About two weeks ago, Kim Kardashian was featured on the cover of Paper Magazine with a caption that read, simply, “Break the Internet.” Of course that image would break the Internet; it’s Kim K. But isn’t it actually cooler when something that breaks the Internet hits us out of nowhere, like Colt Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” podcast (above)? The latest episode featured retired WWE superstar CM Punk telling stories fans of professional wrestling have been waiting for since the end of January when Punk abruptly left the WWE (which he called “creatively toxic”), particularly explaining why he dropped out. During the hour and 58 minutes of this episode, we found out the who, the where, the what, and the why. No matter how you slice it, the end result justified the disgust that many fans of pro wrestling have had for the WWE and their current state of affairs.
For those unaware of the situation with CM Punk, let’s give a brief summation: CM Punk was probably the last wrestler that WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon believed would become a superstar. A straight-edge, punk-rock-loving, tattooed figure from the independent wrestling scene, CM Punk spent five years coming up through the WWE’s ranks, including stops at the regional Ohio Valley Wrestling circuit (seen by many at the time as the WWE’s farm league), before being promoted (through legendary wrestling booker, manager, and figurehead Paul Heyman) to their ECW federation. It was two years of running through the competition in sub-par angles (aka the storylines used to give fans a reason to cheer one guy and boo another) before CM Punk won his first world heavyweight title from Edge in 2008, which sparked a steady rise in popularity. Punk was gaining praise from fans who either a) charted his ascension from the indie scene, or b) were tired of guys like John Cena constantly being pushed. Cena had effectively been seen as the face of the WWE for the past 10 years (to the dismay of many fans), and the creative side at the WWE never truly understood Punk’s worth.
During one fateful night in June of 2011, CM Punk delivered a scathing promo that felt more like he was airing the industry’s dirty laundry than just another “I’m going to beat you on Sunday” rant. He named names, called out management, and said a lot of what the fans who’ve been paying attention had always been thinking. In the weeks to come, damn near every media outlet had CM Punk’s name on the tip of their tongue. His in-your-face, unafraid cool was magnetic, and he truly had the Internets buzzing. And though this was the start of a great chapter of his wrestling story (on screen), when CM Punk spoke with Colt about the last few years of his wrestling career, it sounded more like this was the beginning of the end. Although Punk laid as much as he could on the line in his infamous “pipebomb” (his first of many), it looked like everything the critical pro-wrestling lovers out there had suspected about the WWE had turned out to be true.
One of the biggest issues with the WWE that appears to have been confirmed is the lack of care for the talent on the roster. Although there was a ton of backstage politics that many assumed were the reason(s) for CM Punk leaving (many of which were actually true), Punk says the main issue he was facing was his health. Throughout the podcast, it felt like Punk was a broken record: He’d get injured, get whatever was ailing him fixed, and once upper management at the WWE got wind of the time it’d take him to get better, they’d start itching to bring him back to television. It’s one thing if you sprain your ankle and need to take a week off, but we’re talking having surgery then being asked to get right back on the road the following week. Pro wrestlers have a mentality that they need work to provide for themselves, but more importantly they need to work for the good of the company, making sure that while they might be out, if they’re able to work, they should help keep things afloat.
CM Punk idolizes Harley Race, a legendary champion who helped solidify the world heavyweight championship as one of the premier titles in the 1970s and early ‘80s, and who was known to work injured for the betterment of the company. When Punk was asked to perform while he was still injured, he’d always consider what Harley Race would have done, oftentimes going out there and doing his job, no matter how detrimental to his health. Although the company probably thought, “This guy’s so dedicated,” this habit of working hurt almost killed Punk. Punk noticed a mass that was growing on his back for a while and asked company doctors to check it out. Instead of performing a simple surgery to remove it, they prescribed medication for him that failed to treat the real issue. Punk says this went on for a while, to the point where he’d actually call out the doctors who refused to cut the mass out and instead followed instructions for keep him wrestling. After he left, Punk says he saw a doctor his wife AJ Lee, who is currently on the WWE’s active roster, recommended and he was diagnosed with a staph infection/MRSA, which required immediate removal. He was put on antibiotic treatment for three months, and doctors told him he was risking his own death by performing with that growing mass.
None of [the wrestlers] are technically employees ... this allows the WWE to dodge paying out things like insurance, social security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.
Who knows how many similar situations have occurred in the WWE? Another superstar, Daniel Bryan, has been out since May of 2014 due to a neck surgery. What was said to be minimally invasive surgery turned into Bryan losing strength in his arm, with Tommy John surgery a very real possibility. This would further extend his time away from the ring, causing him to miss out on both the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania in 2015. Looking at this facet of CM Punk’s time in the organization, and the lives of many pro wrestlers, provides a recipe for disaster.
There’s never been a union for professional wrestling—superstars like Roddy Piper, Bret Hart, and Jesse Ventura have supported the idea of professional wrestlers organizing to form a union, but with so many stars afraid of ruffling feathers, it’s hard to get everyone on the same page. Punk mentioned a few times during the podcast that he’s an “independent contractor,” which is the same distinction that every wrestler who’s signed with the WWE has. None of them are technically employees; the company is just contracting their services under certain terms and agreements. Why? Well, this allows the WWE to dodge paying out things like insurance, social security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. The talent on the roster earns the majority of their pay upfront, forcing them to have some kind of contingency plan for injuries they are inevitably going to suffer in such a high-risk job. You’re bound to see some superstars on TV three to four times a week, every week, and many of these performers take risks with their body that the WWE might not cover outside of their in-house doctors determining if something is serious enough to get checked out. This all ends up spelling trouble for performers that aren’t as bull-headed as a CM Punk, especially in an era where concussion testing in the NFL is coming under fire for mistakes and prolonged psychological effects that football players experience.
Professional wrestling has had laundry lists full of superstars who died due to some wicked cocktail of mental issues, drug abuse, and other ways they try to cope with the real-life pain they sustain during these pre-planned matches. The problems range from world champions like Chris Benoit to talented performers who never rose to superstardom like Louie Spicolli. For example, Chris Candido died on April 28, 2005 at the age of 33, four days after fracturing his fibula and tibia and dislocating his ankle at a TNA show. The surgery caused a blood clot in his leg that took his life.
It’s good to note that the WWE did issue a brief statement to Yahoo! Sports regarding its stance on the health and wellbeing of the wrestlers: “WWE takes the health and wellness of its talent very seriously and has a comprehensive Talent Wellness Program that is led by one of the most well-respected physicians in the country, Dr. Joseph Maroon.”
Makes wrestling much realer than one might give it credit for, huh?
Some of these injuries come from inexperienced wrestlers whom the WWE is trying to push to the top of the pack for one reason or another. Well, mainly for one reason: The WWF/E has always been called a “big man’s territory”—stars like Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and the Ultimate Warrior made a name for themselves directly because of Vince McMahon’s push. And let’s not forget the numerous steroid claims in the 1990s that were lobbed at the then-WWF. Although we have no real tests to confirm this, CM Punk points a finger at Ryback (whom he calls “steroid guy”) for some of his injuries.
After wrestling under different names in the WWE’s developmental leagues, Ryback’s become a star in the WWE during the past two years. His body is tailor-made for WWE supremacy, even if he lacks the pro wrestling fundamentals (partly due to being pushed into the limelight before he was technically ready to compete). Ryback’s gimmick—either coincidentally or on purpose—is nothing more than a send-up to the WCW-era’s Goldberg, who grew in popularity due to a string of undefeated matches that found him decimating his opponents quickly (which was in part due to Goldberg’s lack of experience). It’s to the point where, during his matches, fans aren’t chanting Ryback, they’re bringing back the ‘90s-era “GOLD-BERG!” chants. This is cool in an era when one of these matches might be given five minutes. But if you’re throwing an inexperienced wrestler into the ring and asking for a 15-20-minute match, you’re going to get a situation where Punk’s asked to work with Ryback to help elevate him for future matches. Ryback then ends up missing a planned spot in a match, injuring Punk in the process.
The problem that Punk had with Ryback illustrates an issue that the WWE has with building talent. Although they would love (and prefer) to have guys who look like Hulk Hogan as their champion, they aren’t putting in the time to properly train these individuals in performing safely. Sadly, no matter how many talented individuals get seriously injured during what should be their heydays (hell, a guy like Bret Hart, who was one of Vince’s golden boys during the late 1990s, was put on the shelf by Goldberg after suffering a debilitating concussion during a match), the WWE creative team will look toward a bald-headed beast like Ryback, or a massive Samoan football star like Roman Reigns (who many say is pegged to be next in line for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship). Based on what CM Punk says, Roman Reigns’ rise can be mapped back to Punk’s idea to bring up three guys from the WWE’s Florida Championship Wrestling developmental league to be a part of a “stable” that the WWE wanted to build for Punk, a stable that ended up being “The Shield,” which consisted of Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns, aka three new(er) wrestlers that the WWE is grooming to be a part of their future. This is a big deal, considering the fact that The Shield has been one of the biggest storylines to occur in the WWE in recent memory.
they aren’t putting in the time to properly train these individuals in performing safely.
Now you might say, “why does CM Punk need people around him if he were a premier player on his own?” Part of that was Punk just trying to make sure that he had something to do. For the fans who follow the product diligently, there’s been a growing concern about how little the creative side of WWE is planning out the storylines, which should not only carry them from week to week with their programming, but build up to their monthly pay-per-view events, where they both make money and pay off the stories they’re building. During the WWF’s golden era, you’d have conflicts between stars like Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan that would brew for an entire year before coming to a head; the way CM Punk described the current state of the WWE, they might not know what’s going on from week to week.
Punk described a situation where he was asked to lose his WWE championship to The Rock at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, lose again at the following monthly PPV, then lose to the Undertaker at Wrestlemania. Although it might make sense for Punk to lose to two performers who were considered bigger stars, these are situations where The Rock and Undertaker aren’t weekly performers, while Punk is. If Punk’s the guy who fans will be seeing week-in, week-out, and ends up losing when it “counts,” what will the fans who actually pay attention to the product eventually start to think? That’s right, they’ll believe that Punk’s a chump, because that’s how the WWE is booking him (booking is the setting up of matches and storylines for a federation).
Keep in mind that the WWE’s idea with bringing in “part-timers” like The Rock or Brock Lesnar—two guys who are not only some of the biggest stars from their previous era, but two guys who have become stars outside of wrestling industry (in Hollywood and MMA, respectively)—is strictly to increase business. Their plan is to a) sway non-wrestling fans who might be fans of The Rock from his films to gain interest in the product, or b) entice older pro-wrestling fans who might have waned on the product to come back and, at the very least, see The Rock beat someone’s ass one more time. The WWE will then tell its current talent that this is all good, as events like Wrestlemania (the pro wrestling equivalent to the Super Bowl) need marquee names to help ticket sales, which should fatten everyone’s wallets when it’s time for talent to be paid their guaranteed money. Punk talked about never getting his Wrestlemania main event, even though at one point Punk walked into WrestleMania XXVIII in 2012 as the WWE Champion, a part of his historic 434-day run, and he wasn’t even in the main event (that went to the first meeting of John Cena and The Rock). With the WWE constantly chasing dollars with marquee names while underutilizing the talent that’s on the current, touring roster, you end up with storylines that do nothing to progress the people who are on TV every week.
The WWE is in a similar situation right now with Bray Wyatt: you have a guy with a gimmick that has the fans making someone they should boo turn into someone they want to cheer, yet he ends up being beaten by John Cena, Chris Jericho, Dean Ambrose, and anyone else he’s put up against. He’ll put on good matches and attempt to weave compelling tales via his interviews, but when it’s time to put up or shut up, he’ll lose. Why would someone want to cheer a multiple-time loser? Why would the WWE paint itself into a corner creatively, where no one on its roster is seen as a bonafide star in the fans’ eyes outside of the people it continues to book in main event roles?
Part of the deterioration of booking talent properly can be placed on the shoulders of the infamous Monday Night Wars, aka the time that most Americans remember pro wrestling being at its hottest. Stars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were made during this era, when the WWE and WCW were battling it out week-to-week for professional wrestling supremacy. Instead of trying to let stories naturally progress, these federations were hell-bent on beating each other out in the weekly ratings, proverbially throwing any quality long-term plans out the window while focusing on what’ll be hot THAT WEEK. That thinking is understandable when you have someone like billionaire Ted Turner backing your competition, but today? The WWE stands alone. There’s no real reason to not know how your storylines are going to end up in six months. Prior proper planning should be the play, but the way CM Punk told it, you’d be lucky if you knew what would be happening with your character next month on pay-per-view.
fans should pray for some kind of reform or realization in the WWE about its practices and how it can properly build for the future.
The biggest thing you get from CM Punk’s extended examination of the past few years of his WWE career was the lack of care the WWE had for its competitors. His leaving was the result of taking a few months off, enjoying the idea of not working more than working, and the straw breaking the camel’s back (e.g. the WWE asking Punk, a person who’s known to live a straight-edge lifestyle, to take a piss test). Punk was fed up, told Vince McMahon and Triple H (who is now the Executive Vice President of the WWE) his feelings, shook their hands and walked out. During his recovery from treatment to take care of his staph infection, he decided to get married to AJ Lee. He was also not receiving royalty checks he was due while he was suspended by the WWE for walking out after the Royal Rumble (you might remember that situation where the WWE had to re-write the following night of Raw due to Punk’s absence). Punk actually received a call from HHH (a man that Punk believes thinks of him as a “piece of shit”) on his wedding day. During the call, Punk asked for the money he was owed and told HHH he’d call after his honeymoon. Punk says he later received papers that he was fired; it sounds like HHH might’ve been trying to speak with Punk one more time before officially giving him the boot.
You can get away with firing people on any number of days; most personal shit is for the birds. HHH is married, though—to Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, no less. You’d think he’d know when someone on his roster (AJ Lee) was taking precious time off to get married and have a honeymoon... right? If so, why act so petty and heartless as to call Punk on the day he was getting married to talk business, business that HHH screwed up (either directly or indirectly) with shenanigans that are repeatedly pulled with talent? Was WWE creative so petty that they’d treat another human being so disrespectfully? With so many fans of the product and people in the wrestling press, you’d think that the WWE—a NYSE-traded company—would try to keep its nose clean, especially with a performer who has brought fans in who sympathize with the decades of frustration over the WWE’s direction. Fans who see how little fucks the WWE seems to give for its “superstars” or direction. Fans who still watch every pay-per-view, every Raw, and want to understand why underdeveloped wrestlers are being pushed over wrestlers who are quite literally busting their asses to outperform their peers and mentors.
One could truly go on. Punk talks about missing opportunities for film roles, endorsements, and more during the past few years of his professional wrestling career, and one can imagine what might have become of Punk had he stayed the course, battered his body, and tried to tread water with the rest of the WWE roster. What’s most important to gain is that if you’ve been a part of the IWC, and have heard a number of unconfirmed rumors about the inner-workings of the WWE, CM Punk’s trip to the Art of Wrestling podcast confirmed many of your suspicions… and probably brought on new nuggets of information. Instead of hoping that CM Punk comes back, fans should pray for some kind of reform or realization in the WWE about its practices and how it can properly build for the future; maintaining its global success will be difficult if its talented performers end up retiring, or dying, before their time.
Although it’s hard to believe that they’ll respond, the next couple of weeks will be interesting. We have a feeling that the crowds during WWE television will be chanting for “C-M PUNK!” louder than they were in February after he left, especially after recent rumors of security at WWE events given the OK to prevent fans from chanting Punk’s name at shows. We should also take note of what, if any, shots at Punk the WWE will take this coming Monday night on Raw, or on the WWE Network immediately following Raw, where Steve Austin’s podcast is set to have Vince McMahon as a very special guest.