CM Punk, Change, and the Fresh-Faced WWE Champions of 2012

Last Monday’s RAW (19/12/11) was one of the best shows of the year, and showcased what could be, and definitely should be the future of the WWE. Here is the opening segment, in which C.M. Punk helped to ‘make this fun again …

This segment set the tone for the whole show. Punk didn’t simply ‘mail it in’, he showed his genuine enthusiasm for his win and championship reign (“… or was it THE BEST WRESTLER IN THE WORRRRRRLD? The answer is *music hits* … MEEEEEEEEEEEE” being one of my favourite feel-good moments of the year that actually made me sit up to watch – this is CM Punk at his best). Punk then introduced two other victors from the TLC PPV, two other internet babyfaces: Zack Ryder and Daniel Bryan.

Maybe its familiarity which leaves people like John Cena treat the Championship titles as a prop, but for these three, who have scratched and clawed to make it, and who love the business without condition (not that Cena doesn’t), even the way they treated the Championship titles, wearing them with pride, displaying them, loving them, made them seem instantly more important than they have in a long time. This was just a subtle ingredient in what would become a show-manifesto for a new direction for the WWE.

Confronted by The Miz, Dolph Ziggler and Alberto Del Rio, they would go on to compete in a RAW main event comprising of six young talents (some established (Punk, Miz, Del Rio) and the others up-and-comers (Ziggler, Ryder, Bryan)), but notably, all six were new, or relatively new to the spotlight, and were trusted to carry it without the babysitting of names like Cena, Orton, or HHH, all of whom had much lower-profile business to be involved in that night. For the first time (with Punk probably excluded), these guys were being given the ball at the very top, and they carried it very competently.

To add to the interest, the babyface champions were not only treated as new leaders, but they were treated as what they are: new grass-roots leaders; figures who have forced the WWE’s hand with the help of the so-called WWE Universe – the only way, seemingly, that the WWE would be coerced away from its established main eventers for even the shortest time. Indeed, all three, I believe, at some point in the past week, have made striking, and not always subtle visual statements about how they are supported by the people, and dare we say it, representatives of the people, or at least of what they want – the Voices of the Voiceless, if you will. This includes pointing the mic to the fans as they chant their names in approval, and on Smackdown, the special vignette detailing this role for Punk, Ryder, and Bryan – as well as, of course, centring around the arrivals of Bryan and Ryder as Champions on the main stage (literally for Bryan, who won the main event by making Jack Swagger submit). Then, there was their, perhaps over-choreographed, but nonetheless striking entrance to the main event of RAW, in which all three emerge from the sea of humanity they represent to take on (successfully) the arrogant and distant heels.

Sometime around Summerslam, I posted an entry here about the so-called ‘Summer of Punk’ detailing the swell of support for CM Punk’s promised change. Since then, he got embroiled with the messy HHH/Nash storyline which sucked a lot of life out of the Summer of Punk (some believe intentionally) and got Punk embroiled in messy booking – that is, until a moment of clarity post-Hell in a Cell where Punk came out, no-nonsense, and demanded a rematch for the title at Survivor Series; a match that he won in considerable style and that helped him regain a lot of his electricity and momentum. In that period between Summerslam and Survivor Series, Punk came in for a lot of criticism: where is this ‘change’ he promised? Where are the pipebombs!? Why have WWE dropped the ball again!? There were legitimate questions, because we were promised a lot by Punk, and it didn’t seem forthcoming. But then I realised, the infamous shoot promo wasn’t so much an angle as a genesis of a new character. There were booking mishaps (Punk returning from his hiatus early (a hard necessity), Nash becoming an evil deux ex machina (a huge, almost critical mistake), but what did people expect? Him to come out and pipebomb every week? What could he say? That would have been just as boring and cynical; the equivalent of Steve Austin crashing in to the ring in a different vehicle every week, or someone new joining the nWo every week), and still to this day, when Punk does drop a pipebomb, or does something innovative, it feels special, original, and exciting – exactly the feeling Punk desires.

Punk has promised us change is coming, that he is the arbiter of change even, and between Summerslam and Survivor Series, this was starting to seem less and less credible, but suddenly, now, the WWE seems fundamentally changed, and refreshed. Its not all down to Punk, but as the announce team correctly assert, he is the ‘ringleader’. Before Money in the Bank, Punk had nothing to lose, and so treated us all to one of the most enrapturing doses of truth in the history of the business. This was great, but it was also revolutionary, because the fans identified, and if the fans buy revolution (literally), the WWE will listen. Without Punk’s waxing, and the huge fan-response to it, I seriously doubt whether WWE would have continued to listen and give people like Ryder and Bryan the serious chance they have now. More directly, though John Cena has received a lot of deserved credit for Ryder’s push, a lot of the practical, backstage credit, has gone to Punk himself for using his newfound voice to push management to give Ryder his shot – as well, of course, as mentioning Ryder repeatedly in his promos. Punk set the tone, and set the first domino falling, and after rejuvinating his cause at Survivor Series, they seem to be tumbling. One of Punk’s main criticisms was about a status quo of non-caring big guys dominating the main event in ‘the land of the giants’, with John Cena a constant. But at the PPV after Survivor Series, TLC, John Cena wasn’t even on the card – surely just an experiment, but one telling of the changes taking place. Punk recognised this, tweeting this after Survivor Series:

“Very proud right now. Proud of @WWEDanielBryan proud of@ZackRyder proud of my crew of young, talented hard workers.@findevan @TrueKofi and a ton of others. Tonight was a great step toward the future of the wrestling business. That change I’ve been talking about? Started.”

And indeed, look at the current roster of champions (seen in the header to this article). A lot was made of the two top titles being held by former-ROH talent, which indeed shows the wealth of wrestling talent in that company; but I think that aspect covered up the greater talking point: it consists solely of young, passionate talent and not of the former status quo. It is fresh. It is the future of a healthy WWE.

There is now talk (admittedly in the dirt-sheets) that low ratings on RAW are making WWE consider having Punk drop the belt. This has happened before. When ratings fell during Del Rio’s reign, we were ‘treated’ to more hot-potato championship booking and a nonsensical one month title reign for John Cena. This didn’t particularly affect ratings. If this rumour about Punk is true, it is a worrying sign. Cena is being used as a cosy fall-back, but that is the opposite to what pro-wrestling needs right now. It needs change. It needs Punk and others similar. Cost tv isn’t ‘must-watch’, and it certainly doesn’t make for great wrestling. It is also incredibly short-sighted. I like John Cena, but he wont be around forever. How long can they rely on him? WWE even baulked recently (again, trusting dirt-sheets) at making Orton the face of RAW and drafting Cena to Smackdown due to ratings worries. Is Cena really the only reason people, even Cena fans, watch pro-wrestling in 2011? Lets wait and see the TLC buyrate, but with respect, I didn’t even notice his absence, so routine has his performances become. This attention defecit from modern day WWE is, frankly, damaging and short-sighted. In the current climate, it is impossible for anyone else to reach Cena’s level; and you’d think WWE would know better given their own rich past in building stars during the Attitude Era, I know quote, directly, former WWE creative member, Seth Mates, who is a passionate fan and writer, and wants both of those areas to improve:

“Oy, enough about the Raw ratings please. So a show that hasn’t had storyline continuity in years and has invested in one superstar in the past 10 years and whose lead announcer does more harm than good and whose main star has already been yanked around in the eyes of the fans twice this summer is doing subpar in a metric that’s completely irrelevant in 2011, in 1 of the 2 worst business months of the yr in wrestling (Jul, Dec)? Thank goodness there was no Twitter in 1997. Stone Cold’s push would have ended by Cold Day In Hell.”

Amen. I am confident, however, that Punk will be more Stone Cold than Cold Day in Hell. He is super over with live-crowds, selling merchandise like there’s no tomorrow, and will be able to draw ratings even more as the public realise the difference between him and most of the other WWE superstars: unpredictability, fun … change.

Lets just call 2012 (and hope it comes to pass) the year of Punk, change, and fresh-faced champions.

Added Note from RTV: For those reading the night this goes out, RAW hails from Chicago tonight, with Punker as champ. Expect some great wrestling, and some great TV.

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