Why CM Punk Was the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin of the WRONG Generation

Roman Reigns said that CM Punk “was not as good or as over as a John Cena, wasn’t as good or over and moved the needle like The Rock.” While the quality of in-ring performance is debatable, Reigns is correct about the rest. Though, it isn’t Punk’s fault since he was set up to fail from the beginning by the WWE.

Think back to the wrestling landscape of 2005. The Attitude Era lifted Vince McMahon’s company out of the ashes of the past and helped put every other legitimate competitor out of business. Then came the time of Ruthless Aggression—a period that promised a new generation of superstars and similar mayhem to the Attitude Era (even if it’d been toned down slightly). A young but highly experienced CM Punk joined the company in August 2005, primed for the big time after a legendary run in the indies.

However, the cards were stacked against him from the get-go as many of McMahon’s yes-man didn’t get Punk’s appeal. Stuck polishing Hulk Hogan’s bald spot, they failed to understand that Chicago’s favourite son was pure money as a modern-day reincarnation of Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Like Austin, Punk had it all. He could work his butt off in the ring and he had the gift of the gab on the mic. He could easily make a crowd love or hate him, but one thing’s for sure, he would get a reaction every single night. Again, like Austin, he worked best as an antihero—an anti-establishment figure who spoke his mind and had everyone raising their finger to the man.

Yet, he was the victim of wrong place, wrong time. The pressures of being publicly traded company took a stranglehold of the WWE. The suits started to get uncomfortable about the product on TV, wondering if the adult-orientated material couldn’t be made more family-friendly. These geniuses even decided that wrestling—a term that was in the company’s actual name—should make way to it being called sports entertainment instead. In other words, the accountants and lawyers became creative directors, and that never goes down well.

The WWE became much safer and watered down in the PG era. It pushed everything from toys to lunchboxes—basically, everything except the wrestling. There was no room for performers to toe the line between babyface and heel. You were either the do-gooding Cena or the dastardly cheating Randy Orton. It put someone like Punk in a predicament since he always worked best when he could blur the lines. Even so, he still managed to have a few brief championship runs because the crowd ensured he wouldn’t be forgotten.

Then, the “Pipe Bomb” happened. Within 11 minutes, Punk said everything that old-school fans had been feeling for several years. The WWE lost its way, catering to the lowest common denominator and failing to elevate talent. There weren’t new stars being created as the company continued to rely on a nostalgia factor to reel in the PPV buys. The fact that Cena is still the last true global superstar in two decades proves that Punk was spot-on in his stinging indictment of the WWE. No one was allowed to be the next Rock or Stone Cold because they were held back by the politics around them.

The wrestling world was on fire after that speech. It became a game-changing promo that brought the eyes back to wrestling. The Summer of Punk offered fans a glimmer of hope that the WWE recognised its failures and the Voice of the Voiceless was about to become the leader of the new generation. Punk’s record-breaking championship run could’ve been the catalyst for change; however, it proved to be the sole outlier. A footnote in history.

While Punk’s star rose, no one else’s did. Instead of ushering in the next Rock or Cena for the champ to do battle with the WWE fell back into its old ways: it just brought back Rock and Cena. All the good done by Punk was wiped away in favour of nostalgia matches headlining the biggest PPVs. 

WrestleMania 29 was the perfect opportunity for Punk to end the Undertaker’s streak and elevate not just his profile but also the new generation’s. Instead, the streak was ended the following year by Brock Lesnar: a performer who’s made it very clear that he isn’t about to wrestle a full-time schedule or commit himself to the business in the long run. It’s easy to see why Punk didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and decided to leave the company in early 2014.

So, yes, Reigns is correct. Punk was never as over as Cena or Rock, but he was never allowed the opportunity to achieve it. At the same time, Reigns should be more concerned about the fact that at SummerSlam—the second biggest PPV of the year—the two main events feature the old guard of Goldberg and Cena. Again, proving Punk right about the state of the WWE a decade after his infamous “Pipe Bomb”.

For Punk, though, he doesn’t seem concerned about this. He’s rediscovered his passion for wrestling at AEW and doing what should’ve been done for him 10 years ago: putting younger talent over. He might not be able to change the past, but he can certainly shape the future now. That’s what the best in the world does.

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