CM Punk's Last WWE Match In 2014 Paints A Surreal Picture Of Wrestling Seven Years Later
The benefit of hindsight in 2021 offers a glimpse as to how we got here
Looks like the fire still burns.
Over 14,000 strong at Chicago's United Center played witness to a moment most assumed would never be in the cards again - CM Punk appearing for a national wrestling promotion.
AEW told us - without telling us - that Punk was going to be arriving in his native Chi-town on the second ever broadcast of AEW Rampage, and there he was, basking in roar of the fans once more.
If wrestling is all about creating moments that stay with you forever, then AEW did exactly that. Where Punk's AEW experience goes from here is yet to unfold, but it's a helluva first chapter regardless.
As noted, most fans and critics (up until maybe a month ago) were well under the assumption that Phil Brooks was simply done with pro wrestling. Exhausted, frustrated, insulted, physically ill, and fed up, Punk walked out of WWE over seven and a half years ago, ostensibly wrestling his last match at the age of 35.
On Colt Cabana's Art of Wrestling podcast later in 2014, Punk deconstructed his final few years in WWE, with extra examination of the months preceding his walkout. While Punk spared no one's feelings in ripping WWE's managerial and creative infrastructures (especially when he made his feelings toward Triple H abundantly clear), he also seemed at peace with where he was ten months later. Now happily married to AJ Lee, and with other options on the table (MMA, comic books, acting opportunities), Punk didn't appear to need wrestling, nor did he seem to really want it.
Assuming Punk hadn't covertly worked some random indy battle royal shrouded under a mask in front of 70 people or something, the 2014 Royal Rumble stood to be his last ever wrestling match, a 55-minute gauntlet that proved more notorious than simply serving as Punk's unexpected curtain call.
You remember the match well, don't you?
By early 2014, the most vociferous WWE fans had deemed Daniel Bryan to be their choice in avatar. While those fans believed Bryan should headline WrestleMania 30 to complete his World championship saga, WWE opted to haul Batista out of retirement, and instead push him as temporary hero.
The poor room-reading led to Drax being jeered mercilessly by fans throughout this entire hollow run.
On that cold January night in Pittsburgh, in their usually-anticipated Rumble match, WWE's deeply-laid plans were soundly rejected by the Steel City crowd.
Today, when one thinks of that Rumble match, they tend to remember three items more than anything else:
1. Rey Mysterio entering at number 30, and the ensuing response once everybody came to grips with the fact that Bryan wasn't going to be competing.
2. Batista winning the match as the boos continued to rain down on him.
3. The fact that it was Punk's last match before walking out.
With a little deeper examination, the 2014 Royal Rumble match is even more surreal when viewed with a 2021 set of eyes.
Here are a few more random facts from that fateful 30-man battle.
1. Only 12 of the 30 wrestlers are still active performers in WWE today
This is probably a little less surprising now, given WWE's penchant for mass bloodlettings over the past 18 months or so. There was a time between 2016 and 2020, though, that WWE didn't just let people go so easily, stockpiling a roster that looked more like a two-page Where's Waldo mural than a wholly-functional wrestling roster.
And yet, as it stands in 2021, 60 percent of the match entrants no longer wrestle on the regular inside WWE rings.
The remaining dozen includes Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, The Usos, Kofi Kingston, Big E, Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, Sheamus, The Miz, Cesaro, and Rey Mysterio (who was gone from WWE for over three years in the interim time frame).
All 12 of those wrestlers have either been a champion in the past year (with a minimum of 20 different reigns in R-Truth's case), or have been involved in a significant storyline of some sort.
Just five of those 12 are under 40 years of age, so draw your own conclusions as to whether or not that's a good thing. But of those five (Reigns, Usos, Rollins, and Big E), they're all at least in or adjacent to the main event scene on SmackDown.
That's a positive, at least.
2. One-fifth of the field currently wrestles in AEW
It would be slightly more if Brodie Lee, the former Luke Harper, were alive and well today. Counting Erick Rowan making a one off appearance to pay tribute to his fallen former partner, that's eight of the 30 that have ended up working Wednesday nights on TNT over the past couple of years.
Cody Rhodes comes to mind first, as one of the pillars of AEW in its infancy. Brother Dustin (as Goldust here) followed shortly after, giving us the match of his career against Cody at the first Double or Nothing.
The men then known as Dean Ambrose, Jack Swagger, and Alexander Rusev (on a one night excursion from NXT here) all made their way to Jacksonville, where they've each ended up playing the best versions of themselves (violent loner with a moral compass, muted bodyguard with MMA credentials, and brutish warrior with a direct line to God, respectively).
Then there's Punk, the biggest name of the six. Overall, that's a pretty impressive cell of stars that Tony Khan's gotten his mitts on over the past couple of years. Add in Brodie Lee, and you realize how much worthwhile talent WWE has lost in that period.
3. Punk's appearance was part of a strange loop
By rule of the dreaded Authority, rabble-rouser Punk had to enter the Rumble from the number one spot. In all, he lasted 49 cloudy minutes in the match, during which time he made three eliminations, sustained a concussion, reportedly cursed out an unhelpful Dr. Chris Amann, and was eliminated by Kane as soon as the final four commenced. Once Kane finished his ringside brutalization of Punk, "The Voice of the Voiceless" would never be heard from in WWE again.
One of the more trivial matters involving Punk's participation concerns his entry point. Coming into the match as the first entrant, Punk continued an unusual chain that began in 2010, and ended after 2015.
Here are the number one entrants for the Royal Rumble matches from 2010 through 2015:
2010: Dolph Ziggler
2011: CM Punk
2012: The Miz
2013: Dolph Ziggler
2014: CM Punk
2015: The Miz
Either that's a strange coincidence, or WWE was been living in Groundhog Day without even realizing it. Had Ziggler entered first in 2016, maybe WWE would've been strangely compelled to offer Punk $25 million just to work the 2017 match from the number one draw. Streaks are important, you know.
4. Roman Reigns was the "last hope" of the anti-Batista crowd
You know how WWE announcers will bring up "Bizzaro World" whenever the audience decides to go against the storytelling grain? Pittsburgh wasn't exactly Bizzaro World at the Rumble, but man did the ending feel really weird when viewed even a year later.
Once the fray came down to Batista and a still-ascending Reigns (who had eliminated a record 12 men, thus looking really strong), fans continued their wholesale rejection of part-time Big Dave. So much so that Reigns became the de facto babyface in the scenario, as fans hoped for a swerve ending.
Make no mistake, while Reigns was still technically a heel, the fans didn't hate Reigns (or any of the Shield members). In fact, Reigns was seen as being one of the better parts of WWE at the start of 2014, a young talent in a popular faction, with a limitless ceiling above him.
It was through a too-put-on singles push later that year (rife with very cliched promos) that the anti-Reigns brigade came together. But on this night, he was the valiant "last hope" against Batista and WWE's inflexible plans. By the time the 2015 Rumble rolled around, this final sequence felt like a peyote-fueled hallucination.
5. So many notable Rumble match entrants experienced significant changes in 2014.
Change is inevitable, even if in WWE it seems to happen somewhat slowly.
This wasn't exactly the case in 2014, as ten different Rumble entrants experienced character alterations that had notable ramifications, some of them long-term.
The three Shield members all went different routes, with rogue Rollins becoming a scheming heel, Ambrose a vengeful oddball, and Reigns an action star analogue. Fans had strong feelings about each, and their respective destinies began to take shape post-split.
Batista eventually migrated back to Evolution as a self-important heel, the fans having broken the spirit of WWE's marketing department.
Some singles pushes held promise, like Cesaro as "The New Heyman Guy", and Damien Sandow as Miz's "stunt double", only to peter out when WWE lost interest in them. Those were both, "the writing's on the wall" scenarios.
Others found their ideal voice. Kingston and Big E formed The New Day with Xavier Woods later in 2014, and while it took some time to find authenticity, the co-op has been a great investment. Some might prefer Miro the Redeemer to Rusev the Russian Super Athlete, but that Rusev is what opened Miro's world.
As for Cody Rhodes becoming Stardust that summer, well ... my, how the business began to change once the "f--king space clown" eventually secured his release from WWE.
Who could've predicted Cody's future on that day in 2016?
Maybe the same people that predicted CM Punk's 2021 comeback.