It’s hard to communicate how much buzz CM Punk had in 2004. That’s how all great stories about sell-outs start, right? You had to be there in the early days. Punk represented indie wrestling in a way that few others did, or have since. He took the smartest aspects of ECW—intensive character work, utilization of youth culture in a way that seemed authentic if you didn’t look too hard—and blended them with ragged but compelling wrestling. There was a gravitas about him: Even when he was a cowardly heel, Punk believed in himself and in his character, and so we believed in him.
In 2005, rumors started swirling that Punk was headed to WWE. At that time, WWE was where your favorite wrestlers went to languish on Velocity, where talent seemed outweighed by muscles and the ability to repeat a catchphrase until Pavlov’s audience screamed it back at you. Many fans absolutely did not want Punk to go. The fear was that the company would turn him into the Warped Tour of wrestlers, a sad parody of what indie culture could be, another skinny nobody for Brock Lesnar to run through. During all the whispers and conjecture about Punk’s future, Ring of Honor announced Punk’s final match, a chance at Austin Aries’ ROH World Championship at Death before Dishonor III in Morristown, NJ. Against all expectations, he won. Finally, CM Punk was Ring of Honor Champion, and suddenly all the gossip we’d heard seemed to be just that: Nothing more than hearsay.
Afterwards, he dropped to his knees and told a captive and confused audience that he was leaving with the title belt. Less than a month later, CM Punk signed his WWE contract on top of his beloved ROH title, to a chorus of boos. Three years later, he’d win his first World Heavyweight Championship, and later, the WWE Championship.
He won the latter title on the night his WWE contract supposedly expired, a carbon-copy of his final angle in Ring of Honor. The “pipe bomb” angle carried resonance of Austin-McMahon, but there was an added layer of disdain for company men like John Cena, who no longer represented just WWE as a business, but their reputation as a company who produced boring, inauthentic wrestling. WWE had finally found a way to monetize the antipathy directed their way since destroying the territories, or since Paul Heyman convinced a bingo hall of mutants that his version of wrestling was somehow authentic. CM Punk’s hiring and subsequent booking represented an attempt by WWE to erase the boundaries of their product. Forget distinctions of indie, or foreign, or historical—everything ends up on the WWE Network. To quote CM Punk misquoting The Usual Suspects, “the greatest thing the Devil ever did was make you people believe he didn’t exist.”
Since CM Punk’s success in WWE, there’s been a massive shift in the way that company approaches the hiring and training of new talent. They’ve aggressively pursued talent in ways that would have been unthinkable in 2002, in ways that seem designed to handicap any potential or possible threats to their crown. New Japan Pro Wrestling is getting a lot of buzz? Hire four of their mainstay talents immediately after their biggest show of the year. The U.K. indie scene starts heating up? Sign some hot prospects and give them contracts allow them to work only some indie dates. Less than a week after WWE’s United Kingdom Championship Tournament, we’ve already seen some of what that entails: Tournament participants and new WWE signees Pete Dunne and Joseph Conners were pulled from a major IPW:UK show due to contractual obligations. Dunne, Trent Seven and Mark Andrews were even pulled from a podcast appearance. (Despite all this, Dunne and Andrews seem to find no logical inconsistencies with selling jackets emblazoned with their “Defend Indy Wrestling” credo.)
WWE has also moved from their old method of farm leagues like OVW and FCW, to opening up a “Performance Center” for all their current trainees, and creating a brand for less-experienced wrestlers, called NXT. NXT operates as a sort of super-indy, with ROH-style dream matches, and tours made up of venues that seat 2,000 instead of 20,000. They’ve developed close ties to independent promotions like EVOLVE (promoted by former ROH booker, Gabe Sapolsky) and England’s PROGRESS, which gleefully operate as talent farms in exchange for WWE contracted appearances and website write-ups, while CHIKARA’s Mike Quackenbush lends his skills to the WWE Performance Center. William Regal bounces around the globe as a talent scout, garnering cheers everywhere he goes, despite his presence indicating that someone’s favorite wrestler is heading to Florida.
A shift in how WWE introduces new hires helps to further blur the lines. While Punk, and those before him, had to earn their stripes in OVW, AJ Styles went from co-headlining NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom to being a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble. Kevin Owen’s debut attacking Sami Zayn was the continuation of a long-standing feud from the two wrestlers’ independent days. Their WWE storylines act as continuations of the work they did elsewhere, again blurring the lines between WWE and the rest of the wrestling world.
At Tommaso Ciampa’s last AAW show before he went to NXT, as he said his goodbyes, the crowd chanted “you deserve it,” a marked change from the venom Punk received when his signing was announced. Of course pro wrestlers should make money doing the thing they love, and have a secure existence. There’s no faulting people for a decision that makes financial sense for them. But as WWE deliberately obscures the lines between their product and the rest of the business, we’re getting dangerously close to a world where the words “wrestling” and “WWE” are interchangeable, with a swiftly homogenizing product and only one option for wrestlers hoping to make a career out of their passion. Along with their stranglehold on footage of historical wrestling, and their aggressive attempts to control the future, their slogan of “WWE: Then, Now, and Forever,” seems more like a grim promise every day.
Ed Blair is a writer and zinester currently writing out of Chicago. They run the Holy Demon Army Zine Distro, and can be found regularly contributing to the Atomic Elbow, No Friends, and Entropy. You can find them on twitter at @ourcityburning.