This year, the always controversial CM Punk makes his debut on the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot. Since he was mentioned as a contender in last year’s Hall of Fame issue, there has been a lot of talk about Punk, whether he deserves to go in, is it too soon, does he need to do more. Much of this talk happened even before Punk walked out of the WWE following this year’s Royal Rumble. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so weird to talk about Punk as a potential Hall of Famer, if you believe him, we’ve seen the last of Punk in a wrestling ring.

Regardless of his latest transgressions, Punk is on the ballot and the questions can now start: Is CM Punk a Wrestling Observer Hall of Famer? 

Before we look at his credentials, let’s revisit each what the criteria is for entry into the Hall of Fame. From this, we will break down each individual piece into their own buckets and see if Punk has the mutton chops to call himself a Hall of Famer: 

The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner.  A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.

Hall of Famers must be a great in-ring performer, excel in pro wrestling or have drawing power. Candidates should offer all three or be outstanding in one or two. Simple enough, so how does Punk stack up?

We’ll start by looking at drawing power, specifically looking at PPV buys for Punk “top matches” versus buys where Punk was not in a top match. For the purposes of this study, I’ve removed all WrestleManias, all SummerSlams and all Royal Rumbles. If you’ve ever read any of my statistical pieces, I gave some background on why those are statistically irrelevant. I’ve also removed all instances of The Rock, whose return inflated a number of PPV buy numbers including Survivor Series 2011. Unless, of course, you want to argue that Punk vs. Del Rio drew that number and not the return of The Rock from a 10-year in-ring absence but I don’t think so. I’ve also removed Brock Lesnar as his returns popped a few huge buy numbers including Extreme Rules 2012. Again, I’m guessing Punk vs. Jericho in a street fight didn’t explain the massive bump there.

Here’s the result:

VoicesofWrestling.com - CM Punk

 

(Note: Template for choosing “Top Matches” by PPV was the Pro Wrestling History spreadsheet, maintained by Jason Campbell: http://prowrestlinghistory.com/supercards/eventinfo.xls)

This paints the picture of a guy who had a few significant draws as a main event or top match guy, but is it sustained and significant? That may be another question. The first two spikes are from Night of Champions and Hell in a Cell 2009. At Night of Champions, Punk faced off with Jeff Hardy during their unbelievable feud and at Hell in a Cell, Punk did battle with The Undertaker. This was at a time where the Hell in a Cell gimmick was still a draw and despite this match also featuring a Cena vs. Randy Orton Hell in a Cell, credit has to go to Punk as well. He was in the early stages of his WWE heel run, slowly evolving his character into the Straight Edge Society Punk. It was really great stuff and made him one of the top, if not the top heels in the company.

As we go on you’ll notice a fairly significant blip in the middle of the chart, this, of course, is his main event match against John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011. Despite this main event and the build (infamous pipe bomb promo) becoming a pop culture phenomenon, the event didn’t do amazingly well.

Punk’s next two main events underperformed the trendline before his 2012 run with the WWE Championship showed significant growth and longevity. Punk toiled for much of 2013 into the early part of 2014 when he left the company.

Overall, during this dataset (2009-2013), average WWE PPV buys were 199,634. PPVs with Punk in a “top match” averaged 198,526. If we break that down year-by-year though (note: 2010 only featured one CM Punk main event/top match), we see a bit more evidence that Punk was at least a decent draw:

VoicesofWrestling.com - CM Punk

If anything, Punk drew above WWE average in both 2011 and 2012 during which he main event a majority of their major shows. Does it make Punk a hands-down, no doubt PPV draw? I don’t think so, but it’s not a total knock.

 Where Punk made his WWE money (literally) was in merchandise. In 2011, Punk did the unthinkable and usurped John Cena as the top merchandise mover in WWE (both online and at events). Sparked by the infamous pipe bomb promo and his anti-establishment persona, Punk merchandise flew off digital and physical shelves.

 Even after Punk’s departure from the company in early 2014, his merchandise was moving at a rapid pace:

 Punk actually outsells Cena in online orders, while Cena’s sales thrive at live events.

 At his peak, Punk had nearly 100 items on WWEShop.com — t-shirts, hoodies, hats, plush bears, iPhone cases, a full-length DVD biography. I should note that according to WWE’s KPI between 2011-2013, the Punk DVD “CM Punk: Best in the World” sold more than any other home video release beating out the likes of “The Attitude Era”, “NWO the Revolution” and “Undertaker: The Streak.”

 While we don’t have the actual financial figures for his merchandise we can say without question that CM Punk sold merchandise and lots of it. Anyone who can topple John Cena at any point is worth noting. How much of this do we lump into Punk’s overall drawing power? I’d say a lot. Given the WWE’s modern landscape, it’s harder than ever for an individual to draw a house or PPV buys, in many cases, merchandise movement is a key indicator in popularity.

 My overall conclusion regarding Punk’s drawing ability: he was a guy who drew above average for a few years but not a significant, blow away amount. Instead, Punk’s popularity shined through his merchandise sales which are a vital part of his HOF resume and should not be ignored. 

Now onto Punk’s in-ring performance, as Dave mentioned in the criteria a Hall of Famer must be “a great in-ring performer.” To me, that describes CM Punk. I’ll readily admit I’m a bit biased but I’ve always loved Punk’s work even in his IWA-MS days, up through ROH, OVW and into WWE. The thing that’s important to note here is it’s not good enough on it’s own to get Punk into the Hall of Fame. Some of his contemporaries, notably Daniel Bryan, can walk into the Hall of Fame tomorrow on the merits of their incredible ring work. Punk isn’t that great but he’s still good. 

Using Dave Meltzer’s star ratings, Punk has 19 4* and above matches placing him around such greats as The Rock (19), Bret Hart (19), Mick Foley (19) and just above contemporaries like Chris Sabin (17), Austin Aries (17) and Sting (16). 

Here’s a rundown of those 4* matches (thanks to Chris “mookieghana” Harrington): 

  • 6/12/2004: ROH — singles Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk
  • 10/16/2004: ROH — singles Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk
  • 12/4/2004: ROH — singles Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk
  • 6/18/2005: ROH — singles Austin Aries vs. CM Punk
  • 4/1/2007: WWE — multi-man singles Mr. Kennedy vs. Edge vs. Jeff Hardy vs. King Booker vs. Randy Orton vs. Matt Hardy vs. CM Punk vs. Finlay (Ladder)
  • 8/23/2009: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy (TLC)
  • 8/28/2009: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy (Cage) “Probably”
  • 2/20/2011: WWE — multi-man singles John Cena vs. Randy Orton vs. CM Punk vs. John Morrison vs. R-Truth vs. Sheamus (Elimination Chamber)
  • 7/17/2011: WWE — singles John Cena vs. CM Punk
  • 12/18/2011: WWE — multi-man singles CM Punk vs. The Miz vs. Alberto Del Rio (TLC)
  • 5/20/2012: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan
  • 7/15/2012: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan (No DQ)
  • 9/16/2012: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. John Cena
  • 1/27/2013: WWE — singles The Rock vs. CM Punk
  • 2/25/2013: WWE — singles John Cena vs. CM Punk
  • 4/7/2013: WWE — singles The Undertaker vs. CM Punk
  • 6/16/2013: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho
  • 7/14/2013: WWE — multi-man singles CM Punk vs. Randy Orton vs. Rob Van Dam vs. Christian vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus (Ladder)
  • 8/18/2013: WWE — singles CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar (No DQ)

One interesting thing regarding Punk’s above 4* matches are the various opponents, from Brock Lesnar and Chris Jericho to The Undertaker, Austin Aries, Samoa Joe and John Cena. There’s a nice blend of what I would consider great workers and lesser ones. That bodes well for me.

You also have some longevity in play here as Punk’s first 4* match took place in 2004 while wrestling for Ring of Honor and his most recent was nine years later, August 2013 against Brock Lesnar.

It’s safe to say beyond Meltzer’s ratings that Punk was a great worker throughout his career, really kicking it into another gear during his later ROH run and during the middle portions of his WWE tenure.

Punk’s title win against John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 is one of my favorite matches ever and should be considered a classic with the perfect blend of a big match feel, insane crowd and a well worked, well constructed match. Punk’s work with Jeff Hardy throughout the summer and fall of 2009 was exceptional as was his series of matches with Daniel Bryan. I thought Punk got way more out of The Rock in his return than Cena and his WrestleMania match with The Undertaker has to be considered an all-time classic, even more so when you compare it to the disappointing WrestleMania XXX match between Undertaker and Lesnar.

As I stated earlier, I don’t think Punk should get into the Hall of Fame on work alone but his work should be seen as nothing less than great. His work is just another feather in the HOF cap.

VoicesofWrestling.com - CM Punk

The last criteria was “having historical significance in a positive manner.” Let’s focus on the historical significance portion. We’ve discussed the importance of Money in the Bank 2011 before in this article and despite it not being a gigantic draw on PPV, it was a pop culture sensation. One of the rare times when a WWE title match was discussed on local radio stations or on major sports websites. David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker got his start on ESPN as a result of the intrigue held by many leading to this main event. CM Punk seemingly broke the walls of kayfabe down and fans that had left in droves when their intelligence continued to be insulted, were now on the way back. Sure, the rest of that stuff sucks but this guy speaks to me, he speaks to the intelligent, older wrestling fan. It was remarkable even if the numbers don’t reflect it.

Beyond Money in the Bank 2011, Punk’s historical significance can be measured by the influx of current independent wrestling talent in WWE. Punk wasn’t the first “indie darling” to make it to WWE, but you’re lying to yourself if you don’t think he was the first significant one. I’m not sure Daniel Bryan is in the middle of a confetti-filled ring at WrestleMania XXX without Punk.

Guys like Brian Kendrick, Paul London and well Daniel Bryan (signed to WWE Developmental deal in 2000) were all apart of WWE before Punk made is way there in 2005. Punk’s rise to the top of WWE made him the first star of the American independent era or the post-Territorial Days, if you will. There were numerous guys you read about in magazines as the next big things, your Reckless Youths, Donovan Morgans, Christopher Daniels. All these guys had glimmers of hope, but it was Punk who did it. Once he was able to break the walls down, in came the flood of former Ring of Honor talent Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Colt Cabana, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins not to mention the influx of talent from current Gabe Sapolsky-ran organizations Dragon Gate USA and Evolve.

Other indie darlings past and present failed but not CM Punk, he overcame the tanned “bodybuilder” manta that dominated the company when he came in. Punk broke the mold and opened the doors for an independent wrestler to make it in the WWE. That alone is significant enough for me to give Punk a checkmark in what Dave defines as a positive influence on the business. He opened doors for guys that may not have had a chance without him. Would someone have eventually carried that mantle if not for Punk? Probably, but that’s not how this works.

From a hardware perspective, nobody has amassed more Wrestling Observer awards and not reached the Hall of Fame. The lone exception, Daniel Bryan, has yet to reach the ballot. The next closest non-HOFer is Sting who has 30 less points using Chris Harrington’s statistical model.

At the time of Harrington’s study, Punk had a HOF prediction score of 0.61, far above the HOF median of 0.33. If Punk is left out of the Observer Hall of Fame, he will be one of the most glaring omissions from a purely awards perspective.

Let’s backtrack now and re-visit Dave’s criteria for being a Wrestling Observer Hall of Famer:

The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner.  A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.

Let’s apply this criteria to Punk. Did he have drawing power? On a purely PPV buy level, Punk outperformed average but wasn’t significant. When you factor in his unbelievable run as a merchandise mover, yes, CM Punk had drawing power.

Was Punk a great in-ring performer? I struggle with defining great in this case but using Meltzer’s scale, he’s right up there with the likes of Bret Hart, The Rock and Mick Foley. On a personal level, I was a huge fan of CM Punk’s work as I think he did a great job melding with a number of different styles and was a top-tier worker from 2004 until his walkout from WWE.

His historical perspective speaks for itself, as mentioned, if he does not make the HOF he will be the most glaring omission based off his number of Wrestling Observer award wins. Punk’s significance goes well beyond made-up awards though, I’m of the opinion that he was the kickstarter in WWE’s modern acceptance of independent wrestling. The first true independent star of the post-territorial era. I fully believe Punk paved the way for guys like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Daniel Bryan to be stars in the WWE. Punk went a long way in breaking the Johnny Ace, 6’5 250 lb tanned bodybuilder mold that permeated the upper midcard of WWE for so many years.

With all these in mind, is CM Punk a Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame? I say yes. That’s not necessarily saying you should change your ballot right now or leave someone off but at some point over the next 15 years, CM Punk should be a Hall of Famer. The new 15-50% rule changes the game as does the limit of 10 wrestler votes. With a finite number of guys that can enter every year, Punk doesn’t stand out as a first-ballot, must-have HOF, but sometime in the next 15 years be it this year, next year or in 2029, CM Punk should be a Wrestling Observer Hall of Famer.