Here at Pop Mythology we often like to reflect on how fictional characters, heroes and villains both, and their fictional adventures can help expand and strengthen our own real lives. The lessons they can teach, the inspirations, example and wonder they provide. Today, I’d like to spotlight a character who is both hero and villain, fictional and real at the same time, in the unique way that few mediums can provide. That medium: professional wrestling.
At the risk of losing some of my snooty intellectual, art freak cred, I must admit, I watch professional wrestling. I watch it at least twice a week, talk about it, read columns about it and even listen to my friends at The Dusty Finish podcast. I grew up in the 80s, impersonating Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage at school, took a break for most of the early 90s, then just happened to stumble upon WCW right when the NWO debuted, watched all through the Monday Night Wars with WCW ultimately purchased by WWE (then WWF) and have been hooked since. In the way that boxing, another sport I follow despite its apparent lack of intellectual heft, is ballet with punching, wrestling is soap opera with body slams. Even with all the nonsense presented through its numerous broadcast hours, there are always a few personalities so engaging that I simply can’t look away.
For the past few years the most consistent of these has been CM Punk.
To clarify, when I talk about CM Punk I am talking about the public figure presented on television, DVD, YouTube, Twitter, etc. and not the private individual Phillip Brooks who portrays that character. Although the line between the two may be blurred, hence being both real and unreal simultaneously, I’ve never met CM Punk, nor spoken with anyone who has. I don’t know him, but I know how he comes across on television and that’s where our focus will be.
Basically CM Punk is the wildcard of the WWE. Far from being the stereotypical lumbering hoss of pro wrestling, Punk is listed as a couple inches over 6 feet and a few pounds over 200, covered with tattoos, one of which is the Cobra logo, and changes his hair and beard styles as often as his hoodies and beat-up Cubs hat. He comes to stage to Living Color’s “Cult of Personality” and marches to the ring with The Thing’s battle cry of “IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME!”
He’s the anti-authoritarian, blunt speaking, self-proclaimed “Best in the World” and his workhorse muay thai mixed with chain wrestling style never fails to keep his matches entertaining whether working with over-muscled power wrestlers, speedy lucha libre highfliers or, best of all, fellow independently trained grapplers. And it’s this mix of personality, ability, iconography, reality and fiction that makes him such a unique and compelling character for both discussion and inspiration.
The Passion of the Punk
Although out in the world, a man over 6 feet and 200 pounds would be considered above average, in the land of giants (specifically Andre and Paul Wright), CM Punk is considered small. He’s fit but far from the bodybuilder type that professional wrestling and WWE especially tends to favor. He was even described by an early trainer as having “lead in his ass.” Between the ever-evolving facial hair and ever-increasing selection of tattoos down his arms, chest, neck and stomach he looks less like a WWE superstar or professional athlete and more like a roadie, ex-con turned grocery store bagger or graduate school teaching assistant who must have some really interesting stories but is too cool to share them.
He defies his own hard-living punk rock image by displaying the discipline of a Tibetan monk; he reported only stopped being a vegan because it was difficult to find appropriate food while on the road for 300-plus day a year and maintains a straight edge lifestyle of no alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, even painkillers despite the numerous injuries accumulated from those 300-plus road days. At a time when so many of our pop culture heroes are drunks, smokers or potheads, here’s a guy doing one of the toughest jobs in the world, many participants of which never live past 50, and doing it completely clean.
He’s even a geek, having been a fan of comics since Larry Hama’s run on G.I. Joe (hence the Cobra tattoo) and citing himself as a “devoted fan” of comis writers Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis during an interview for Marvel’s Fightin’ Fanboys. Last year, he wrote the introduction for Marvel’s collected volume of Avengers vs. X-Men. He’s even done a series of “Grammar Slam” videos for YouTube in which he “corrects your awful grammar.” In short: he’s small, tattooed, not terribly athletic and geeky, none of which normally make for a major star in professional wrestling.
Yet despite all these other qualifiers, what has always defined CM Punk is passion. From wrestling in backyards to barns to ballrooms to baseball stadiums, Punk has never let the size of his audience determine his goals. Far from being someone who moved into wrestling after failing to make an NFL practice squad, Punk decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a wrestler, and that was it. He’s quite simply someone who found something he loves to do and decided to do it, no matter where or when or how difficult it may be. If the WWE were to end his contract today, it’s clear that he would immediately pick up his indie career, pouring his heart out in community centers to the few lucky enough to witness it.
For anyone who dictates their life more by their passions and interests than financial potential or societal obligations, CM Punk should be an inspiration. His commitment to what he loves, ability to overcome obstacles and ultimate success are a testament to what can be done when one invests everything they can into what they love. Whatever that passion is, seeing someone like Punk can motivate them to continue forward, no matter the numerous struggles, even when everything else fails. If it doesn’t work, we try again. There’s no such thing as wasted time when doing what we love. After all, if CM Punk can do it, so can we.
Pipe Bombs and Pushes
Much of Punk’s current popularity stems from a single promo he did back in 2011 which has since been deemed “The Pipe Bomb.” In approximately six minutes, CM Punk delivered one of the most memorable moments in recent wrestling history while sitting on the stage and talking.
This speech, whether a shoot (unplanned), a work (planned) or a worked shoot (unplanned within plans), was so cutting, so raw and delivered with such conviction that it spun a rain of boos into chants and cheers. A mixture of storyline progress, professional criticism, fan rage, insider info, meta-commentary, fourth wall breaking humor and some excellent staging turned a hated heel (bad guy) and new rival of the company’s ultra-do-gooder face (good guy) into one of the most popular figures of the decade. For the first time in years, WWE Raw went off the air that night with a genuine sense of shock, a “did that really just happen?” moment that the company hadn’t matched for years previous or years hence.
Although specific to the WWE, Punk’s speech cut to the heart of every person dissatisfied with their position in life. Those passed over in their profession for people who have the better references or connections, those never given a spotlight in what they are obviously great at, those never given credit for their accomplishments or never even allowed to accomplish anything in the first place. Be it scripted or not, Punk went out on national television and said to his boss what millions of workers all around the world wish they could say to theirs: I have worked hard and I deserve better.
In the same way that the Vince McMahon–Steve Austin feud of the late 90s typified the laborer’s dispute with their corporate overlord, Punk’s promo gave voice to every person whose aspiration and ambition is constantly thwarted by factors other than their own merit. It was for every writer who didn’t have enough bylines to get published, every musician who doesn’t know an already famous producer, every lower management office worker who can’t get their ideas across because they’re a lower management office worker.
In a culture where education, intelligence and integrity mean less than who one knows and who one can market to, CM Punk orated that merit is all that matters, that passion should not be silenced. And in making that case, Punk not only created an unforgettable moment of television, but an entire movement within the wrestling community, resulting in Punk receiving the longest WWE title reign in the last 25 years… which the company then failed to capitalize on by instead focusing on the same guys it had pushed before Punk’s speech.
Still, as anyone who has ever pounded against a stone monolith can attest, even the smallest crack is a victory.
The Best in the World
In addition to being a wrestling fan, there’s something else I must admit here: I’m often a terribly unconfident person. I constantly question my own merit, talent, intellect, everything. I’m naturally shy, non-social and a bit neurotic. All of which has lead me to miss out on numerous opportunities. But I’m also contradictorily prone to fits of over-confidence; I’m proud of my accomplishments and not only believe I’m capable of doing anything but demand it, failure at which inevitably makes me more of a unconfident person. It’s times like these when I try to channel CM Punk.
Wrestlers create personas. CM Punk, John Cena, Randy Savage, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, these are not real people. The best wrestlers take something from their real personalities and expand it into extremes that are nevertheless genuine aspects of their personalities. As stated, I don’t know Phillip Brooks, but from what I’ve seen it seems clear that he must suffer from much of the same anxieties as the rest of us. Yet when he goes out on television as CM Punk, he says he is the best in the world and does everything he can to make us believe it. For the rest of us, we may not be on television, but that doesn’t mean we can’t act like it.
Fact is, a major part of succeeding in life, be it personal or profession, is confidence. We’ll never get the job we want, the school, the date, the promotion, anything, without the confidence to pursue it. Sure, we can quietly excel, waiting for the day when merit gets us noticed, but as CM Punk’s Pipe Bomb showed, sometimes we just have to go out and tell everyone we are the best.
For about a year before Punk’s promo, I was spending much of my time as a semi-professional slam poet. Being on stage, loudly emoting in front of hundreds of people who aren’t afraid to tell you when they aren’t entertained is not a particularly tenable place for an introvert. But that’s why I did it, because it scared me. I still never had the courage to really write what I wanted and challenge the audience.
Punk’s promo changed that in me. I watched his promo over and over while writing a piece that would mark my official exit from competitive poetry, a piece which mixed self-criticism and satire with a fictional construct. It was a piece that I was afraid to do, because of how it could be misinterpreted (and it was, unfortunately, by some) but knew that if done right it would be legendary (and it is, apparently, to others). That’s the power of becoming your own CM Punk.
Similar to how Tyler Durden creates an alternate version of himself to do all which he wishes to but is frightened of, a wrestling persona lets the person behind the character say and do things that they may otherwise be too scared to. Now, I’m not saying we should all go around acting like arrogant jerks and hitting people with folding chairs, but would your wrestling persona be afraid to get on an open stage, ask for a date, approach a higher-up for advice or interview for a job that’s above your experience? Probably not.
And what’s the worst thing that can happen to your persona if those things fail? They lose. Big deal. There can always be a rematch, or a different opponent, feud or angle to follow. In this way, we see what works for us, the lack of world-ending disasters, and no longer worry about simply becoming who we always wished we were. Granted, the best of us find a balance, but there are many times when being the overly confident “Best in the World” jerk can be more beneficial than being the humble, nondescript person we may admire.
Ultimately, CM Punk is a construction of his own passion. Even with every odd stacked against him, he’s never given up nor let anyone else define him. He tells people he is the best, and works everyday to prove it. And it is because of this that he succeeds.
Of course, we can’t all be the Best in the World. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.