Since January 26, 2014, CM Punk has been absent from WWE programming.
Now, for people who aren't really big into wrestling, this perhaps isn't that big a deal. You may not even know who CM Punk is. But for wrestling fans, this has been a burning topic of discussion since that day, or rather, the following night on Raw when he failed to show up for the first time. People figured that night, maybe he was just taking the night off. Then he didn't show up again. And again. And again. Here it is, as I'm typing this post in advance a day, March 10. WrestleMania 30 is only a month away. This is WWE's biggest card of the year any year, but this is also obviously an anniversary card, celebrating three decades of the event. You'd expect one of the company's biggest stars to leap at the opportunity to participate in it.
Apparently you would be wrong. There's always the chance, us hopeful fans keep insisting, that this is all a storyline, that this topic will automatically be moot by the time it loads, because Punk will have returned last night. But I don't see that as happening. It would be awesome. (Or rather, if it did happen, it was awesome.) But I think this is real, I think Punk is serious in taking a sabbatical or outright walking away, and...it might be the smartest thing he ever did.
Other big name wrestlers have done this sort of thing. Bret Hart voluntarily did so after he lost the epic hour-long iron man match to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12 in 1996. He gave Michaels all the room he needed to establish his championship reign. Of course, a number of ironies resulted. When Hart came back that fall, he did so in a program with a guy named Steve Austin, whose career peak Hart would help solidify as happening just one year after a historic match at 1997's WrestleMania 13.
A match that didn't happen at WrestleMania 13, obviously, was a rematch between Hart and Michaels. Michaels had spent the rest of 1996 as champion, except for a few months, and was still primed to defend his title at the big card in 1997. Except he didn't want a rematch with Hart. He chose to walk away. That was the first of the truly infamous moments involving these two. Wrestling fans know it from Michaels' "I lost my smile" speech he made while surrendering the title that February.
It's Austin who is the other major participant in this trend that I will talk about. Austin did, of course, become a major star in WWE. I'm sure you're at least familiar with the name "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. For a couple of years, he was the undisputed top star of professional wrestling. Then in 2002, he was asked to make way for someone else, someone completely different from him, a guy named Brock Lesnar. He was asked to lose a match on Raw, and instead of going along with that, Austin walked away, and that was in fact the end of his active in-ring career.
Incredibly, fans finally got over that. It helped that he embarked on a goodwill tour as a personality on Raw throughout 2003. He didn't walk away from WWE completely.
That will probably be one of the differences between him and Punk, if Punk stays away forever, as he very easily could.
Michaels, by the way, came back, too. He took his time getting back into the main event, where Hart once again sat in the meantime. The two clashed again in the most infamous moment between them, the "Montreal Screwjob" incident at the 1997 Survivor Series, which directly impacted the course of both their careers as well as wrestling in general. Hart had signed a deal with WCW, which was the whole reason it was deemed necessary to tamper with the ending of the match so that under no uncertain terms Michaels won. But Hart and WCW were never quite in sync. He spent a few years there, but his wrestling years came to an abrupt end due to a concussion (one of the earliest moments in any sports/entertainment medium where a concussion had a public acknowledgment and obvious effect; former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was another pioneer of this dubious honor). Michaels suffered a debilitating back injury not long after the match and stuck around long enough to pass the torch to Austin at WrestleMania 14 in 1998, and didn't compete again until 2002. Austin's career benefited considerably from the controversy. He was the embodiment of the little man who wouldn't allow the big man to push him around.
Now, Punk. Punk has always been an interesting case. He will probably go down in the history books as the defining star of this current professional wrestling age. That honor would seem to wait for John Cena, the current, decade-long WWE golden boy, but it's Punk who managed to be a breakout star and major headliner in two separate promotions by playing things his own way, time and time again refusing to compromise. His career routinely suffered for it. WWE almost never knew what to do with him, and never seemed to worry about it.
Punk is in possession of a healthy ego. Which, as I've actually argued here, is probably a pretty massive one. He's in possession of a sense of entitlement. Maybe that's required for anyone who appears in the public spotlight and stays there for years. After a small taste, some people will do anything to keep that spotlight, will even come to believe that there's no reason why their success shouldn't be greater and greater, despite the fact that for some people, any success is success, and that indeed, any success just never seems possible.
He spent years competing for one of the leading independent wrestling promotions in the States, Ring of Honor. He was never tapped as a long-term champion. His only reign as champion was for a few months, after he'd already signed the deal to leave and start up with WWE. Punk's calling card was always his ability to stand out from the pack. The pack he originally began with was one of those backyard promotions all of WWE's adult adversary warnings tell you to avoid ("do not try this at home!"). "CM" stands for "Chick Magnet." No kidding. He had humble origins. But success that seemed to come so easily, he wanted more and more.
And of course he deserved it. Those who are obviously good at something deserve to succeed at it. It's awesome, a triumph for everyone, when true talent is not only recognized but acknowledged. CM Punk's story is all about that. Ego in this case is a matter of self-awareness as much as anything.
Of course, the fact is he entered WWE at a time when it was, and remains, the only major promotion in the States. ROH hasn't reached that stage. Total Nonstop Action, the leading contender, hasn't despite a series of bold moves and arguably being long worthy of the status (that fans still argue otherwise is really the main reason it hasn't, perhaps because after the epic collapses of both WCW and ECW, it just seems easier to keep only one thumb in the pie). That means, basically, a monopoly. That means WWE is in total control of who becomes a major star.
And it also has to try and make those stars. This is an era that has proven this to be a task easier said than done. Major stars don't just happen. Austin took years to become one, was even told by WCW that he would never become one. Hulk Hogan faced similar opposition in his early years (no, really!), because bigger men didn't elicit the necessary sympathy from the fans to warrant being champion for long, much less to be a good guy. And despite that, Hogan became one of the wrestlers most associated with a heroic persona for more than a decade (before he enjoyed equal success as a bad guy!).
Hogan always played by the rules. Austin, despite appearances in the ring contrary to this, always played by the rules (until he walked away).
Punk never played by the rules. And that's why his path to success was all the more improbable. Fans instantly recognized him as the breakout star of WWE's ECW revival in 2006. They expected him to be ECW champion by the end of that year. Instant champions like that almost never happen. Kurt Angle, the Olympic gold medalist, is a rare exception, the more recent Alberto Del Rio another. It takes the ability to adapt to the WWE style instantly.
Like I said, Punk always did it his own way. WWE tested him out as a top-level champion a couple of times in 2008 and 2009. None of his reigns in this period were very long, and none of them saw him carry any significant weight for the company. It was just to see how he'd perform.
But Punk didn't really happen as a WWE phenomenon until he finally did what he'd done in ROH in his final months, break the fourth wall. In one of the most famous promos in wrestling history, Punk said he'd be walking away, regardless of whether or not he beat Cena at the 2011 Money in the Bank. Even if he became champion. He'd had enough. It was classic bait-and-switch. His hometown crowd in Chicago ate him up all night at Money in the Bank. The fans sold that moment into becoming as legendary as any other hallmark moment in wrestling history.
And of course he came back. He soon enough started a year-long-plus reign as champion. Punk never did have a signature program during this time. Most of the spotlight remained on Cena. Punk did whatever he was asked, he was the company man during his reign as champion. And then he lost the title, and started playing by his rules again.
A year later, Punk could have main evented WrestleMania 30. He and Daniel Bryan have equal cause to call themselves true breakout, major stars in WWE, a status that hasn't happened for anyone in years. Daniel Bryan's career parallels Punk's in a lot of many ways, but he's had a comparatively rapid ascent up the ladder compared to Punk. He made his WWE debut in 2010, lost his job after a controversial moment in the ring, but was resigned thanks to popular demand. From there, he did whatever the company needed him to do. He didn't start to distinguish himself until he was made champion for the first time. The more he proved himself at the highest level, the more WWE had to wonder if his small stature was something that didn't have to stand in his way after all. And so that's the question the company faces today, regardless of where Punk stands.
Except it's Punk who's the most charismatic star from recent years, Punk who has the ability to pull off a wide variety of matches and can talk his way around any subject, play any role, be the hero and villain, sometimes at the same time, the way Austin used to. Except while Austin had the benefit of always having the company's full support...Punk never has.
He is, after all, a punk. No major wrestling star has changed his look so often. Punk's trademark stringy locks were shaved by the time the company considered keeping him in the main event. He's played around with his facial hair so many times, his most recent mutton chop look is the first time I realized he could easily succeed Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, is perhaps the only credible personality who could at the moment, the cynical loner who sometimes plays along, but only when he gets what he wants. And when he doesn't, he walks away.
Punk hasn't spoken about his motives since his disappearance in January. In fact, he hasn't really spoken at all. Maybe it's ego. Maybe he desperately needed his body to rest. Maybe he was dissatisfied with other decisions WWE had been making at the time. Nobody knows.
But the one thing fans ought to know is that unlike Bret Hart, unlike Shawn Michaels, unlike Steve Austin, Punk's walkout comes at a time where he could very well say he's done everything he needs to do, but can still do more if he wants to. He could be a bigger star. Hart didn't become a bigger star. Michaels didn't become a bigger star (although inarguably his 2002 comeback made him beloved for the first time). Austin certainly didn't become a bigger star.
It's a turning point. He decided to take the opportunity to once again do the unexpected. This punk most definitely plays by his own rules.
Punk is the Ric Flair of this era. Flair was the only WCW star WWE allowed to be exactly as he always was when he wrestled for them. They let him keep his name, his reputation, everything. Flair's WWE success was instantaneous. In today's landscape, the curve is wider, but Punk kept everything, too, and it's telling that his signature moments in ROH and WWE are exactly the same, but fans have never held that against him. He's always had the perfect wrestling instinct. And he's improved. That's incredibly rare.
His reputation will grow. Perhaps especially if he has truly walked away forever. CM Punk will have done what no other wrestler before him could. He took control of his own destiny. And not just on January 27, 2014, but for more than a decade before that. That just doesn't happen.
You're looking at an emerging modern legend.