Whatever you may think or ever thought of CM Punk, the acerbic ex-WWE champion and subject of a lawsuit by one of WWE's doctors, his career trajectory was never supposed to end where it is now. He finished last Saturday night looking like an utterly ordinary man, one bringing home a cauliflower ear and a rapidly closing right eye as souvenirs from an ass-beating at the hands of Mickey Gall during a match at UFC 203 that lasted around two brutal minutes in its entirety. There were tears in his eyes when it was done, and one of sport's great talkers was reduced to sounding like a motivational speaker trying to put the best possible face on an embarrassing loss. He looked tired and old when it was done, more than anything, with a grey-flecked beard and crinkles around his eyes signaling that he, CM Punk, was in fact a man pushing 40 who had, not at all surprisingly, just been soundly beaten by someone nearly 15 years younger.
CM Punk is one of the two or three greatest pro wrestlers of his generation, and despite his protestations that he'll be back in a MMA ring to give it another go, he was irrevocably reduced and placed himself into a career corner by his first attempt. For all the shocking things about this shocking diminution of the once self-proclaimed and by popular acclaim "Best in the World," it is hard to top the simple fact of it. It never should have come to this.
For one thing, none of this should have happened in the Octagon. Punk belongs in a wrestling ring. It's easy to forget now, after all the angst over his departure from WWE and his bitter badmouthing of pro wrestling, just how good a wrestler Punk was, and how important he was. Without Punk, there's nothing like the WWE as it's currently constructed. Punk was the first guy from the modern, post-ECW collapse indies who really made it in WWE. At a time when WWE was hyper-focused on homegrown musclemen, world class athletes from the traditional sports world, and wrestlers with family pedigree—John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Randy Orton, respectively—Punk was working VFW halls for Ring of Honor and IWA-MS, generating that most elusive of pro wrestling unicorns: authentic, unfabricated buzz.
When he blew into WWE, there was a sudden sense that things had changed, that he would lead a new wave of work-rate guys coming into the promotion. That it took another decade for that to happen isn't a commentary on Punk, but on WWE's glacial pace of change. It's an open question whether a world in which Kevin Owens and AJ Styles are champions exists without Punk. Would NXT be as fixated on indie talent without Punk coming through to prove what he proved? Would Daniel Bryan have gotten his crack at the top of the card when he did? Would John Cena reinvent himself as a big match star without his amazing series with Punk over the years? It's hard to say precisely how much Punk's 434 day title reign helped the chances of performers WWE would've considered second-rate stars during most of its history, but it says something that the promotion now relies on those wrestlers for the bulk of its roster.
Again, open questions. But in this specific world, CM Punk broke molds and got himself over in a company where that wasn't supposed to happen. A skinny-fat guy who didn't do drugs and didn't like playing backstage politics, who insisted on doing improv promos like they used to in the golden age, who substituted work rate for vascularity and stellar physical storytelling for flash—that guy was WWE champion for more than a year. Once Kurt Angle was gone and Benoit and Guerrero were dead, CM Punk was it.
All of this engenders a fierce sense of ownership of his career among fans. Indie fans, especially, see Punk as one of theirs—the guy who made it, became a millionaire, and walked away. Depending on who you ask, this makes him either a hero or a villain; this is still wrestling, so it makes sense that there's little in between. Increasingly, social media seems to be tilting towards the latter assessment. Punk has said bad things about wrestling—sacred wrestling, which is a cesspool which kills, right up until someone says they don't need it or love it—and he got out with money, which he then parlayed into a brief MMA payday which dwarfed his opponent's, a fact that rankles given his anger over part-timers getting main event status in WWE.
Now, he's rudderless. The not-so-secret take on CM Punk is that he's kind of an asshole. Not a friendless asshole or a bad person, as a host of friends in wrestling wishing him well before his UFC bout can attest, but kind of an asshole all the same. He has a tendency to take his heelish audience interactions to an uncomfortable place and a penchant for trashing colleagues, as he did with Ryback in his infamous podcast appearance, even though Ryback and Punk should have been natural allies given where their careers have gone. He has a scorched earth attitude toward his closest relationships which borders on the compulsive.
His breakup with WWE has been arguably the most acrimonious such thing in its history, with Punk's final termination coming on his wedding day and Punk firing back at every opportunity since. Vince McMahon is weird and bad, but the one thing he's done better than anyone in wrestling history is forgive. He's said that he'll work with anyone a second or third time, provided there's money to be made. It's refreshingly honest: make a deal, I'll get the better of it, but you're always welcome back. But even if McMahon is willing to leave the door open for a Punk return, it's not really his company in the way it once was, and word has long been that Triple H and Stephanie McMahon aren't nearly as forgiving. Punk's departure now feels like those of Randy Savage and Jeff Jarrett, two men who were never allowed to return to the promotion.
Punk could do TNA, but he hates them, too, after a brief run early in his career. Ring of Honor probably can't afford him and he's too happily domestic in his impending middle age to go to Japan for much of a stretch. And this all assumes that he's at all interested in returning to pro wrestling at all, something which is far from given in light of the unconcealed bitterness on display when he talks about the form. Dana White has said that Punk is probably not going to be back in UFC until he can get much, much better. Where does he go?
The answer is nowhere. Or maybe everywhere. CM Punk is an asshole, but the prosaic, totally normal way in which he's asshole, is his blessing and his curse. A recent anecdote illustrates the problems which his normality creates.
Punk's best friend—and his co-defendant in a defamation lawsuit brought by WWE's doctor—is Colt Cabana, an indie wrestling mainstay and host of a popular pro wrestling podcast; it was Punk's airing of grievances on that podcast which got the men in legal hot water. Reportedly, the lifelong friends have had a terrible falling out because, even after the lawsuit, Cabana was backstage at a WWE event, visiting friends, and Punk erupted at him.
In going into the plaintiff's lair, Cabana acted like a wrestler; that is to say, he acted like no personal bridges had been or ever could be burned, and no matter how bad things get in wrestling, you can always do business. Punk, in taking such violent umbrage to what he perceived as a betrayal, acted like a normal person. If the story is true—and this is a wrestling rumor, so who knows—it's not just a guy's best friend dealing with folks who dumped on him, while in a legally precarious situation. It's a co-defendant visiting the plaintiffs' turf without regard for appearance or possibility of collusion. Friendships in the real world—the rational world, the non-pro wrestling world—have broken up over far less.
This may be the lasting story of CM Punk. He was undoubtedly a great wrestler, but perhaps someone who never loved pro wrestling as much as his character did. That can become a wrestler's undoing, because pro wrestling isn't just the drama and feats of strength. It's politicking, double-crossing, and—maybe above all—letting go when it's time to do business. Punk can't seem to let it all go, probably rightly, and for that reason he's been cast adrift, unable or unwilling to go back to the thing which made him famous and ill-suited for the new things on his horizon. It's tough to figure out what he "deserves," really. It's clear that it's something different, and something more, than what he's ended up with.