By Andrew Berg
Despite the WWE debut of Sting, the biggest wrestling storyline of the past week was CM Punk’s airing of grievances on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast. It’s no great surprise that the biggest event was not directly related to a match- wrestling is simulated drama at its core and Punk’s story draws on real conflict. He has always been a compelling character because he is a compelling human being. The story spans several years of his time in WWE and his gripes range from appalling to understandable. Above all, it came across that his personality was not a good fit for the current WWE system and it is hard to imagine a way for that condition to change.
The part of Punk’s story that stood out to me more than anything was his description of his injuries and WWE’s treatment. After the company pushed him to come back quickly from a knee injury, an elbow injury, a couple of concussions, and Lasik eye surgery, he received ineffective treatment for a Staph infection that ultimately contributed to his departure. As Punk told the story, WWE’s Dr. Chris Amann misdiagnosed a welt on his back and gave him inappropriate treatment until he went to a private doctor. In spite of the pro wrestling tradition of working through pain and not taking time to fully recover, Punk’s description of Amman’s “company man” attitude is disturbing. It is one thing for Amann to focus on getting wrestlers back into the ring, but it is significantly worse if Punk’s description is accurate and he simply whiffed on the diagnosis. Wrestling is a dangerous enterprise and Punk is right when he says that better healthcare should be at the top of the list of all wrestlers’ interests.
While the medical issues that Punk brought up are stark, the personality issues within the company are easier to understand. Punk described conflicts with wrestlers like Ryback and Chris Jericho. In those cases, it sounded like they had fairly routine workplace disagreements that happened to fall at a time when Punk was already in a bad way and became more heated as a result. Kicks to the ribs or insults shared globally may seem severe, but fit into pro wrestling like an unanswered email in business. They are understandable conflicts that happen constantly in all workplaces and probably would not register without the larger conflicts that magnified them.
The magnifying glass that made Punk’s smaller squabbles more intense was his relationship with HHH, and to a lesser degree, Vince McMahon. Punk listed several of the same criticisms about executive imperiousness that have been leveled against McMahon and HHH in the past. Punk’s case is unique because he worked his way to become a generational megastar and he earned a level of deference. My perspective is tilted in Punk’s favor because he has been my favorite wrestler for many years. Nonetheless, the realities that Punk described speak for themselves- he outsold John Cena in merchandise and became a star outside of the wrestling bubble without as much support as placement in a Wrestlemania main event. I was critical at the time when Punk won the WWE Title in 2011 and somehow shifted downward on the card beneath John Cena. It never made sense for Punk to lose to HHH that fall and that result clearly stuck in Punk’s craw. To this day, I have no idea why the phenomenal Punk-Cena rivalry never headlined a Wrestlemania- it should have been this generation’s Hulk Hogan-Randy Savage. There were opportunities for him as a face and as a heel to be booked as the caliber of star he already proved that he is, but WWE (via HHH) never fully embraced him in that way. We do not need to get into the weeds of HHH’s facial expressions or tones of voice to reach that conclusion; the booking and placement on the card is sufficient.
The irony of the situation is that the personal conflict between Punk and HHH is precisely the kind of story that should be settled in the ring. Now that Punk’s story has been heard, his fans want to see him beat HHH more than ever. The match that Punk did not want at Wrestlemania XXX has become the biggest possible match in professional wrestling. Unfortunately, the exact personal conflicts that make the match so exciting also stand as obstacles that will probably keep it from ever taking place.
Nonetheless, I understand the personality conflict between HHH and Punk. I am sure that both wrestlers view themselves as more than just “the boys” based on their career accomplishments. Additionally, I suspect that both wrestlers are smarter and better leaders than the average wrestler and deserve to be treated as such behind the curtain. Contrary to the territorial days when locker room leaders could go from one promotion to the next or buy a stake in their own promotion, there is only one major game in town. HHH worked his way into a position of real power in WWE and Punk ran up against it.
Simply put, the modern version of WWE does not allow HHH and Punk to both be in charge. If they had a better working relationship- as it seems Cena does with both HHH and McMahon- perhaps they could have made it work. Sometimes two people do not get along. In this case, HHH and Punk do not get along. It is interesting that HHH received credit for mending fences damaged by McMahon when he came into power with WWE- including Bruno Sammartino and the Ultimate Warrior-, only to develop his own blood feuds that are at least as intense as McMahon’s. As a fan of Punk, I would personally prefer to see what he would do if his position and HHH’s were reversed. We don’t live in that world and I still enjoy HHH’s WWE enough in HHH’s world that I would not want to sacrifice it in the name of Punk’s martyrdom.
To my ear, that means that Punk’s interview lacks a happy ending. He got his story out and demonstrated that he had plenty of valid reasons to leave WWE. His health suffered, he lacked support from the company, they sent him his termination paperwork on his wedding day, and they withheld his royalty checks. He has every right to be frustrated and to find another way to make a living. Wrestling fans should not begrudge him that choice. On the other hand, HHH has actual authority in talent relations and has the right to run the company by his methods and with people he likes. Even so, it is disappointing that we got to this point and it frustrates me that WWE never found a way to consistently maximize the talents of the best wrestler of this generation.