30th Oct2020

Wrestling Retrospectives: The Straight Edge Career of CM Punk

by Chris Cummings

Let’s go back to Chicago in 1978. Phillip Jack Brooks was born into a family, the brother of four siblings. He grew up in a household with issues, predominantly with his father’s alcohol struggles. It was in these early years that Brooks leaned on punk rock and became straight edge. This would be a tattoo on the fabric of his life from then on. As well as his love for punk rock and comic books, Brooks grew up watching pro-wrestling, and became a huge fan. There are some pictures out there with him meeting guys like Steve Austin when he was in his teens. The wrestling business entered his bloodstream, and by the time he was in his late-teens, he was wrestling in backyards in Chicago.

The guys who Brooks wrestled with back then weren’t necessarily serious about becoming fully fledged professional wrestlers, but he was. He wanted to take it further, and when the backyard fed, Lunatic Wrestling Federation, started promoting bigger shows, Brooks encountered some major problems with his brother, Mike. This situation, involving theft, caused Brooks and his brother to cut off contact. His youth was one filled with volatile and difficult situations, and the trust that many of us tend to build in those early years was shattered for Brooks at that time. He would put his energy into pro-wrestling, and began training under Ace Steel at Steel Dominion, a wrestling school in Chicago. Steel has worked for WWE, TNA and ROH, through the years, and was trained himself by legends such as William Regal, Finlay, and Dave Taylor. Not a bad guy to have on your side in those early years, then. During this training, he met a guy who would become a close friend for many years, Scott “Colt Cabana” Colton, and the two hit it off. From the end of the 1990s until the early parts of the 2000s, Brooks, who was now known as CM Punk, worked for a number of independent promotions, from IWA Mid-South, to IWC in Pennsylvania. He worked with guys like Cabana, Chris Hero, AJ Styles and others before joining up with Ring of Honor in around 2002.

Ring of Honor was a massive step forward for Punk, who worked a famous feud with Raven in his early days there. This helped to put Punk on the map and he quickly became a must-see attraction on the indies. His matches with Samoa Joe, The Briscoes, Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels and various other indie-greats of the time, were some of the best stuff going on in pro-wrestling back then. These guys were gaining big-deal attention for independent wrestling here, working incredible matches and making waves in the industry. It was the start of real change in the business, a change that put emphasis on the work-rate of performers, the technical skills and the in-ring wizardry, above what they looked like. It was a new style, it was something fresh, and we’re still feeling the aftershock of this period of wrestling today, whether in WWE or AEW. Punk was a huge part of that. He became ROH World Champion in 2004 and had another strong year for the promotion, where he also, for a time, served as head-trainer in their wrestling school. He would leave Ring of Honor in 2005 and sign a contract with WWE.

Assigned to Ohio Valley Wrestling, the old feeder promotion for WWE, Punk spent a year or so there, becoming the TV Champion and Heavyweight Champion during his tenure with the promotion. By 2006, though, Punk had made enough noise and impressed enough people, primarily one Paul Heyman, that he debuted on WWE’s recently revamped ECW brand. He would debut on TV for the brand in August, defeating ECW alumni Justin Credible. ECW wasn’t the best thing around when WWE launched it. It didn’t resemble the promotion on which it was based, but Punk did a few good things there in his time. His matches with John Morrison over the ECW Title were some highlights of Punk’s run in WWECW. He became ECW Champion in 2007, and had a few defences against the likes of Elijah Burke and The Miz. He would lose the title to Chavo Guerrero in January 2008, and it wouldn’t be long before Punk moved away from ECW and joined WWE’s Raw brand. At WrestleMania XXIV Punk won the Money in the Bank ladder match, and would subsequently cash-in his contract in June against Edge on Raw, winning his first World Title. It was a bright start to Punk’s career in WWE, and things would go up and down and up and down from there.

Punk, as World Champion, would feud with JBL but his reign ended prematurely after only a couple of months and few defences. In October of 2008, Punk, alongside real-life friend Kofi Kingston, won the World Tag Team Titles by defeating Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr. After dropping those belts, he went on to win the Intercontinental Title, and thus became a triple-crown winner in WWE. Pretty good going considering he’d only debuted on the “main roster” less than two years prior. Punk would go on to win the Money in the Bank ladder match once more at WrestleMania XXV. This would be the first time anyone had won the match on two occasions. Punk would go from being a babyface to a heel in WWE, and went on to cash-in his contract on Jeff Hardy, defeating him for the World Heavyweight Title once more and igniting a feud with “The Charismatic Enigma”. During this reign as World Champion, Punk would defeat Jeff Hardy on a number of occasions, as well as beating The Undertaker on Pay Per View in a submission match with a screwjob-style ending. He would eventually lose the strap to ‘Taker in a Hell in a Cell match.

Punk, as a bad-guy, was a phenomenon. His work as a villain was incredible, and by the back end of 2009, Punk had started something special on television. We saw the debut of The Straight Edge Society. This was a heat-magnet of an idea, and Punk loved working this angle. Leading a group of people that he’d “saved” from a life of excess, Punk played the Charlie Manson type of sinister leader. In his group were Joey Mercury, Luke Gallows (who had previously been wrestling as comedy character Festus) and Serena Deeb. With Punk standing with his Jesus hair-do, and his shaven-headed posse behind him, this storyline had way more potential than it actually achieved, but it was still a lot of fun to follow on WWE television from 2009 and into 2010. The most famous feud to come out of this was Punk and Rey Mysterio. Punk would be shaved bald during this period, and wore a luchador-style mask for a while too. It was entertaining stuff and showed that Punk, as the villain, was incredible.

2010 and part of 2011 was a little bit of a slip down the ladder for Punk. Leading “The New Nexus”, he went from being a leader of something unique and cool to being the leader of a second-rate faction that few people cared about. It was going nowhere, but luckily, by the Summer of 2011, the Summer of Punk had arrived. All wrestling fans know about this period of time. The time when CM Punk changed the game and made real waves in wrestling with his “Pipe Bomb” promo on Monday Night Raw. This interview, in which Punk sat on the Raw stage and spoke, cross-legged, to the audience, was (pardon the pun) raw, real, stripped-back and relatable. He opened up with seemingly real grievances whilst also drawing fans into the idea of “wait… is this actually real?” This was something that Phil Brooks was so very adept at. He could pull you in with his humanity and make you consider that the things he was speaking about or doing were perhaps that much more “genuine” than the other stuff you’d seen going on in the business. The Summer of Punk, though it didn’t really live up to what it should have been, saw CM Punk as the focal point of WWE for a while. He worked a famous and incredible match with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011, which saw Punk leave as Champion, blow Vince McMahon a kiss, and walk out of WWE. The thing is… he didn’t actually leave, as we well know. This could have been a huge story all Summer, but WWE kinda, well… fumbled it. It resulted in some odd booking with Punk, Triple H, Kevin Nash and some hilarious promos that included Punk mocking Nash in his typical fashion.

Punk would go on to feud with the likes of Alberto Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan, Chris Jericho and others into 2012 with the WWE Championship regularly in the midst of things. His bouts with Daniel Bryan, specifically the one they had at Money in the Bank in July of 2012, were fantastic. They had a great chemistry in the ring together and made some true wrestling magic. Becoming a villain again, Punk would align himself with real-life mentor and friend Paul Heyman and the two became a team on-screen. The visual of Heyman standing behind CM Punk with the WWE Title raised above his head while Punk cut a promo is famous. It was a very entertaining and interesting time in his career. He would work feuds with John Cena again, Ryback and others, and racked up a reign of 434 days, before losing the WWE Title to The Rock at Royal Rumble 2013. It was, sadly, a disappointing end to a really enjoyable run as Champion.

In his final year in WWE, between 2013 and 2014, Punk did a few things worth celebrating and remembering fondly, including his program with The Undertaker which resulted in a brilliant match at WrestleMania. Though there were questionable things in the build to this match involving the late Paul Bearer, this was a damn good chapter in The Undertaker’s WrestleMania story, and another notch on Punk’s already bullet-wounded belt. A feud with Brock Lesnar didn’t last long, and the rivalry with the clumsy Ryback wasn’t something I enjoyed revisiting for this article. Punk would work some matches against The Wyatt Family, but mostly his time in WWE was coming to a close, with apparent severe untreated injuries and political issues with backstage management causing Phil Brooks to question his career and his life at that time. He wasn’t happy, he didn’t think he was in the right place in the company, and he was exhausted with dealing with certain people. He would leave WWE in January 2014 and was released of his contract in June on his wedding day. A very sad and upsetting end to a very powerful career in WWE, that’s for sure. Still, he did get married to the love of his life, former WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee, and the two remain a happily married couple today. It’s pretty cool to see.

CM Punk is a guy who did so much in pro-wrestling, a guy who made huge changes with his work on the indies and within the biggest wrestling promotion on the planet. He won titles galore, he worked with the biggest stars on the biggest shows, and he gained millions of loyal supporters along the way. He would go on to a short career trying his hand at UFC and became involved in various other things, including writing comic-books for Marvel Comics, another dream come true for Phil Brooks, and starting work as an actor. His work in films like Rabid and The Girl on the Third Floor have been very strong and had some good reviews. He has a career there, too, I’d imagine. In November of 2019 he signed a deal with FOX to be part of the WWE Backstage show, which is no longer on the air. This was his first time working on a wrestling show since he left WWE in early 2014, so time will tell what happens next for CM Punk and whether or not we’ll see him involved in any more wrestling programming. He has a lot to offer, a lot to say and some very original and raw ideas. He could be a genuine asset to pro-wrestling, but at the same time, he has a family he loves, he has potential careers in comics and movies, and he seems to value his happiness and health over the desires of wrestling fans, which is certainly a good thing.

Whatever happens next, I’ll always enjoy going back in time and watching CM Punk wrestle Samoa Joe in ROH, or Daniel Bryan in WWE, or cut some of the damndest promos in the history of wrestling. He was a true original, a brutally honest self-professed jerk and a pretty fucking good wrestler, too. Just remember, if you ever oppose him… your arms are too short to box with God.

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