Big news this week in the wresting world, overshadowing the usual monthly story cycle that gets us from one Pay-Per-View to the next. CM Punk, once the WWE’s top star, famously walked out on the company in January and was ultimately fired. For the first time he decided to speak out on the events that led to his departure, and he did so with his buddy Colt Cabana, in podcast form. He did a two-parter, and the first part was the second-highest rated podcast of the week (behind only Serial). After Part 1, Stone Cold Steve Austin did a live podcast on the WWE Network with Vince McMahon, and it was a candid, non-kayfabe interview (like all wrestling podcasts). Punk then came back to give his second part to Colt, and now likely we won’t hear from Punk for a while. The Punk and Vince podcasts were my favorite wrestling-podcast episodes ever.
We’ve seen vague leaks and impressions from some people, no one has really spoken in depth about Punk’s departure. Now we have a better idea. Here’s some thoughts and things I learned from both podcasts.
1. CM Punk was outselling John Cena at the time of his heel turn. I remember thinking Punk was the #1 guy, even though WWE kept crapping on his championship reign by putting John Cena matches as the main event, including the infamous John Cena v. John Laurinitis match. Punk didn’t want to do it; he knew he’d lose money doing it, but instead of turning the slightly-older, been-on-top-longer Cena heel, they did it to Punk.
2. Punk jobbed to a lot of part-timers. I never got the impression he resented Rock or Lesnar or Undertaker, but that Creative never had a plan for him after. He lost to Rock, then floundered. He lost to Taker, then floundered. He lost to Lesnar, then floundered.
3. Punk could have died from staph infection. He had a growth on his body that he kept begging the team doctor to cut, but Doc wouldn’t. He showed some naivete by just letting it go when the doc kept amping him on antibiotics rather than get a second opinion.
4. Punk may be a prickly pear, but he did get screwed over a few times. Punk knew his worth, and he performed up to the task. He had the chance to be the spokesman for Slim Jim, but then the WWE interfered and gave it to Rey Mysterio and Big Show. He had the chance to make $20,000 at Wizard World, but they vetoed it and gave him $5000 for working house shows while the job went to someone else. He found out covertly that when companies would ask for him, WWE would say, “No, you don’t want Punk; you want Sheamus.” They told him he couldn’t have his shorts be sponsored; a few months later, Brock Lesnar shows up with sponsored shorts.
5. The WWE makes a show of caring about their employees’ health, but do they really? WWE works their employees to the bone. The only way for a wrestler to get time off, it seems, is to get injured. Punk would probably still be wrestling today if they’d just given him longer to recuperate from his various injuries.
6. Some things have changed positively since Punk’s departure. WrestleMania 30 was going to have Randy Orton v. Batista alone in the main event, which would have been awful. After Punk left, and the “Yes Movement” became uncontrollable, they finally did the right thing and got Daniel Bryan into the main event. The injured stars this year don’t seem to be rushing back as quickly as they used to.
7. Punk was fired on his wedding day. HHH called him on the 11th, they drew up the papers on the 12th, and they overnighted them to him so they’d arrive on his wedding day of June 13th. No one ever called him. They knew what they were doing. And you get the real sense that whatever affection Vince has for Punk, Hunter has none of it.
8. Vince apologized on TV. When Punk came up in the Stone Cold podcast, Vince said he first of all wanted to apologize for firing Punk on his wedding day. He claimed miscommunication, but Punk made a great point. No one from WWE personally apologized to him, in person, in writing, on the phone. Vince did it on Stone Cold’s podcast. But to see Vince be willing to say anything at all about Punk was remarkable.
9. The WWE needs a wrestler who will stand up for himself. You get the feeling that John Cena does what he wants, and if he doesn’t like a guy, he can get them thoroughly buried (Tyler Reks, Alex Riley), but fortunately generally, Cena’s a nice guy, team player. The battles Punk engaged in, he was usually right. He came up with the Shield as opposed to just turning Big Show heel and making him Punk’s bodyguard. He and Taker deserved to be the main event of WrestleMania 29, not Cena-Rock II.
10. Punk doesn’t like Ryback. He said Ryback broke his ribs on purpose when Ryback was the face, and he was promised he’d never have to work with Ryback again. A year later, when Punk’s the face, Ryback hurts him again. Ryback called Punk a liar, and I’m glad Ryback said anything, whether or not it’s true. Ryback was the only wrestler Punk really crapped on.
11. For many wrestlers, the WWE is an unhealthy working environment. This is something we all knew, I think. From the steroid era, to the multiple stories of hazing and harrassment, to so many dying young from injuries or drugs, it’s a grind, and it’s the kind of company where you’d better be willing to give your entire self over to it 24/7. And favoritism still abounds. I think one thing that made the Attitude Era work was that HBK and Austin and Rock and Jericho, etc., were all creative, and confident, and maybe they didn’t always get along, but that creative friction brought out the best in people. And if things got too nuts, Taker would be the enforcer in the locker room. Another thing I hear is that the camraderie backstage isn’t what it used to be, and it sounds like some of that is because communication is so poor. Well, if you’re not one of Hunter’s guys, then you’d really better be special. Daniel Bryan finally made it. Dolph Ziggler seems like he’s on the verge.
12. Vince still loves the business. I still think it’ll be a while before Vince steps down. I could see him doing it another ten years. In fact, most of these guys do. One podcast I listen to regularly (when he interviews other wrestlers) is Chris Jericho’s, because they’ll just talk about the business and their experiences, and the joy comes out. First, it helps that Jericho’s a guy who seems to get along with everyone. The one he did with HHH gave me renewed appreciation for him.
13. The audience might actually matter. Sure, the WWE does everything they can to manipulate the audience, but engaged crowds have shown they push the WWE, ever-so-stubbornly, down the directions they want them to go. Crowds have been dying for Cena to turn heel for years, but he’s the exception. When the WWE tried to squash Daniel Bryan’s popularity by having him turn heel and join the Wyatts, it failed spectacularly, simply because the audience would treat whoever Bryan was fighting like they were the villain. That heel turn lasted two weeks.
Remember the night after WM29, when “Fandango-ing” was born? It was the night that the heel Dolph Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase and it was the loudest pop of joy from any wrestling crowd in a year. That same pop for joy happened when Bryan won it all at WrestleMania 30. Of course, the elephant in the room is what the WWE did to Zack Ryder. Still makes me ill how thoroughly they sabotaged him.
But now that we’ve had the podcasts, and Vince has said what he’s said, I think it’ll encourage more crowds to get engaged and really support what they like. Maybe the anti-Cena people, instead of booing him loudly, will just be silent. When the guys they like are working hard, they get behind them. I actually think Cesaro was helped by Vince singling him out as one who hasn’t connected yet. Cesaro’s victory in the WM30 Battle Royal was the second-biggest pop of the night, but then Creative jerked him around and killed his momentum. I’ll be tuning in with interest to see if there’s just a little more vocal support for him and Kidd, and Dolph, and Dean, and Mizdow, and AJ, etc. (I wonder if since Dean Ambrose gear outsold John Cena gear last week, the WWE will turn Dean heel.)
Vince challenged the locker-room to step up. He also said “don’t piss anyone off.” So maybe some guys will throw off the “walking on eggshells” feel and go for it. Maybe now that Hunter’s off TV, he can let his ego downshift and focus more on what’s best for everyone. The WWE has been a product I’ve enjoyed since WrestleMania I. I’d like to think that the wrestlers are enjoying it too.