In 2011, I concluded my rumspringa and returned to my natural state of watching and caring about professional wrestling. Weirdly, it happened by coincidence about two months before CM Punk did the thing that made other people like me go back to caring about professional wrestling. I just watch a lot of television and noticed that it was still the kind of thing that rewards consistent attention.
Michael Healy, who wrote this guest post, is a serious wrestling fan, as you’ll find out in this post. This is his take on the CM Punk thing, and an interesting look at what the Greatest Sports Entertainment Company In The History Of Sports Entertainment’s apparent proffering of a hand to the smarks looked like to the people it may or may not have been aimed at.
CM Punk, Success and Disaster, My Fragile Emotional State
Sitting down to write this wrap-up for the year in pro wrestling, my first impulse was to put on my independent wrestling fancypants and drop some esoteric internet Knowledge about the diverse, often remarkable performances of pro wrestling’s finest artists. Manly tears were shed in Ring of Honor, skinny men chopped one another in Chikara, Fergal Devitt continued to proudly fly the tricolour as he kicked Asian gentlemen unnecessarily hard in the head for New Japan.
But the real wrestling story of 2011 was the momentary, fleeting, maddeningly tantalising instant where mainstream professional wrestling became relevant, engaging and culturally unique once again. WWE’s American ratings, their share of the Monday night prime time viewership, has been justifiably declining over the year, now boasting the same numbers that Vince Russo managed to draw in WCW with strokes of brilliance like “the KISS guy” and outrageous creative abominations like “Jeff Jarrett.” The WWE is a bland, bloated, politically fraught, creatively bankrupt, embarrassing product, a complacent monopoly aimed at delivering consistent paycheques to incompetent, disinterested employees onscreen and behind the scenes, exploiting the vulnerabilities of especially dumb children.
I say “especially dumb children” because I have no recollection of having had such terrible taste as a kid. Nor do I remember ever fawning over the pederastic gestures of the company’s most visible babyface. One of my earliest wrestling memories is seeing Brian Pillman pull a gun on Stone Cold Steve Austin when Stone Cold attacked him in his home, as they literally tried to murder each other. These were the guys I got interested in. I liked Mankind because he punched himself in the head. My sister and I liked the Undertaker because he was a magical wrestling corpse. I did not like seeing Shawn Michaels dance around the ring with his pants down as small boys reached out to touch him. Those kids were dicks. Point is this: In 2011 it’s for some reason socially acceptable for children to watch High School Musical and iCarly and to cheer John Cena instead of playing Quake and screaming for the bad guys to mutilate people on live television. If the WWF of 1997 had run an anti-bullying campaign the way the WWE of 2011 is doing I wouldn’t have watched. But the dumbass children of 2011 are lapping it up.
Point is this: the WWF that every single friend I have loved growing up, lads and woman-lads alike, is now the very antithesis of what it once was. Instead of the counter-cultural, rebellious, unique television we watched as kids (which led some of us to appreciate pro wrestling on whole new, possibly ill-advised levels) the WWE has become a company obsessed with trying to prove its relevance by engaging in po-faced stories about inclusiveness and inoffensiveness and wide-eyed schlock. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for the grown-up Glee generation in a few years time (I suspect most children watching now will simply forget about the wrestling show much as our generation don’t really run around dropping Biker Grove or Echo Island references to get cheap pub laughs) but for my friends the memories of the WWF from 1997 to 2001 are very strong.
For me and people like me, cursed with the psychological weakness of pro wrestling bearing the same cultural relevance, the same bearing on life and learning as any book or film or piece of arcane religious knowledge, have kept this period of wrestling with us and explored many many more. Most of my friends have naturally drifted away, alienated by the deteriorating quality of mainstream wrestling, embarrassed that they were ever fond of a product that aspires to (and fails to meet) the standards of the worst trends in popular culture that we have to endure in early adulthood. Last week the WWE ran a commercial for their new network with a dubstep soundtrack running over it. Jesus Christ.
I wish to God that when I said to a group of people the other week that a mutual friend of ours “had that kind of El Generico physique” that they wouldn’t have looked at me like I was having a stroke. My brain, like the brains of the afflicted, wants to be able to express its thoughts and emotions by talking about Terry Funk promos from 1988. I want to tell people that I totally dropped a Macho Man elbow on a sandwich at lunch without people thinking I’m a fan of that show that their 5-year-old cousin with the cleft pallet and divorced parents always wants to talk about at awkward family dinners. And while I could try and tell the world about ROH’s bro-hugs and Chikara’s svelte gentlemen in funny masks and the guy from Bray wearing the Junior Heavyweight Gold in Japan, the industry leader is all anybody knows. The WWE is the touchstone for pro wrestling everywhere and every real fan has to deal with it. Our interest will forever be associated with this weak, bland, failing nonsense.
And then there was hope.
CM Punk, having suffered the same obscurity in the WWE as every other passionate indie-alumnus with the company, used the leverage of his expiring contract and their evident need keep him onboard to build the first significant angle in the company for years. First he cut a shocking promo as Raw went off the air, calling Vince McMahon and Triple incompetent, telling the world he was about to walk away from this terrible company and sprinkling a bit of kayfabe magic into what seemed to be a legitimate shoot promo, telling the audience he’d be taking the WWE championship with him. In the weeks that followed he would promote this view on TV and in proper, grown-up, real world interviews with intrigued news and sports organisations. ESPN listened to him talk about the creative deficiencies behind the scenes in the WWE, that John Cena (the champion and his opponent at Money in the Bank) represented all that was wrong with the company and all of the true fans’ frustrations. He told the world that the wrestling industry might just die out this generation if Vince McMahon and Triple H continued down this path of apathy and irrelevance. One way or another he was wouldn’t be a part of it.
In a space of a few weeks, Punk created from scratch single-handedly what every great mainstream wrestling storyline comes eventually to contain: Two strong personalities with clear but sophisticated moral positions, on the same competitive footing in the continuity of the sport, the outcome of the feud unknown and promising tremendous change. A story the fans could invest in, a philosophical dispute the world could scratch its head over, glowingly debate about in pubs and bars and restaurants, the promise of something new and unknown to think about and emotionally react to. Every relationship in the story, The Cena/Punk, McMahon/Punk and even Cena/McMahon dynamics were multifarious and gave the impression of depth and sophistication. It was a story that I could direct my friends to go watch, link them to Punk’s promos on YouTube and have faith that they were going to get excited. Two sides of a profound argument, a dispute over values, loyalty, change and moral relativism were to collide and be creatively expressed through the medium of the wrestling match. It was truly riveting and, best of all, the cyber-bullying hysteria generation had no idea what was going on.
Remarkably, unexpectedly, the match delivered. A rabid Chicago crowd made up of mostly adults, unique these days outside of Wrestlemania, followed and reacted to every hold, every turn, every shift of momentum, every gesture of defiance issued by both wrestlers. As Punk and Cena toyed with the expectations and hopes of a volatile audience, Vince McMahon walked down to the ring to interfere in the match, ordering the bell to be rung as Cena held Punk in an STF. This was the same Vince McMahon we remembered as kids, not the steroid-loaded cartoon character we’ve had to endure now for years. Cena, true to his square-jawed heroism, released the hold and stopped McMahon from cheating on his behalf, allowing Punk to hit his finish and take the title away from him. McMahon ordered Alberto del Rio to the ring to challenge for the belt with the shot he’d earned earlier in the evening, only for Punk to knock him out and flee into the adoring Chicago crowd, leaving McMahon behind with a look of trauma on his face, his hand outstretched following the new champion out of the building and out of the company.
It was as good a story as has ever been told in a wrestling ring. The mainstream sports media gushed over the show for weeks to come, filling column inches with enthusiastic endorsements of WWE’s first triumph in a decade, encouraging them to keep delivering, often going so far as to predict a new golden age for the wrestling, a new well of creativity having seemingly been tapped. I watched the match the morning after it was broadcast. I remember jumping up and down, screaming at the TV, cheering Punk to his fake victory in a manner that a cynical wrestling aficionado seldom does anymore. Credit is due to John Cena for his facilitating of the story, no doubt. But this was Punk’s baby, the dream of a child of the independents finally getting the chance to do something new on the biggest wrestling stage in the world (smaller though it might have gotten over the years).
But then the hope faded. And once again I looked like an idiot for recommending the WWE to proper, full-on adult friends.
Punk’s contract renewed, the company went back to its old ways. In what could have been a cutting parody of WWE logic if produced by anybody else, Punk’s return landed him inexplicably in a feud with Triple H and, of all people, Kevin Nash, losing the title at Summerslam because of them. Next month, he lost a no disqualification match to Triple H. Online, people were hopeful. Punk had lost after interference from no less than three people, they said, he’ll get his win back in the future. What they failed to realise was that this was classic Hulk Hogan in WCW booking. Hogan used to justify winning by ending the match in nonsense and controversy. What nobody could verbalise was that the hero losing, even losing against significant odds, pours a whole lot of cold water on that previously superlative hero, as well as making everybody look silly. Hogan knew this. Triple H knew this. The WWE knew this. This piece of baffling booking ended what was a glorious month of pro wrestling TV, driving away all the press and lapsed fan attention they were getting, letting the company settle back into its comfortable little rut of appealing to unintelligent children and frustrated, captive wrestling fans.
So that is the story of 2011. For five minutes everybody sat forward, paid attention to wrestling for the first time in a decade, offered me and my wrestling-addled brain the hope that once again I could express my fondness for this unique art form in public and share this ludicrous passion I’ve had to carry with me since childhood with other normal human beings. And then that hope was smothered by the same hideous booking that made WCW a joke back when adults were actually watching. Money In The Bank 2011 will forever be recorded as a classic, Punk’s masterpiece built against the odds in adverse circumstances, but it’s clear the WWE wanted no part of it. So in 2012 I’ll again be spending more time and money on the manly emotions of Ring of Honor, the nerdy humour of Chikara and face kicking antics of New Japan than on the most successful company in the sport’s history. Everything now seems more hopeless in the wake of that optimistic spark of creative insight. Ultimately, 2011 may have only lent credence to Punk’s prediction that this might well be the last generation of pro wrestling in America, such is the incompetence and offensive negligence of the industry leaders.
Also, Randy Savage died.