If you say, “Summer of Punk,” to the average wrestling fan, their response will more than likely start with the night World Wrestling Entertainment returned to Las Vegas on June 27, 2011 for it’s weekly “Raw” event. The main event featured the WWE champion John Cena taking on rival R-Truth in a Tables match where the winner had to put his opponent through a table. By the match’s end, CM Punk – who had announced weeks prior that his contract with WWE was about to expire – took matters into his own hands to cost Cena the match. What seemed to be nothing more than storyline fodder in building to Punk’s leaving became the precursor of a moment that would shake the very foundation of the wrestling world.
Moments after his interference in Cena and R-Truth’s match, CM Punk – wearing a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin t-shirt that he opted to put on when he couldn’t find one of his own – took a seat atop the grandiose entrance ramp. CM Punk, with a microphone in hand, opened his mouth and dropped an audible pipe bomb on everyone listening. From verbally assaulting WWE for promoting John Cena as the best wrestler in the world to giving a shout out to one of his best friends and fellow wrestler Colt Cabana, Punk let his grievances be heard. Fans around the world said it was CM Punk’s “Austin 3:16” moment (in reference to Steve Austin’s promo after his 1996 “King of the Ring” victory that helped catapult him into mega-stardom). More appropriately, to paraphrase Punk’s fellow former Ring of Honor World champion Kevin Steen, “The Second City Saint” had his, “I don’t give a crap,” moment. With nothing left to lose, why not go out with a bang?
But for long-time Ring of Honor wrestling fans, talking about the Summer of Punk is a reminder of something completely different, but incredibly similar thanks to its mark in wrestling history. Like the WWE version everyone talks about now, the Summer of Punk began in Ring of Honor with the confirmation that CM Punk was leaving the company he helped mold into what it was and is to this day. Unlike the bright lights of WWE’s fabulous production set up in Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center (the arena where the now infamous promo was unleashed) CM Punk walked to the ring on June 18th, 2005 surrounded by a ferocious set of fans inside the much smaller Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown, New Jersey for what was to be his last match in ROH.
Across from Punk stood the owner of the belt Punk could never win – the Ring of Honor World title. The wearer was none other than the future TNA World champion and the only two-time ROH World champion in history thus far, Austin Aries. The two weren’t strangers to each other in ROH as Aries made an early stake at Punk’s claim to fame a year earlier alongside Aries’ friends and stable mates Roderick Strong, Jack Evans and Alex Shelley (dubbed “Generation Next”). A lot had changed between those times in 2004 to that night in 2005. Punk was leaving. Aries had become a main eventer. And the crowd was expecting something magical. Little did anyone know that the magic they hoped for would change the course of ROH as everyone knew it.
After thirty minutes of incredible action, the champion and challenger were looking for that one maneuver that could finally put the other down. Even using their own finishers against each other couldn’t get the job done. Utilizing a succession of attacks, Punk finished the champ off with his Pepsi Plunge (a top rope/super Pedigree) to pin Aries and become the new ROH World champion.
Yes, on his final night in the company, CM Punk won the ROH’s top prize. ROH had gone out of its way to inform its fans that the title would be returned to the company and a new champion would be crowned following Punk’s exit, but the real champ had other plans in mind. With the ROH World title finally in his possession, CM Punk, drenched in sweat and being thanked by the hundreds of people watching in person, sat on his knees. CM Punk declared himself the best wrestler in the world because of what the ROH World title now meant in the eyes of fans who believed Ring of Honor was the last bastion of hope for pro wrestling in an otherwise confused landscape WWE inadvertently created with the purchases and closures of Extreme Championship Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling four years prior.
Punk, being the storyteller that he is, enamored the crowd (who chanted for a speech) with a simple parable – the tale of an old man trying to save the life of a frozen snake. And in that tale, CM Punk was the snake and the fans were a collective representation of the old man. Punk proclaimed that he had used the fans’ support to garner elicit reactions and cries from the fan base that forced the match maker to give Punk title shot after title shot until he finally struck gold. Like the Devil himself, Punk made the fans forget this version of himself existed to become the ROH World champion. That Punk would do anything to make a name for himself. The Punk the fans were made to forget played everyone for fools with the façade of being the Superman of ROH.
Like a true super villain, Punk revealed that his master plan was almost complete. To finish his goal, Punk would have to meet the owner of WWE, Vince McMahon, and lay before him the ROH World title belt. In one action, Punk looked to help end any chance of a wrestling revolution occurring on a small scale like ECW helped create ten years prior. With the World title belt in his grasp, Punk challenged anyone in the locker room to try and stop him. Little did Punk, or anyone for that matter, knew, it wouldn’t be someone in the locker room, but a man who Punk had history with and drove out of the company. A ROH founding father and one of the men who headlined ROH’s first event entered the ring from the crowd. As the fans chanted, “Welcome back!” Punk stood with his back turned to this returning individual without the knowledge of who this person was until he heard the people say, “Fallen Angel!”
Punk turned to come face to face with Christopher Daniels after Daniels had been gone for sixteen months. Though Daniels got his hands on the champ, he couldn’t take the belt with him. Punk scurried through the crowd, exiting out of the arena’s back door. The ROH fan base (the now CM Punk-dubbed “ROHbots”) was left in confusion. Though Daniels promised to attain the ROH World title belt and restore honor – something he, ironically, fought against during the early days of ROH – the speculation that Punk would never be seen in a ROH ring again ran rampant for almost three weeks until ROH’s next event.