This is a Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame article about a boy named Phil. Phil became a wrestling fan during the tail-end of the Rock and Wrestling boom because it was something people talked about in school. By the mid-90s, with the encouragement of his older brother and his even older friends, they wrestled in the backyard. Eventually, he became a professional wrestler in 1999. Known as CM Punk, he was signed by WWE to a developmental deal six years later, in 2005.
In those six years, he was part of the golden generation of early ROH, serving as a mid-card foil to Raven, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, AJ Styles and Jimmy Rave, achieving greater success in his final two years with the promotion after the sudden loss of talents like AJ Styles.
After an eight year and five month career with WWE, with less than ten months within the developmental system, Phil Brooks signed a UFC contract, and fought as a six-foot-one-inch, one-hundred-and-seventy-pound fighter under his wrestling ring-name CM Punk.
These stated measurements make Mr. Brooks comparable to one Matt Riddle, who also competed as a 6’1”, 170lb fighter. Born eight years after CM Punk, Matt Riddle has also stated that he was a fan of professional wrestling since childhood. However, he saw a better place for his skills as a UFC fighter, being a high school state wrestling champion. After two years of training and a single amateur fight, Matt Riddle began his professional MMA career in the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter competition in 2008, and fought until his eventual release and retirement five years and eight months later, largely due to his proclivity for marijuana and his defense of its use.
Afterwards, and why he is of interest to this article, in 2014 the charming and talented Riddle began a training for a professional wrestling career, made his debut the following year, emerging as a rapidly-improving star in the EVOLVE promotion (which has a close working relationship with WWE) and elsewhere. With a mix of MMA and “legit” wrestling credentials, along with a sense of presence and storytelling that belies the number of matches he has done, it is largely believed that Matt Riddle is, if not already, the future “ace” of the EVOLVE promotion as well as a potential big-money draw in the future with WWE.
A promotion that does not work closely with WWE, and is seen as a promotional rival, is the UFC.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship pre-dates the name Mixed Martial Arts. Beginning in 1993 and largely inspired by the “shoot” wrestling that was the fodder of the Bloodsport movie and late-night subscription cable kickboxing or muay thai competitions, the company evolved throughout the next eight years until finally settling in with the unified rules we have today.
Ignoring the impact of Japanese professional wrestling and Pride (which never dies) — a subject beyond the scope of this article — to the larger american audience UFC appealed to a niche market until the birth of The Ultimate Fighter in January of 2005 (which aired directly after Monday Night Raw), at which point the sport expanded to a true world-reaching audience by 2009 with the use of former WWE star Brock Lesnar, and has matured into A-block programming for FOX and respect as a “real sport” in the mainstream sports media.
By 2016, a large cohort of athletic men fight for UFC, with many more in the amateur MMA ranks, most of which are at or larger than 6’1” tall and/or 170lbs. Fifty-one men fight in the UFC heavyweight ranks alone, only eight of which are shorter than 6’1”; of the fifty or so fighters one weight class below, less than half aren’t at least 6’2”.
This is an interesting factoid, when one compares to what WWE was looking for in the eight years between 2002 and 2010; it was largely known that what they wanted were wrestlers that were at least 6’2” and 250lb.
CM Punk himself had a billed height of 6’2” and and billed weight of 212lbs, and to look at him before and after he ascended (such as it is) to main-event status in 2011 is much like seeing an NFL lineman such as Jeff Saturday suddenly deflate after retiring.
Vince McMahon’s view of wrestling has always been a land of giants, as CM Punk said himself during his WWE produced documentary when talking about his time in developmental. More than just a kick & punch promotion, the WWE style has been one of large, impressive men doing things to highlight these aesthetics.
What CM Punk is largely credited with is an upset of this natural order; that by his “success”, both kayfabe and monetary, he paved the way for shorter, non-traditional bodies to sneak into Vince McMahon’s television product, especially those that had success in other non-WCW promotions.
However, this doesn’t explain why, after talents such as 6’2” Ken Kennedy, 6’3” MVP, 6’2” Shelton Benjamin had already left the company by 2010 when the well of talent coming up from ECW had long since run dry, CM Punk was still treading water as a Bray Wyatt prototype with the Straight Edge Society and The Nexus. And, the story goes, had it not been for a single promo, the WWE would still be pushing tall, muscular talent to this very day.
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter is institution with a unique view of the world, that MMA, Boxing, and Professional Wrestling largely uses promotional tactics of large personalities to create interest and therefore value to their products. Under the heading of “combat sports”, what draws the eye and dollar is a belief that what you will see is exciting not because of the blow-by-blow account, but because of the inherent storylines of a (sometimes rigged) competition.
None of these are team sports, especially the de-individualizing mush that is professional football in the trenches. What can catch the eye in a documentary (see Thatcher, Tim) or locker room (see Rawley, Mojo) has nothing to do with giving the audience a rooting interest. It is a skill completely divorced from most respectable professional athletics but completely a part of modern combat sports as viewed by Dave Meltzer.
Baron Corbin is not the savior of RAW, nor is anyone of his ilk. While the number of former Professional Athletes settling into a wrestling paycheck will never go away, they lack what CM Punk certainly has —an ability to create a rooting interest— that is part and parcel of the star-driven industry. If WWE could, they would install a multi-billion dollar shadow industry to their own focused on churning out rooting-interest stars for them to pluck, in the same way that amatuer and minor-league MMA has been for the UFC. For WWE’s sake, I hope they will Evolve into something like that soon.
CM Punk became a professional wrestler in 1999, when there wasn’t a unified rule system for MMA. Matt Riddle became a UFC fighter after two years of a full-ride college scholarship for amateur wrestling after the premiere of TUF in 2006.
The wrestlers on the indie scene since CM Punk’s signing have shrunk by a prodigious degree—current UFC fighter and WON commentator “Filthy” Tom Lawlor openly remarked that the competitors of BOLA he watched were basically dwarves. Compared to the men and women he trains with and competes against, they are. Most recent “indie darlings” to be signed in WWE are more Chris Jericho’s size than Triple H’s.
This isn’t because CM Punk, long-suffering mid-carder, somehow grew into a long reigning champion. The UFC has become a sucking drain of talent, especially large talent, and the only people in the industry above the magical 6’2” barrier are those who love it enough to suffer through its many aches and pains, or ones arrived from a virgin land not yet fully sullied from the pull of UFC, such as Europe.
Before 2009, CM Punk was a mid-carder that hadn’t yet done shit, known for occupying a top spot on a 3rd-brand show hardly anyone watched. Even before 2011 he was mostly relegated to guy-underneath-the-guy status. But as the rest of the roster either aged out or self-combusted, and the younger talent failed to meet the expectations, CM Punk was merely the tallest man left who happened to have an indie background and a talent with a microphone.
The argument for CM Punk’s influence requires the belief that Vince McMahon would not have changed his presentation of professional wrestling after the sea-change of the UFC. Giving credit to CM Punk for being lifted into the boat by Vince McMahon as an Indie Star is to ignore that the gigantic gaping drain that has lowered the water level.
A tangent on Vince. No one should care much for any name on the Modern US/Canada ballot getting in or falling off the ballot for WON HOF. As of this year, not a single candidate is not indelibly linked to having worked for Vince McMahon, even Sting, especially as his totals went up after he main evented a WWE PPV. It’s the “I watched the Wrestling presented by Vince McMahon” category, and you are selecting based on how well a wrestler appealed to him, personally.
If we were to assume that CM Punk was the cause, rather than the effect, there would be descendants of his ascension, indie stars that signed after six years on the circuit, worked their way up for another six years, and achieved some top-card status for the next handful of years.
Instead, the indie star main eventers do not match this trajectory. Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus failed to achieve that “indie” aura; Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Finn Balor did not spend time toiling in the midcard to achieve greatness; of all, most were either rushed up or spent a time in the 3rd brand before ascending near-immediately to PPV success. Instead of thinking that this indicates a special relationship between “indie star” status main eventing, you should instead see that this indicates a lack of star power at the top that was being developed in the years preceding their arrival.
More importantly, observe these men’s debut dates. 2000, 2002, 2000, 1998, 2005, 2004, 2000. In fact, the only people to have held any ‘top’ title that had a pro wrestling debut after the premiere of UFC’s TUF eleven years ago is Seth Rollins (by all of two months, and a month before the final fight), Roman Reigns, and Jack Swagger. That’s the list, for an entire eleven year span considering the Universal, WWE, and WHC. For comparison, Dave Batista went 5 years between debuting as a professional wrestler and winning his first top title.
Personally, I would credit Daniel Bryan as the singular “indie” star that not only influenced the largest company in the industry to widen its scope of “acceptable” stars, and influenced his peers with match quality, style, and relationships to the industry.
Yet if I remind the reader that Daniel Bryan doesn’t drink, we have one thing that is uniquely to CM Punk’s credit: his popularizing of his teetotaler status as “straight edge” to encourage other wrestlers to not just avoid drugs but actively avow not using them. Jerry Lawler was known to live a clean lifestyle, however this was not said, as the factoid was seen as an admission of either a lack of fortitude or a need to appeal to a square society. CM Punk, both backstage and on stage, made it acceptable to abstain in both public and private spheres.
Before CM Punk’s ascension, drug abuse was part and parcel of the understood life of a wrestler. Afterwards and during, wrestlers became known more for their hobbies and interests than their addictions. Even a minor folly is seen as outside and kooky; wrestlers are more famous for being “out there”, such as Matt Sydal. Or perhaps Matt Riddle, he of the MMA weed suspensions. Or perhaps in another few years, the influence of CM Punk in the industry will be more clear as more Matt Riddle’s and the culture that loves people like Matt Riddle grows into prominence. Perhaps CM Punk is a stone that, once removed, returns the current of wrestling back to its regular flow.
However, had the UFC never dammed the flow of talent into the stream of wrestling, this CM Punk stone would never have risen above the surface. Even with his status as a draw and as a worker during the world in which he lived, we must question to what degree CM Punk had any influence on his own ascension.