The Original Summer of Punk

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on CM Punk. You can find part 2 here.

CM Punk’s Pipe Bomb
Credit: WWE

“Just like this microphone in the hands of any of the boys in the back is just a microphone. You put it in the hands of a dangerous man like myself, and it becomes a pipe bomb.”

Those familiar words were uttered by CM Punk, but their order and meaning might be a little different than some would remember. In the Summer of 2011, CM Punk’s famous “pipe bomb” promo made waves and has become nearly legendary over the last decade. However, that wasn’t the first time Punk made many of the same statements heard in Las Vegas. It wasn’t even the first Summer of Punk. A good deal of the WWE pipe bomb promo content and the entire angle took inspiration from what Punk did six years earlier in Ring of Honor. This is the original Summer of Punk.

When WCW and ECW died in the spring of 2001, a gap was left in professional wrestling. Not every fan who followed along with the annals of the Monday Night Wars fell in line with the World Wrestling Federation. Many wanted an alternative. A product that wasn’t as slick and produced as Vince McMahon’s show. A product that valued work rate over soap opera. More importantly, RF Video, the distributor who sold ECW’s wildly popular VHS library, needed a new source of income. Under the direction of booker Gabe Sapolsky, Paul Heyman’s assistant and protege in ECW, a new company would emerge on the East Coast. They would help redefine professional wrestling in the twenty-first century. This was Ring of Honor.

ROH started as a single-night elimination tournament but would evolve into its own promotion. Without a cable television host, ROH made its name in the pages of newsletters and internet chat rooms. It was the perfect home for wrestlers who the WWF thought weren’t TV-ready. While Ohio Valley Wrestling was home to the WWF’s developmental system, which focused on preparing the next generation of WWE superstars. ROH’s goal was to be different and showcase the best of the independents, one VHS/DVD at a time. Wrestlers from across the globe fought to show that the best wrestling in North America wasn’t on Raw or Smackdown. With names like Brian Danielson, AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, and of course, CM Punk.

Punk was an instant hit in the company. Whether it was teaming with Colt Cabana or feuding with Raven, Punk had already earned a reputation as one of the best independent wrestlers in the world before coming to ROH. Once he fell into the fold, Punk became a loyal mainstay as a top guy and the head trainer of the ROH Dojo. Though Punk bounced between the other indies like MLW and TNA, Punk was ROH though and through.

In 2004, RF Video owner Rob Feinstein was caught in an online sting operation (that full story could be an article of its own), and TNA ended its talent sharing deal with ROH. Of the talent who split time between the companies, only Punk stayed loyal to Slapolsky and ROH. Later in the year, Punk earned mainstream attention during his feud with Samoa Joe over the ROH Championship. Though Punk never wrestled the title away from Joe, their rivalry, which featured the first North American match to earn 5-stars from Dave Meltzer since 1997, earned the two opportunities on grander stages. 

CM Punk and Samoa Joe, Ring of Honor
Credit: ROH

While Samoa Joe ventured into TNA, becoming a cornerstone player for that promotion, it became widely known that Punk would sign with WWE. Punk wrestled Austin Aries for the ROH World Championship in Morriston, NJ, at Death Before Dishonor III for his farewell match. With an emotional crowd chanting “please don’t go” and goodbye written on Punk’s wrist tape, it was assumed that with Punk on the way out. Most thought he would do the time-honored tradition and put Aries over on his way out of ROH. To the crowd’s surprise, Punk defeated Aries and finally won the ROH World title. The audience cheered, assuming this was more of a ceremonial title change than anything because Punk was on his way out. Right. Right?

What happened instead became the first CM Punk pipe bomb promo. With a skillful collection of words, Punk successfully turned the crowd who had moments earlier cheered and shed tears for him into the most hated man in the company. If you listen to this promo, you’ll hear a lot of familiar verbiage. Punk laughed at the crowd for falling for his ruse. He hates each and everyone one of those fans who only wondered when AJ Styles or Daniels would return (they stuck with TNA) instead of appreciating Punk. Daniels makes a surprise return to ROH and brawls with the new champ. Surely this is how ROH would get the title off Punk, right? Nope. Instead, Punk runs out of the arena and jumps into a fleeing car. Sound familiar?

Punk adapts a new personality after winning the title, and with his new edge comes a very familiar theme song. While Punk had many theme songs during his indy, AFI’s Miseria Cantare became the one most associated with his ROH run. However, with the title, Punk debuts the Living Colour classic Cult of Personality. The same song he’d bring to the WWE during the second Summer of Punk

At the next ROH event, the new champion arrived with a new shock of purple hair and wearing a suit. Punk claims that not only does he still plan on leaving ROH but plans to do with the title in hand. To accent his newfound infamy, CM Punk signs his WWE contract on the ROH World title. 

Who can possibly talk the champ into honoring the tradition of “doing business” on the way out? What professional wrestling legend with the firm understanding of both success in the big time and struggling on the indies can talk some sense into Punk? Why, none other than the Hardcore Legend himself, Mick Foley. 

During one of his sabbaticals from WWE, Foley became a fixture in Ring of Honor, serving as an angel on the champion’s shoulder. Punk and Foley mention a man in WWE “with three letters.” A man that Punk claims has outperformed Foley in every measurable metric. The audience, of course, believes Punk is talking about Triple H, but Punk twists the dagger by telling Foley he “isn’t even JBL!”

CM Punk and Mick Foley
Credit: ROH

At Foley’s urging, Punk does agree to defend the title. Will it be against Daniels? No. Instead, Punk will defend against ROH up-and-comer Jay Lethal. Punk retains and again gets the fury of Foley and a returning Samoa Joe. Can Joe, now a TNA regular and the ROH Pure Champion, be the man to once again defeat Punk? Not if the champ has anything to say. Instead, at the next ROH show, Escape From New York, Punk defends the title against one of ROH’s brightest new stars, Roderick Strong. Again, Punk escapes with the title to the chagrin of Foley, Joe, and Daniels. 

One man has been lurking in the background during the title turmoil. James Gibson is a name that might be forgotten in some circles. Gibson had already garnered a reputation as a solid worker in WCW and WWE before coming to ROH. Upon arriving in the company, Gibson made it known that he had his eyes on the championship. Gibson was, of course, better known as Jamie Noble.

James Gibson
Credit: ROH

The two battled before one thousand fans in Woodbridge, CT, at Fate of an Angel. During a pre-match confrontation, Punk blasted the challenger with a chain, busting Gibson wide open. The story for the rest of the show was, “would Gibson be able to fight for the title due to his injuries?” Gibson does come to the ring, and the two engage in a violent, bloody contest, where again, Punk snakes by with the ROH title still in tow.

This being 2005 and not 1985, the ROH fanbase understands that Punk isn’t literally defending his title in shoot fights. Instead, the story subtly blurs the lines, telling a tale of a workhorse who felt he’d been passed over one too many times. With spite in his heart, Punk doesn’t want to “do the honors” on the way out. But unlike a Vince Russo-esque story of a decade before, the story never really breaks the kayfabe world. Instead, it relies on the audience to read between the lines. They know that Punk is indeed on his way out, but the question of when becomes the crux of the angle. The audience expects Punk’s next appearance to be his last, and time again, the wily champ pulls the fans along for the ride. It’s a masterfully told tale between Punk, Sapolsky, and what’s essentially the entire ROH locker room. 

CM Punk Ring of Honor
Credit: ROH

In part 2, we’ll examine the second half of the Summer of Punk. The champ finally faces the Fallen Angel and gets entangled in a four-way elimination match before finally meeting a long-time friend in his final match in Ring of Honor.