The Wrestling 101 Match #12
WWE Heavyweight Title
CM Punk vs. John Cena ©
July 17, 2011
World Wrestling Entertainment
In my opinion, John Cena vs. CM Punk from World Wrestling Entertainment’s Money in the Bank 2011 pay-per-view is the single most essential pro wrestling match in the modern canon. That’s a bold statement, and maybe there will be something in this project that surprises me. But from where I sit right now, it’s hard to imagine anything else that encompasses so many of the different things that pro wrestling can be.
This one truly has it all: Pro wrestling as a context-optional spectacle and pro wrestling as long-running soap opera. It’s an interactive live experience that would be nothing without the crowd that assembled in Chicago that fateful evening, and it’s a piece of metatextual online storytelling that was crafted on blogs and message boards for decades before the match hit the ring.
It blurs the lines between fiction and reality in the way that makes pro wrestling special. It’s an ambitious piece of performance art that elevated wrestling’s place in mainstream cultural criticism, and it’s a low-culture morality play that ends with a superhero undone by his greatest strength. It’s a collective catharsis ritual, and yet it nonetheless leaves us unsatisfied and craving another, higher high that is ultimately just out of reach—if only the follow-up booking had been better, if only The Rock hadn’t come back, if only there was no such thing as MRSA. If only, if only, if only.
In terms of things that make pro wrestling special or worth loving, all that’s missing here is blood and guts. But if you had a curious friend who wanted to know what you did with your free time, you could show them this match and Samoa Joe vs. Necro Butcher, and I think they’d more or less understand what the deal is.
Indeed, this match is emblematic of the first thing I tell people when I explain what I love about my weird hobby: no other medium invites the audience to participate in the performance as full collaborators quite like our beloved pro wrestling. In fact, I would go as far as to contend that Punk’s hometown Chicago fans are more than mere collaborators here—they’re the stars of the show.
Certainly, Punk and Cena are all-time greats, and there are plenty of moments in the match that highlight their undeniable brilliance as performers. The fear in Cena’s eyes as he realizes the hostility of the environment he’s found himself in, the sheer desperation on Punk’s face as he attempts to prevent Cena from rolling out of the ring in a critical moment, and the thrilling closing stretch all stand out as testaments to their talents.
But in the 10 years since I first saw this match, nothing stands out as much as the crowd’s four-and-a-half-minute ovation for CM Punk’s entrance.
For decades, the hardcore wrestling fan’s grievances toward WWE and their hopes for its future had been confined primarily to message boards, insider newsletters, and the line to enter The Hammerstein Ballroom, or the Frontier Field House, or the American Legion Post in Reseda. At Money in the Bank, fans sensed a breach in the dam. Suddenly, these long-repressed sentiments came gushing out across the Allstate Arena—a furious and unyielding current that cascaded down from the rafters, through the aisles, and into the ring, settling finally into a pool of adulation for the hometown hero who gave voice to the voiceless.
Even before Punk’s entrance music hits, the camera pans across a sea of fans chanting his name, stopping occasionally on one of several evocative signs in the crowd: “If Cena wins, we riot” and “CM Punk” spelled out in block letters in the colors of the Chicago city flag, to name a few favorites. The image of Punk soaking in the cheers while sitting cross-legged in the middle of the ring is an iconic one in our community, but what sticks with me most is the way the crowd greeted him with yet another wave of thunderous applause when he finally decided to stand up.
This rebellious energy carries throughout the match, lifting the drama to places it couldn’t reach otherwise.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the metatextual storyline of this match. In the weeks leading up to the pay-per-view, CM Punk gave his famous “pipe bomb” speech on Monday Night Raw. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, he echoed hardcore fans’ long-term frustrations by lambasting WWE management for its overinvestment in golden boy John Cena and its failure to promote Punk at a level that reflected his talents and popularity. After referencing the coming expiration of his real-life contract—a hot topic in online fan discourse at the time—he pledged to win the WWE title and take it with him to another wrestling company like New Japan or Ring of Honor.
Punk’s act of breaking the fourth wall garnered plenty of mainstream coverage and successfully tricked some viewers into thinking what they’d seen was “real” rather than a part of the show. For long-time fans who’d grown frustrated with WWE’s refusal to adequately promote their favorites, the speech served as both a rallying cry of the unheard and a cause for optimism that WWE might at long last embrace the wide world of wrestling that takes place outside Vince McMahon’s kingdom.
In the follow-up episodes of Monday Night Raw, McMahon initially suspends Punk and strips him of his title match against John Cena, only for Cena himself to insist on Doing The Right Thing and putting his title on the line as planned. Caught between a vengeful boss and his dedication to a personal code of “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect,” Cena ultimately pays the price for his attempt to act justly inside an unjust system.
When McMahon attempts to intervene on Cena’s behalf at Money in the Bank, Cena confronts the owner rather than accepting the help. The distraction allows Punk to hit his finishing move and win the match, and the show closes with the defiant new champion scampering off with his title into the embrace of an absolutely delirious crowd.
Though WWE’s follow-up on this story was characteristically lackluster, there’s no arguing with the electricity of the moment or the match’s impact on the broader wrestling landscape. The spectacle of a packed house cheering on an anti-WWE character was, to that point, the biggest blow to McMahon’s hegemonic control of the U.S. wrestling industry, and it’s hard to argue with those who see it as a necessary precursor to the rise of All Elite Wrestling in 2019.
In its thrilling flirtation with the boundaries between fiction and reality, the match also elevated pro wrestling’s place in the U.S. critical establishment. The 2011 Summer of Punk captured the imaginations of editors at places like Deadspin and Grantland, who would soon arrive at the conclusion that pro wrestling was just as worthy of serious reflection as upper middlebrow TV programs like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
And of course, Punk’s victory was a clarion call and an inspiration to a global community of hardcore wrestling fans, who finally had a WWE storyline where we were the protagonists. It’s no surprise that Money in the Bank 2011 compelled the creators of this very website to open up shop. It’s a match that means so much to wrestling fans for so many different reasons—no wonder we all have so much to say about it.