A battered body and backstage politics compelled CM Punk to walk away from WWE. His story is one of frustration, of wading through pain and wiping the vomit off his lips before trudging on, all to achieve his goal of headlining a WrestleMania.
Looking back at the last few years of his wrestling career through the lens of what Punk told his friend Colt Cabana on The Art of Wrestling podcast (h/t CagesideSeats for the transcription, contains NSFW language), the signs were there that he was on the way out for good.
The sometimes-bristly Superstar exited WWE suddenly in January. Fans were left to speculate about what exactly triggered his departure. That moment was no sudden emotional outburst; the wick was alight back in 2011, the beginning of a slow burn to that eventual explosion.
Reality and kayfabe bled into each other when WWE used Punk's expiring contract as a key part of a storyline. He became everyone's favorite anti-hero when he delivered a scathing, now-famous worked-shoot promo on Raw.
Onscreen, he threatened to leave the company with the WWE title. Backstage, he decided to re-sign.
After a five-star masterwork opposite John Cena, Punk's stardom rose. His momentum swelled. That elusive spot on the WrestleMania marquee waited for him on the horizon.
Sept. 18, 2011: Triple H Wins
The Summer of Punk fizzled out. Many blame Triple H, who inserted himself into Punk's path and knocked him off at Night of Champions 2011.
Punk's momentum faded at this point. Triple H went back to his onscreen corporate role.
Years later, Punk says that he barked at Triple H about that very moment, telling him, "I seriously resent you for not putting me over three years ago when you should have."
Nov. 20, 2011: Day 1 of 434
While WWE never put Punk on the same tier as Cena, The Rock and Undertaker, it did put the WWE Championship on him for a historic amount of time.
His year-plus reign began at Survivor Series 2012. Cranking Albert Del Rio's arm back with the Anaconda Vise earned him his second WWE title reign.
Nov. 23, 2011: Punk Talks Nearly Walking Away
Punk wanted to put WWE behind him back in 2011. In an interview with The Hot Clicks Podcast (h/t Wrestling Inc), he talked about nearly not re-signing that summer.
"My contract was up and I was like, 'You know what, my contract's up. I fulfilled my obligations to you. You have fulfilled your obligations to me, and you let me slip through your fingers.'"
He still had yet to add "WrestleMania headliner" to his resume, though. He pushed through in pursuit of that elusive goal.
Feb. 19, 2012-June 17, 2012: Cena Headlines over the Champ
Punk was not "the guy" despite holding the company's ultimate prize. Cena, champion or not, was clearly the company's top star.
WWE thrust Cena into the center of the spotlight again and again, leaving Punk to stand just outside of it.
At Elimination Chamber 2012, Cena vs. Kane in an Ambulance match took top billing. Cena vs. The Rock headlined WrestleMania 28, leaving Punk's title defense against Chris Jericho to reside lower down on the card.
Cena vs. Lesnar was Extreme Rules's main event. Over the Limit ended with John Laurinaitis vs. Cena, not Punk vs. Daniel Bryan for the strap.
And despite the momentum of the storyline featuring AJ Lee, the woman Punk would eventually marry, Cena vs. Big Show served as the top match at No Way out, not Punk vs. Bryan vs. Kane.
July 23, 2012: Punk Turns Heel
In the midst of a world title reign, Punk switched sides. At Raw 1,000, he attacked The Rock.
This was to set up The Brahma Bull eventually plucking the championship off Punk.
In his interview with Cabana, Punk says that Vince McMahon told him, "Rock's coming back, and he wants to work a bad guy. You're the champ." He added that McMahon said that he would owe him one afterward.
Oct. 28, 2012: Ryback in the Cell
Needing arm surgery, Cena had to step away from a battle with Punk at the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
Enter Ryback. The rising star entered the biggest match of his career having not lost once. The company told Punk that could carry him, that the powerhouse was "definitely not ready."
Punk contends that the Hell in a Cell bout "took 20 years off my life."
Nov. 18, 2012: The Shield Debuts
Not sure what was next for him, Punk and WWE talked about the possibility of his leading a heel faction. Punk's idea was to call up Kassius Ohno, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose from developmental. The company chose Roman Reigns over Ohno but ran with the idea.
The group helped Punk retain, attacking Ryback during the Survivor Series title bout.
It didn't, however, become his group. Plans changed. It was implied that The Shield was working for Punk, but their relationship was not what Punk had envisioned.
Dec. 4, 2012: Undergoes Surgery
Already dealing with a number of accumulating injuries, a partially torn meniscus forced Punk onto the surgeon's table, as WWE announced.
WWE didn't strip him of the title. He would not be out of action long.
Dec. 5, 2012: Punk Surpasses Cena
As Cena himself noted on Twitter, Punk's reign became the longest in the modern era.
This marked 381 days for Punk as champ, pushing him past Cena's 380.
Jan. 7, 2013: Returns to the Ring
Less than a month after surgery, Punk was wrestling again. He battled Ryback in a TLC match on Raw, the match WWE had teased for the pay-per-view of the same name before Punk's injury.
Upon hearing of WWE's plans for him, Punk was shocked. The company certainly wasn't easing him back into things.
Of the situation, he tells Cabana:
I was like 'That's in two-and-a-half, three weeks?' He's like 'Yep! Prognosis for your surgery is four-to-six weeks.' And I was like 'So you book me in a horribly dangerous match with a horribly dangerous opponent.' He's like 'Well, that's when Rock's coming back so we've got to start that program right away.'
Punk talked about toughing things out as Harley Race would have. He talked of thinking that if he did what he was asked that he would stockpile enough favor with McMahon to get him that WrestleMania headline spot.
Jan. 27, 2013: The Rock Takes His Title
The longest title reign in the last 25 years finally ended. The Rock fended off an attack from The Shield to defeat Punk at the Royal Rumble.
That was the second battle that Punk lost. He had been trying to convince McMahon and company to let him keep the title until WrestleMania.
He said he was "actively trying to convince him that dropping the title to Rock was not the right thing to do." Punk offered up the possibility of his losing it in a Triple Threat at The Show of Shows. WWE was set on Cena vs. The Rock.
April 7, 2013: The Undertaker
Cena and The Rock were the showcase match. Punk and Undertaker stole the show.
Their collision was not the main event at WrestleMania 29. Instead, Punk and The Deadman flourished before Cena and The Rock went on.
The Second-City Saint became the Undertaker's last victim, the 21st consecutive man to lose to him at WrestleMania.
Punk wasn't happy about what this would do for his career. McMahon tried to sell him on how much heat he would get following this bout.
Punk disagreed, saying, "Explain to me how losing to a 45-year-old man that wrestles once a year is going to make me the hottest heel in the world? No disrespect. Explain to me how that works."
The match left Punk more hurt. He says he walked away with a bruised patella and his knee in worse shape than ever. In a way, that was by design.
He said of his approach to it, "They did not give me what I thought I should have made. But I wrestled that match like I had a death wish." With WWE not giving him the time off he asked for, he wondered if the only way to earn a break was to get hurt.
April 8, 2013-June 15, 2013: Time Off Post-WrestleMania
Punk gave us a preview of what a Punk-less WWE would look like. After WrestleMania, he took time to heal.
Meanwhile, Jericho and Paul Heyman built up his match at Payback.
Unlike in the past, he had no itch to come back. The time off allowed him to rediscover life, he explained to Cabana.
This must have been in his mind when he considered quitting months later.
June 16, 2013: Payback in Chicago
Punk wanted off until SummerSlam. WWE wanted to give Chicago its favorite son.
In Punk's words, McMahon told him, "This is Chicago, so I need you. It's not sold out yet, so we put you on, it will sell out, and we want you to work."
Chicago welcomed Punk back with a raucous reaction. He responded with the best match of the night. He and Jericho continued what they had going around WrestleMania time in 2012.
Aug. 18, 2013: SummerSlam
A feud with Heyman led Punk to battle Lesnar. Punk was excited about working with both The Beast Incarnate and his advocate.
He was less thrilled with how things were set to go down.
Scheduled to lose to another part-timer, Punk thought, "So I've gotta put over The Rock and he goes away, I've gotta put over 'Taker and he goes away, and now I'm putting over Brock and he goes away."
Again, McMahon promised that if he did this, he would owe Punk. To The Best in the World, that meant the goal of headlining was still alive.
He and Lesnar put on a classic. Punk lost.
Sept. 23, 2013: Ryback Misses the Table
With Lesnar gone, the feud shifted toward Heyman's cronies—Ryback and Curtis Axel. The beginning of that interaction saw The Big Guy add to Punk's collection of injuries.
Ryback powerbombed Punk onto a table, but the crash didn't go as planned. Punk fell on the edge of it before tumbling onto the concrete.
The error messed Punk up for months.
Dec. 3, 2013: Punk Defecates on Himself
Suffering from broken ribs (which Punk blames on Ryback) and concussion symptoms, Punk struggled to work. He tells stories of himself on all fours, vomiting after a match.
The WWE medical staff treated him with a conveyor belt of antibiotics. Punk says that led him to soil himself in the middle of in-ring action on SmackDown.
Jan. 23, 2014: Interview with Ariel Helwani
As the Royal Rumble approached, Punk sat down with MMA's Helwani (h/t Wrestling Inc, contains NSFW language). Little did we know it, but Punk offered hints that he was going to leave.
He talked about how injured he was, saying, "Some days I feel so beat up, I don't know if I can put my boots on." More telling, though, was that when Helwani asked him about his contract (set to expire in July), he seemed apathetic about it.
"Everything is up in the air," Punk told him.
Jan. 26, 2014: The Royal Rumble
Punk saw the Royal Rumble as one more chance to show WWE he deserved a higher rung on the ladder.
He told himself, "I'm going to change their minds. I'm going to have this awesome Royal Rumble, and they're going to be like, 'Goddamn, all right, Punk needs to be in the main event. He hasn't been in the main event.'"
He entered the 30-man battle first. During his nearly 50 minutes in that match, he suffered a concussion.
The injury sent him into the corner, hurt, confused, his head spinning. He told the ringside doctor about the concussion, and Punk says the doc simply said, "What do you want me to do?"
Kane eventually came down to the ring, pulled Punk out of the match early and threw him, concussed and all, into the announce table.
That ended up being Punk's swan song.
Jan. 27, 2014: No-Shows Raw
Punk quit. In a closed-door meeting, he told Triple H and McMahon, "You have shackled me, you have creatively stifled me, you have made this a very toxic environment, I no longer want to be here."
Fans didn't hear of any of this. WWE made no announcement. Punk stayed silent.
One could only go on rumors and what outlets like TMZ reported, which pointed to Batista's being in WrestleMania as a key reason for Punk's departure.
Feb. 20, 2014: Vince McMahon Comments on Punk's Departure
McMahon didn't give up hope that he could talk Punk into coming back. In a conference call, he referred (h/t PWTorch) to Punk's absence as a "sabbatical," as opposed to a banged-up, angry, disgruntled employee quitting.
March 3, 2014: Punk Doesn't Come Home
When Raw came to Chicago, the Internet buzzed with reports stating that Punk was on his way back.
His music played. Fans erupted.
Heyman showed instead.
He talked briefly about how not being able to beat Undertaker drove him away before starting the selling process on Lesnar's shot at The Phenom. The show went on. The machine kept humming.
June 11, 2014: Triple H Texts Punk
Triple H reached out to Punk via text. Punk says he told him, "Send me my royalties that I've been asking about for two months. That is reasonable, and then I will talk to you when I get back from my honeymoon."
June 13, 2014: Wedding Day
As F4WOnline reported, AJ and Punk were married on June 13. This is the day he received his walking papers from WWE to go along with his ring.
McMahon would later say in an interview with Steve Austin on the WWE Network (subscription required) that the timing was the result of a mix-up. Punk believes otherwise.
He says, "I was fired, on my wedding day. Very calculated and very deliberate."
June 24, 2014: Mick Foley Comments on Punk Cutting off Communications
Punk didn't just leave WWE; he left the wrestling world behind.
Talking with USA Today, Foley said of Punk, "I will say he doesn't respond to me. I used to be able to reach out to him. I think he's just cut off all communication with people from the business."
June 25, 2014: Heyman Reveals Punk's Mindset
With no statement from Punk or WWE yet, it was Punk's former manager who provided insight into what triggered his walking away.
On Jericho's Talk Is Jericho podcast, Heyman said the following: "He was unhappy. He had enough. He couldn't take it anymore, and it wasn't a slow build. A year before he walked, there were daily conversations of 'I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to take this. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be here.'"
Heyman painted a picture of a man who had long lost his passion for the grueling art form. He was not surprised in the least that Punk left.
July 14, 2014: Moved to Alumni Section
Punk's career officially ended in the quietest way possible. WWE moved his profile to the "WWE Alumni" section of the company's website.
In a NSFW tweet, Punk took the opportunity to say his piece to the fans:
July 15, 2014: "Best in the World" Documentary Airs on WWE Network
WWE may have been done with Punk and vice versa, but his previous work was still a smart way to boost interest in the WWE Network.
The company put the documentary detailing his rise on the streaming service.
July 17, 2014: Contract Expiration Date
Per Mike Johnson of PWInsider, this is when Punk's contract would have ended. Not that many folks knew this at the time, but WWE had already fired Punk.
July 21, 2014: Never, Ever
In an interview with Chris Van Vliet, Punk said he would "never, ever" return to the ring. (Note: Video contains brief NSFW language.)
Punk looked happy, more energetic than he had in years. Fans didn't want to believe his claims that he wasn't coming back, but it sure looked as if he was enjoying not wrestling anymore.
Aug. 11, 2014: Punk Announced for WWE 2K15 Showcase Mode
As Vince Ingenito wrote for IGN, Cena and Punk's rivalry would be one of two featured in the WWE 2K15 video game.
Punk wasn't pleased. He rounded up a posse of lawyers.
Sept. 4, 2014: Punk's Attorneys Send WWE Lengthy Letter
If 2K Sports and WWE were going to profit from Punk's name, he clearly wanted to as well.
Sept. 9, 2014: Legal Discussions
Later, Punk's legal team went so far as to talk about his removal from the game. GameSpot.com reported, "Legal representatives for pro-wrestler CM Punk are engaged with WWE officials to settle a range of disputes."
He stayed in WWE 2K15. And as he tells Cabana, he can't discuss the amount of his settlement, but that he got everything he wanted "and then some."
Sept. 29, 2014: Stephanie McMahon Reacts to Chants
WWE's next trip to Chicago saw fans roaring Punk's name. McMahon extinguished that fire in a hurry.
She asked why people would cheer for quitters.
The chants haven't completely gone away, but their volume has lessened in the months following this moment.
Oct. 22, 2014: Report on WWE Removing Punk Signs
WWE didn't want fans to linger on a man who had left the company. It removed several signs supporting Punk from fans at a live event.
A report from PWInsider Elite reports (subscription required, h/t WrestingInc) provided some insight into WWE's thinking. The reports said that the company would try to avoid bringing attention to Punk's absence.
Nov. 26, 2014: The Podcast Breaks the Internet
On the day before Thanksgiving, Punk spilled his guts onto a microphone. In his interview with Cabana, Punk fired shots at Ryback, Triple H, McMahon and the WWE medical staff.
He told a disturbing story of a misdiagnosed staph infection and explained his reasons for leaving. It was a story of mounting unhappiness, of his never getting that opportunity that so often hung dangling in front of him.
Punk never headlined a WrestleMania. Instead, he sat at home and watched his friend Bryan get that chance.
Just a week later, Punk revealed that he had a new goal in front of him—success in the Octagon.
Dec. 6, 2014: Signs with UFC
At UFC 181, the top MMA promotion in the world announced that it had added Punk to its roster. He will make his debut sometime in 2015.
Fans will finally get to see Punk fight again, but it won't be in the kind of battle he has thrived in for so long. A new battlefield awaits, one that is unfamiliar and unwelcoming.
Being a novice entering a sport at age 36, his medical record longer than some books, many predict failure for Punk. In his mind, at least, he's accustomed to that feeling.
He says he believes that he "failed at wrestling" because he never headlined WrestleMania. His classics-rich resume and fervent fans say otherwise.
All quotes from Punk's podcast appearance with Cabana unless otherwise noted.