Ranking CM Punk's 10 Greatest Matches in WWE 14 Years After Debut on ECW
The August 1, 2006, episode of ECW is noteworthy, not for the return to the historic Hammerstein Ballroom or the brutally negative reception given to the main event between Batista and Big Show, but for the debut of a Superstar who would become an integral part of WWE programming for the next decade.
He was tattooed, pierced, had long hair. He looked nothing like the larger-than-life Adonises that had so frequently risen to prominence in McMahonland, yet the fans in Manhattan greeted him with a hero's welcome.
In hindsight, it should have been an indicator of the connection fans would form with the Chicago-born competitor over the course of his eight years with the company.
During that time, he not only developed a cult-like following, he evolved into one of the best wrestlers on the planet. And he knew it. "Best in the World" became more than a nickname and catchphrase. It was a rallying call for anyone who doubted him.
And he backed up his audacious claim every time he set foot in the squared circle, performing up to the moment. Under the brightest lights, in the biggest moments and situations, he excelled.
It is for that reason today, some six years after he wrestled his final match, fans long for his return to the squared circle.
Now, on the anniversary of his debut in with the rebooted ECW brand, relive these 10 matches that serve both as Punk's finest in-ring output and a reminder of why he was everything he claimed to be.
10. Punk vs. Chris Jericho (Payback 2013)
On the heels of a disappointing loss to The Undertaker at WrestleMania 29, CM Punk returned to his hometown of Chicago for a showdown with familiar foe Chris Jericho.
The match, one of the marquee bouts at the Payback 2013 pay-per-view, served as foreshadowing for the storyline developments that would unfold surrounding Punk and advocate Paul Heyman in the weeks and months to come.
Heyman was a ball of nerves at ringside as Jericho arrogantly combated the returning Straight Edge Superstar. Absolutely certain he could beat a Punk whose desire to continue wrestling was unknown at the time after the biggest loss of his career months earlier, Jericho was cocky and confident early.
When his signature stuff did not work, including multiple applications of the Walls of Jericho, the future Hall of Famer unloaded with a punishing barrage of elbows to the head and neck of the hometown hero.
Punk was the opposite, seemingly looking to his hometown fans for guidance. Every time they chanted his name, Heyman looked more defeated at ringside. After all, if his meal ticket could find motivation elsewhere, he served less of a purpose.
Ultimately, it was that Chicago crowd that fueled Punk, allowing him to survive a game Jericho's onslaught and put him away with consecutive Go To Sleeps. Like the Ultimate Warrior in his WrestleMania 7 classic against Randy Savage, Punk had realized his in-ring career was not at its end and roared back to victory.
After the match, Punk celebrated in the center of an adoring audience while Heyman watched on, abandoned by his charge as the victor took to ringside to greet friends and family. It was a nice nod to the betrayal that would shake WWE to its core and set up an even greater match shortly thereafter.
One we will get to in a few moments.
9. Punk vs. Chris Jericho (Extreme Rules 2012)
Just weeks after successfully defending his WWE Championship against Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 28, Punk again found himself sharing the ring with Y2J, this time in a Chicago Street Fight with the same prize at stake.
Jericho spent weeks attacking the emotions of Punk, bringing up a family history of alcoholism and substance abuse. He made more than a few disparaging remarks about the champion's sister, who sat ringside with Punk's family and friends for this hometown brawl.
And a brawl it was.
Bumps, bruises, welts and lacerations decorated the bodies of both champion and challenger as they waged war over the top prize in professional wrestling. Jericho taunted Punk's sister and ate a big slap to the face for it. Still relying on mind games, he produced two cans of beer, pouring them on the Straight Edge Superstar before Punk lit him up with some vengeful strikes.
The intensity increased with every passing moment until Jericho trapped Punk in the Walls of Jericho. The champion fought through the pain and resourcefully retrieved a fire extinguisher from ringside. He blinded Jericho momentarily, only to find himself hoisted on the challenger's shoulders as Y2J mockingly teased a Go To Sleep of his own.
Punk countered, catapulted Jericho into an exposed turnbuckle and picked up the win with the GTS.
A post-match celebration with his family felt like the appropriate ending. Like the storyline itself, the match grew increasingly more personal and violent as it went on, culminating with Punk using his rival's own hubris against him to successfully retain.
8. Punk vs. Undertaker (WrestleMania XXIX)
There was a defiance in Punk as he stood in the center of the squared circle, staring out into the masses in New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, the band Living Colour performing his theme song, "Cult of Personality," live. The best wrestler in the company for the last two years, he was pissed off and dismayed that his match with The Undertaker was not headlining WrestleMania 29.
Channeling that real frustration into his character, he let out an excited roar as the gong sounded and The Deadman made his long march down the ramp. Daring him to bring every ounce of The Phenom that dominated the annals of wrestling's most prestigious night, he was ready to cement his own legacy on the industry's grandest stage.
And he did.
Cocky, arrogant, unabashedly confident in his skills, he taunted and mocked his opponent. He went as far as to toss around the iconic urn, once held by the recently deceased Paul Bearer, then delivered The Deadman's own Old School against him.
For 21 minutes and 30 seconds, Punk was absolutely the better wrestler, absorbing everything thrown at him and dishing it right back to the iconic competitor. He even kicked out of a Tombstone in a moment that left both The Phenom and Paul Heyman in awe at ringside.
It was that last 30 seconds, though, that proved the difference. Still reeling from smacking his shin and knee on the edge of the announce table during an attempted diving elbow, Punk taunted Undertaker with his own body language and facial expressions.
In doing so, he left himself open to a reversal as Undertaker escaped the Go To Sleep attempt and planted Punk with a Tombstone for the grueling victory.
Ironically, it was in that defeat that Punk's greatness became evident. After Taker combated Triple H in consecutive WrestleMania brawls, Punk brought him the opportunity to have a more traditional wrestling match. In fact, it was The Deadman's last great match on the WrestleMania stage.
It was also Punk's last dance at The Showcase of the Immortals.
7. Punk vs. Jeff Hardy (SummerSlam 2009)
The summer of 2009 saw Punk undergo his first heel turn on the WWE's main roster. He opportunistically cashed in Money in the Bank at Extreme Rules, defeating Jeff Hardy for the World Heavyweight Championship. He then engaged The Charismatic Enigma in a series of matches, including a loss at Night of Champions.
Entering SummerSlam, Punk looked to regain the title from Hardy while continuing his crusade to expose the popular Superstar for the flawed, substance-abusing person he was. Their intensely personal feud culminated in a Tables, Ladders & Chairs match in the main event of WWE's annual summertime spectacular.
The dislike between the performers manifested itself in some of the most brutal and unpleasant-looking spots in TLC Match history. Hesitation and body contortion made simple spots from previous bouts appear more dangerous. While the viewer feared for the safety of Punk and Hardy as they just beat the hell out of each other, it also added an element of realism other matches of the same type could not claim.
Of course, there was still one huge, visually impressive spot in the form of a Swanton Bomb by Hardy, off a 20-foot ladder and through Punk and the commentary table. Like a snake, the challenger slithered back into the ring while medics checked on the face-painted babyface.
Hardy would return to the match, but a big kick to the head by Punk knocked him to the mat, allowing Punk to regain the world title in one of the most physical and punishing TLC matches in WWE history.
6. Punk vs. John Cena (SummerSlam 2011)
At July’s Money in the Bank, CM Punk defeated John Cena to win the WWE Championship. He took off through the crowd, seemingly ending his run with the company and taking its top prize with him. In the interim, John Cena defeated Rey Mysterio to capture a second version of the WWE title.
When Punk returned, the two were booked for the main event of SummerSlam with the opportunity to become undisputed WWE champion. To make matters more convoluted, Triple H served as the referee for the bout, providing it a touch of that authority Punk was so against.
Despite the overbooking that led to it, the match was another classic encounter between the company’s resident super and antiheroes. It built steadily, starting with traditional grappling before frustration and urgency set in.
With every near-fall came an excuse to blame Triple H for not counting fast enough. Then, as the match reached its climax, Punk delivered a Go To Sleep, only for Cena to kick out. A brief face-to-face with the special guest official allowed Cena to recover and unload a barrage of strikes on Punk.
The Best in the World answered with another Go To Sleep and pinned Cena to become undisputed WWE champion, even if Triple H managed to miss Cena’s foot on the bottom rope.
The controversial footage and shoehorned interference by Triple H ensured this would not live up to the match a month earlier, but it was still a fantastic wrestling match between two Superstars with an in-ring chemistry not seen since “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock.
5. Punk vs. Rey Mysterio (Over the Limit 2010)
Punk entered the 2010 Over the Limit pay-per-view as the hottest, most effective heel in professional wrestling.
The leader of the Straight Edge Society, he positioned himself as a prophet of sorts. Preaching clean living and forcing his beliefs on the masses, he appeared to relish in his ability to create hostile environments. He also targeted Rey Mysterio to join his faction. When the iconic luchador refused, Punk took a personal approach, interrupting the future Hall of Famer's birthday celebration with then nine-year-old daughter, Aalyah.
That intensified a feud that was already red-hot, leading to a high-stakes match at the May pay-per-view in which, if Punk won, Mysterio would have to take the pledge and join SES. If he lost, Punk would have his head shaved in an act of ultimate humiliation.
One of the most anticipated matches on that night's card, it lived up to expectations.
Hard-hitting and physically intense, the contest saw Punk accidentally busted open mere minutes into it. This, after the Straight Edge Savior had sent Mysterio sliding out of the ring and head-first into a barber's chair. From there, the competitors engaged in some creative sequences and reversals before a hell of a fake-out finish.
Late in the match, Mysterio executed the 619 and appeared on his way to victory. He missed his top-rope splash, though, crashing sternum- and stomach-first on the mat. Confident that he had just taken away the last bit of fight Mysterio had, Punk hesitated a moment, only to be rolled up and beaten in the blink of an eye.
The Straight Edge Society's Luke Gallows, Serena and a masked Joseph Mercury all tried to prevent their messiah's public embarrassment, but Kane made the save and the fans got what they wanted: a shaved Punk.
Both men could have gone to the ring and delivered the same superb match they had up to that point but recognizing the enormity of the match, and the quality of the work they had put in to get to that point, they delivered a phenomenal performance that ranks among both's most underrated and underappreciated.
4. Punk vs. Daniel Bryan (Over the Limit 2012)
This was just a damn good wrestling match.
With no real, drawn-out story to speak of, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan took to the squared circle at Over the Limit in a match for the WWE Championship. Their Ring of Honor history, and their evolution on the indies, was apparent and cited by Michael Cole on commentary, but by the time the bell rang signaling the start of the match, the only thing on either man's mind was proving they were the best in the business.
Punk started aggressively, targeting the left knee of Bryan in an attempt to take away his jarring kicks. Bryan answered, setting his sights on the ribs of his opponent, which had been injured days earlier on SmackDown by a chair-wielding Kane.
Those two injuries became the focal point of the match as Bryan mercilessly attacked the ribs, back and upper body of the champion while Punk took any opportunity he could to further damage the leg. Bryan used a surfboard, bending and contorting his opponent's body in an unnatural manner, while Punk answered with a Figure Four that had the challenger screaming in agony.
The back-and-forth continued, neither man willing to let their pain cost them a shot at standing atop the WWE mountain. Then, late, Bryan caught Punk in the LeBell Lock. Pulling back on the head and neck, he looked for the tapout win, but Punk refused.
Then, he let his own desire to force the submission get the best of him.
Punk used Bryan's body weight against him, rolled back on him and earned a pinfall victory from out of nowhere. After referee John Cone's hand slapped the mat for the third time, Punk tapped, creating some questions as to whether Bryan would have eventually won the title or not and set up months of rematches.
Anytime you take two celebrated in-ring performers like Punk and Bryan, with backgrounds in different disciplines and a wealth of independent experience, there is a reasonable expectation that the match is going to kick all sorts of ass.
This did not disappoint. It was a brilliantly wrestled technical showcase that reminded fans of Punk's own ability to have a mat-based classic while simultaneously continuing Bryan's ascent to the top of the business. It was a flawless match as even the finish was executed in a way that took nothing away from either man and simply saw Punk do the unthinkable by outwrestling the best technical competitor on the planet.
3. Punk vs. John Cena (Raw, February 25, 2013)
Punk's 434-day reign as WWE champion came to an end at the 2013 Royal Rumble, when he lost the title to The Rock—the same Rock who defeated John Cena a year earlier at WrestleMania 28 in a career-defining, "Once in a Lifetime" match.
Following Cena's win in the 30-man Rumble match, it appeared as though he was destined to lock up with The Great One again. To make it to Mania, though, he had to defend his guaranteed title opportunity against Punk on the February 25 episode of Raw in what would be their final encounter ever.
A title shot. A spot in the WrestleMania main event. Bragging rights in one of the greatest in-ring rivalries we have ever witnessed. All were on the line in what ended up being one of the best televised matches in WWE history.
Punk and Cena had competed against each other so many times that they knew what the other was going to throw at them and when. Their battle that night in Dallas was defined by counters and reversals. Punk dodged one of Cena's trademark shoulder tackles, and the leader of the Cenation responded by reversing the Anaconda Vise into a rollup for a near-fall.
A series of reversals, from the Anaconda Vise to the STF and back, had the crowd molten-hot down the stretch, as did a series of near-falls off the Go To Sleep and Attitude Adjustment. "High drama in Dallas!" Michael Cole exclaimed, appropriately describing the electric atmosphere.
The familiarity between the wrestlers forced them to dig deep in their arsenals and pull out moves neither had seen from the other to that point. Cena hoisted Punk up and drove him to the mat with a sit-out powerbomb. The Straight Edge Superstar responded with a rare piledriver that had both Cole and Jerry "The King" Lawler in awe on commentary.
The battle continued until Cena broke out a hurricanrana that was so unexpected it stunned Punk, leaving him vulnerable for one last Attitude Adjustment as Cena cashed his ticket to The Showcase of the Immortals.
It is incredibly difficult for two Superstars to wrestle as frequently as they have and still manage to deliver a match that is both different and captivating. Determined to do just that, Cena and Punk saved one of their best for last in what ranks right alongside Bret Hart vs. 123 Kid, Owen Hart vs. British Bulldog and Shawn Michaels vs. Cena as the best match ever witnessed on Raw.
2. Punk vs. Brock Lesnar (SummerSlam 2013)
The David vs. Goliath story is one of the longest-running in pro wrestling. Overmatched, overpowered and outweighed babyface combats a massive force of nature in a contest that really should not be one. It is a tale as old as time, but its effectiveness has kept it a staple of the industry for generations, and at SummerSlam 2013, CM Punk and Brock Lesnar turned in one of the finest examples of the trope in WWE history.
Lesnar was still relatively fresh into his return with the company, and thus, he still cared about his in-ring performances. He was a beast of a competitor, using every bit of his strength and 50-pound weight advantage to punish Punk, throwing him around the ring and ringside area like a rag doll.
Punk absorbed the punishment, even as his body was marked with welts and bruises from the onslaught, refusing to give up. Every kickout had a little more emphasis behind it, almost as if it was a message to Lesnar that even his best wouldn't keep the Chicago native down.
Even when Punk mounted an offensive, though, Lesnar countered. He escaped the Go To Sleep and applied the kimura as the fans in Los Angeles groaned, believing it to be the end of their hero's chances of victory. Punk countered into a triangle, nearly forcing a tapout. Lesnar, again halting Punk's momentum, broke it up with a powerbomb.
By the time Lesnar grabbed hold of a steel chair, Punk's situation appeared dire. That is, until he took full advantage of the No Disqualification rule and used a low blow to neutralize the Conqueror. From there, he delivered a top-rope elbow assisted by said chair and dropped Lesnar with the GTS. Heyman interrupted the count.
Punk applied the Anaconda Vise, Heyman interfered again. Driven by rage and vengeance, Punk took his eye off Lesnar and applied the submission to his former friend...only to endure a barrage of chair shots and an F-5 on to the weapon as Lesnar picked up a harder-than-expected victory.
This was a five-star classic wrestling match that told a story, featuring the type of hard-hitting action you expect from a match with a No DQ stipulation and really put Punk over as a tenacious, never-say-die babyface that fans could invest in emotionally.
And that was the theme of his career, too.
Always the underdog. Never supposed to achieve what he did in WWE. An indie darling in a world of jacked-up big men; a punk rocker in the land of pop stars. To see that grittiness from him play out as it did against Lesnar, in a match that was as much his showcase as it was the guy who won, was quite rewarding for those who had followed his journey to that point.
1. Punk vs. John Cena (Money in the Bank 2011)
After weeks of pop culture interest in Punk following his iconic Pipebomb Promo, the Straight Edge Superstar and No. 1 contender entered his hometown of Chicago with championship aspirations as he challenged John Cena for the WWE title in the main event of Money in the Bank.
Vowing to leave the company when his contract ran out at midnight, taking the title with him, Punk had the added pressure of the evil Mr. McMahon breathing down his neck, hellbent on preventing that sign of disrespect.
He never showed it, entering the Allstate Arena as confidently and loose as he ever did. He was ready to battle Cena, ready to prove his claim that he was the Best in the World true. In the biggest match of his career, he was absolutely determined to prove he belonged in that spot, against the top star in the industry.
In a high-intensity, high-drama match, Punk and Cena kept the passionate Chicago fans hanging on every move, counter-move, near-fall and false finish. That fans had been conditioned for so long that Cena would inevitably overcome the odds and win worked in the favor of this match, as every single time he hit any signature moves or finishers, the fans bought into the close call.
And every time Punk fought through and delivered something in response, they reacted with groans when Cena kicked out. Chicago's established disdain for the company's Superman didn't hurt the overall reaction of the match, making antihero Punk that much more popular.
Both men expressed frustration as the battle ensued, with neither of their finishing maneuvers putting the other determined individual away. When Cena took his focus off Punk and put it on to referee Scott Armstrong, it allowed the challenger to recover and drop the champ with a GTS that sent Cena to the floor.
Mr. McMahon and John Laurinaitis, two of the main targets of Punk's emotional tirade from June 27, made their presence felt. There was no way in hell they were going to let the loudmouthed rebel leave with the gold. The distraction they provided allowed Cena to apply the STF, but when McMahon called for the bell prematurely, replicating the Montreal Screwjob, Cena released and confronted the boss.
"Not that way," he said. The moral compass of WWE slid back into the ring and ate another GTS, this time succumbing to it as Punk won the match and the WWE Championship. A failed attempt at a cash-in by Alberto Del Rio gave way to Punk blowing McMahon and kiss and absconding with the title to close out the show.
It never ceases to amaze how genuinely invested in the match, the participants and the story they told the Chicago fans were. That the WWE Universe as a whole was. On the heels of one of its most creatively bankrupt streaks, the company managed to put all its eggs in the Punk basket, and the result was a red-hot program at the top of the card that, even if momentarily, spiked interest in the product once again.
Punk was as great here as he has ever been, Cena does not get nearly enough credit for the strength of his performance, despite a knee injury suffered early during an ugly crossbody, and the Chicago fans deserve their own congratulations on never once quieting down or robbing the match of the energy it deserved.
In the annals of WWE history, this one has rightfully taken its place among the greatest matches of all-time.