Since beginning his title reign last November, Punk has steadily turned away one challenger after another. He’s disposed of Dolph Ziggler, Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan and Kane — tough competition, all — and at SummerSlam, he overcame sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers Cena and Big Show, albeit under dubious circumstances, according to some. Some argue that Punk stole the pin from Cena, while others argue that Punk exploited the rules of a Triple Threat Match.
Yet, over the course of his lengthy, 280-plus-day title reign — the longest since Cena’s 380-day reign ended roughly a half-dozen years ago — rarely has Punk had the satisfaction of defending the WWE Championship in the main event of a WWE pay-per-view. Instead, that highly coveted and lucrative position on top of the card has often gone to the immensely marketable Cena, who despite his camera-friendly charm, has been in a championship drought since losing the WWE Title last September.
Rightly or wrongly, Punk contends he has unjustifiably taken a back seat to Cena and been relegated to semi-main event status, as a result. His outrage over this and other perceived snubs has only grown more apparent since Raw 1,000, when Punk shocked the WWE Universe by refusing to aid Cena (who was being attacked by Show) and ambushing The Rock. Since then, a darker, more sinister side of The Straight Edge Superstar has seemingly taken hold, culminating with an unprovoked attack against fan-favorite Jerry “The King” Lawler on the Aug. 20 edition of Raw when Lawler refused to recognize Punk as “Best in the World.” Punk trounced an overmatched “King” the following week, after Lawler agreed to face the champion in a Steel Cage Match.
Putting aside his issues with Lawler, Punk has appeared at times obsessed with the notion of getting the Cenation leader to concede that Punk is the best in the world. With the confidence befitting a champion, Cena has stalwartly refused, saying it is part of his DNA as a world-class competitor to not think of himself as anything less than the best.
Punk’s objective at Night of Champions is clear: He already sports the championship gold that signifies he’s the top Superstar in the world; on Sept. 16, he’ll have the opportunity to prove it to Cena. Though Punk holds numerous high-profile wins over Cena — including back-to-back WWE Title Match victories at last year’s Money in the Bank and SummerSlam events — none of those accomplishments would have quite the same impact as besting Cena in Boston, the site of Night of Champions and a stone’s throw from Cena’s birthplace of West Newbury, Mass. Cena admitted as much on the Aug. 20 Raw.
“If you walk into Night of Champions the WWE Champion against me and somehow leave the WWE Champion, that is the moment that will define your existence,” the 10-time WWE Champion defiantly told Punk.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, Night of Champions will be a proving ground for the WWE Champion.
Punk, however, will not be alone in that regard. On the other side of the equation is Cena, who has been on the periphery of the WWE Title scene for the better part of a year. If he were to triumph over The Second City Saint, Cena would silence any critics who suggest his time has passed. Moreover, a win over Punk would theoretically either shut up the verbose champion or render groundless his claim that he’s the best in the world — surely a welcome development for a portion of the WWE Universe.
At Night of Champions, Punk’s long-stewing resentment toward Cena and Cena’s championship ambitions come to a head. Which force will prove more powerful? Can Cena reclaim the WWE Championship for an unprecedented 11th time? Or will the savvy Punk again slide by Cena en route to building one of the most remarkable WWE Championship reigns in the title’s almost 50-year history?
What’s known for sure is that the main event of Night of Champions will be much more than just a matter of “respect.”