N.C. Harrison laments the absence of star wrestler CM Punk from this year’s Wrestlemania lineup.
WWE Wrestlemania goes down this Sunday night. This is, if you are a fan of professional wrestling, each year’s equivalent to the Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup. Even during a bad year (this one hasn’t been particularly notable, to me, on either end of the spectrum) McMahon and Co. put forth some effort to make the show memorable, usually during the Undertaker’s war with whichever opponent thinks he can overcome wrestling’s personification of death itself—heck, he even seems to speak in block capitals, a la Discworld. Okay, okay, sure, Wrestlemania IX’s Undertaker vs. Giant Gonzalez wasn’t much to write home about (although I always considered Jorge Gonzalez an underrated performer, especially with the Oddities as Giant Silva, and pretty good, at least, at being almost eight feet tall) but still… it was the kind of thing that sticks with you, if only because of El Gigante’s horrible furry muscle suit.
There are several things I’m looking forward to at this year’s show, in fact. The part of me which cheered Seattle humiliating Denver at the Super Bowl and believes that Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney albums on vinyl are both religious experiences half hopes that Daniel Bryan will walk out champion and half expects he’ll end up humiliated. The Undertaker, that wonderful old warhorse, is nearing the end of his time but always manages to put on at least one good show per year, and his opponent Brock Lesnar’s intensity and legitimate aura of menace will help to draw that out. Naomi and AJ Lee, if their match for the Diva’s Championship brings it half as well as their throwaway performance on WWE NXT a few years back, have a good chance of stealing the show entirely.
I do find myself a little deflated, coming into this show, because of what will be missing: CM Punk has departed the WWE and will not be bringing his particular brand of great work to this year’s Show of Shows. It’s not that Punk is a better athlete than anyone else on the card—although his athleticism cannot be denied—or that he’s a better talker (although he ranks with Chris Jericho, the Edge, Ric Flair, Steve Austin and Dusty Rhodes in that regard, in my opinion). No, Punk’s contribution to things is more indelible: he takes professional wrestling seriously. Not in the sense of being a mark for himself, like Triple H so often is, which would make him somewhat ridiculous (as it often does poor Hunter, though he is one of my favorite in-ring storytellers) but in the sense of lending enough gravitas to the proceedings that you’re actually sold on it, like you are when watching a play or really good episode of Dark Shadows.
I remember a perfect example of this at a little house show I attended in South Carolina. This was a small venue in a backwater and the workers were generally having a good time with it. The Big Show, although he was a heel, received cheers because it was his home town (he even met his old babysitter, on the way to the ring) and Kane cut up with an old guy in the front row—not the look you expect from “the Devil’s Favorite Demon.” There was one scary moment, during Beth Phoenix’s match with Layla, when the Glamazon took a bad fall and cracked her head on the ring steps. She arose after a few long, terrifying moments with a crimson patch in her golden hair and staggered through the remainder of the bout, proving herself to be a real trooper. Apart from that, though, everything just sort of flowed without much excitement.
That is, of course, until CM Punk came to the ring. This was during his Straight Edge Society days and, during the promo, he spoke with the fevered intensity of a revival preacher. He railed against drugs, alcohol and vices of all kinds—probably not a message too different than the one our audience would hear in church, the next morning—and then offered to “save” the congregants from their sins. This went over about as well as you can imagine it did in rural South Carolina; the boos and catcalls, which had been mild for the rest of the evening, became deafening. He gave an altar call, invited anyone who wanted to take him upon his offer of salvation to come to the ring, and used the dearth of respondents as more ammunition against us all. This, in turn, brought more hate and, had it been WCW 1997, I imagine that he would have been buried under a hail of garbage.
One little kid, a few seats away from me, shouted, “You suck, CM Punk! I hate you!” I replied, to him, smiling, “I love him, kid.” “Why?” the little guy asked, “He’s a bad man.” I did my best Joker laugh and said, “So am I.” He glowered at me almost as fiercely as he did at Punk. I normally don’t cheer the heels at wrestling shows, even if I like them. It’s bad form, I think, and seems to say, “Even if you’re doing your best to piss me off I’m not going to honor that.” It seemed appropriate, in this case, though. Maybe the sight of what must seemed like a giant Viking, wearing a heavy metal shirt and a fierce, red beard, supporting Punk cemented in the kid’s head that he was a “bad man.” I sure hope it did; I take wrestling seriously, too, like I do with any art form, and try to keep the illusion alive as long as I can.
But WWE brass, maybe, doesn’t take it quite so seriously. I don’t think they can, having pushed the utterly immobile (if amusing, in an unintentional sort of way) Dave Batista on us when we want Bryan, Rhodes, heck, anybody else. I know they can’t, having driven their best performer away. CM Punk is like lightning in a bottle. When you get something like that, guys, you don’t try to control it… you just point it in a direction and let it strike.
Photo of CM Punk–Flickr/Ed Webster