During a live broadcast of Raw on June 27, CM Punk sat cross-legged on the entrance ramp in a vintage “Stone Cold” Steve Austin T-shirt and delivered a monologue that has become the sports-entertainment equivalent of William Wallace’s speech to the war weary Scots at the end of “Braveheart.” A pointed, stirring battle cry that both indicted the enemy and roused the people, the call to arms led legions of WWE fans to unite under one word — change.
Frustrated with the direction of an industry he’s loved his entire life, The Straight Edge Superstar wanted to see a younger generation take charge and in the weeks since his incendiary rant he fought an uphill battle to make it happen.
At WWE TLC, the “change” Punk spoke about finally began to take shape. On that night in Baltimore, not only did Punk successfully defend his WWE Championship in a thrilling main event, but Zack Ryder grabbed the United States Championship and Daniel Bryan won the World Heavyweight Title.
Something was stirring in WWE and Punk could feel it. It was an emotion he expressed bluntly on Twitter:
Pale and unshaven with a hood yanked over his sleepless eyes, CM Punk may not look like the new face of WWE, but the face is the least distinctive element of this champion’s appearance. What sets The Straight Edge Superstar apart from Hulk Hogan, Bob Backlund, John Cena and every other well muscled American man that’s carried sports-entertainment’s most coveted title is his alternative appeal — the garage rock aesthetic, the blue jean and black hoodie uniform, the arms as illustrated as the rack in a comic book store.
No matter how hard they tried to convince you otherwise, WWE Champions have rarely been cool. Bret Hart’s Michael Jackson-inspired pink leather jackets with military epaulets weren’t cool, Hulk Hogan’s Fu Manchu mustache and wispy golden hair weren’t cool and John Cena’s jean shorts and low tops were definitely not cool. The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin were cool, but in a way that was completely foreign to the average WWE fan. They were action heroes, larger-than-life caricatures that always knew the right thing to say to the bad guy before they offed him.
CM Punk is not larger-than-life, but that’s exactly his appeal. He’s as real as it gets. He likes ice cream and Kurt Russell movies. He used to post pictures on his Twitter of oozing cheese pizzas he’d devour entirely, one would assume, by himself. He can dislocate a man’s arm with his bare hands, but that doesn’t stop him from staying up all night reading graphic novels. He’s flawed, frustrated and in love with professional wrestling — the type of guy a WWE fan can relate to.
Zack Ryder is much the same. A young Superstar who had early success as Edge’s lackey in 2006, he floundered in preliminary matches for the remainder of the decade before building his own fanbase through social media. By urging fans to like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter during his self-produced YouTube show, “Z! True Long Island Story,” the kid from the L.I. started what he called the “Ryder Revolution” — a grassroots campaign to get the attention of WWE. What started with a Flip camera in Ryder’s roommate’s bedroom soon became a national phenomenon. Before long, WWE fans were pumping giant foam fists and wearing spiked hair wigs as they cheered Long Island Iced-Z to a United States Title victory over Dolph Ziggler at WWE TLC.
Daniel Bryan may be the most unlikely success story of them all. A humble, 200-pound phenom from Aberdeen, Washington, the submission expert wrestled his way across the globe for a decade, earning repute as one of the world’s greatest technicians in the process. He even locked up with CM Punk in armories on the east coast when the two were standouts on the indies. But, in spite of being trained by Shawn Michaels and William Regal, Bryan never fit the preconception of what a World Champion should be. He’s pale, he doesn’t eat meat, you won’t see him riding in a limo or a leer jet and his shoes probably don’t cost more than your house.
Still, at WWE TLC, Daniel Bryan became the World Heavyweight Champion by cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and pinning Big Show. Suddenly, two competitors who learned their craft in the dingy gymnasiums of the independent wrestling scene were WWE’s top titleholders and a hardworking Broski was right there with them. The following night on Raw, the three Superstars stood triumphantly in the ring with their titles in hand and the WWE Universe completely behind them.
Six months removed from Punk’s sermon on the mount, change had come.