‘Pulling back the curtain’ made C.M. Punk an instant star. Why does it have the opposite effect in other pro sports?
In July 2010, LeBron James took the unprecedented step of allowing his free agency, a free agency that had been anticipated and speculated about by fans for something like three years, to play out publicly in a widely-watched television. During “The Decision,” he announced he would leave his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers and sign in the flashier city of Miami with flashier teammates (with apologies to Boobie Gibson and Mo Williams) like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Just like that, LeBron James, the squeaky clean, heroic, well-liked pitchman, was reborn as LeBron James, villain. And by association, his entire Heat team became the NBA’s rogues. How should they deal with this newfound (and often, insane) vitriol directed at them? By adopting a common professional wrestling tactic, of course.
Embrace the hatred. Play into it. Incite the crowd even more by beating up on the teams they are rooting for. Namely, play a character. Joseph Goodman writes:
It is away from AmericanAirlines Arena where this Heat team feels most at home. That attitude begins with James, who initially struggled to accept his new public image but is thriving as the NBA’s leading villain.
Even NBA Commissioner David Stern, in an interview with Jason Whitlock, admitted that James as bad guy was largely cultivated, saying, “I don’t like it. I think that it’s theater.” The Heat did their part, dancing around on-stage in the summer as they promised championships in a clip that became fodder in about every opposing arena they played in. They also showed up in a fantastic photograph that looked villainous, even if it wasn’t deliberately posed.
The only problem is, it doesn’t quite work like that in professional wrestling anymore, and the quick rise of wrestler C.M. Punk proves it. Punk, who had been a main-event-level wrestler in the WWE for a few years but far from a known commodity outside of close followers of the sport, suddenly became the WWE’s biggest star because, basically, he adopted the LeBron James model.
Punk’s ascension started with a now legendary promo “shoot” on “Monday Night Raw” in which he discussed the approaching end of his contract with WWE, his displeasure with the behind-the-scenes decisions that the company makes, his anger at being under-utilized, his belief that he was the most talented wrestler in the company, and his hope that maybe the WWE will be better when chairman Vince McMahon “dies.” It was a rare promo that left viewers wondering, “Is this real?” The term that was used frequently when describing it was Punk “pulling the curtain back,” basically exposing some inner-workings of a company known for secrecy and discussing things that fans of sports generally don’t like hearing about—rich athletes complaining about their contracts, for example. It was so real, in fact, that it resulted in a “suspension” of Punk that only furthered the “is this real?” questions.
In subsequent weeks, Punks “suspension” would be lifted, his contract situation became an on-screen topic as Vince McMahon publicly tried to re-sign him while Punk demanded things like private jets as contract perks. Punk and John Cena would eventually headline one of the WWE’s most successful pay-per-views in recent memory. And after beating Cena and allegedly leaving the WWE with the championship belt, minus a contract, Punk was back with a new theme song on Monday Night Raw just a week later.
Punk’s actions were decidedly antagonistic. He talked about money and perks, he criticized other beloved stars (Cena and The Rock) and he even insulted the fans—in that first promo, he told the crowd that they’re “the reason he’s leaving.” All of that did the opposite of making him a villain; in fact, it made him an instant celebrity. Bill Simmons and The Masked Man both wrote about him in the period of a week for ESPN’s Grantland. He showed up at Wrigley Field. He was on Jim Rome’s show. His playing the role of villain actually vaulted him to crowd-favorite status, and in an interview with GQ, Punk essentially admitted that he attained that status by being as big of an asshole as possible:
GQ: What made you demand the return of WWE Ice Cream Bars last night?
C.M. Punk: If I have Vince McMahon over a barrel and he wants me to re-sign—If I’m Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, everybody wants me, I can get whatever I want, and I’m this prick douchebag—I’m going to ask for ridiculous stuff. The idea came from those crazy rock and roll riders: “I need a football field of green M&Ms.” But I actually love those ice cream bars, and I would love to see them come back. And I’m always trying to crack up whoever I’m in the ring with. I think Vince subscribes to that theory, too. He’s calling me “Phil.” But that’s the chemistry. It’s just fun.
Punk’s quick rise and calculated, attention-grabbing antics were compelling enough to garner mainstream media coverage for the WWE, something that is incredibly rare (Punk himself even noted that the WWE usually only gets coverage like that when a wrestler dies). But it was strange to see an athlete talking about money, talking about himself as a star and an individual, and being roundly applauded in the mainstream sports media, whose general purpose seems to be chortling at that sort of behavior from athletes in other sports.
As a wrestling fan, Punk’s ascension is a blessing in a genre that was a bit stagnant. But hopefully, his ability to gain a non-wrestling platform will help sports fans and commentators pick up on something that pro-wrestling long ago figured out: sports are entertainment. Flamboyance, self-importance, ego, and personality make them more fun, not less fun.