It feels like 2019 has been a weird year in wrestling. WWE’s making lots of money, but struggling to get people to watch their TV or come to their shows. Impact is plagued by problems after showing a surprising amount of promise not too long ago. AEW is an entirely new player on the scene, and New Japan is making more inroads to the US as well. But when you think about it, maybe it’s not just 2019 that’s been a weird year in wrestling — maybe this year is just the culmination of the 2010’s, a very unsual decade in wrestling.
Eight years ago today, on Monday Night Raw, wrestling was forever altered by a single promo. At the end of the show, after interfering in a Tables Match between John Cena and R-Truth, CM Punk set cross-legged on the stage and said a whole lot of true things about John Cena and WWE. It certainly wasn’t the first worked shoot promo. Late-stage WCW was practically plagued with them. What made this different was that Punk said what the fans wanted to hear:
- John Cena isn’t the best wrestler, he’s just the one Vince insists on pushing.
- There are better people on the roster who don’t get the push they deserve, like Punk himself.
- There are other options out there for wrestlers like him, like NJPW and Ring of Honor.
- WWE is an entertainment company, not a place where actual wrestling matters.
- The product is bad because Vince controls everything and is surrounded by yes-men.
- The only hope for WWE might be the death of Vince McMahon, but don’t even get your hopes up about that.
Whether any of his words were actually unauthorized is beside the point. It all felt incredibly true, and like stuff that had never been admitted on WWE TV before. Sure, he heeled off on the audience, blaming the problem on them, but this pipe bomb of a promo was too exciting to get mad about.
Eight years later, a few things are worth noting. First, most of Punk’s criticisms of the company are still incredibly relevant. Cena’s not the top star anymore, but only because he left to be an even bigger star outside of wrestling. Vince is still pushing his favorites, regardless of how talented or popular with fans other wrestlers might be.
Perhaps even more important is the way Punk drops in non-WWE references, to make the promo sound like it came from outside the WWE machine. He mentions not just New Japan and Ring of Honor, but Colt Cabana (they were still good friends at the time). He badmouths WWE, but also the USA Network. He talks like a guy just talking, in a way we still don’t expect to be allowed in WWE. He brought a level of reality to pro wrestling that WWE still struggles to effectively maintain, but has never been able to do away with. But most importantly, at its heart, it’s just a really good promo.
Also, in June of 2011, if somebody had told you that in 8 years CM Punk would have long since retired from wrestling, and John Cena would be mostly out of the business as well, but R-Truth would be doing some of the most entertaining work every week on WWE TV, would you have believed them?