We all love to talk about that time in the summer of 2011 when Phillip Jack Brooks sat at the top of a ramp, crossing his legs like you would in kindergarten, and let loose a string of grievances at his then employer that rocked the entertainment world. Tremors were felt through the community with major magazines clamoring to interview the guy, Jim Rome and Bill Simmons thinking the whole thing was legit and wrestling was as popular as any time since the Attitude Era. We know the story that comes after it and the long, sordid path that Brooks took all the way to his exit from the company in January 2014 (or June, depending on perspective). But have you ever thought about why that promo was so important? What made it different from any of the other “worked shoot” promos that took place from 1999 and onward? We were less than a year removed from Mike “The Miz” Mizanin cutting similar ones on John Cena and while those were well received, they didn’t garner the response that Punk’s famous pipe bomb did. Hell, 10 years earlier all Vince Russo did in WCW was have his top stars yell at each other about insider terms, there’s even a commercial hyping up a Goldberg-Steiner match about how Goldberg “refused to follow the script”.
So, what was the difference?
It’s the only thing that has ever made CM Punk different from all those guys. The thing that made Punk different from Miz, Russo, Goldberg and every guy that ever thought contextually boring things like “workplace gripes” would make him a star. His passion. CM Punk was arguably the most passionate pro wrestler since Shawn Michaels. Yes, more than Daniel Bryan. Yes, more than John Cena. Yes more than ANY other guy since Shawn Michaels. Boil Punk’s promo down to nuts and bolts and he says these things: “John Cena isn’t as good as me” “I’m the best” “Vince is stupid” and “This company should make a lot more money.” It’s nothing revolutionary, it’s nothing a hundred other wrestlers haven’t said in shoot interviews or on an indy show somewhere in Minnesota. The distinction between them and Punk was that when he said it you could hear the venom drip from his lips. You could feel the fire in his heart when he mentioned Triple H’s name. Go back and listen to him call Hunter a “doofus”, it’s the most harmless insult imaginable but it has all the fury and disgust you’d expect to hear from a lunatic in a road rage argument. You believe every single word he was says. In one promo he captured the frustration and anxiety of every smark who gritted their teeth through the product from 2001 to 2011. It was Punk’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Before everyone gets the wrong idea about me, I should clear up a few things: I don’t really like Kurt Cobain. Beyond a few Nirvana songs I didn’t think they were particularly that good and I certainly don’t think the guy is a genius. I’ve always been more of a Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin kinda guy. You know, blistering solos, flashy costumes, pyro at the concerts. That’s my bag. But whether you like him (most do) or you don’t (that’s me) there isn’t much debate on the fact that as a cultural touchstone he ignited a generation and changed the way, for better or worse, that his art form was treated and produced. CM Punk is the Kurt Cobain of professional wrestling.
The similarities are obvious and easy to see for anyone that looks. Both men are from suburbs of major metropolitan centers, they are unapologetically liberal, they both married fellow performers and during their youth they felt like outcasts. The likeness continues in more and more specific ways. They both revered the most famous/influential practitioners of the craft from a previous era, with Cobain it was John Lennon and for Punk it was Steve Austin. Both loathed landmark performers that had become their peers on a personal and professional level. Cobain despised Axl Rose for what he deemed an excessive lifestyle, clichéd sense of self-importance and a homophobic, racist and sexist message. Punk thought Triple H was a figure that no longer fit in today’s pro wrestling scene, a marginal performer for the past ten years whose festishization of physique and look had hurt the industry in a major way from 2002 to 2010 (it also didn’t help that he couldn’t stand the guy). The Nirvana front man and former Straight Edge Society leader were viewed by many as unsuited for commercial success in their environments. Cobain was told that the fusion of punk, metal and hardcore that we would eventually term “grunge” would never be a commercially viable genre while Punk (much like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels before him) was given the “size speech” about how no one would buy him as a major star on a television show predicated on grown men assaulting each other. Obviously we can look back on both these predications and see how wrong they were and that is where the true similarities between these men lie, not in how alike they were personally or how many career coincidences they shared but how they changed music and professional wrestling forever.
Look the landscape of pro wrestling today, what do you see? Who are the major stars in this billion dollar industry? Let’s take a look at all the major companies and see where we end up.
• WWE is exiting its Cena era and it’s too soon to say whose world we will end up in but the best bet seems to be on Seth Rollins, the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Other major stars on the show include Brock Lesnar, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus and Randy Orton.
• NXT consists of Finn Balor, Hideo Itami, Samoa Joe, Sami Zayn, Tyler Breeze, Charlotte and Sasha Banks as its top stars.
• Lucha Underground (the best wrestling show on television) is led by Prince Puma, Mil Muertes, Alberto El Patron, Johnny Mundo, Son of Havoc, Fenix and Drago.
• TNA has EC3, The Wolves, Kurt Angle and Austin Aries as it’s go-to-guys.
• NJPW has Kazuchika Okada, AJ Styles, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kushida, The Young Bucks and Hirooki Goto.
Do those top rosters look anything like they did ten or even five years ago? Even WWE the most size-based, ex footballer company of all time is stocked with what Kevin Nash might term “indierific wannabes”. Out of the top 7, three come from major independent promotions, one is from WWE’s system but wrestles like he came from Pro Wrestling Guerilla and two out of the four “WWE style” guys are above 35 and probably only have a few more major years with the company.
If you float down to NXT it looks even more foreign to a time traveler from 2005. Nobody’s over 6’2, 4 out of the 5 male stars aren’t American and the one that is isn’t white. For a business that’s been really white and American over the past 150 years, that’s a major change. I’m not going to go through LU, TNA and NJPW but we’re sensing a trend here. The future of pro wrestling is increasingly smaller with more international and female influences than ever before. And about 75% have some sort of indie background. THAT is change.
Nirvana was able to redesign a genre built, almost entirely, on excess. Post Nevermind the glamorization of sex and drugs in rock music was downplayed. Of course it was still happening, Scott Weiland did as many drugs as Mick Mars and you’re insane if you think Alice in Chains, Bush, Silverchair or any of the bands that came after weren’t going through hordes and hordes of groupies. The more important thing was marketing the musicians as artists, people serious about their craft. Similarly, this was something that had happened in previous eras as no one would question the guitar skill of George Lynch or the multiple octaves that Axl Rose used to delight sold-out stadiums, the difference now was that these traits were the primary marketing focus of the industry.
In the same way that Nirvana changed the landscape of rock music, ushering out anything resembling a guitar solo and bringing forth lots and lots of Eddie Vedder clones, Punk has done the same for wrestling. It was now important to have wrestling street cred, if you didn’t and you went into a hotbed town like Philadelphia, New York or Chicago you weren’t going to last very long. The last two Royal Rumbles showed what the new reality of WWE looked like; smaller, credible talents being seen (for better or worse) as more legitimate than WWE approved superheroes. Punk’s success, once considered impossible, has ushered in an era where the powers that be in wrestling no longer look at an indie background as a hindrance. Punk begat Bryan begat Rollins begat Owens begat whoever comes next. We live in a world now where Tyler Black has headlined WrestleMania, beating Brock Lesnar and seemingly taken the mantle of face of the company from John Cena.
Many will say that this independent wrestling influence doesn’t start with CM Punk but with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, the New Generation of 1993. I can’t disagree with those people more. As amazing as Shawn and Bret were both in the ring and out of it, they changed absolutely nothing in the business. Vince put them front and center in the post steroids trial WWF as a way to soothe public relations and to change perceptions. He was saying this was no longer the era of the balding, 6’5 behemoths. Vince had new playthings that were younger, with longer hair and (slightly) more contemporary theme songs. But those playthings didn’t last. Once the New Generation fizzled out Vince went right back to the muscular Adonises that had once helped him fight to the top of the sport entertainment world. We now had the 6’5 Rock and the 6’4 260lb Triple H. They would battle Undertaker, Kane and 286lb Mick Foley for the top spots. When we moved on to Ruthless Aggression the size stayed the same. We traded in Rock and Hunter for Batista and Randy Orton, virtually the same amount of height and poundage. Austin became Cena and the law of conservation of mass was kept intact. So for all the talk about “The Hitman” and “The Heartbreak Kid” changing the game, they were really just blips on the radar until Vince went back to his first love. It wasn’t until Phil Brooks hopped a guardrail and blew him a kiss did Vince truly come around to the idea of smaller men, forged in international and independent promotions, that could headline for his company and draw interest. Two years after Punk hopped the rail we anointed Daniel Bryan as champion with his clean-as-a-sheet pin over John Cena in the main event of SummerSlam. Two years after THAT we have Seth Rollins defeating Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania to continue Punk’s influence a year and a half after he’s left the company.
And there it is. In the same way that the music industry has defaulted to the standard of “make it sound like Stone Temple Pilots” for mainstream rock music, we find ourselves in a similar situation in professional wrestling. The Brock Lesnar’s and Triple H’s of the world won’t disappear, but they will be more of a rarity. The fact that we’re even referring to the 6’3 Brock Lesnar as a “big man” shows you just how much the business has been altered. I’m not saying the change is good, I’m not saying the change is bad, I’m just telling you that is has changed. And it all started with an “indierific wannabe” sitting down on a ramp in Las Vegas on a hot summer night.