some form. Storyline or not, that was a bombshell.
Cena stormed to the ring and called into question Punk leaving the WWE. Punk countered by questioning Cena's perceptions of himself as the underdog. Punk even compared Cena to the New York Yankees.
This was enough for Cena, as it would be for any hardcore Boston sports fan. The WWE Champion laid a bomb in the form of his fist into Punk's face. Punk, frustrated by the whole situation, reiterated his promise to leave with the WWE Title.
There are two notable things in the build up, aside from the entire audacity of the angle. The first was the fans turned Punk into a hero. Punk went out of his way to insult Boston and they cheered him for it. Punk "pipebombed" Boston's hometown hero and they chanted "C-M-Punk! C-M-Punk!"
The second thing was, when the build began in earnest, Punk and Cena did not meet in the ring in any wrestling capacity. The entire angle was built on the blur of rumors and realism, simple emotion and some of the best promotion work seen in years.
If that's not a testament to the strength of those two men, then what was coming would be.
The Battle of Kings
"In times of war, the law falls silent." - Cicero
The stage was already set for a magnificent battle between the King of CeNation and the Prodigal Son of the Second City. Two magnificent Ladder matches and a ton of effort from the entire WWE Universe was paying off.
Chicago was a brilliant host and the fans were lusting for the action in ways that would have made any Roman Colosseum crowd take notice. They wanted more of it and they were going to get it.
CM Punk rolled into the All State Arena and Chicago lit up like the Great Fire of 1871. Cena entered and the arena jeered Cena like few places had before. Cena, in a tacit acknowledgement of Chicago's reaction, did no salute the crowd, which was something he always did since turning into a babyface so many years ago.
Punk and Cena broke their match (pardon the ads) into three separate segments in a display of classic wrestling psychology.
The first part of the match focused mainly on rest holds. The crowd would naturally be hot and the parties involved anticipated this. For the first ten minutes of the match, Punk and Cena worked a rest-hold heavy style which let the crowd get all their cheers and jeers out.
The second part of the match taught the crowd when to cheer. When both men went through their paces and hit their signature spots, the crowd responded beautifully. Simply put, by teaching the crowd when to pop and when to rest, they built the crowd up for the finale and ensured they weren't absolutely exhausted when it came.
"Teach them properly, Major." - Matthew Broderick "Glory"
The crowd wasn't left without a bone though. In arguably the most brilliant set of reversals this year, if not ever, Cena caught Punk as the latter was going for a flying crossbody. Cena rolled through and moved into position for an Attitude Adjustment. Punk slipped out and lifted Cena to go for a Go To Sleep. Cena caught Punk's leg on the way down and shifted Punk into a STF.
After selling the move as torture and giving a heroic "NO!", Punk slipped his hand through and reversed the STF into an Anaconda Vice. Cena did his own bit of selling before using his power to get into a standing position. Cena hoisted Punk and finally got nailed an Attitude Adjustment. Simply put, it doesn't get better than that.
"He who would defend everything, defends nothing." - Frederick the Great
Going into the finishing sequence, Vince would make his appearance known and attempted to reenact the Montreal Screwjob. This was the expected finish by a lot of fans. Logically in the extreme, of course, but anti-climatic in a lot of ways.
Punk glared at Vince from the outside, got back into the ring and walked into another STF from Cena. Vince called for the bell and sent Laurinaitis running to the bell keeper. Cena broke his hold to intercept Laurinaitis and laid him low while yelling "A man is going to win this fight!"
Cena chewed out Vince because he "didn't want to be that guy." While Cena chose to stick to his principals, it cost him everything. When Cena got back into the ring, he walked into a GTS from Punk. Three seconds later, Punk was the new WWE Champion and the world exploded. The finish protected Cena enough and maintained the integrity of his character while allowing Punk to go over.
Vince called for Del Rio to cash in his newly won "Money In The Bank" contract. Del Rio stormed the ring and ate a roundhouse kick from Punk for his trouble. Punk blew a kiss to Vince and tore through the crowd as the match and the pay-per-view ended.
The stunned audience in the arena and at home had little idea that they just witnessed the threshold of history.
"I'm just average enough and screwed up enough that I could write a song that lasts forever. Then the rest just won't matter." - Brendan Fraser "Airheads"
The result of the events of Punk vs. Cena at Money In The Bank are still being felt. While it might be ludicrous to imagine, but the idea was that Punk ran home in his wrestling gear while holding a bright and shiny belt. Punk put the WWE Championship in the fridge and took a picture of if.
The cascade reaction of that win is still being felt in the WWE. Most great wrestlers have certain matches that they can look back as their defining moment. Steve Austin refusing to tap out to Bret Hart's Sharpshooter. Edge's series of TLC matches. Chris Jericho winning the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship. Such was the case for Punk at Money In The Bank.
The second result was the wild series of events that unfolded that were a storyline result of Punk's departure. Vince McMahon was relieved of his daily duties, Triple H became the new boss of Raw and Punk returned for a glorious sequel at SummerSlam. Del Rio finally seized his opportunity. The Miz and R-Truth became great heels. The entire WWE roster even walked out.
Even today with angles such as Kane returning with his mask, Cena seeing the darker shades of gray and Punk feuding with anything resembling an authority figure are still residual effects from the audacity of that match and storyline.
The second half of 2011 was one of the best times as a wrestling fan and the momentum will not slow down. Wrestlers who were cast offs are now champions. The Internet fans have a voice now and the shining star of two men who danced the most brilliant Game of Kings ever seen are still shining examples of what can be.
"Heroes get remembered. But legends never die." - Tagline from "The Sandlot"
Whether we're currently in is a new era or simply a good time in general, Cena and Punk put on the match for the ages. It was great match and great angle. The naked and unabashed ambition has yet to see the full payoff.
But the events that transpired in July of 2011 in Chicago will pass into legacy and it's appropriate place as the best match of all time.