In July 2011, CM Punk revolutionized Professional Wrestling as defined by Vince McMahon. His infamous “pipebomb” to end Monday Night Raw set the professional wrestling world ablaze and brought fans of the Attitude Era racing back to what has been dubbed by Grantland’s David Shoemaker as “The Reality Era.” What CM Punk did that June evening was not just to attract fans, but change the entire landscape. In more ways than one, that six-minute monologue shaped not only his own future, but the future of the WWE to this day.
Punk tapped into the very frustration that many fans had been experiencing up until then. At that time, the WWE was firmly entrenched in the WWE Universe era being battered over the head repeatedly with “sports entertainment,” led by the incomparable John Cena. Punk began his diatribe by wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt, referencing himself as the best wrestler in the world while show contempt toward Cena for being considered the best and simultaneously foreshadowing a feud with Chris Jericho. Looking to today’s product, Cena is certainly at the top, but he has been challenged and beaten cleanly by the likes of Punk, Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan, something previously considered inconceivable. Noteworthy as well is that Punk emphatically used the word “wrestle,” a word that was widely considered taboo by the McMahon machine, but has since been used as the prime focus of the Bryan-Cena feud over the summer.
Also forbidden at the time was making reference to past stars, deceased stars or management/backstage employees. Over the course of his pipebomb, the names Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Paul Heyman, Colt Cabana, John Laurinaitis, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon popped up. With the exception of Hulk Hogan (keep your eyes out Wrestlemania XXX) and Colt Cabana (given a developmental opportunity), all have made dramatic returns to the top of the product, and each has interacted exclusively and intimately with Punk.
Most significantly, however, Punk threw the WWE into the Reality Era in dramatic fashion by not only breaking the fourth wall, but by referencing the fact that he was doing so. In future episodes, he referenced his birth name as well as Triple H’s birth name, got himself on the cover of programs, collector cups, ice cream bars, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, The Talking Dead, upcoming WWE Studios production of the Flintstones, the signature of the Raw and quite possibly the main event of upcoming Wrestlmania XXX. To Vince McMahon, the golden cow has always been attention in the mainstream media. He received copious amounts of it in the wake of Punk’s pipebomb, while other wrestlers (note, no longer sports entertainers) took to Twitter and YouTube to promote themselves and their brand (Zach Ryder and Dolph Ziggler are easy examples). E! Network’s Total Divas is a prime example of not only mainstream attention, but fourth-wall breaking to the max.
Which brings us to today. As the WWE enters the “Road to Wrestlemania,” Cena and Orton are locked in a fourth-wall breaking yet dull storyline involving the unified title, Bryan is the toast of the town and Punk is in a feud with The Shield that serves to raise their status rather than his. After a summer wallowing in a never-ending feud with the aforementioned Heyman and Brock Lesnar, Punk is in dire need of direction as he did in 2011. The difference now is that he knows, and the WWE knows, that he is well capable of not only creating his own storyline, but changing the face of the WWE to fit what he, and by extension the vaunted WWE Universe, want. Middling and stagnant stars such as Fandango, Dolph Ziggler, The Miz, Damian Sandow, Kofi Kingston and Ryback would be smart to look at that precedent and take Punk’s lead while they still can.