"The only thing I can compare this feeling to is if the Chicago Bears were in the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl were here in Chicago. That's what this feels like." -- Jerry Lawler, color commentator during Money in the Bank 2011.
"I was really leaving. This was as real as it gets. Clock strikes midnight, I'm out of here." -- CM Punk in WWE's "Best in the World" documentary.
In recent years, WWE has relied on a formulaic pattern of storytelling. For the most part, there's a four- or five-week buildup to a WWE pay-per-view event, with the first week setting things in motion. Then there are a couple weeks of various matches and promo formats, and then the final week before a PPV reinforces everything that's happened in the ongoing feuds that will play out the following Sunday. Some rivalries carry through multiple pay-per-views, but there's a fairly predictable ebb and flow to things.
In an era where fans feel like they know everything that's going on backstage and can predict the trajectory of a lot of the stories playing out, there's a voracious appetite for organic storytelling and fresh ideas. Some of the biggest moments in recent wrestling history came together when a dose of reality got mixed into the scripted storytelling, creating a moment that makes the unreal feel real.
Seven years ago, everything fell into place for WWE to tell one such story that continues to echo in the minds of fans around the world. It was the culmination of more than two years in the career of CM Punk, on the night of July 17, 2011, as Punk faced John Cena for the WWE championship at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, outside Chicago.
The match, and everything leading up to it, forever raised the bar for storytelling in WWE.
In the months leading up to Money in the Bank 2011, CM Punk was weighing his options for the future. After more than five years in the WWE and a wrestling career that stretched all the way back to 1999, he voiced concerns about how the WWE grind was starting to take a toll on his body and psyche. As WWE sought a contract extension in talks with Punk, he wasn't ready to commit.
As much as wrestling was a crucial part of his life, there was an allure in envisioning the first days off he'd have in years once his contract ran out. After a year of thinking it over and holding off on contract talks, Punk made the decision that in a year's time, July 2011 would mark the end of his time in the WWE, at least for the foreseeable future.
"Fed up is an understatement," Punk said in 2012's "Best in the World" documentary. "I was tired. I was sick. I was mad. I was feeling depressed. I was upset, crabby. Probably wasn't too much fun to be around. Just literally crossing off days on a calendar and counting minutes."
After a stretch in which Punk had varying levels of success leading groups -- first the Straight Edge Society, and then the New Nexus -- he had seemingly reached a plateau in his WWE run. He had a trio of World Heavyweight Championship reigns to his credit, and some memorable moments, but he was at a point in his career where he was starting to feel jaded.
Punk had no intention of turning his legitimate contract dispute into a storyline; he just wanted to be signed to WWE one day and gone the next, left to enjoy a more quiet life back home in Chicago. That all changed June 27, 2011, on Monday Night Raw, in what was supposed to be one of CM Punk's last TV appearances for the company.
"I walked in and one of the writers came up to me with a big smile on his face -- he goes, 'You're gonna love this. They're gonna give you a microphone and they want you to air your grievances,'" Punk said. "I just looked at him and I was like, 'Well, surely you can't be serious.'"
CM Punk went on to break practically every WWE verbiage rule that Vince McMahon has ever laid out in a methodical, unrestrained five-minute tirade now known as the "Pipebomb."
In that moment in which the lines of reality and fiction were as blurry as they'd ever been, the "Pipebomb" promo gave WWE more mainstream exposure than it had received in years, as it was unclear to fans and even some media outlets whether or not Punk had veered off script, and if so, how much.
While CM Punk ranted at the behest of WWE, nothing he said in that promo was scripted by writers. These were real thoughts coming off the tip of Punk's tongue, and with one of his promises being that he'd win the WWE championship and walk out the door, title in hand, who was to say he wasn't telling the truth?
The Summer of Punk
Punk still hadn't officially re-signed with WWE as he entered Allstate Arena for Money in the Bank. He'd agreed to a two-day extension just to make it to the pay-per-view, but WWE officials were trying to get him to commit to a long-term contract before deciding on a finish for the main event. After two years of being on the fence, Punk finally signed on the dotted line hours into the pay-per-view.
"When that show started, I was still out the door," Punk said. "Vince said, 'You have me over a barrel here'. I wasn't in this for silly demands. It wasn't even about the money. It was simply, 100 percent about the respect and being placed on the card where I deserve to be."
Even though Punk was officially back under contract, it happened behind closed doors at the very last moment, which meant the 14,815 fans packed inside Allstate Arena were left to continue speculating. One of those fans, seated in section 1, row 1, seat 7, was Chicago native and WWE superfan Frank "The Clown" Mustari.
"Nobody knew what the outcome of the match was going to be," said Mustari, who bought the ticket from a scalper right before the show. "Punk's contract was legitimately expiring. It was one of the few times I could remember that going into the show, nobody had any clue what the outcome was going to be. There was definitely a buzz."
The electricity pulsating throughout the arena was palpable from the second the Punk-Cena promo package ended. The Chicago hopefuls shouted "CM PUNK! CM PUNK! CM PUNK!" for over 20 seconds as they waited for their hometown hero to make his way down the entrance ramp. The shredding guitar and raging vocals of Killswitch Engage led to an even louder roar.
"When that music hit, I'm not ashamed to say it, I definitely felt emotional because I knew the magnitude of that moment," said Mustari, who has attended around 200 WWE events, including 12 consecutive WrestleManias, but calls Money in the Bank 2011 the best night of his life. "It was just pure emotion. I've never seen anything like it. This was raw hometown emotion. It's so cool because it's 15,000 people in unison supporting this one kid from Chicago who's made us proud all these years."
CM Punk gets dominated in second UFC bout
Twenty-one months after losing his Octagon debut, CM Punk loses a one-sided unanimous decision to Mike Jackson at UFC 225 in Chicago.
Punk has always had a special connection with his hometown crowd, but on this night the reception he received at the Allstate Arena was reminiscent of Michael Jordan at the United Center. Punk's humble beginnings across the Midwest independents, his straight-edge lifestyle, and the very real emotions driving this storyline made him more than a wrestler to the city of Chicago: He was one of their own who made it big.
"I have never seen this much hometown emotion," said commentator Jerry Lawler, who was arguably more popular in his hometown of Memphis than any wrestler ever.
Once his music stopped, Punk sat cross-legged inside the ring as he waited for Cena. Cena, who had drawn split reactions from crowds ever since taking off as the face of WWE, seemingly knew the drill by now -- about half the crowd would chant "Let's go Cena!" while the other half yelled "Cena Sucks!" But that wasn't going to be the case on this night.
Cena was undeniably the bad guy in this match -- the one who represented everything Punk decried in his infamous "Pipebomb" promo. Punk wasn't on any "collector cups" or starring in WWE films, he wasn't being promoted as the face of the company or main-eventing WrestleManias like Cena was. Punk represented something entirely different to fans -- someone who didn't feel like he was manufactured fresh off the WWE assembly line, and had more in common with the people sitting in the crowd than he did with those in the locker room.
Cena vs. Punk was destined to succeed no matter how the match played out, because of the fans who had bought into the well-crafted story arc so completely and the once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere in Chicago that night. But then, on top of it all, Cena and Punk put on an all-time classic.
They were puppet masters in the ring, playing with the emotions of the crowd with every stiff strike, grappling exchange and near-fall. Neither performer pulled off anything too crazy, especially by today's standards, but they didn't have to. Punk and Cena let the gravity of the storyline add a layer of drama to every move.
"This was more than just a great match, but a career-making moment," Dave Meltzer said in his review in the Wrestling Observer, giving the match a five-star (out of five) rating, the first WWE bout so recognized and still the last "main roster" WWE match that was so recognized.
"This is one of those matches that people will remember for the rest of their lives," Booker T said on commentary during the heat of contest. "Forever," Michael Cole added.
It all ended perfectly. With McMahon still playing up the thought that CM Punk was walking out the door that night, win or lose, he ran down to the ring while Cena had his patented STF locked in to try to call for a premature decision. Cena refused to win that way, stopped it from happening and rolled back into the ring just in time for CM Punk to get Cena up in the Go to Sleep -- allowing Punk to pick up the pinfall victory.
The crowd exploded in a state of euphoria and disbelief, as Punk held the title aloft and then dodged a Money in the Bank briefcase cash-in from Alberto Del Rio. Punk jumped up on the barricade, blew a kiss to McMahon and ran into the sea of Chicagoans to celebrate his first WWE championship win.
Few things in Punk's WWE career worked out exactly as he'd hoped, but this was as close to a perfect moment as it ever got.
Coming full circle
Money in the Bank returns to Chicago on Sunday for the first time since that historic night, but CM Punk won't be there. His time in the WWE ended for real in January 2014, when he walked out of the company, leaving behind fallout and drama that is still being felt to this day. At moments of peak frustration in the WWE audience, some fans still chant Punk's name, though that trend has been slowly dying down.
Last week, Chicago had the chance to watch Punk in action for the first time in half a decade, but it wasn't inside a wrestling ring -- it came inside the Octagon, at the United Center as part of UFC 225.
The crowd roared at the sound of "Cult of Personality" as Punk walked out for the opening fight of the pay-per-view, chanting "CM PUNK! CM PUNK!" as if he'd never left. But when the fight started, what they saw was far from the confident, top-of-his-game wrestler those fans remembered. Chicago witnessed what everyone seemingly already knew: Punk, who started his MMA career well into his 30s, wasn't able to pull off a miracle to make it in the UFC as Mike Jackson won a one-sided fight.
With his UFC run coming to what seems to be a convincing end, fans can't help but wonder and hope for a return to pro wrestling. No matter how many times Punk says he's done with wrestling, and especially the WWE, his fans won't give up the pipe dream that something will change his mind. When Punk scheduled an autograph signing at the Pro Wrestling Tees store in Chicago during the same weekend as the upcoming "All In" independent supershow, fans started buzzing about the possibility of something more happening.
Even as CM Punk distances himself from pro wrestling more and more by the day, fans like Mustari and millions of others hope for one last shocking moment.
"I think some of us need closure" said Mustari, who attended both of Punk's UFC fights. "We feel like we don't have that proper closure with him, and will we get it? I don't know. But I think we always chant his name to keep the memory of him alive. We don't want the memory of CM Punk to fade away."