The WWE’s recent CM Punk angle was the most brilliantly executed storyline in recent wrestling history. Starting with a candid “shoot” interview on Monday Night Raw, Punk parlayed his impending free agency into something more significant: He transformed himself into the People’s Champ, a carefree renegade who aired real-life gripes with Vince McMahon’s company in his “fake” interviews. The sport (you’re damned right I called it a sport) always works best when it straddles that real/fake line and makes you think, “Wait a second, what the hell am I watching?” No wrestler straddled that line better than CM Punk these past few weeks. In the words of our own David Shoemaker, Punk mastered the art of the “worked shoot.”1
Last Sunday’s Money In The Bank pay-per-view — held in Chicago, Punk’s hometown — cemented his superstardom and nudged him towards the mainstream. After outlasting John Cena in 45 grueling minutes to capture the WWE title, Punk hopped into the crowd right before McMahon and his flunkies reclaimed the belt. Only an hour from hitting the open market (or so we were expected to believe), Punk scurried up the steps as fans happily slapped his back, stopping atop the lower section and holding up his championship belt triumphantly. Say what you want about wrestling, but this was a moment. So was the whole match, actually. I can’t remember the last wrestling crowd that stood for an entire match, or reacted to every big spot like the Cameron Crazies during a crucial home game against North Carolina.
Lost in the aftermath (and all the questions about Punk’s future, as well as where this storyline is going) was Punk’s actual entrance for that match.
Those initial two minutes set the tone for everything that followed: the crowd chanting “C-M PUNK! C-M PUNK! C-M PUNK!” and waiting for his music, the first sounds of the song itself (blistering guitars), then a singer screaming (the signature hook), then Punk slowly ambling from the back and milking the cheers. And finally, a lull as Punk crouched, followed by the music ratcheting back up as Punk cupped his hands and screamed and the crowd exploding a second time as Punk pumped his fist. You can’t bang out a wrestling entrance much better than that.
In more than 30 years of following wrestling, the first time I can remember an entrance song mattering was when Hulk Hogan rejoined the WWF in 1983. Coming off Hulk’s iconic appearance as Thunderlips, McMahon piggybacked that visibility by using Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (the Rocky III theme, as any AMC junkie will tell you) for Hogan’s entrances. You can’t say Hogan invented entrance music because Gorgeous George used “Pomp and Circumstance” once upon a time; even the Fabulous Freebirds predated Hogan’s music by a couple of years. (They used Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” a counterproductive choice unless they wanted fans to think everyone was getting stoned.) But Hogan was the first to capitalize on the potential of entrance music.
Back then, good guys jogged from backstage, waved to the crowd like Richie Cunningham and pumped their fists upon stepping into the ring. Bad guys strutted out, unleashed a slew of “I can’t believe how good I am” head-nodding, climbed through the ropes and pretended to be revolted by the crowd’s jeers. Nobody deviated from those two tactics. (Here’s a clip of a 1980 title match between Hogan and Bob Backlund if you don’t believe me.) Once Hogan started crushing his “Eye of the Tiger” entrances and perfecting the finger-pointing/eye-bulging/shirt-ripping routine, it dwarfed everyone else’s entrances so dramatically that the mindset changed overnight. Suddenly, everyone needed their own music. In retrospect, Hogan’s song worked perfectly because of its recognizable hook at the beginning (“Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da DAH! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DA! DAH DAH DAHHHHHHHHHH”), then the energy of the song itself (pretty consistent, no dips), so really, we owe the wrestling entrance boom to Sly Stallone more than anyone.2
“Eye of the Tiger” launched a two-year free-for-all of wrestlers copying Hogan with mainstream entrance songs such as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”(Kerry Von Erich), ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” (Jimmy Garvin) , Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” (Junkyard Dog), George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” (Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Wendi Richter), Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” (Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham)3, and the best of them all, the Alan Parsons Project’s “SIRIUS” (Ricky Steamboat).4 (And I didn’t even mention two obscure-but-awesome movie theme song choices: Ric Flair’s using “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme or Midnight Express’ going with music from Midnight Express.) I wish this era could have lasted forever. Unfortunately, music companies started saying, “Hey, wait you’re going to pay us rights fees for that, right?”
Vince McMahon moved quickly, like always, creating an original theme song for Hogan that everyone despised, inadvertently proving that pounding piano music can’t work for wrestling entrances. (That fiasco ended up costing poor John Tesh millions when everything was said and done.) Needing a quick fix, Vince hijacked Rotundo/Windham’s entrance music and gave it to Hogan. Their song? The soon-to-be-immortal “Real American,” a patriotic ditty that the White House should consider blaring before every Obama speech.
When it comes crashing down, and it hurts inside
Ya gotta take a stand, it don’t help to hide
Well, you hurt my friends and you hurt my pride
I gotta be a man — I can’t let it slide
I am a real American
Fight for the rights of every man
I am a real American
Fight for what’s right, fight for your life!
USA! USA! USA!5 That song officially ushered in the “Let’s Create Original Songs For Every Wrestler” era, which launched a year earlier with 1985’s The Wrestling Album but needed another decade to evolve into a consistently listenable form. We learned four valuable lessons about entrance music over that time:
1. You have to be careful of crippling someone’s gimmick with shitty entrance music. Even after all these years, the WWE hasn’t totally learned this lesson — as evidenced by Mr. Kennedy’s career imploding because they saddled him with such an atrocious theme song, you could almost hear fans pleading during the chorus, “Just get to the ring! GET TO THE RING!”
2. Just from hearing the first 1.75 seconds of the song, the crowd needs to realize instantly who’s emerging from backstage — you need a recognizable hook at the top, whether it’s the sound of glass shattering, a peculiar guitar riff, a bloodcurdling scream, a motorcycle revving, a gong, a crazed laugh, a quick catch phrase or whatever. It’s always amazing to me how many wrestlers ignore this rule. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Sheamus.
3. You don’t want to peak with those first few seconds; the crowd needs to remain jazzed as the wrestler walks towards the ring (and when they bring back the music after the match if he wins). That’s why you need a solid chorus, and if you can squeeze in an everything-gets-quiet-then-explodes-again moment during the middle of the song, even better — that opens the door for fireworks, guttural screaming, water-spitting, chest-pounding, syringe-juggling or whatever else might buy a second pop.6
4. You shouldn’t be afraid to change a superstar’s music just because he’s a superstar. Like poor Bret Hart, who was saddled with the worst entrance song of the 1990s.The beginning hook worked; the rest sounded like the hideous music cable providers play after a game when the channel reverts to a “Thank you for watching the MLB Package” graphic. Did they ever change it, soup it up, add vocals, anything? God forbid. And by the way, Bret Hart was already boring enough — the last thing he needed was boring music.7
Hart’s song was the bizarro version of the kick-ass song used by his biggest rival, Shawn Michaels, who never gets enough credit for creating wrestling’s first great modern entrance. His “Sexy Boy” theme underwent multiple incarnations after the Heartbreak Kid threw tag-team partner Marty Jannetty through a plate-glass window; you could say HBK’s career ebbed and flowed with his entrance music. When he was carrying Jannetty as part of the Rockers, their mullets were just as terrible as their theme (this excruciating heavy metal song). Once Michaels turned heel in 1992, they created “Sexy Boy” for him and let’s just say that the first version hasn’t aged too well. (It sounds like the Backstreet Boys recording a B-side single with Slash.) By 1994, they worked out most of the kinks (watch this version if only for the funny promos at the top); by 1997, the song had been extended into two effective minutes with a blistering guitar solo near the end.
Unsatisfied, Michaels became the Bo Jackson of wrestling entrance songs, forming D-Generation X with Triple H and unveiling an all-time classic called “Break It Down“. Within a few months, they were interspersing video footage with their actual entrance, incorporating signature wrinkles (their group crotch-chop and Triple H’s water spray/spit), extending past the song with Michaels screaming, “Cut the music!” and Triple H doing his “Let’s get ready to suck it!” riff, and then — assuming the New Age Outlaws were there as well — weaving in Jesse James’ spot-on introductions and Bad Ass Billy Gunn’s plea for the crowd to scream, “SUCK IT!”8 Each DX entrance had roughly the same beats, almost like the song itself, only nobody cared. Fans just wanted to scream at their prompts. Like they were attending the Rocky Horror Picture Show or something. They enjoyed that experience more than the actual match.
So that’s how we got here. Starting with DX, the next 14 years became something of a heyday for wrestling entrances. The WWE opened their wallets for original music (owning everything, of course), released a new album of theme songs nearly every year (we’re up to 10 total)9 and finagled things so that entrances became synonymous with the characters themselves. My friend Grande (a fan since 1980 like me) believes these entrances assumed greater importance in recent years because of the homogenization of the wrestling industry. Even if there’s more talent than ever, these guys look the same, wrestle the same, hit the same beats, take the same bumps, jump back and forth between TV shows it’s just becoming harder for anyone to stand out.10 For instance, Sunday’s Money In The Bank featured two chaotic multiwrestler ladder matches with so many reckless spots that, three days later, I can’t remember who did what. And the degree of difficulty keeps climbing to the point that we’re three years away from someone falling off a 35-foot ladder into a hot tub filled with nails and broken glass. Back when Mick Foley was taking those suicidal risks, he stood out. Now, 20 guys are taking them.
So entrances have become a wrestler’s only chance to steal everyone’s attention for a set length of time, a mindset that’s even trickled into other mediums. Baseball closers and hitters use entrance music, as do UFC fighters and more than a few boxers. Bill Clinton came out to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” during the 2008 Democratic convention — a callback to when they used that song for his 1992 campaign; it was a little like Hulk Hogan returning with “Real American” blaring behind him, only if “Real American” was a toothless, sexually ambiguous soft rock song. We’re still a few years away from David Stern using music for his NBA Draft entrances (I vote for “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy), but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Anyway, that’s how we landed in Chicago with Punk’s epic entrance last Sunday, with the crowd knowing exactly what to expect but totally eating it up, anyway. Where does Punk rank among the best “modern” entrances from 1997 to 2011? Here’s one man’s list in descending order
“I WALK ALONE” (BATISTA)
An awful heavy metal song that’s built around a prolonged lull at the 30-second mark which actually, turns out to be a good thing, because it allows for five seconds of fireworks and a (possibly PED-induced) screaming seizure from Batista.11 I’m all for fireworks and (possibly PED-induced) screaming seizures. I also like how the song abruptly ends, like the guy who wrote it told his bandmates, “Look, Vince told me 30 seconds of heavy guitar, then a five-second lull, but he didn’t really tell me anything beyond that screw it, let’s just wrap it up.”
“ASS MAN” (BILLY GUNN)
Look, it’s not like I don’t appreciate a song that starts with the hook, “I’m an ass man!” and includes the chorus, “Cuz I’m an ass man yeahhhhh!” I would never marginalize classic lyrics like “I love to love ’em I love to kick ’em I love to shove ’em I love to stick ’em” and “So many asses, so little time, only a tight one can stop me on a dime.” And I wouldn’t want to seem unsupportive of someone who renamed himself “Mr. Ass,” wore “Mr. Ass” on his shorts and basically built an entire gimmick around asses. But how far are you going with an “Ass Man” theme song and gimmick? Are you really holding the WWE title for five years? I think this is why Billy Gunn made my wife a grande caramel low-fat macchiato last week.
“VOODOO CHILD” (HULK HOGAN)
“ENTER SANDMAN” (THE SANDMAN)
Docking these points because they happened in the WCW (now defunct — as far as I’m concerned, if you lost the Monday Night Wars, you lose in this column as well) and ECW (also defunct), and because they cheated by using real songs by Jimi Hendrix and Metallica. On the other hand Jimi Hendrix and Metallica! Have there ever been two cooler songs for a wrestling entrance? Hogan’s entrance gets additional points for his stunning villain swerve, the goofiness of his colored beard and the ingenuity of that New World Order angle. Sandman’s entrance gets additional points for eliciting such a frenzied response from those ECW crowds, for incorporating props such as sticks and beer, for ripping off Mariano Rivera, and for inspiring the announcer in that clip to say with a straight face, “This might be the most inebriated we’ve ever seen the Sandman.”12
Gets demoted to honorable mention for its lack of ingenuity (he used his same entrance blueprint from WCW) and the lack of a decent song (it sounds like a FOX NFL broadcast theme gone horribly wrong). But give him credit for the whole “follow me with your cameras as I walk through backstage like a boxer and the crowd sings “Golllllllldberg Golllllllldberg” idea, as well as the “what if I stood dangerously close to two tons of fireworks and emerged from a haze of fire and smoke?” brainstorm, and of course, his “after those fireworks go off, I think I’ll do some screaming, some fist pumps, some awkward karate kicks and maybe even lose my balance and fall backwards” wrinkle. Goldberg proved irrefutably that anyone can become a superstar as long as they have a great entrance and 1½ moves.
“MY TIME IS NOW” (JOHN CENA)
“GRAVEYARD SYMPHONY” (UNDERTAKER)
You can’t argue with the first 35 seconds or so: It’s creepy, it sets the tone (“this guy buries bodies”), there’s fire involved and yet, there always comes a point with Undertaker’s entrances when he’s near the ring walking at that same methodical pace and you’re thinking, “All right, this is getting a little weird, speed it up, buddy.” They spruced it up over the years with fireballs at the beginning, fireworks in the ring, Undertaker emerging from fire pits and basically anything that involved the word “fire” (with Undertaker even accidentally catching on fire once), but could never sustain the momentum.
In my opinion, this is the single most overrated wrestling entrance. You know how we know it didn’t totally work? For two years, Undertaker was reinvented as the “American Bad Ass” and given the Limp Bizkit song “Rollin’,” leading to this WrestleMania 19 entrance when Limp Bizkit sang the song live and Undertaker drove a motorcycle towards the ring while wearing bandanas and a leather jacket. Did it make sense for the Prince of Darkness to suddenly become a motorcycle-riding redneck? Hold on, I’ll answer that question for you NO!!!!! No, it didn’t! What the hell were they thinking? Within a few years, Undertaker returned to his underworld roots and every wrestling fan agreed to pretend that the American Bad Ass era never happened. But it did. It’s on YouTube and everything. For that historic misstep, I’m demoting “Graveyard Symphony” to honorable mention.
“S.O.S.” (KOFI KINGSTON)
The happiest of the WWE’s entrance songs — with its rasta/rap feel, it makes you feel like you’re sitting on a beach sipping a poorly made tropical drink and wondering where you left your passport the night before. And there are fireworks!13 My toughest omission.
THE TOP 12
12. “THE GAME” (TRIPLE-H)
I’m torn on this one. The song itself is appalling — just someone screaming in a raspy voice, “It’s all about the Game” over and over again and making you feel like you’re trapped in the cellar during a Saw movie. Your eyes start glazing over after about 25 seconds. But you have to give Triple H credit for (a) having a second nickname for his nickname (“The Game”), (b) coming up with a song titled after that nickname (tough to pull off), (c) doing everything possible to spruce up the entrance (like the hammer/window routine in the link from WrestleMania 25 above), (d) mastering the posing/seizure/”I am literally BURSTING with PEDs!!!!” trifecta upon entering the ring,14 and (e) perfecting his water spit to the point that “Triple H water spit” has 141 results on YouTube. Add everything up and I’m giving Triple H the win with this line: 7.1 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 9 K, 5 BB, 141 pitches.
11. “OH HELL YEAH” (STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN)
10. “IF YOU SMELL WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING” (THE ROCK)
These were basically the same two songs: Killer hooks at the top (Austin’s broken glass, the Rock’s “If you smellllllllllll what the Rock is cooking!”) followed by 45 seconds of dreary music that almost sounds like the same eight-second song on a loop. To their credit, both guys bolted for the ring as fast as possible so they could fast-forward to their signature ploys: Austin climbed each turnbuckle and waved his middle fingers at fans (for some reason, they always enjoyed this), while the Rock cut the music short and launched into his, “Finally the Rock has COME BACK TO (FILL IN THE CITY).” Great beginning, great end, lousy middle. Just good enough to crack the top 12, nothing more.
9. “NO CHANCE IN HELL” (VINCE MCMAHON)
Vince’s over-the-top entrance swagger/strut always slays me — I don’t know how someone can walk like that without blowing out both of their ACLs. In general, it’s just a really smart entrance with a good chorus (“You’ve got NO CHANCE!!!! NO CHANCE IN HELL!!!!”) that accomplishes its objective namely, that any wrestling novice could watch Vince’s entrance and conclude, “He’s the boss, he’s cocky and I shouldn’t like him.”15
8. “WHAT’S UP?” (R-TRUTH)
Kudos to R-Truth for (a) singing the song live every time, (b) selling the shit out of it, and (c) tapping into every wrestling fan’s desire to mindlessly repeat a two-word chorus like “What’s up?” for as long as you keep prompting them. It’s a really fun two minutes.16 My only issue is with the song itself, which features the most impossible-to-understand lyrics since “Yellow Ledbetter.” As far as I can tell, the lyrics go like this
Y’all know what time it is
Let’s crank it up!
Dgdgshjs jcjfjufjjj pqpqpzhfdhj papfrhfrhfhf what’s up
Bbbdkdkd mmmmmmsmam hkkhldl nmdsmdmdmd what’s up
What’s up? What’s up? What’s up? What’s up?
Dgdgshjs jcjfjufjjj pqpqpzhfdhj papfrhfrhfhf what’s up
Bbbdkdkd mmmmmmsmam hkkhldl nmdsmdmdmd what’s up
What’s up? What’s up? What’s up? What’s up?
so you can hear the crowd mumbling every other lyric except for “What’s up?” (which they invariably scream). Although, maybe that was R-Truth’s plan — to confuse fans with every lyric other than “What’s up?” so they’d be more excited for each “What’s up?” prompt. I need to think about this some more.
7. “THIS FIRE BURNS” (CM PUNK)
We covered this one already.
6. “SEXY BOY” (SHAWN MICHAELS)
5. “BREAK IT DOWN” (DX)
These, too. I ranked “Break It Down” higher for two reasons: it’s probably the most ripped-off entrance song in wrestling history (how many variations of the “starts slow and mysterious, then kicks in quickly with a loud chorus” formula have we heard?), and it’s a good enough song that I bought WWF: The Music, Vol. 3 in 1998 just to crank it in my car a few times. (Thinking.) I probably shouldn’t have just admitted that.
4. “ON THIS DAY” (EDGE)
Was this song legitimately good or am I crazy? On this day I see clearly everything has come to liiiiiiiiiiiiiiife. It’s so good that Edge dumped another quality entrance song (“You Think You Know Me“) for this one, almost like a rich dude upgrading luxury cars or something. I know I already have an M3, but I love that Maybach! “On This Day” worked so beautifully that it inspired a Great Moments In Entrance Song History moment: Edge’s saying goodbye on Smackdown earlier this year by standing in the ring, then asking if it would be OK if he performed his entrance one last time and doing it! This actually happened. Can you imagine Mariano Rivera retiring from the Yankees, standing on the mound one last time and asking the crowd, “Hey guys, what if I ran back to the bullpen, then entered the game to ‘Enter Sandman’ one last time would you be cool with that?”
3. “BREATHE” (AL SNOW)
I’m breaking every pre-established rule with this pick: It’s a commercial song (The Prodigy’s “Breathe”), it happened in the ECW (not WWE), and it involves wrestler who didn’t have a long-lasting impact but you know what? Al Snow was pure magic in 1998 and nobody can tell me differently. Anyone who can blend electronic music with mannequin heads and sway an entire crowd to chant “Head! Head! Head! Head!” deserves the rules to be bent.17
2. “UNTITLED” (NEW AGE OUTLAWS)
This was too good for its own good — fans loved it so much that the Outlaws (Jesse James and Bad Ass Billy Gunn18) felt obligated to stick to the same script every time. You had the guitar hook at the top (you knew it was them right away), then James screaming, “Ohhhhhhhhhh, you didn’t know? Your ass better callllllllllllll somebodyyyyyyy!” and everyone going ballistic. The song wasn’t that creative, so James ad-libbed for the next 35 seconds to kill time before doing his fake-announcer routine in the ring which, by the way, went over so well that the fans shouted every word along with him, capped off by everyone screaming in unison, “The NEW AGE OUTLAWS!!!!!” And just when you thought it was over, Gunn grabbed the mic and yelled, “And if you’re not down with that, I got two words for you SUCK IT!!!!!”
You’re not going to believe this, but wrestling fans liked screaming “SUCK IT!” So much that the New Age Outlaws became trapped by their entrance — even after it became stale, they had to keep doing it the same exact way, leading to the first case of a fantastic entrance definitively affecting two career trajectories.19 By the way, Jesse James could come waltzing through my front door right now yelling, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, you didn’t know?” and I’d be 110 percent fired up without even knowing what was happening or how he got there. I wish my wife had thought of this for my 40th birthday party.
1. “BREAK THE WALLS DOWN” (CHRIS JERICHO)
That’s a link from Jericho’s WWE debut in 1999. In the span of two minutes, he steals the crowd’s attention from The Rock with a “COUNTDOWN TO THE MILLENNIUM” video (bonus points for getting Jerry Lawler to stammer, “What? What?”), followed by the lights going dark (always a winner), then fireworks (ditto), then a really catchy song with a quick hook kicking in (“Break the wall downnnnnnnnnn”), then his name flashing on the video screen (huge pop as everyone says, “Good God, it’s Chris Jericho! He’s here!”) and then, he keeps it going by milking the “standing still with my arms out while facing the other direction” move (one of my all-time favorites), unleashing his soon-to-be signature “Welcome to Raw is JERICHO!” line (more cheers), then pulling a second signature pose (slightly hunched over, staring at the crowd defiantly) with the song cranking behind him. From there, he establishes his “Y2J” theme (a clever play on the whole Y2K scare) and a general expectation of ensuing anarchy.
This entrance nails every point on my checklist: great use of video, great hook at the top, great posing, some underlying emotion (WWE fans felt like Jericho was underutilized at WCW, so they cheered extra-hard as something of an Eff You to the other guys), fireworks, a catch phrase really, it’s the G.O.A.T. of wrestling entrances. Throw in his in-ring skills (top-notch) and I would have wagered anything at that specific moment that Chris Jericho was going to become a superduperstar. Didn’t quite happen.
That’s the thing about wrestling — momentum ebbs and flows, fans get bored easily, everyone’s always looking for the Next Guy. Twelve years ago, it was Chris Jericho. Right now, it’s CM Punk. We’ll see if he can hold on for the ride.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.