Ever since CM Punk first bounced back from losing the WWE Championship by defeating Alberto Del Rio at Survivor Series and getting everyone’s attention, he’s battled tremendous odds. His successful title defences clobbering past former champion Del Rio and The Miz gained him an enemy in authority figure Raw General Manager John Laurinaitis in the lead up to the Royal Rumble. Even despite the machinations of Laurinaitis as a special guest referee, or facing five other men in an Elimination Chamber, Punk continued to define himself as the ‘Best In The World’.
The next few months featured an emotionally charged hatred between the champion and the returning Chris Jericho, who accused Punk of trying to replicate him. Despite a successful title defence at WrestleMania against Jericho, the war continued, with accusations against Punk’s family, attacks with liquor bottles, and a heartbreaking admittance from Punk that he ‘smelled like his father’. Motivated by his anger and determination, Punk finally vanquished his rival in an excellent Extreme Rules match, celebrating the achievement alongside his family. After this tremendous rivalry, Punk took on the latest challenger, Daniel Bryan, in a wrestling clinic at Over The Limit, surviving Bryan’s onslaught to escape with his championship.
The night after Over The Limit featured Daniel Bryan adamant that he should have been champion, citing Punk tapping out at the end of the match. Punk himself introduced Bryan’s opponent for the night, Kane, with Bryan winning by disqualification and then being locked into the Anaconda Vice by the champion. There’s a brief moment backstage after where Punk consoles a crying AJ Lee, Bryan’s former girlfriend. The next week on Raw, after a reveal that Punk was the cover star of the latest WWE video game, Punk faced Bryan in a non-title match. During the match, AJ joined and tried to tell the referee Bryan was cheating, only for Bryan to use the opportunity to send Punk into the exposed corner and getting the three count. With Kane having been used as a pawn for the last few weeks by both Punk and Bryan, then Punk attacking Kane afterwards with a chair in anger, it was announced that Kane was to challenge Punk for the WWE Title on SmackDown (for the first time in four years).
Thursday Night SmackDown (1st June 2012)
WWE Championship Match
CM Punk (C) vs. Kane
Prior to the match, Bryan bumps into his ex-girlfriend AJ wearing a CM Punk T-Shirt and suggests that Punk is just using her, a warning that AJ refuses to listen to. As Kane makes his way down to the ring, Punk is wary, but not afraid. Punk starts off utilising his pace and kicks to try and keep Kane at bay, until Kane catches him and throws Punk into the corner with ease. Punk avoids a running Kane to lowbridge him over the ropes, following up with a dropkick and a Double Axe Handle off the top rope to the outside, only for a single Kane uppercut to knock Punk down. Punk trips Kane into the corner and throws Kane’s left arm into the ringpost, a double effect of negating Kane’s power game and Chokeslam while weakening him for an Anaconda Vice.
Punk’s focus is now entirely on the left arm and shoulder, until Kane unceremoniously throws Punk over the top rope to free himself. A worried AJ makes her way down to ringside, watching on as Kane drops Punk onto the barricade. Back inside, Kane scoop slams Punk and hits a running elbow drop for a two count, with a worried AJ focusing on Punk throughout. The chants of “CM Punk” drive the champion to battle back, reversing a Chokeslam into a DDT and following up with two Shining Wizards into the corner. The Bulldog attempt is reversed but Punk transitions into a Neckbreaker for a two count.
Punk keeps on avoiding Kane and hitting Roundhouse Kicks, but Kane won’t stay down, hitting a Big Boot of his own for a two count. With Punk on the second turnbuckle, he gets a big Bulldog on the challenger, but only enough for two count, to the exasperation of Punk. He tries to lift Kane for a GTS, but it proves to be too much weight to bear, and Punk drops to the mat. Kane follows up with a vicious running dropkick for a close two count. Kane up top, flies high for the Clothesline but the champion hits a dropkick to down the Demon. Punk goes up top himself, but AJ jumps on the apron to point out Daniel Bryan running in, and Punk wipes him out with a dive. He climbs back up top despite Kane’s best efforts and hits a huge Elbow Drop, one, two, Kane kicks out.
With Punk shocked, Kane staggered, and AJ terrified, Punk hits a Springboard but Kane’s uppercut wipes the champion out. Kane prepares for a Chokeslam, but suddenly Bryan hits a double Missile Dropkick to both men.
Currently 195 Day Title Reign and Twelve Title Defences
To my surprise, this was a solid match between Kane and CM Punk, a good blend of underdog fire from the champion and a great monster performance from the challenger. It was actually slightly disappointing to have the match end as it did, considering how much fun it had been so far. However, it does perfectly set up General Manager John Laurinaitis arriving afterwards to announce that at No Way Out, CM Punk will defend his WWE Championship against both Daniel Bryan and Kane.
This was a clever move as it prolongs the Bryan-Punk feud while incorporating a much more dangerous element that they had both tried using to their advantage. A case of reaping what you sow, and the inclusion of AJ adds another dimension, as her facial expressions and body language sell the story terrifically. Overall, a surprisingly good television match that also added extra character dimensions and set up a huge angle.
The following episode of Raw on 4th June featured a non-title match between Punk and Kane where there had to be a winner, which Punk loses after distraction from Bryan. AJ also gets involved, sharing a smile with a perplexed Kane and checking on Punk afterwards. The next week, Bryan claimed that both Punk and Kane were distracted by AJ, while Punk was adamant that it was Bryan distracted, with Kane reminding them of his past indiscretions (setting JR on fire, electrocuting Shane McMahon’s testicles, etc). This leads to Laurinaitis booking a tag team match of Kane and Daniel Bryan taking on Punk… and AJ Lee. Despite Punk’s suggestion that AJ stay on the outside, she ends up tagged in and making out with Kane as a distraction, with Punk taking advantage for the victory just six days before No Way Out.
No Way Out 2012 (17th June 2012)
Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship
CM Punk (C) vs. Kane vs. Daniel Bryan
Punk enters this match having been champion for 211 days, which is the longest WWE Title reign since Triple-H’s 210-day title reign in 2008. Daniel Bryan is clad in a ‘YES’ jacket and has a good crowd reaction, while Kane gets a polite reaction, but neither compared to Punk’s support from the crowd. An interesting inclusion, all three men have been World Champion at least once in the last four years. Kane quickly demonstrates his danger as Punk and Bryan have to work together, taking turns kicking Kane in the chest and back before a double dropkick to Kane, both Punk and Bryan interrupting each other’s pinning attempts. They engage in an exchange of forearms until Punk drops Bryan over the top rope, only for Punk to run into a Clothesline by Kane for a two count.
Bryan sends Kane outside with a knee and then hits a suicide dive to the outside, with Punk hitting a crossbody to the outside off the turnbuckle to wipe both men out. Punk drags Bryan inside to get a two count, before Kane pulls Punk out into the barricade and uppercuts a diving Bryan, leaving the Demon standing tall. A Kane Bearhug sends Punk twice into the ringpost before stretching Punk around the ringpost and then dropkicking Punk back first into the post, earning Kane a two count. Kane is in control of the champion, before Bryan flies in with a dropkick to Punk in the corner. Bryan backsaults over Kane, ducks a clothesline, and hits his own that barely moves the Demon, only to drop toehold the bigger man into the corner and kicking him to the outside.
Chops from Punk get cut off by a Bryan knee lift, systematically decimating the champion with knees galore and a Snap Butterfly Suplex. Bryan goes up top, but Punk follows him, going for a Superplex, only for Kane to arrive and smack Bryan’s teeth around. Punk and Kane battle over who gets to Superplex Bryan, eventually leading to Bryan hitting both men with a Double Missile Dropkick, only getting a one count on Kane. A confident Bryan alternates kicks to both men’s chest as he cries out ‘YES’ and hits a Roundhouse to Kane’s face to knock him down. Bryan’s attempt on Punk is reversed into a Roll-Up, with a two count only. Now Punk has the momentum, hitting a Shining Wizard to Bryan in the corner, then another to Kane in the opposite direction. Kane pushes the Bulldog attempt off and Punk Clotheslines Bryan, and hits a Neckbreaker to Kane. A cover by Punk results in only a two count after Bryan breaks it up.
Punk counters Bryan’s Irish Whip with a Short-Arm Powerslam for a two count. He climbs up top but Bryan catches him, only for Kane to take Bryan away on his shoulders and Punk to hit a Springboard Clothesline to Bryan. Bryan is down, Punk Clothesline’s Kane to the outside, covers Bryan, one, two, Bryan kicks out to the shock of Punk and the fans alike. A GTS attempt is quickly ended by a Kane with a Big Boot to Punk, cover, one, two, t-Punk just gets his shoulder up. Punk escapes Kane and tries another Diving Elbow Drop, but Kane rolls out of the way and Bryan hits a Diving Headbutt on Punk, one, two, th-Punk just kicks out.
Bryan lowbridges Kane to the outside, and a running Forearm sends Kane into the barricade. Bryan has the momentum, but Punk hits a surprise Inside Cradle for only a two count. Bryan pops up and hits a Roundhouse Kick to the cranium of the champion, knocking him out cold. Bryan goes for the Yes Lock, right in the middle of the ring, and Punk has nowhere to go as Bryan yanks back. Punk uses Bryan’s momentum to roll him up, one, two, th-Bryan releases just in time but walks straight into a GTS. Punk tries to cover, and Kane drags Bryan straight out of the ring. Kane hits a huge Diving Clothesline on the champion, and follows up with a Chokeslam attempt before Punk counters with a DDT. Kane kicks out at two and Punk is going for the kill, hitting a Diving Elbow Drop for another close two count.
Punk can’t lift Kane, who hits a Big Boot and a huge Chokeslam, covers, one, two, thr-Punk kicks out and Kane cannot believe it. Kane lifts up Punk for the Tombstone Piledriver, but Punk scrabbles behind and pushes Kane into the ropes where he knocks AJ off and sends her flying off the apron. A distracted Kane turns right into a Roundhouse Kick and the GTS, Punk covers, one, two three, he’s done it.
Winner Via Pinfall – CM Punk
CM Punk celebrates inside the ring with the championship, as Kane picks up AJ and carries her out. A mischievous smile is glimpsed on AJ’s face as Kane leaves, with Punk seemingly still unaware of what just happened. This was an awesome triple threat match that featured two of the main MVPs of the roster in Bryan and Punk, and a motivated Kane who put in a strong performance. The pacing was excellent with minimal downtime and a lot of three-person interplay, which WWE usually avoids. What’s interesting is that while Punk scored a decisive victory, Bryan wasn’t involved in the finish, leaving their rivalry open as Bryan had legitimate claims for another match but moving on from Kane’s involvement. A hidden triple threat gem I felt, and the only disappointment is that it didn’t main event the PPV, instead it was John Cena against Big Show in a Cage Match for John Laurinaitis’ job.
The next few weeks on Raw featured a selection of Guest General Managers (Mick Foley, Vickie Guerrero, Teddy Long, the Anonymous Raw GM revealed as Hornswoggle), while at the same time as Kane suggests he and AJ separate, and AJ focused her attentions on a seemingly uninterested Punk. After Bryan won a non-title elimination match between he, Kane, and Punk, to earn a title match at Money In The Bank, it was then revealed on the 2nd July episode of Raw that the Special Guest Referee will be none other than AJ Lee. That same night, Bryan began trying to get back onto AJ’s good side, while Punk accidentally angered her by missing her victory against Vickie Guerrero. In retaliation, AJ prepares to throw herself off a turnbuckle through a table she set up, with Bryan and Punk both trying to stop her. With Bryan in front of the table and Punk on the apron, AJ kissed the champion and pushed him onto Bryan, sending both men through the table, a smiling AJ celebrating.
The next week, six days before the PPV, AJ Lee says that Punk showed how much he cared, and with that in mind, she drops to one knee and proposes to him. This brings out a screaming Bryan, who tells AJ that Punk is just using her for their match at Money In The Bank, but Bryan does care for her. Bryan then drops to one knee and proposes to AJ, with Punk calling it a “load of crap”, that this isn’t even pre-meditated and just manipulation from Bryan. AJ doesn’t decide, and at the end of the night, Punk admits he won’t marry AJ, leading to her slapping both men and leaving them both uncertain.
WWE Money In The Bank 2012 (15th July 2012)
No Disqualification Match for the WWE Championship
CM Punk (C) vs. Daniel Bryan
Special Guest Referee: AJ Lee
Surprisingly, this match is only the fourth out of seven matches at this PPV, with the show opening and closing with actual Money In The Bank matches. AJ Lee raises the title and then rings the bell, with both men instantly grappling for control. A Dragon Whip by Punk and kicks to Bryan, throwing him to the outside and tossing him against the ring apron. Bryan reverses Punk into the guardrail and chops him, with AJ keeping her distance from both. They get back inside and Bryan attacks Punk with kicks, before Punk goes in for a Roll-Up and a clean one count from AJ. There’s a fast paced opening as Punk and Bryan grapple in the corner, while Punk chops at Bryan, before he returns by pulling at Punk’s face. Chops and kicks are exchanged by both men before Punk lands an Uppercut, sharing a look with AJ.
A missed second rope Legdrop by Punk leaves him open for Bryan’s kicks to Punk’s chest, accompanied by ‘Yes’ chants, before Bryan goes for the pin and another clean one count. A quick interchange leads to a Punk dropkick and a Suicide Dive to the outside, wiping Bryan out. Fighting up the aisle way, both men are jockeying for a suplex before Punk drops Bryan on the metal guardrail. Punk throws Bryan inside but Bryan pushes him into AJ on the apron, sending her flying. As Punk and trainers go to check, Bryan attacks Punk with a Double Axe Handle and throws him into the steps, before acting concerned for AJ as she gets taken to the back. As the new referee watches, Bryan keeps Punk grounded with headbutts and a flying knee off the apron.
An Inverted Suplex to Punk onto the steel steps and the champion is feeling the damage, Bryan follows up by throwing him into a barricade, only for Punk to back bodydrop Bryan into the timekeeper’s table. Punk straddles Bryan onto the barricade and hits a Springboard Clothesline to Bryan. A chant of “We Want Tables!” inspires Punk to grab one, but Bryan quickly attacks the weakened ribs and back of Punk before unveiling a kendo stick from under the ring. Punk dodges Bryan’s attack and goads him into the ring. Punk tries a Springboard attack but dives straight into a swing of the kendo stick by Bryan into the ribs. A frenzied Bryan follows up with strikes to Punk’s back and kidneys, relishing the damage but only getting a two count.
Bryan kicks Punk into the corner down to his knees, then hits a Snap Vertical Suplex, but Punk avoids the Diving Headbutt. They exchange in a series of kicks and forearms as both men just fight, before Punk hits a Leg Lariat, Clothesline, and Neckbreaker in quick succession for a two count. He hits a Shining Wizard in the corner along with a Short-Arm Powerslam for another two count, Punk valiantly battling through his injured midsection. Bryan avoids a GTS, countering into a Hurricarana for a two count of his own, and a desperate Bryan Roundhouse Kicks Punk to leave both men down. Bryan gets up first and heads straight on the offense with the kendo stick. Bryan hits his patented Bow and Arrow submission but Punk escapes by claiming the kendo stick and unleashing fury upon Bryan, one, two, Bryan kicks out.
Punk drags himself to the corner and struggles up top, but gets cut off by Bryan’s huge Superplex, inflicting damage on Bryan’s head and Punk’s ribs. As both men are down, AJ Lee returns, telling the replacement referee to leave. AJ skips around the ring and finds a steel chair under the ring, dropping it in between the two fallen competitors and backing away. Both men lock eyes and scramble for the chair, but Bryan claims it and attacks Punk with it, getting only a two count from AJ. Bryan questions AJ and Punk gets a roll-up for a two count of his own. Bryan attacks Punk with an onslaught of kicks as an uncertain AJ looks on. Bryan runs up but Punk hits a desperate Clothesline and grabs the chair himself, unleashing his own torrent of shots on Bryan’s back.
Punk sets the chair up in the corner between the top and middle turnbuckle, but AJ blocks it, not letting Punk throw Bryan into the chair. As Punk questions her, Bryan dropkicks Punk into the chair, and the crowd are completely split in support of both men. Bryan crawls for the kendo stick, but AJ stands on it, refusing to let him have it. A frustrated Bryan turns right into a Roundhouse Kick from Punk, who then hits a chair-assisted Scoop Slam on the challenger. Quickly, Punk climbs up top and goes for a Diving Elbow Drop. He lands on the chair, as Bryan narrowly escapes and goes straight for the Yes-Lock on the injured left arm, using the kendo stick to yank on Punk’s face to AJ’s gleeful delight.
Bryan screams “Yes” as Punk tries to escape, finally getting the kendo stick and whacking Bryan’s legs. He catapults into the turnbuckle, hitting a huge GTS to knock Bryan out. Punk is too injured to take advantage, and finally covers, one, two, thr-Bryan kicks out, and Punk stares into AJ’s eyes, an unspoken moment between them. Punk slides out to grab the table from earlier, his left arm hanging at his side, and pulls Bryan onto the table, striking his chest. Punk motions for the Elbow Drop, but Bryan crotches him on the turnbuckle, attacking him with strikes of his own. Bryan motions for a Hurricarana, but Punk dives between the legs and crotches Bryan on top. Punk drags himself up the ropes, elbows Bryan’s chest, and then hits an emphatic Back Body Suplex through the table. Punk moves just enough to cover Bryan, AJ counts, one, two, three.
Winner Via Pinfall – CM Punk
Currently 239 Day Title Reign and Fourteen Title Defences
There was always going to be a worry that the story involving AJ would overshadow the actual match, but it actually contributed just the right amount. The early goings with Bryan demonstrating (feigning?) concern for her juxtaposes his pitbull tenacity, attacking the champion with ferocity and pace. In comparison, Punk attempts to keep the match strictly professional, keeping AJ at distance and sticking to his usual style, only allowing himself to be thrown off when he mistakenly hurts AJ. Once AJ is removed, Bryan’s much more sadistic side is brought out, utilising kendo sticks to inflict damage, almost as if he were trying to present himself as the good guy while AJ was around.
Both men physically battered each other, especially in the second half, and AJ’s inclusion was akin to a jailer toying with their prisoners. However, the repercussions of her actions began to resonate with her more, the viciousness of both men’s attacks eclipsing any expectations. Bryan’s dissection of Punk’s left arm was an example of focused rabidness, while Punk was just attempting to survive with his title intact. In the end, it was less a case of who would win, and more whose body would give up first. While their match at Over The Limit was a technical classic, this was a fight between the two best wrestlers on the roster, demonstrating their resilience and spirit. I loved this match the first time I watched it live, and I still love it, it feels like a perfect storm of WWE storytelling, Ring of Honor wrestling brilliance, and a New Japan physicality with an element of hardcore wrestling.
If Punk had lost the championship in this match, he would have lost it in his best title defence. Instead, he now finds himself facing a new world of opponents, as both Dolph Ziggler and John Cena won the titular briefcases. The question is, what challenges await him now? We will find out next time…