The WWE Champion is not supposed to be here.
They said he was too small, a straight-edge scrapper who was about as far from the flamboyant WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels as can be, and far too much of an “internet darling” to reach the lofty heights of the title he now holds.
The No. 1 contender is not supposed to be here, either. He is a 5-foot-10 vegan in a land of red-blooded, meaty hulks, a man who wins matches with submission holds instead of bone-crunching strikes. Not exactly Hulk Hogan reincarnate, in other words.
And yet, here CM Punk and Daniel Bryan are. The important thing to realize is that it is not a rivalry born of natural animosity, like Austin vs. McMahon. It is not born of betrayal, like Hart vs. Michaels, nor does it stem from self-destructive impulse, like Triple H vs. The Undertaker.
Instead, Punk vs. Bryan is a rivalry born of destiny, in an oddly roundabout way. The WWE Champion and his upstart, egomaniacal challenger are among a rare breed of WWE Superstar in that, from the very beginning, they were not supposed to reach WWE according to many . They do not come from the same kind of sports-entertainment pedigree as titans like Bret Hart and The Rock. They’re journeymen in the truest sense, hard workers who suffered and bled for their sport to reach for the top rather than be recruited by WWE’s developmental system, They are also the wiry, athletic type that is typically deemed too odd, too puny and too “indie-looking ” to thrive in the land of giants.
But somehow, to the growing disbelief of even their most ardent fans, Punk and Bryan did succeed. One of them has held the WWE Championship for five months now. The other held the World Heavyweight Championship for four before losing it at WrestleMania XXVIII. And at WWE Over the Limit, The Second City Saint will put his prize on the line against the man who many believe to be his greatest foil, despite the fact they haven’t met all that often in the middle of the squared circle.
It’s as strange a WWE Championship rivalry as the WWE Universe is ever likely to see, and certainly one many thought they never would. And make no mistake: the road they took to get there was not an easy one …
2002-2005: The Early Years
Though they are rarely alluded to on WWE programming, the independent careers of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have become something of sports-entertainment legend. Bryan’s stoic, methodical work as the “American Dragon” has become a holy grail for wrestling purists looking to study the technical intricacies of the sport; his talents were so immense he was christened as “The Best in the World” by wrestling fans worldwide. Punk’s journey , meanwhile, was a model in style and individuality, blending technical prowess with an inimitable attitude that would eventually lead him to change the landscape of WWE with his infamous “pipe bomb” in the summer of 2011.
The two iconoclasts are so closely linked in the minds of many fans that it’s a common misconception they are longtime rivals. “We actually haven’t wrestled as frequently as people think,” Punk said, although he and Bryan both cite a well-known Florida contest between the two – what Bryan called “a 45-minute match in front of about 35 people” – as one of their more unforgettable bouts.
Even in those early days, though, their reputations preceded them to each other. “He was the guy I always heard about,” Punk told WWE.com, citing Bryan, along with future WWE Superstar Brian Kendrick, as two of the more well-known West Coast competitors among the Midwest crew Punk came up with. “It was really few and far between where you think, ‘Wow, I really want to get in the ring with that guy,’ [but Bryan] seemed to eat, breathe, sleep, dream pro wrestling … he didn’t care where he was, he just wanted to be in the ring.”
For Bryan, it was Punk’s toughness that left a mark in their first meeting, at a 2002 event called the Jersey J-Cup. “[He] fractured his skull,” Bryan told WWE.com, adding that The Second City Saint was wheeled off to the hospital at the end of the event. “He had to go to the hospital, and that was the first time I ever met him.”
Despite the infrequent meetings, however, Punk conceded there was a general feeling that the two would inevitably collide with the supreme prize at stake: “A lot of hardcore wrestling fans used to say that me and him were going to main event a WrestleMania at some point, and not only were we going to do that, we were going to do it against each other,” Punk said. And while that match is still a pipe (bomb) dream, Punk does admit that “[Over the Limit] might be the first step toward that main event.”
Before this match could even happen, though, there was still one problem: making it to WWE …
2005-2011: The Big Stage
It was Punk who did it first, infamously (according to wrestling lore) using his independent championship as a clipboard to sign his WWE contract and igniting the “Summer of Punk,” a blaze-of-glory championship run that swept the independent scene in the final months before he relocated to WWE developmental. Punk’s first appearance with the company, however, was appropriately low-key, if not fitting with the underdog stigma that surrounded him: he was one of the faux-goons riding on the side of John Cena’s car at WrestleMania 22 in Punk’s hometown of Chicago.
Punk’s proper debut was far more dynamic, as The Second City Saint rattled off an undefeated streak on the resurrected ECW. Rising to the challenge of WWE stardom, Punk eventually captured a pair of Intercontinental and World Heavyweight Championship reigns. The “indie king” was fast in carving out a name for himself as a Superstar to be reckoned with, despite the under-the-radar pedigree that many said would be a hindrance to his rise.
While Punk ascended, however, Bryan continued to toil in the independent scene until he finally got his chance as one of the rookies in the inaugural season of WWE NXT. He was one of the first cast off the competition as The Miz’s rookie, and briefly parted ways with the company altogether until he returned at SummerSlam 2010 (WATCH: DANIEL BRYAN REACTS TO HIS NXT ELIMINATION). It wasn’t long before Bryan made a name for himself just as Punk had, winning the United States Title from his former mentor.
It looked as though the two would remain on divergent paths until the 2011 Royal Rumble, when Punk and Bryan were the first two entrants in the historic, 40-man Rumble Match itself. (PHOTOS: 2011 ROYAL RUMBLE MATCH) Bryan put up a strong showing in his first big-match situation, but he was ultimately bested, tossed out of the ring by none other than The Second City Saint himself. Punk vs. Bryan in WWE finally had a scorecard, if only for a chance meeting.
2011: A Change is a-Gonna Come
Less than a year later, however, Punk would change the landscape of WWE with his game-changing takedown of sports-entertainment’s corporate culture, instantly turning the WWE Universe into his own personal acolytes and firmly redefining the parameters of a WWE Superstar.
“It’s a lot like certain people’s affinity for me,” Bryan said of the fame Punk brought himself with the pipe bomb. “It’s pushing against the system. He wasn’t somebody you’re supposed to cheer for. He’s not the poster boy for a WWE Superstar.”
Punk called for an uprising of the Superstars many believed were overlooked and under-appreciated as he vowed to relieve John Cena of the WWE Championship, staking Bryan’s old claim of “The Best in the World.” At least one person was listening. Later that month, at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, CM Punk made good and won the WWE Title from Cena, while Daniel Bryan won the SmackDown Money in the Bank briefcase. (WATCH: SMACKDOWN MONEY IN THE BANK LADDER MATCH) The victory guaranteed the onetime “Dragon” a World Title shot within the next year. Suddenly, fantasy did not seem so far off anymore.
At WWE TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs, Punk defeated The Miz and Alberto Del Rio to retain the WWE Championship he had recaptured at Survivor Series, and Bryan cashed in his contract to relieve Big Show of the World Heavyweight Title. The first Raw after served as the indie-darlings’ coming-out party; along with newly crowned U.S. Champion Zack Ryder, they stormed the ring through the crowd, ECW-style, and celebrated the improbable underdog triumph they achieved with a heartfelt victory over Dolph Ziggler, Alberto Del Rio and The Miz to close WWE’s flagship television show. (WATCH)
But, of course, nothing this great was ever meant to last, and no darling stays indie forever.
2012: “The Best” vs. “Yes!”
“I think the title, the power, stuff like that can change people,” Punk said of the perils of championship glory. And while The Second City Saint managed to keep his feet on the ground and the WWE Universe on his side while he ruled as champion, Bryan went into business for himself.
The former underdog exploited various technicalities to overcome towering opponents like Mark Henry and Big Show, celebrating each win with a cocky, world-beating bellow of “YES!” that began to turn the WWE Universe against him. Punk seemed to feel the same way and met Bryan head-to-head in a series of thrilling Champion vs. Champion Matches that did not have a clear winner. (PHOTOS) And when Bryan lost the World Heavyweight Title to Sheamus at WrestleMania XXVIII in a historic 18 seconds, (PHOTOS) it seemed the dream of Punk and Bryan reigning atop WWE together died.
Of course, Bryan would not be so easily denied. He beat Sheamus into unconsciousness in a grueling 2-out-of-3 Falls rematch at Extreme Rules, and though he failed to reclaim the title, his throttling of The Great White propelled him forward to his next challenge: Punk’s championship.
“As a competitor, [Punk] has what I want,” Bryan said. “He has the most prestigious title in the WWE, the WWE Championship. I will do whatever it takes to get that.”
Bryan earned the right of No. 1 contender the very next night and now, to the disbelief of wrestling fans across the country, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan will main-event a WWE pay-per-view with the WWE Title on the line. It seems like a few years ago, this never could have happened, that Bryan and Punk could not possibly get here without compromising their identity, their skills, or undergoing some radical change that would cause them to “sell out” and lose the identities that made them ideal opponents in the first place.
But Bryan, you’ll notice, still sports a dragon on his trunks. Punk still has the irascible rebel attitude and the chip on his shoulder that will never go away, the guy who consistently refers to himself as a “professional wrestler” and not a WWE Superstar. In other words, not much has really changed.
That goes for the mutual respect as well. “I’m still in awe of his ability in the ring,” Punk said of his opponent. “I think me and Daniel Bryan is hopefully just going to be a straight-up pro wrestling match. I think it’d be kind of refreshing at this point.”
Bryan, for his part, agreed, with a small caveat: “CM Punk is great. He’s great at everything he does. I am better.”
And of course, that old stigma still remains, even as Punk and Bryan defy it. “I never anticipated we’d both be here and both in the situation we’re at now,” Bryan told WWE.com, repeating the mantra of this oddly historic rivalry. “We’re two guys who weren’t supposed to make it. He’s ‘skinny fat,’ I am ‘too small,’ we are not prototypical WWE Superstars … we are two guys who are not supposed to be here.”
Yet here they are. Gloriously, unbelievably, finally, here.