On June 18, 2005, CM Punk shocked the wrestling world by defeating Austin Aries to become Ring of Honor world heavyweight champion.
It was particularly unexpected because Punk had just signed a developmental deal with WWE and was on his way out of the company that had helped make him one of the most buzzed-about in the industry.
Winning the title stunned the fans and ignited what has become known as The Summer of Punk, a run that made even the most skeptical observer sit up and take notice of the Chicago native.
It was the last great run before he joined Vince McMahon’s company, where he would stage a second Summer of Punk six years later on the back of an impassioned “pipe bomb” promo that shook the industry to its core.
Punk would go on to become a major star as a result, enjoying mainstream media appearances and a year-long WWE Championship reign.
In celebration of those defining moments as they reach 15 and nine years old, respectively, celebrate these reasons why the self-proclaimed Best in the World remains a beloved icon in the sport of professional wrestling.
To understand why Punk garnered the cult-like status he did during his run in the indies, you have to first look at what was going on in the industry around him. He came up when appearances and physiques were still a major element of success in the business.
There was a certain look that propelled someone to stardom in WWE at the time.
Big, jacked-up guys with impressive physiques and million-dollar smiles that could be plastered on pay-per-view posters were all the rage. John Cena and Randy Orton were making strides; both young, good-looking kids building the sort of momentum that would carry them right through the next decade.
They fit the mold. Punk did not.
He was tattooed, pierced and dyed his hair. He was the exact opposite of what fans watched every Monday and Thursday night. He was cool, a true alternative to everything McMahon was doing based solely on his look. An entire section of the audience, tattooed fans of punk rock and heavy metal, pointed to Punk and eagerly accepted him as their guy.
That he wasn’t the muscle-bound type that so heavily populated the mainstream product helped exponentially. Even when he arrived in WWE, his appearance set him apart from the rest of the roster, something management did not fully understand right away.
In the 2014 WWE Home Video release CM Punk: Best in the World, both Michael Hayes and Triple H openly mentioned that the greasy hair, piercings and ink held him back initially.
In reality, those attributes helped him gain the following he did. After being force-fed guys who would have been as comfortable on the cover of Muscle and Fitness as they were in the ring, Punk diverted fans’ attention in a way that ultimately benefited him in regards to his relationship with the audience.
Punk never hesitated to be controversial. Ever.
Upon winning the ROH world title in 2005, he signed his WWE contract on belt, drawing the ire of that promotion’s fans. He didn’t care. It drew heat and the sound of their boos was magnificent.
In 2009, he delved into his bag of tricks and retrieved his Straight Edge Savior persona, openly criticizing and chastizing Jeff Hardy for his history of substance abuse problems. Again, it netted the desired response as he quickly became the most effective heel on the roster.
The reaction only got louder and more intensely negative as he grew out his hair and beard and took on look eerily similar to Jesus Christ, surrounded himself with disciples and rode the wave of heat to what is, arguably, the most underrated and underappreciated run of his career.
Then there was the aforementioned “pipe bomb” that changed everything for him.
A scathing promo that referenced John Cena, Dwayne Johnson, John Laurinaitis, Stephanie McMahon, Triple H and Vince himself, it was a release of frustration from a Superstar who had been jerked around and held down despite repeatedly proving he belonged in the upper echelon of competition.
This time, he caught the eye of fans and entertainers outside of the industry, all looking to capitalize on the incredible momentum he had created for himself.
In any of the above instances, things could have easily backfired. Punk could have become the scourge of the industry, either among management or fans. Or both. He took a risk, believed in himself and let some of his real emotions out in a way that could have undone everything he worked for to that point.
It didn’t, though, and it is that fearlessness that has helped endear him to fans.
He Made You Believe
During Punk’s time in Ring of Honor, he competed against the likes of Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, Colt Cabana, AJ Styles, Nigel McGuinness and Aries. Those matches laid the groundwork for the harder-hitting, more athletic style we see today.
Punk was never a tried and true mat technician like Bryan or McGuinness. He did not have an arsenal of 30 different suplexes or 45 different submission moves learned in the dojos of Japan. He wasn’t the hard-hitter Joe was, nor was he as flashy as Styles, but he had something that will always leave a lasting impression on the audience: He made them believe.
In hindsight, two of Punk’s most underrated attributes are his facial expressions and body language.
No matter what was going on in the context of a match, fans knew exactly how he felt because he was so emotive. He could convey his pain, happiness or anger with one look while putting over the physicality of a match or his own personal exhaustion through his body language.
He was one of the last great sellers, a guy whose performance relied as heavily on his ability to convey to the audience the toll the war with his opponent was having on him.
On the mic, he spoke with conviction. You believed that he believed, and in today’s era of heavily scripted promos, that is a dying art.
Whether he was exclaiming that his drug-free lifestyle made him better than you or proclaiming himself the best wrestler in the world, you believed he was not feeding you a line of crap. It was the truth, in his mind, and it made it so much easier to invest in the story he was telling or the match he was promoting.
The believability, both in his in-ring and verbal performances, were key to his greatness as a performer. In many ways, that made him more valuable than the carbon-copy indie guys who had the things he didn’t.
The dawn of the Millennium brought a greater emphasis on in-ring work than ever before. There was a real demand for wrestlers to be able to back up their larger-than-life personalities between the ropes; and if they couldn’t, fans would find someone else to throw their support behind.
Simply put: If you could not work, you would not work as a star in any major promotion.
Punk brought a style that incorporated some Brazilian ju-jitsu influence in the form of strikes and submissions, a knack for the dramatic near-falls learned on the indies, an in-ring tenacity that defined his later work especially, and an occasional high-risk move or two.
Above all, it was a style that was heavy on story.
One of the greatest matches of his career, and the 2010s as a whole, came at SummerSlam in 2013, when he battled Brock Lesnar. That match was all about Punk exercising the rope-a-dope on his rival. He absorbed a tremendous beating, let The Beast Incarnate tire himself out and waited for the opportune time to strike back.
He would have won the match, too, if it wasn’t for that meddling Paul Heyman.
Two years earlier at Money in the Bank in Chicago, he wrestled his defining match against John Cena.
An overconfident Punk was absolutely sure he was the superior wrestler. He proved it early, only to find out Cena was his equal between the ropes. Their war ended with Punk winning the WWE title after a 30-minute, drama-filled classic.
Punk’s ability to engage an audience with a story they could easily follow became his greatest weakness, though.
He was always lumped in the group of indie guys who kind of took over the industry in the mid-to-late 2000s, but he was like Cena or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or even Hulk Hogan in that he could suck the fans in with the story he was telling, even on nights when the action may not have been up to par.
It was that ability between the ropes, coupled with his look and controversial personality that helped Punk grab the attention of fans around the world, even when he wasn’t the biggest, strongest or most traditional performer on McMahon’s roster.
It is for those reasons that he remains such a beloved icon in the sport and the reason why fans continue to chant his name in arenas around the world.
Even if Punk never wrestles another match, his legacy is that of a star who broke free of the restraints placed on other Superstars and earned stardom by being 100 percent himself and that will always be appreciated.
Whether it was the Summer of Punk 2005 or 2011.
Or 2020? Hey, a fan can dream.