One year ago, CM Punk loved the WWE so much that he took the company hostage. After beating John Cena for the WWE championship at Money in the Bank, Punk walked out of the arena and effectively went on strike, using his expiring contract and the title as leverage in a quest to change the company. Of course, he came back a few weeks later, in time to perform at SummerSlam, WWE’s second-biggest show of the year. In wrestling — and, perhaps, everything — even the antiestablishment protests are subject to the whims of capitalism. But Punk had made his point: He was the “voice of the voiceless,” which was shorthand for “voice of the disaffected Internet fans.” “Internet fans” can be a disparaging title, not least to many wrestlers and others involved in the business, despite the fact that nowadays, everyone is “the Internet.” Let’s call them the meta-fans — the contingent of mostly older wrestling viewers for whom history and reality matter as much as the onscreen narrative. Punk walked out of the WWE in solidarity with them. And when he returned, the WWE took the meta-fans’ complaints and swallowed them whole. That doesn’t mean WWE fixed the problems; it simply subsumed those complaints into the WWE mythos — and thus rendered them moot. No matter how high-minded the meta-fans’ argument may have been, once John Cena is involved, the argument is lost. WWE feeds Cena all the main events, all the headliner spots, and when that wasn’t enough they gave him Punk’s feud with John Laurinaitis and the meta-fans’ righteous anger to boot, all in hopes that it’ll make the overall product better. Call it Trickle-Down Thuganomics. How can your complaints change the story when the story is about your complaints?
The day after Sunday’s SummerSlam — a year after his triumphant return to WWE — Punk cemented his turn to the dark side by attacking Jerry “The King” Lawler on Raw. Punk has been headed in this direction for weeks. On the 1,000th episode of Raw, when Punk attacked The Rock in the ring at the show’s close, Lawler nearly fainted: “CM Punk has turned his back on the WWE Universe.”1 The next week, Punk called Lawler out for being a terrible announcer (which is mostly true) in a manner that underscored his new, more villainous demeanor.
Nevertheless, Punk was lauded for his scathing tirade against Lawler, because it seemed like a return to the truth-telling that had made Punk so popular in the first place. Even after he attacked The Rock, fans weren’t sure that Punk was really a bad guy. It’s telling that after nine months of regressing from righteous outlaw to a comfortable, family-friendly, angsty-hero role, Punk got some of his biggest cheers in ages for trying to act like a heel. CM Punk Lite probably wasn’t a total abdication of the character and the principles that changed wrestling in the summer of 2011, but his blending into the mainstream seemed at odds with the original mission. Now, with Punk’s ongoing transformation into a heel, the meta-fan critique is becoming the script for villainy and a large portion of the WWE audience seems primed to root for Punk the “bad guy.”
Of course, the good-evil alignment matters somewhat less today than it once did. This is an era when John Cena’s merchandise sales are believed to be WWE’s chief interest in his permanent heroism. On some level, the “good guys” are simply the wrestlers who appeal to kids, and the kids are the ones buying the “Salute the Cenation” sweatband bundles. They’re “good guys” because young fans tend to be drawn to the black hat–white hat simplistic storytelling of yore, and meta-fans will support their guys even if they’re heels.
But this is still pro wrestling. The vast majority of matches feature one good guy and one bad guy; when they tag-team, the good guys team with other good guys and the bad guys team with other bad guys, even when that alignment flies in the face of existing backstory.2 Only the bad guys (and announcers) are subject to ritual humiliation; only the bad guys are treated as scared to fight;3 only the bad guys’ losses are scripted as grand moments of cosmic justice. These simple laws of the pro-wrestling universe create self-fulfilling prophecies. If John Cena ever turns heel, his young fans will desert him, and that’s why he probably never will. Because the meta-fans care enough about Punk or Daniel Bryan or Dolph Ziggler to love them even when they’re heels, they’re actually making it easier for WWE to turn them into bad guys. And in the WWE, bad guys are almost always scripted to be weak, even in victory. The meta-fans’ loyalty is scripting the demise of their favorite wrestlers.
Jerry Lawler knows the difference between a good guy and a bad guy as well as anyone. In the 1970s and ’80s, during his in-ring heyday in the Memphis territory he co-owned, he slid seamlessly between heel and face over the years. His positioning was driven by necessity; the Memphis group didn’t have the biggest roster or the greatest resources, so Lawler would position himself opposite the next most compelling personality available. Sometimes it was a manager like Jimmy Hart, sometimes it was an interloping comedian like Andy Kaufman, and when all else failed it was another wrestler, like the diminutive Aussie “Superstar” Bill Dundee or the Yosemite Sam–esque Dutch Mantell. Lawler knows how subtle the distinction is between a good character and an evil one in pro wrestling. Like the other villainous babyfaces in wrestling history, Lawler was a dirty fighter no matter how loudly he was cheered, but what really mattered was how Lawler was presented to the audience. When Lance Russell, the august voice of Memphis’s CWA wrestling, tsked at your shenanigans, the audience tsked right along with him.
So when Lawler said that Punk had turned his back on the fans, it wasn’t a suggestion; it was a statement of directorial discretion. As an announcer, he is by no means universally beloved — he’s more interested in turning a good pun than accurately narrating matches, and his horny-toad shtick that was at least pertinent during the Attitude Era is now just creepy. But he’s the voice of the good guy in the Raw broadcast booth, playing opposite Michael Cole, who favors the villains.
By ostentatiously threatening the good-guy half of the announcing team, Punk began to tread in territory normally occupied by wrestling’s vilest bullies.4 That’s not the bad part; the bad part is that announcer feuds are frequently reserved as fail-safes for the least compelling wrestlers. Bullying an announcer is the quickest way to get cheap boos (or cheers, in the case of Cole and guys like Bobby Heenan before him). If the meta-fans appreciate Punk taking on Lawler’s announcing skills, they hate the prospect of the beef making it into the ring, because, at his age, Lawler’s not any better in the ring than he is on the mic. But kicking announcers in the head is the sort of thing that villains do, and as much as meta-fans are happy to see Punk released from his crowd-pandering shackles, to them this is all a waste of time. They don’t care if he’s a villain, they just want to see Punk wrestle good matches and talk to them in his promos. It’s the children in the audience who need to be hand-held along the path of Punk’s downward spiral, a transition that can only be expressed by the ceremonial concussing of Lawler.
Despite the groans from the meta-fans, and despite his own recent in-character protestations, CM Punk’s own title reign has proven that championships don’t really matter. During his 10-month stint as champion, Punk has consistently taken a backseat to John Cena. The title does signify the WWE’s confidence in its holder, and so it has become a symbol of Punk’s assimilation as much as his ascendance. Even this past Sunday at SummerSlam, when he fought Cena and The Big Show for the WWE championship, their match didn’t close the show; it was followed by the headliner, Brock Lesnar versus Triple H, a grudge match based on contractual terms, a broken arm, and some vague mentions of Vince McMahon’s grandkids. The meta-fans complain that this sequencing cheapens the title, but many of them are really just mad — with good reason on Sunday night — that Punk isn’t getting top billing.
But here’s the thing: Punk started turning heel by giving voice to these complaints. He started grousing that he was given short shrift in favor of Cena and, even worse, the fair-weather fighters like The Rock. A year ago, this kind of talk made Punk the most compelling good guy in the WWE; now it’s the window dressing for his descent into meanness. Punk’s match didn’t close SummerSlam because WWE decided that Brock–Triple H was a bigger deal, but also because it gives Punk something to complain about. WWE again swallowed the meta-fans’ critique whole, and in this story line, made them the villains.
On Sunday night, after Lesnar beat Triple H and “re-broke” his arm, Triple H was left alone in the ring, holding his gimp limb against his side and apologizing for losing to the evil Lesnar. From where I was sitting, the meta-fans were guffawing at this act. They hate Triple H for his years of perceived glory-hogging and backstage manipulations, and the way he managed to land in the main event at SummerSlam only intensified their fantasies. Lesnar, on the other hand, is a cruel machine of real-world violence. He’s the only WWE bad guy who doesn’t act scared — the sort of guy a meta-fan can really get behind.
On Monday night’s episode of Raw, Lesnar did the most villainous thing WWE could possibly have him do: He quit. Think it’s a coincidence that it’s the same thing that made Punk a superstar a year ago?
The night before SummerSlam, Jim Ross hosted a panel discussion for the launch of WWE’s new, soon-to-be-released video game. WWE 13 is laden with Attitude Era characters, so Ross, the company’s lead play-by-play man during those years, was an obvious choice to lead the talk. Someone handed Ross notes for the event. “Always work off a script in pro wrestling,” he said with a noticeable shot of sarcasm, before launching into a routine of fourth-wall-breaking riffs. (“I was trying to put you over,” he said at one point to a disgruntled Brodus Clay.) If this was part of the script, then the script must have called on him to woo the room’s small, lucky contingent of meta-fans with a disarming comfort and disregard for story line unreality.
The panelists included CM Punk, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Raw general manager A.J. Lee, and Mike Tyson. Iron Mike was there to commemorate his brief run as a leering lynchpin in WWE storytelling in 1998, going in a matter of weeks from a special guest of Vince McMahon to an honorary member of D-Generation X to an Austin confederate, all the while redirecting eyeballs from rival WCW.5 Back then, Tyson was presented as an unflappable badass, but on Saturday night he sat awkwardly, almost folded in on himself, stuck between the two poles of scripted badassery — Austin on his left and Punk on his right. Austin was the magnetic center of the room, staring into the distance with some kind of grizzled stoicism. All eyes were on him even though Mike freaking Tyson was seated next to him. Punk held court by sheer force of indifference, arching his eyebrows and gritting his teeth comically whenever a Jim Ross joke thudded, mugging for a nonexistent camera like WWE’s own Jim Halpert. And why shouldn’t he? He’s a villain now, after all.
Austin was asked what advice he’d give to the new generation of superstars, and his answer was like a Hollywood koan: “They can always reel you in, but they can’t push you out even further.”6 Be the character you want to be, he was saying. WWE can make a superstar mainstream, but they can’t make anybody into a superstar. Or, they can’t make just anybody a superstar, but they can make a superstar a heel. Austin acknowledged that Punk had already followed his mantra to a tee, and Punk sat there with the championship belt in his lap, staring at the ceiling, uninterested.
There was a moment when A.J. began to speak, and Punk said something snide, and A.J. shot back with, “Don’t forget I’m your boss, Punk.” Punk rolled his eyes, bored of being there and particularly of having to keep up any semblance of kayfabe. Perhaps he was just playing heel, but I doubt it. In front of so many meta-fans there was little reason for Punk to waste energy pretending they weren’t in on the joke. “Always work off a script in pro wrestling”? The script, such as it is, has become an in-joke among performers and their most jaded fans. On Saturday (and off-camera), WWE will cater to the meta-fans to help peddle their video game, but on Sunday, wrestling’s Internet know-it-alls are back to being the bad guys.
I guess we all have a role to play. The meta-fans are the target for onscreen in-jokes, the excuses for painting top-tier performers as weak villains, and, almost incongruously, the fodder for the continued dominance of Cena. But this is the modern world of pro wrestling. You want to effect change? You can always complain. Eventually it’ll trickle down.