At a point in the WWE’s documentary about CM Punk, he alludes to wearing his heart on his sleeve and then points to one tattooed on his left arm. The heart in question is a piece of art from Jersey punk rock band The Bouncing Souls, my favorite band of all time. I was fortunate enough to open for them back in 2013 on Long Island where a mutual friend, after learning I was a fan of pro wrestling, offered to introduce me to Punk. I declined, in part because I didn’t want to bother the guy, but mainly because at the time I hadn’t watched wrestling in years; I only sort of knew who he was.
Feels kind of stupid now.
When I became a fan of his later, it was initially for his attitude toward his MMA run and a solid twitter game. I eventually worked my way through all the major pro wrestling accomplishments I’d heard folks rave about in and out of the WWE, but it was Punk’s short-lived 2008 title reign that especially resonated with me. It’s a strange little window after Punk’s stock is quickly elevated by the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 24. He’s eventually given the World Heavyweight Championship, then tasked with keeping it warm until they know what to do with it.
The quiet centerpiece of this title reign (though it’s a stretch to say this title reign has a centerpiece, it hardly has a beginning and ending) also took place on Long Island, a quick thirty-minute drive down I-495 from that Bouncing Souls show. At The Great American Bash in Nassau Coliseum on July 20, he defends his title against Batista in a match that makes no contextual sense at all.
Batista exists in a tier above the champ. He lives in John Cena territory. In fact, there are multiple tiers above the champ — if it wasn’t enough that Punk and Batista’s championship match isn’t the main event on this Pay Per View, it’s not even the top-billed match from RAW, their home brand. Punk enters the ring first of course, and when Batista is finally standing across from him it looks and feels like he’s walked into an execution.
I recognize this, I recognize all of this, because I saw it in 2008. I mean, not this specifically — as I said, I wasn’t watching wrestling. Just two weeks prior to this match though, I’d watched Forrest Griffin in a UFC Light Heavyweight Championship match that was the spitting image of this one in so many ways. In fact, when I see Punk fearlessly staring down his oversized challenger, performing his signature pre-match wrist stretch, I realize both stories begin in the same place: a Brazilian dojo named Chute Boxe.
Punk’s pre-match routine is a clear nod to Wanderlei Silva, who would begin all of his matches the same way while terrorizing the popular Japanese MMA promotion, Pride FC. Silva was the face of Chute Boxe, a Muay Thai gym responsible for a murderer’s row of fighters who’d leave opponents laying with vicious soccer kicks and stomps. Toward the end of Pride’s life cycle, Silva’s teammate Mauricio Rua (better known as Shogun) had snuck past Wanderlei as the consensus top 205 lb. fighter, winning the Grand Prix tournament in 2005, and knocking off names like Kevin Randleman and Alistair Overeem with relative ease.
In September of ‘07, at UFC 76, Shogun would finally make his US debut. His opponent? Forrest Griffin, a big name in his own right. The UFC had dipped their toes into reality television in 2005 with The Ultimate Fighter. In the finale of that show, Forrest Griffin faced off against fellow finalist Stephan Bonnar with a six-digit contract at stake. 3.3 million people watched that fight, a fight that UFC president Dana White calls the most important in the company’s history, and sprung mixed martial arts into the American mainstream. Griffin, its winner, is a star. However, in the two years that followed, Forrest would prove to be an inconsistent fighter, facing middling competition with uneven results. If he wasn’t destined for the top of the heap, he’d make a fine sacrificial lamb for Shogun to eviscerate in his introduction to American homes.
But then Forrest won. MMA internet forums were overrun with “RIP Forrest” threads, rich with poor photoshops of his gravestone, all stifled by a third-round rear-naked choke. I remember this night vividly for two reasons. First, it’s my earliest memory of insisting, “This guy kicked ass in Japan, I promise,” a skill I’ve kept sharp to this day. Second, it’s also my earliest memory with the magic of gambling on sports; I’d put a few bucks on Griffin at over two-to-one odds. I also threw down on “The Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine to beat Chuck Liddell that night and it’s a goddamn shame I didn’t know what a parlay was yet, but I digress.
Following the victory, later voted 2007’s Upset of the Year, Griffin is fast-tracked into a match against Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, another Pride import with a fierce highlight reel of violent slams. Rampage was winning shootfights in Japan with honest-to-God powerbombs. Griffin will come in a heavy underdog in July of ‘08 (nearly three-to-one in Vegas), like a man walking into an execution. Sound familiar?
Listen, I normally hate comparisons between MMA and professional wrestling, and especially between the UFC and WWE. It feels lazy. The prior is a combat sport and the latter barely bothers emulating one anymore. Neither company seems afraid to lean in from time to time, though.
The UFC hasn’t shied from pushing the pro wrestling-esque to sell fights, for better (B.J. Penn licking Joe Stevenson’s blood off of his gloves before saying “Sean Sherk, you’re dead”, Israel Adesanya in general) or for worse (Brock Lesnar entering the cage and shoving Daniel Cormier, Colby Covington in general). A few years ago Stephanie McMahon seemed to cite them as competition while arguing to Business Insider, “UFC can make a big star, but the second that star loses, they lose credibility, and how do you make that star rise?” Let’s look past the obvious pot shots at WWE’s practical refusal to create new stars in recent years — doesn’t that dismiss the boundless star-making factory that is sports in America?
We love sports because we love stories, right? I mean, sure we love watching tremendous feats of athleticism, but what keeps us hooked is the drama. If you want proof, flip on ESPN any given morning and watch a table of pundits frame and re-frame athletes’ performances ad nauseum, in search of a narrative that’ll stick. If you break down the major components of a fully formed story (according to script guru John Truby), sports naturally supply most of them: it lays desires, opponents, battles, etc., right out for you. The rest just need to fall neatly into place.
When it feels organic, sparks fly. That’s why, for example, when cultural polar opposites with similarly engaging play styles like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird meet in the 1979 NCAA Finals, we have the most-watched basketball game in television history, and when that simple story is extrapolated into each of those players anchoring the two most important franchises in the NBA, it’s enough to revitalize the entire league. When it’s not organic, when a clunky premise is clumsily shoehorned into a ballgame or fight, we just shrug. In that way, nimble navigation through the tripwires of our bullshit detectors is just as vital to stories about conventional sports as it is to professional wrestling. “There has been a movement to replace these hoary old sports stories,” Jay Caspian King wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2016. “Narrative, with all its lies, still dominates.”
Conversely, pro wrestling sure can be a drag when it drifts too far from the basis of competitive sport. Recently, a Kassius Ohno tweet got some attention after he was asked how wrestlers differentiate various global styles.
Nowadays each style shares influence from one another. If I had to compactly elucidate the essence of each I would say:
Japan- Struggle through sport
Mexico- Marriage of pageantry & acrobatics
British/European- Physical & mental chess
American- Morality play https://t.co/SyGRpyFobZ
— WRESTLING GENIUS (KASH-US) (@KassiusOhno) January 14, 2020
You notice how the American blurb is the only one that doesn’t directly reference in-ring action? Sure, good and evil can be established and played out largely in the ring (and ideally they are, I think) but in the states greater strides are taken to illustrate that dynamic. Often, it can feel like they’re bludgeoning you over the head with it. The WWE prefers to do their bludgeoning with a tremendous cartoon mallet. Here are a few examples of other stories playing out on RAW during Punk’s title reign:
- Raw is out of control in the absence of Vince McMahon, who had multiple giant setpieces explode and fall on top of him.
- Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr. relentlessly bully Jerry Lawler and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, who by this point have a combined age of approx. 328 years old. When they eventually have a match, Duggan is replaced at last second by Michael Cole.
- John Cena and Cryme Tyme play a series of pranks on JBL, with a strong Fudd/Wabbit vibe.
- Jamie Noble (the guy who ended Punk’s ROH title run) gets bullied backstage by bigger wrestlers while on a weekly pursuit and to get a date with Layla.
- Chris Jericho, during his shorn-and-serious heel run, has a blood feud with Shawn Michaels. This should be great, but their match at the ‘08 Bash are pretty doofy. Jericho busts open Shawn’s injured eye and Shawn spends the rest of the bout selling it like Fred Sanford feigning a heart attack. He’s fresh off the “I’m sorry, I love you” match with Flair and seems to be shooting for a Tony award.
- Kelly Kelly wrestles like, every week.
Watching Punk and Snitsky come face to face in a July 7 segment, the vibe of RAW in the Summer of 2008 comes into clear focus: CM Punk hosts The Muppet Show With Boobs. Seriously, he’s Eddie Valiant in ToonTown.
On the July 28 RAW he only appears in a brief, INCREDIBLE non-title match with William Regal that breezes by while Jerry Lawler talks up guest commentator JBL. He doesn’t have any trouble, however, calling the action on an extended Santino Marella and Beth Phoenix makeout session. Still, that contrast arguably makes Punk’s fighting underdog feel even more poignant. He’s stirring the nature of sport back into a tremendous, bubbling cauldron of slapdash narrative.
There also seemed to be a shift happening in the UFC. Drab meathead champions like Tim Sylvia and Sean Sherk were being knocked off by returning legends like Randy Couture and B.J. Penn. In the middle of 2007, they purchased Pride FC, leading to a real-life invasion angle. The months that follow see the debuts of huge names like Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Shogun and of course, Rampage Jackson, who’d beaten the company’s top star, Chuck Liddell, to become Light Heavyweight champion.
The UFC was suddenly bursting with color, and that’s without even mentioning Brock Lesnar’s debut in January of ‘08. Through their respective unlikely successes, it was almost like Griffin and Punk’s hands were reaching across this sport and drama spectrum, the treacherous valley between cagefighting and pro wrestling, fingertips just short of one another’s, like a dumber and (strangely) less muscular version of The Creation of Adam, more befitting of a freshman dorm ceiling than the Sistine Chapel’s.
At UFC 86, Forrest Griffin leans directly into a right uppercut from Rampage in the first round that completely levels him. He survives the onslaught, but it spells out the story of the fight. Griffin maintains distance from Jackson, resolving to chop his more powerful foe’s legs out from under him, even managing to mount him in the second round. Jackson is the more powerful of the two, and when he connects cleanly the fight is in immediate jeopardy. Griffin attempts a triangle choke and is hoisted in the air, releasing the hold just moments before becoming another YouTube-clipped victim of a Rampage powerbomb.
The judges’ unanimous decision in favor of Forrest is hotly debated for years. Rampage once said you’d have to be a bigot to think Griffin won that fight, and in 2008 I might have agreed with him. Watching it back today, Griffin won rounds 2, 3 and 5. He was the rightful champ.
In the match between CM Punk and Batista at Bash, that same dynamic is mirrored to perfection. A scrappy underdog having to get creative with a bigger, stronger foe isn’t new, but it’s rarely executed quite this well. After Batista opens the match overpowering Punk with relative ease, Michael Cole reads his smirk to mean, “I can do that to you whenever I want.” Punk kicks at Batista’s legs, creating space and frustrating the challenger.
UFC commentator Mike Goldberg would often mention that Forrest acknowledged a need for “punches in bunches” because he lacked the power of his opponent. Punk keeps the pressure on with flurries of elbows and knees, and each time Batista manages to close the gap the champ is left looking like roadkill. But he persists, taking to the air and scoring increasingly pronounced strikes, putting Batista on his ass.
We’re not only predisposed to the impossibility of CM Punk pinning Batista within the established fictional universe, but also because of what we know about booking in the WWE. Batista is untouchable. As the match progresses though, I start to believe. When Punk wears Batista down enough to connect with his signature corner knee, followed by a roundhouse kick that cracks against his skull, the crowd begins to stir. It feels like they’re buying it too, and for a moment, Punk isn’t an overmatched afterthought, he’s the World Champion. But only for a moment.
Forrest Griffin’s first defense would be against Rashad Evans at UFC 92 in December 2008. Forrest still isn’t a betting favorite, and he won’t be again until a rematch with an aging Tito Ortiz with 2012. He maintains a firm hold on the center of the octagon for the first two rounds, consistently getting the better of Evans’ in exchanges, keeping him on his heels. He too is now looking every bit the champion and if you’ve followed his path to this moment, it’s riveting.
This matchup had the added significance of Rashad being the still-undefeated winner of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. His adoption of the moniker “Sugar”, one with a rich history in boxing, implied stand-up prowess. In reality, while a capable striker, Evans was largely compiling wins by grinding down opponents with his wrestling. He was also a humorless charisma vacuum, but I suppose that’s more subjective.
After taking a stiff shot in the second round, Evans taunts the champ by kissing his own hand and then grabbing his crotch. This may sound cool, but Evans manages to evoke something closer to Steve Urkel than Shane Mosley. In the third he gets Forrest off of his feet, traps his arm awkwardly and forces a stoppage with a series of brutal punches. I grimace, not for Forrest’s face, but for the UFC 205 pound division, grayer now after such a vibrant year.
“Got any cheese?”
Back in New York, the palette is about change as well. Batista catches CM Punk flying off the apron, and connects with a spinebuster on the floor. We’re heading into the closing stretch, and out comes the Big Red Machine. Kane attacks both men and the salt in the cut is that he does it for no particular reason. Neither man will go on to feud with Kane; in fact, when they rematch the following night Kane isn’t involved at all. The explanation given is that Kane’s upset he’s not in the match. Powerful stuff. To top it off, he exits the ring, mugs for the camera, and growls indecipherably. All I hear is “gotcha”.
Still, nothing can erase the fact that CM Punk went blow-for-blow with The Animal, that he belongs strapped up with that big, gold belt. That is, until Batista returns to the ring to plant him with a Batista Bomb. Good fucking grief.
Punk’s reign sputters along for a few more months until September at Unforgiven, where he’s not even given the opportunity to lose it. Jericho takes the title in a scramble match that Punk is removed from before it starts.
On the July 28, RAW JBL tells CM Punk, “You’ll forever be known as an asterisk, a footnote, a — how do you say it in the common vernacular? A transitional champion.”
Before fighting Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin quipped that challengers were lining up to fight him because he was the only division champion that didn’t scare people. (The other four were Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn; he was right.) In the end, neither man gets to prove them wrong.
You know, there are a million theories about that tiny bit of space between the hands of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Does it symbolize man’s proclivities for things like sin, war, deceit? That’s all way over my head. I do think the similar gap between the outstretched fingertips of Punk and Griffin’s title reigns is aptly represented by John Cena clipping a set of live jumper cables to JBL’s ballsack, only minutes after that fever dream of a World Heavyweight Championship match at Great American Bash concludes. Adam’s finger droops, ever so slightly.