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Pick of the Week: C.M. Punk vs John Cena – WWE Championship Match
Event: WWE Money in The Bank in Chicago, Ill.
Event Date: July 17th, 2011
As the familiar opening lick of Killswitch Engage’s “This Fire Burns” revs the passionate Chicago crowd into a frenzy, our hero emerges through the curtain and takes the stage. I say “our” hero because that night in Illinois, no matter where in the world you were from or where you were watching that match, it felt like C.M. Punk was fighting for us, the fans, as much as himself.
Fed up with being part of a system where he felt underutilized and underappreciated, Punk sought change, and believed that there could be a better way of doing things in the WWE, where those most deserving of opportunities should receive them. How fitting then, that Punk’s opponent is Vince McMahon’s prize player – John Cena. Here is a man who symbolizes (at least in Punk’s eyes) everything that’s wrong with the landscape of the WWE, and to some fans, a representation of a stale product in need of some much needed ‘shaking up’.
But wait, let’s back up a minute and set the scene for why this story meant so much to so many people. C.M. Punk’s contract was due to expire at midnight on the night of the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, and Mr. McMahon had given John Cena the task of ensuring that Punk did not leave that arena as WWE Champion. For Vince, the idea of a wrestler like C.M. Punk holding the most prestigious WWE title when not under contract, would be nothing short of catastrophic. This resulted him adding another twist to the match, whereby if John Cena did indeed lose the title at Money in The Bank, then he would be fired for his failure. The momentum C.M. Punk had gained in the build up to this match was off the charts, and if you haven’t seen his now infamous “pipe bomb” promo on Raw before, then for the love of god, stop reading this now and go YouTube it – I’ll wait…
…are you back? Good!
Despite his many years in the WWE, even up to this point in his career, Punk had not experienced this level of anticipation, emotion and gravitas to a big money match before. Set against the backdrop of a rabid hometown crowd, this story represents a changing of the guard, and would go on to be the catalyst for change in how the company looks at its talent. That night in the Allstate Arena at Money in the Bank, the energy was electric. It looked like every fan in the building was on their feet cheering for Punk, as he proudly stood (and sat) in the ring, absorbing every single second of it. The atmosphere was incredible, even when watching at home on TV, and is way up there in the upper echelons of live crowd reactions to a WWE superstar. The entrances alone are enough to make me recommend this match for newer wrestling fans to check out on the WWE Network.
Next to enter is John Cena, and boy, do the crowd get hot now! As Cena approaches the ring, he knows he’s in enemy territory, and the usual strut and bravado that he brings to a live audience is replaced with a look of extreme focus, but also trepidation. Cena has always been great at demonstrating the magnitude of ‘big game’ matches such as this, relying on his masterful use of body language and the way he carries himself to the ring. It’s one of many reasons why Cena as a main event player in these situations just works.
From a ring work perspective, I think there’s a strong case for Punk being one of John Cena’s very best in-ring counterparts, as they share an intangible chemistry with one another. The two of them work hand in hand to create compelling action in the ring every time they face off, and their classic at Money in The Bank was no different.
As the main event of the pay-per-view, Cena and Punk received more than enough time to put a proper story together, and start the action slow and controlled with a series of headlocks and takedowns, for an early attempt at gaining the upper hand. The action throughout is paced in such a way that a lot of the bigger spots in the match are given time to breath, allowing the wrestlers to properly sell the effects of each move, as well as give the audience time to process the action and soak up the drama. I wouldn’t expect anything less when the wrestlers in question are C.M. Punk and John Cena, as both are arguably at the top of their game at this point.
Some in ring highlights include a devastating looking jumping knee into Cena’s head (which looks even more incredible in the slow-motion replay shown afterwards) plus a series of near fall finishers and reversal combinations. Normally I would be the first one to criticise the overuse of finisher kick outs in WWE matches but when the stakes are high and the story is engaging, it can be utilised to great effect like we see during this match.
Cena gets his biggest positive reaction of the night by cutting short an attempted interference from Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis as they approached the ring in order to screw Punk, à la ‘Montreal ‘97’ style. In doing the right thing, Cena left himself open to a final GTS from CM Punk to score the upset, and claim the biggest prize in the industry. In what feels like a rare case of the WWE giving the live crowd exactly what they want to end a pay-per-view, CM Punk gets to hold up the title high and celebrate as the new WWE Champion in front of his hometown fans. Or does he?
During the closing moments of the show, Vince sends for the newly anointed ‘Mr. Money in the Bank’ Alberto Del Rio to cash in his briefcase and steal the title away from Punk. No such luck for Vince, as Punk delivers a hard kick to Del Rio’s head to take him out of commission before an official match begins. After foiling Vince’s plans, and winning the belt, there was nothing left for Punk to do but escape into the crowd, a hero, a free man, and the new people’s champion.
This main event from start to finish offers everything an ardent wrestling fan could wish for – drama, suspense, high stakes, dynamic in-ring storytelling, and a crowd that allowed themselves to believe in something, and maybe more importantly, believe in someone. Before this match had taken place, I was far from the hardcore wrestling fan I used to be (and would become again!). I had become disenfranchised with the product, and what I needed was a story to believe in. Cena and Punk’s match at Money in The Bank was everything that I needed as a fan to become enthralled with wrestling once more. It served as a reminder during the more tepid moments of WWE programming over the years, that it only takes one great match to make you fall in love with the business all over again.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: WWE NETWORK PICK OF THE WEEK: “The Shawn Michaels Story: Heartbreak & Triumph”