"Best in the World!" - CM Punk
It's rather ironic that the day after an insane main event on Raw against Vince McMahon and a wild, chaotic incident involving fans that a documentary on the life and career of the current WWE champion, CM Punk is released, but in many ways, it's poetic. When the life and legacy of CM Punk is written, it will be equal parts determination and chaos.
Those two factors have been the borders of Punk's career and as you'll find out watching the excellent "Best in the World" documentary, his life. There's been a lot of buzz and hype surrounding the release of the DVD documentary in recent weeks and there's a good reason for that - it's the best documentary on a perfomer ever produced by WWE.
Punk, usually a private, stoic, at times grumpy and miserable, individual provides rare insight into what drives him and what makes the personality that some love and others completely detest. Like a lot of creative, talented performers, his drive and the anger that fuels it are traced back to his early childhood in Chicago where Punk recounts his estrangement with his family, their approval and support of an older brother who later rips Punk off (they haven't spoken, much less reconciled in over a decade), his frustration and sadness over his father's alcoholism and his self-removal from his immediate family in pursuit of a greater support staff with his best friend and their family.
The early portion of the documentary could have easily have been about Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, that disenfranchised youth who stubbornly refuses to be another peg in a slot and lives life to the beat of his own drum. Lita breaks down the Straightedge lifestyle and its origins and why Punk became so enamored with the scene. Indeed, had it not been for Punk sighting Roddy Piper on television and realizing that Piper was a grown-up evil avatar for his own anger and desires, we very well may be singing the praises of Punk the artist or the singer or motivational speaker, but like others who live and die and bleed pro wrestling, the business seeped into his DNA and he was off to the races.
Punk discusses his definition of family and how he will reach out to find what he needs among friends he meets in his travels and in his life, as opposed to being reduced to accepting what his blood family has to offer. True to form, his best friend, her mother and her sister are interviewed extensively in the piece while neither of his parents nor siblings are anywhere to be found. Punk built his own support group and they were presented as they truly are, his family.
The documentary closely traces Punk's steps into WWE, following his growth as a self-made backyard wrestler (to this day, we hear from readers who were at an infamous "LWF Shopping Cart Death Match") who would invade the local independent promotions (ring announcer Justin Roberts gives a great story about that), to someone who decides it's time to really get trained and see how far that can take him, which introduces Colt Cabana and Ace Steel to the story. From there, it's the story of someone obsessed with making it in the business, working different jobs to feed his wrestling habit while driving to all corners of the United States for little pay, lots of stress, growing buzz and infinite experience and knowledge - while building the friendships that would define him and his independent career.
In many ways, Colt Cabana comes off as one of the stars of the documentary, providing awesome and honest insight into Punk at different points in his life and career, as well as many of his frustrations. Cabana comes off so likeable that it's impossible to understand why WWE ever released him. If his role in the documentary doesn't get him back into WWE full-time, I give up.
"I looked at her and said, 'You're a genius." - CM Punk.
By the time WWE follows Punk into his IWA Mid-South and Ring of Honor eras (and kudos to the company for acquiring this footage), we see the makings of the Straight Edge Superstar as his ex-girlfriend Natalie Slater breaks down her realization that while he was trying to become a character, who CM Punk truly was - the arrogant, scruffy looking punk rock fan that was straightedge and looked down upon others, was perfect heel foil for pro wrestling fans. His IWA run as one of the "wrestling guys" for a promotion built on blood and barbed wire is highlighted perfectly for fans who lived through the era while giving those who weren't aware enough knowledge to understand why the place was as important to Punk's development. His feud with Chris Hero is celebrated in the film.
Obviously that era of Ring of Honor was in many ways the CM Punk-Samoa Joe show as they were the ying and yang of the promotion as well as its moral barometer. There is an expertly edited piece on their trilogy, which in many ways saved the promotion from almost certain ruin, as well as the importance of Punk working with Raven and the entire ROH beginnings, which Colt Cabana described as having all the top stars of the independents under one roof. Punk returns to the ROH wrestling school and office to be interviewed for this portion of the film. The only thing that could have possibly made the segment better were some comments from Samoa Joe, which politically wasn't going to happen.
The goal-oriented dive of Punk comes out again while talking about the end of his ROH run, noting that he had become mentally stagnant and needed a new goal for himself - which led to signing with WWE. He did sign, but not before using that as his springboard to create the "Summer of Punk", the DNA of which was recreated in 2011 when he won the WWE title at Money in the Bank and walked out with the championship.
"I would tell them this guy should be up on Raw or Smackdown and would get memos saying he shouldn't even be on OVW TV." - Paul Heyman
Punk is signed, although one of the questions you'll have while watching the film is "why?"
It's obvious watching the documentary that Punk holds disdain for the idea that his entire WWE run, he's had to force himself into existence within the company's hierarchy and you get the feeling that anyone else would have folded under the pressure of the negativity, accepted the cash and eventually the release.
But not Punk.
Walking into OVW and becoming the top personality there did nothing to get him to the main roster, so he decided to make his money and learn from everyone he could. Then, when the rebirth of ECW was launched, Paul Heyman fought to get Punk and keep him as he was - not recreate him under a new WWE guise - but even when Punk connected with the audience and was one of the hotter personalities there, the company didn't accept it because they, not Punk, didn't will it to happen.
Such begins the dysfunctional relationship Punk has with WWE for his entire run there with Punk as the hard working stalwart, always providing good to great matches and promos but never, ever the guy who gets the nod, the promotion, the money, the appreciation from WWE. Cena dismisses him as not being as good as he was hyped to be. Punk earns World title runs, Tag Team title runs, Intercontinental title runs, nothing changes that dysfunctional relationship. Not even Michael Hayes or HHH can accurately explain, from WWE's point of view, why such things happen, with HHH even admitting such things are "demoralizing" to a talent.
Unlike most documentaries, where it's a shiny, happy presentation of someone's history, the film has two sides. Punk the performer and WWE the antagonist, which wants him to be part of their machine but doesn't want to provide him with the luxuries that come with being a top name there. In some ways, Michael Hayes is one of the more important people featured in the film, as he explains why Punk's buzz, the support of Paul Heyman and even his first World title reign were ammunition for detractors.
Punk, left floating out there in the WWE ocean, once again creates his own support team, much as he did in real life, with the Straight Edge Society. Looking back at that run and group, it's almost criminal that it didn't get a longer run and that all but Punk are gone from the company in a performance role.
Watching the reaction of Punk to being told he's the World champion and not even losing the belt on PPV, in a match, is pure disgust personified. Even Lars Frederickson of punk band Rancid asks why WWE would push the guy and then kill him off like that, a question that sadly gets asked all too often in current day WWE.
Even when Punk is pushed, it causes discontent for him, as he recounts a story of Vince McMahon deciding he's going to "test" Punk by turning him heel, although he doesn't know if Punk can handle it. That infuriates Punk, who had an excellent pedigree as a villain and is far better suited to work as a heel, partially because the company still didn't know what they had in him and partially because McMahon didn't have any faith that Punk could carry the ball when he had been quietly delivering on a regular basis with everything that was handed to him. Punk's reaction of "What's the challenge" befuddles McMahon and only serves to push Punk to work harder and angrier as his run with Jeff Hardy kicks off.
All of the anger festers and boils inside of him to the point that he blows off signing another contract for well over a year until he finally tells them that he's leaving and going home when his deal is up. The stage is set for the promo in Las Vegas, Money in the Bank and Punk forcing himself, again, to the next level of WWE, this time as the WWE champion with a classic against John Cena.
Punk noted that Vince McMahon admitted he had them over a barrel. Punk didn't sign a new deal until an hour before he won the title from Cena, because he wasn't sure what he wanted to and it wasn't until conversations with Joey Mercury and Lars Frederickson (Frederickson recounts the conversation in the best DVD extra on the set) that Punk was swayed to stay. Finally realizing that the only way he could force change in the company, for others like him and for future talents who might be dismissed, is to remain, he does.
While the documentary paints Punk as a happy locker room leader who has found his place, the reality is that his fight isn't over and probably never will be. He hasn't been positioned at the top of Wrestlemania. He holds titles but Cena holds the glory. That battle to force himself to the next level hasn't ended yet. It may never end, but the fact Punk keeps fighting and performing, is damn inspirational.
The documentary is as much about someone fighting for what they love, as much as it's about anything else. It's about someone striving to find themselves. Their true family. Their true passion. Their next goal. Their happiness. Punk may have found some of that, but whether he's gotten all of it is debatable. One thing that isn't open to debate, however, is that the business is stronger because he's in it and that much like he found his inspiration in Piper, it's impossible not to see how inspiring this film is going to be to others who need strength to push past their own doubts, issues and dectractors.
Mike Johnson can be reached at Mike@PWInsider.com.