With this week’s emotional retirement of Daniel Bryan from not only the WWE but pro wrestling entirely, coupled with the announcement that CM Punk‘s UFC debut was put on hold for back surgery from “wrestling shit”, it shed light on two men’s physical and costly careers. But years from now, these two men’s sacrifices – both very different, but equally important – will make them the martyrs for the next generation of the WWE – The Indie Era. Unfortunately, neither men will be around to taste from the Revolution’s cup they themselves helped fill.
Daniel Bryan and CM Punk
When CM Punk arrived in Ohio Valley Wrestling, then a WWE developmental territory, in 2005, he came as one of the indie circuits most successful and heralded champions. Despite a lacklustre run in TNA, Punk showed up to the breeding ground of the WWE as one of the internet’s undisputed icons. Trained in 1999 by Ace Steel, Punk forged a new breed of indie wrestler, bringing authentic punk rock attitude to pro wrestling, beyond simply a hair style or a gimmick. He worked in IWA Mid-South and in Japan to start his career, but it was in Ring of Honor that the stuff of legend was made. “The Second City Saint” debuted in ROH as a face, initially battling ECW Original Raven. It was an ironic pairing as he was also in a short run in TNA where he was a member of Raven’s new “flock”, The Gathering. But it was in ROH that he truly shined. Whether a Tag Team champion with close friend Colt Cabana or feuding with AJ Styles and Samoa Joe, Punk’s passion and honesty shone through and his ring psychology overshadowed his non-wrestler physique. The character became more engaging than merely his ring skills. He arrived in Ohio Valley during the WWE’s push for the atypical bodybuilders, with the rise of John Cena, Randy Orton and Batista, or the generic gimmicked rockstars like Edge or Jeff Hardy. Punk was doomed from the start. But Punk’s work ethic and ability to win over the most critical of audiences, to the most cynical of critics, proved that Punk at least belonged in the big leagues. His glass ceiling would be up to how well he fit into the machine that was the WWE. And how well he could play with a set of rules.
He debuted in WWE’s revamped ECW in 2006 and spent close to two years building his character up, eventually became the brand’s Champion, generating the same cult-like status in the WWE Universe that he’d built on the indie circuit. Within two months of debuting on the WWE Main Roster, Punk won the 2008 Money in the Bank and by June was World Heavyweight Champion when he cashed in his briefcase on a beaten down Edge. The indie darling was now the World Champion for the WWE. The Cult of Personality had now hit the mainstream. But Punk, the first time the WWE took a legitimate chance on utilizing the indie scene on a Main Eventer in years, quickly soured to the head offices in Stamford. The route of building their own Superstars had given WWE the luxury of controlling their characters more rigourously, both on and off screen. Most of these guys were built from the ground up so they were more grateful for what the WWE had given them. But Punk knew he was worth big money wherever he went, so his bravado was both as sincere as it was aggrivating. While his “pipebomb” was indeed approved by the Authority, it was no less fake in how Punk actually felt. A frugal businessman, he’d squirrelled away his WWE millions and no longer needed the WWE as much as the WWE needed him. And he knew it. Which is why in 2014, at the peak of his marketability, CM Punk walked away from the guaranteed money for piece of mind. He simply wasn’t cut out for the grind of the Machine.
And along came Daniel Bryan, “The American Dragon”. Like Punk, he started training in 1999, first with Dean Malenko before famously gaining tutilege under Shawn Michaels. Again, like Punk, he worked the smaller indie circuit and Japan before cutting his teeth and forging his legend in Ring of Honor. Stints in Chikara and PWG only cemented his outstanding indie legacy. In 2009, four years after CM Punk entered WWE property and three years after the CM Punk Project began on WWE television, Bryan was almost doomed from the get go. A bland personality with a definite size issue worse than Punk’s, Bryan had to work harder for every opportunity. His NXT run and Nexus debut threw him to the wolves early but he was released immediately after his debut for choking Cena on television. But where Punk would have taken to social media for WWE’s insane decision, Bryan remained quiet and played the part with diplomacy. Within months, he was back in the WWE and immediately won over part of the crowd with his tenacity. His heel turn and subsequent “No” Movement and partnering in Hell No with Kane began Bryan’s cult-like status in WWE. His first run as a heel World Champion was mostly uneventful and still failed to push Bryan to true main event status. But during that time, Bryan’s promo work increased and he began to settle into the WWE style. His ring work was still miles ahead of the others (though somewhat diminished from his Japan and ROH days) but now his personality was finally showing through. His run versus the Authority propelled him to the Ultimate Underdog and his Wrestlemania moment winning the World title at WM30 remains one of the industry’s greatest feel good moments. But as we learned the past Monday, the toll for spending so long preparing in the indie circuit had burned out his body in much the same way it had burned out Punk’s soul. He could no longer wrestle.
But Bryan and Punk’s success proved that the indie workers had an ability to not only perform stellar matches in the ring, but connect to even the most fickle of audiences. They were used to having to work more intimately engaged audiences in warehouses, so leading mob mentalities of WWE arenas was a cinch. But the WWE realized that these wunderkids needed to be found earlier in their careers, before the toll of 15 years on the road had battered their spirits and the bones.
Looking at the WWE roster now, it’s plain to see they plucked many of the indie circuits best stars early, before they’d ridden the wheels to the rims. Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose were plucked from the early zygotes of Tyler Black and Jon Moxley. PAC, El Generico, KENTA, and Kevin Steen were saved by Neville, Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, and Kevin Owens. Prince Devitt, Brodie Lee, Uhaa Nation, and Kana are going to have longer careers thanks to Finn Balor, Luke Harper, Apollo Crews, and Asuka. They’re being centralized and taught proper medical conditioning rather than travelling the world and working in seedy gyms. They’re being allowed to groom and shape their own process slowly within the Machine, rather than being forced into it and being expected to fit in. It’s the best of both worlds.
The buffering with some home grown talent – like Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Ryback and Bayley – with some established indie veterans like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, and Austin Aries will help both the indie stars adjust to the WWE “big leagues” and the Main Roster Superstars prepare for the incoming surge of indie style ring work.
The next few months will probably be a little awkward as these next NXT transitions occur, but by 2017, mark my word. We’ll be in the throws of the next generation of the WWE. The Indie Era. Although I have my doubts that the WWE will ever refer to it at that.
It’s just a shame that the Era’s two biggest pioneers, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, won’t be able to be active parts in it.