News broke Wednesday morning that CM Punk, one of professional wrestling’s brightest stars, abruptly left WWE.
Punk, who last week said in an interview with Ariel Helwani that he’s under contract until July, didn’t appear on Monday night’s episode of “Raw” and reportedly told WWE chairman Vince McMahon that he was “going home.” The former WWE champion, whose real name is Phil Brooks, last appeared on WWE TV on Sunday at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, where he wrestled for more than 50 minutes — longer than any other wrestler — during the 30-man battle royal main event. He also reportedly missed the company’s Tuesday night taping of “SmackDown,” which airs Friday.
A tweet — that later was deleted — from WWE wrestler AJ Lee, Punk’s real-life girlfriend, said: “Let me be the first to confirm that Phil is in fact done with the WWE. I can’t exactly say why at the moment , but in the coming hours more will be reveal (sic) and FYI this is not a work.” (The term “a work” is used in wrestling to mean “fake” or “part of a storyline.”)
According to TMZ, Punk was upset that he was scheduled to face Triple H at WrestleMania XXX on April 6 while 45-year-old Batista, who returned to WWE last week after a nearly four-year absence, won the Royal Rumble and is scheduled to wrestle in the championship main event.
Despite the was-it-real-or-was-it-fake questions that followed Punk’s June 2011 “pipe bomb” promo, where he aired his grievances with WWE on live TV before being cut off, I’ve believed from the outset of Wednesday’s news that Punk’s exit from the company was anything but scripted.
In a number of interviews and on the 2012 WWE-produced documentary about his life and career, Punk has said that CM Punk the wrestler isn’t much different from Phil Brooks the person. It’s because of that and his candor in and out of a wrestling ring that I feel good about wrestling’s biggest draw walking away from wrestling’s biggest stage.
Life and make-believe collided in 2011 when Punk threatened to leave the company after his contract expired that July. Not long after the aforementioned promo that helped catapult CM Punk to household-name status, he signed a three-year contract to remain with WWE. On the night he re-signed, Punk won his first of two WWE championships. He was the only person to hold the WWE title in 2012. His 434-day reign stretching from 2011 to 2013 is good for one of the longest (and by far most impressive, considering a 21st-century wrestler’s workload) in WWE history.
CM Punk last had his name on the WWE championship Jan. 27, 2013, the night he lost to The Rock at the Royal Rumble, making his reported real-life departure from WWE on Jan. 27, 2014, apropos. Aside from a rematch for the WWE title against The Rock the next month at the Elimination Chamber PPV, Punk hasn’t been in the company’s championship storylines since his historic run. His 2013 post-title “highlight” came at WrestleMania XXIX, where he had the “privilege” of, predictably, losing to The Undertaker, who is 21-0 in WrestleMania matches. After that was a drawn-out feud with mid-carder Curtis Axel and Punk’s former manager (and real-life No. 1 fan) Paul Heyman, a match with Brock Lesnar and a brief tag-team stint with current man-of-the-people Daniel Bryan.
WWE long ago set a precedent of unrealistic expectations on its wrestlers, with weeks filled with constant travel and matches that take a toll on bodies. When I first fell in love with wrestling, in the late 1980s, wrestlers didn’t have the luxury — at least not many — of working lucratively outside of the profession, so they accepted the heavy travel and physical strain. It’s why, I believe, a number of wrestlers have experienced physical, mental health and substance-abuse problems and died sooner than the average U.S. citizen.
It’s common for wrestlers to work into their 40s and 50s. At 35, CM Punk still is in the prime of his career. But his body, no doubt, has taken a beating. The once-independent-wrestling darling had been with WWE since 2005. In his interview with Helwani, he talked about his dissatisfaction with WWE’s current use of his character, the product in general, and still feeling burned-out in 2013 despite taking two months off.
Lucky (and unlucky) for Punk, this isn’t 1988.
Today, there are more opportunities in and beyond wrestling. He can return to independent wrestling promotions worldwide, where he, along with compadre and current indy darling Colt Cabana, are worshiped by its loyal legion of fans. He has the power to boost it to heights not seen (and not ever seen, considering that the Internet wasn’t a regular thing until the ’90s) since the territories were swallowed by the then-World Wrestling Federation.
If he’s done beating up his body, Punk could pursue a career in acting, TV hosting, writing or comic books, one of his passions.
Either way, based on my assumption that he has been smart with his money, he can afford to take all the time he’d like to create and achieve goals.
If today’s WWE was 1988’s then-WWF, Punk might still rule the ring. Sure, he isn’t a 1980s wrestler in the sense of being a “body guy” that Vince McMahon seemed to froth at the sight of, but he has the in-ring ability and psychology of some of the best in wrestling history. It wouldn’t have looked odd for one second to see Punk trade thumbs to the eye with “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, The Ultimate Warrior or Hulk Hogan.
Fans of professional wrestling, myself included, indeed, are sad about the news. Some may call Punk a crybaby or an egomaniac for walking out, but — like The Rock would say — it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. CM Punk (and Phil Brooks) will do whatever the hell he wants with his life, and he’s going to do it well.
Jimmy Bellamy co-hosts “Podcast of the Immortals,” a weekly show about WWE and professional wrestling.