Why Punk’s “Pipebomb” Matters, Even if He Doesn’t Anymore

By 2011, a decade removed from the crest of the wrestling wave, the WWE’s main event had settled into repetitive monotony. On any given Raw, Smackdown, or pay per view, fans could expect to see some combination of John Cena, Triple H, Randy Orton, Batista, and Edge.

There were several problems with this setup. All five men, while worthy main event workers, had become woefully overexposed through hundreds of hours of television time. Additionally, they were all holdovers from the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras at a time when the company was pumping out new midcarders every week but seemingly no serious top acts. Fans caught on to the fact that the main event had become utterly static and starved to see a new face break into the mix. Then, finally, an opening came: Edge was forced to retire due to injury and a window opened.

June 27, 2011 was C.M. Punk’s chance to become that new guy. Granted, Punk had already been Mr. Money in the Bank twice, the leader of two different effective-until-they-weren’t midcard factions, and a multi-time champion, but he was undeniably second tier. He was an internet darling rather than a television personality, an ROH wrestler rather than a WWE Superstar, and a “skinny fat guy” rather than a chiseled powerhouse. In spite of all those marks against him in WWE’s mysterious book of “Reasons This Wrestler Can’t Be a Top Star,” somehow, the door was left open just a crack, and Punk blew it off its hinges.

Punk’s June 27 promo, known by many fans as simply “The Pipebomb,” was in no way, shape, or form a “shoot.” Anybody familiar with live television understands that directors in production trucks can crash to commercial breaks or cut mics when things get wildly pear-shaped, and since that was not done, it stands to reason that what he said was largely what he was expected to say. What was very much a shoot, however, was the jubilation with which fans heard Punk’s words. He gave voice to the faithful but disenfranchised, and in doing so took the backdoor route to being a top moneymaker.

With this shakeup came the corresponding shift in the WWE in-ring style. Consider the five main eventers listed above (Cena, Hunter, Orton, Batista, and Edge) and visualize each of them having a match – you can probably call the spots yourself. Punk’s rise, along with that of Daniel Bryan, led to a different kind match main eventing WWE shows, one influenced by the hard-hitting Japanese style and an imitative reverence for stars of the past. Had Punk not delivered his June 27, 2011 promo with such conviction and gotten over so impressively, that change may have never happened, and main events might still be wrestlers racing to get in their “Five Moves of Doom.”

Punk’s run after the “Pipebomb” wasn’t long – almost exactly two and a half years – but that promo casts a longer, more important shadow over WWE and its history than Punk himself.

The Perils of Punching

In the two weeks since Wrestle Kingdom 9, I’ve spent a lot of time processing North American mainstream wrestling through a new lens, and one thing has really struck me: the punches.

Wrestle Kingdom 9 featured almost no closed-fist punches to the face until the spectacular Intercontinental Title match between Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi, more than two and a half hours into the show. The punches punctuated the escalating tensions in a match that had shifted from the professionally competitive to the deeply personal. They only punched each other a few times, but it was brutal in its brevity. Both men seemed desperate, frustrated, and willing to do anything to win. They were tough and willing to fight.

Compare Wrestlemania 2000: Triple H, Mick Foley, and The Rock triple-teamed The Big Show, bouncing him back and forth in a spot that showed them land a combined 17 punches to the face. Three of the greatest fighters of the era took 17 punches (followed by three clotheslines) to knock down one man.

“But Dave!” you say, “He’s a giant!”

Zdeno Chara, the largest player in the history of the NHL, has been in over 50 career fights at the highest level. Relative to his sport, Chara is every bit the giant that Big Show is in the world of wrestling. The thought that Chara could take 17 punches from even the most artistic forward is laughable.

More important, though, is why it is laughable: NHL players, even delicate, fight-avoiding forwards, are over as tough guys who know how to scrap. Hardcore fans know exactly who the toughest and meanest are, but to non-fans, the general sense is that all hockey players are tough and mean. It’s why the NHL won’t ban fighting: they don’t want to undermine the toughman mystique of the sport.

North American wrestlers have done just that: undermined their own toughness by not protecting the closed-fist punch. More punches are thrown on a typical WWE or Impact Wrestling show than it would take to win every legitimate fistfight across the country on a given day. And, again, people know that. Fans know that an actual exciting fistfight is short, and therefore, any match built around standing up and trading bombs is utterly fake.

Part of the aforementioned Big Show’s gimmick is that he wields a heavy knockout punch, but other than the fact that it’s coming from a bigger man, the WMD doesn’t look any different from the seventy-five preceding punches on the show. Even worse, the move often shows light, causing fans to say, “Dean Ambrose couldn’t really take a punch from Big Show. It’d kill him.” So, Big Show is weak because his punches look fake, and Ambrose is weak because he looks like a wimp who wouldn’t be willing to take a real punch.

As a wrestling culture, we need to rethink punches. They have the potential to be valuable storytelling tools, but their overuse has rendered them (and wrestling as fighting) utterly unbelievable.