Ring of Honor: The Summer of Punk

In the summer of 2005, CM Punk was one of the biggest stars in Ring of Honor. He had wrestled there for a few years but he had lots of memorable moments during that time: his feud with Raven, the formation of the Second City Saints with Colt Cabana and Ace Steel, his feud with Ricky Steamboat, his battles with The Prophecy, and his modern classic trilogy of matches with Samoa Joe. During that summer it was revealed that Punk had signed a developmental contract with WWE. While we all know now the heights to which he would eventually rise in WWE, at that time something had eluded Punk: the ROH world title. Death Before Dishonor III on June 18, 2005 was supposed to be CM Punk’s last night with ROH before moving on to developmental in OVW. No one knew at the time, but the first Summer of Punk was just beginning…

ROH’s new 2-disc set, The Summer of Punk, opens up with what was supposed to be the end of Punk’s ROH run, a title match against ROH champ Austin Aries. Punk gets the hero’s welcome to start off. He’s the babyface here, and the story that the commentators put over is that Punk wants one chance to prove he can win the big title in ROH before he moves on to WWE. The commentary briefly touches on what will happen if Punk does win, suggesting a tournament of some sort but saying they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. At this point in their careers, Punk and Aries were pretty similar in their styles, with a lot of mat wrestling building into some high spots on the outside. Punk’s style has always evolved and shifted over his career, and at this point he was honing the strike & submission style that was the basis of his earliest days in WWE. The crowd in Elizabeth, NJ here was not only firmly supportive of Punk, but cementing Aries as the heel, which makes what is to come all the more special. This was classic heel formula, with Aries dominating most of the long match with brawling on the outside and vicious high spots (including a sloppy Avalanche Brainbuster that Punk kicked out of) and kicking out of Punk’s big spots (which at the time, included the Pepsi Twist and the Shining Wizard, and the Anaconda Vise, which at the time didn’t have the top wristlock component and was just a weaker-looking head & arm headlock.) At the end Punk gets Aries up in a fireman’s carry, and for a moment he almost looks like he’s setting up for the GTS, but he wasn’t doing that move yet, and instead dropped Aries with a TKO. Followed up quickly by a Shining Wizard and the Pepsi Plunge (a Pedigree off the top rope), Punk did what he set out to and won the ROH title on his last night with the company, greeted by “Please Don’t Go” and “We Will Miss You” chants. Which makes what happens next all the more fascinating…

Punk takes the mic in the middle of the ring, covered in streamers, and declares that the ROH world title belt is the most important belt in the world. “This belt in the hands of any other man is just a belt. In my hands, it becomes power. Just like you put this microphone in the hands of anyone else in the back, and it’s just a microphone. But you put it in the hands of a dangerous man like myself, and it becomes a pipe bomb.” (Little known trivia: the “pipe bomb” reference likely comes from a now-defunct folk punk band from Florida called This Bike is a Pipe Bomb). He goes on to recite the parable of the old man and the snake; you all know the moral “You stupid old man, I’m a snake.” In Punk’s words, “The greatest thing the devil ever did was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and you’re looking at him right now.” It builds and builds until Punk tells the crowd that “you stupid, mindless people fell for it!” He also debuted the “I’m not mad at you, I just feel sorry for you” line he used in The Promo in 2011. Punk promises to leave ROH with the title, to prove once and for all that he’s better than Low-Ki, AJ Styles, and Samoa Joe, as well as all the fans. In an interesting bit of foreshadowing to WWE’s Summer of Punk, Punk even declares “The champ is here!” Christopher Daniels, a longtime former rival of Punk’s, finally came out to stare down Punk, and trade blows with him, setting him up for the BME as the crowd chants “Ring the bell!” In the end Punk dodges the moonsault and escapes with the title to the chants of “CM Pussy”.

I can’t think of any other time in wrestling when someone managed to completely have the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand, having more babyface heat than anyone else in the company, peopple crying and chanting “Thank you”….and then with nothing more than a promo manage to have the entire arena calling for their blood in one night. It’s especially remarkable since this is ROH, home of the usually unflappable ROH-bots, fans who will cheer for anyone they enjoy, face or heel. It was a remarkable achievement, and was something that had never been done before in ROH or anywhere else. It’s not surprising that Punk was so adamant about using that same jumping point for the framework of last year’s Summer of Punk, and it’s really interesting to see it in its primal stage. It’s kind of like seeing that grainy camcorder footage of Nirvana playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with different words at a house party in the 80s. With just some tweaking and being presented on a larger scale, something that at once seemed grimy and intimate would later become world-changing. The moral remains the same in both cases: like Cobain, Punk was capable of greatness, but first the mainstream had to bend itself to his indie aesthetic.

Next we cut to July 8th in Long Island. If seeing Punk in a blazer the first time he sat down at a WWE commentary booth was shocking, imagine seeing him here, with purple streaked hair, and wearing a 3 piece suit. Punk related the story of himself, Jerry Lynn, Christopher Daniels, and then NWA champ AJ Styles deciding, as a group, to push the issue when TNA first refused to allow their wrestlers to work for ROH. As Punk told it, since AJ was the champ, they needed him, because he had all the power. Then of course, all of them caved in to TNA’s demands except Punk. In Punk’s words, he was the only one who never turned his back on ROH, and yet never getting any respect from the ROH fans until he got his offer from WWE, at which point he heard chants of “please don’t go”. At his mention of the NWA title, he mentions that that title means nothing compared to the ROH belt he’s holding right then, which is very cool of Punk to still put over the importance of the title considering the risks he was taking with its credibility. And principle amongst those risks would be what Punk does at the end of this promo: he signs his WWE contract on top of the Ring of Honor title, with Shane Hagadorn holding it after ring announcer Bobby Cruise and referee Todd Sinclair refuse (and hell, Hagadorn was never gonna work as a face anyway.) This time Punk is confronted by James Gibson, better known to many as Jamie Noble. Gibson spikes Hagadorn with the Gibson Driver (tiger bomb) and sells the intensity when he tells Punk “there’s no F------ way you’re leaving with that belt!” Christopher Daniels blocks the entrance as Punk tries to leave, and he & Gibson beat Punk back into the ring & out through the crowd. In retrospect I’m not sure that Gibson was the best choice as “the guy” to pin Punk’s last days on, but in terms of intensity, he can’t be beat. Even though he’s a decent technical wrestler, he’s actually better at the character driven stuff (I could easily see Jamie showing up as a criminal-of-the-week on Justified). And of course, his “Redneck Messiah” character is a perfect choice to play off of Punk.

Later in the same night we get Punk dressed to compete, mentioning how there is no one in the locker room that will challenge him on his last night. Out comes Mick Foley, who was doing work with ROH at the time. Foley mentions how some family and friends are in the crowd, and they’d never heard him use foul language before. But Foley says that’s about to change, because when Punk came out in his suit with his purple hair, Foley thought he looked, quote, “f------ ridiculous.” Considering Foley’s nice guy image that he’s always manifested, it made perfect sense in a looser setting like ROH to really drive home how Foley was acting as an ROH surrogate by having him cut loose like that. Foley makes clear that, contrary to Punk’s opinion, he didn’t make ROH, ROH made him. Foley gets a good one in: “In the wrestling business there is only one way to be the champion forever, and unfortunately for you, Gabe Sapolsky does not have a daughter you can marry.” Punk retorts with some general pissing on Foley’s career and his short title reigns, and Foley comes back with some stats of his own, leading to the broader point: Foley left the company in a better place than when he found it, and Punk needs to do the same. All this leads to Foley imploring Punk to challenge a young talent that hasn’t gotten a shot. Punk says he doesn’t intend to lose on his way out, but he wants to do something for himself, and get a win back that he had lost against Jay Lethal. All this with Foley was absolutely the right move to make, both because Foley and Punk were well matched on the mic and because Foley has such respect and such a general air of positivity in his character that it draws a clear line: Punk is the heel, and acting like it. Again, to get heel heat in front of ROH fans, you really have to go above and beyond to get booed, and it helps by having such clear cut babyfaces like Foley and Lethal on the other side.

At this point in his career, Lethal was very talented but not as innovative as he is now. A lot of his moveset was based off of his association with Samoa Joe. Most of this match was brawling on the floor and rapid fire high spots. While at the time I’m sure the story worked really well to imagine a plucky up & comer like Lethal being the one to keep the title in ROH, the truth was it wouldn’t be long before Lethal was gone to TNA himself. Joe comes out to ringside to cheer Lethal on, and Punk ends up defeating Lethal with Joe’s own Kokina Clutch. Joe & Punk stare each other down and Foley gets involved, leading to Punk taking both out and getting chased into the crowd by Gibson.

We see Roderick Strong in the ring with Gibson, and all of a sudden the lights go dark, and the spolight finds Punk in the balcony, dressed in a dress shirt & khakis that make him look like a long lost Los Boricua. Punk makes it clear he isn’t going to give Gibson a title shot. He mocks Gibson’s redneck lifestyle, positioning himself as the elitist. It’s a risky move, in ways, because most ROH fans are not hillbilly Southerners, but thankfully the crowd seemed to grasp the dynamic well. Punk instead challenges Roderick Strong for tonight, in a non title match. This brings Mick Foley out of the shadows, or more specifically, though he isn’t called such by name, Cactus Jack. In full Cactus look and voice, Foley threatens to dump Punk off the balcony to the floor unless he makes the match against Strong for the title. He even works in the Dirty Harry “Well do ya, PUNK?” line. The match against Strong did serve to make Roddy look good, as was basically the point of Punk leaving ROH: putting people over on the way out. The match wasn’t the best either would ever have, mainly because Roderick wasn’t the worker in 05 that he is today. While he had all the basics down, he worked best in tag teams at that point, where he could either be the Ricky Morton taking the beating or the Robert Gibson, coming in and hitting all his backbreakers for the win. Punk wins this mostly mat-wrestling based match with an O’Connor roll, using the ropes for leverage. Punk tries to bail through the crowd only to be blocked by Gibson from one direction, Joe from another, and Foley from the entrance. Gibson plants Punk with Gibson Driver and gets a facetious pinfall, formally gaining his title match against Punk at the next show.

After a heated promo between Gibson and Punk that ends with Punk laying Gibson out with a chain wrapped around his fist, we get their one on one match from July 16th. Gibson was left bleeding after the promo and in the match later, he’s sporting the full bandage head wrap. Most of Punk’s matches on this set start with a mat wrestling portion in the first half before transitioning into a brawl on the floor with some high flying moves mixed in. This one works a different formula, as they tear into each other at the start. Punk pulls the bandage off Gibson’s head early, but the blood doesn’t start flowing too fast yet, because they transition into the mat wrestling portion instead. Working his babyface portions, Gibson definitely shows that he can hang with the more strong-style influenced workers in ROH, but at heart I’ve never really bought into him as a mat technician. Everything he learned from Dean Malenko (and taught to Roderick Strong, for that matter) makes for a great wrestler on paper, but in practice it doesn’t seem congruent with Jamie’s character. I always felt like he should have developed better in the striking and brawling areas, but Gibson always worked a methodical mat style, and I think that hurt him in the long run. Still, matched against an opponent who can offer much the same, they can make magic. This match has great heat behind it, and as it goes on both men begin to spill more and more blood. Each near fall gets more & more desperate for Gibson, until Punk finally steals one by, again, holding the ropes in an O’Connor roll. This time Punk really turns the knife, being adamant that he’s leaving ROH with the title and that Gibson failed to pull it off. Once again Daniels makes an appearance and brawls it out with Punk, leaving him laying with the ROH belt and challenging Punk for one more match, on threat of following him to any WWE show he might be on.

Hour long matches are a trademark in ROH, and if I’m being honest, they often feel somewhat gratuitous. While a lot of their wrestlers are so talented that they can fill an hour or more with no problems, more often than not these matches take long, drawn out portions of mat wrestling and reversals just to stretch the time limit, and it feels detrimental to the match. There’s no point in deciding a match is going to be long and then retro-fitting it to accomplish that. It’s like a video game with lots of fetch quests to pad the overall hours of playtime: if it’s not going to be all that fun, it isn’t really necessary. In Punk & Daniels’ case, that’s really only a problem for the middle portion of their match, but that portion is longer than a lot of decent matches. Punk and Daniels throw all their greatest hits at one another, trading submissions and power moves, fighting over the Pepsi Plunge on the top rope, and hitting each other with moonsaults and enziguris. While part of the match grinds to a near halt, it can’t be argued that Punk and Daniels, in 2005 and now, are not on the short list for the best wrestlers on the planet. The ending sees Punk nearly blacking Daniels out with the Anaconda Vise, before getting to his feet and trading pinfall attempts with Punk for most of the last minute, before scoring with Angel’s Wings but not being able to beat the clock for the win. Another post match brawl sees Gibson and Joe both come out, setting up the 4 way for 8/12.

The 4 way match between Joe, Daniels, Gibson, and Punk is a little bittersweet for me. Mainly, I feel like Gibson kind of f----- up the momentum of the storyline when he re-signed with WWE. I can’t blame the guy for wanting to make a few more bucks, but it did ROH no favors to see the guy who was supposed to be the lynchpin for defending ROH (Daniels & Joe were both about to be splitting their time with TNA, and not many other babyfaces on the roster were quite capable of working that whole summer and filling the role of “ROH savior.”) This 4 way was under tag rules, with only two men in the ring at a time and it was elimination rules. For most of the early part of the match, Punk tagged in and out to avoid being in the ring at the same time as Joe, his old foe and someone who had consistently shut him down at every turn over the summer. The acrimony between Daniels, Joe, and Gibson played well into the storyline: it’s still about the title, not about shaming Punk for leaving ROH, but about making sure he doesn’t disrespect ROH’s title. When Gibson gets posted near the half hour mark, Punk slams a chair into his head, leaving Gibson bleeding and apparently concussed on the floor. The match grinds to a halt while they carry Gibson out, and he is presumably eliminated. After that Punk is finally in the ring with Joe, and they recreate some of the magic of their classic trilogy. Joe & Daniels end up in an extended sequence, trading signature spots, until Joe has Daniels in the Kokina Clutch. When Daniels gets his foot on the ropes, Punk shoves it off before the ref can see it and the ref drops Daniels’ arm for the submission. When Daniels gets up, he attempts an enziguri on Punk while Joe has him in a waistlock, and Punk ducks, finishing Joe with a small package. It should have been clear that the match wasn’t over, since they didn’t ring the bell, but regardless: as Joe & Daniels brawl to the back, Gibson makes his return, soaked in blood. In the end, Punk attempts the Pepsi Plunge, and Gibson reverses into a top rope Gibson Driver and scores the win, keeping the ROH title in ROH. Again, it’s kind of a Pyrrhic victory, since Gibson would soon be back in WWE himself, but nevertheless, the ROH locker room comes out to celebrate with Gibson. He would soon after drop the belt to another person who would go on to fame in WWE: Bryan Danielson, or Daniel Bryan if you prefer.

Finally, it comes full circle: Punk vs. his best friend and former partner Colt Cabana, in their hometown of Chicago. Looking back, it’s really special for Punk that he was able to have so many of the defining moments in his career in Chicago, a city he’s always been so proud of. Very few other wrestlers will ever get to say that. Even though this is just one night from the previous match, the fans realize the storyline is over and they give Punk the warm exit he had originally had when he won the title. Punk is choking back tears as they announce his name to the Chi-Town crowd (or, well, the Chicago Ridge crowd, but I’m sure it was mostly people from the city making the trek). Punk & Cabana’s trainer Ace Steel is at ringside for this one, as is their friend Samoa Joe. The Code of Honor handshake leads to the two friends hugging it out in the ring. This one is just Punk & Colt’s greatest hits, in a 2 out of 3 falls match. Colt does his English-style mat wrestling combined with his comedy spots, and Punk does his striking and submissions. Colt does the “up here” spot with Punk, leading Punk to lose his patience and low blow Colt, before hitting him with his own finisher, the Colt 45, for the first fall. Some back & forth action leads Colt into hitting a lariat on Punk and scoring the second fall. At that point, both men take it up a notch and they trade punches, elbows, forearms, and chops. The action gets hotter at that point, with brawling to the outside. Colt hits a big Asai moonsault at one point, and Punk busts out the reverse hurricanrana. Colt does mess up at one point, hitting Punk with an inverted DDT off the top rope that looked to drop Punk right on his head. Punk recovered quickly, however. In the end, both men trade rollups until Colt holds on for the win. The aftermath sees everyone in the locker room come out to congratulate Punk and wish him a farewell, including the people he had been feuding with like Joe & Gibson. Colt does the old champagne pour on Punk with a bottle of Pepsi, and they toast each other with it while Joe slams a can of it down. Punk is extremely emotional as he thanks his fans in Chicago and the family that Ring of Honor is, and despite the heel turn Punk worked on them, Punk left ROH with the emotional send off from the fans that he deserved.

All in all, The Summer of Punk combines some of the best promo and storyline work that ROH had ever done with a string of some of the best matches of Punk’s career. Admittedly, it can get a little draining to watch the same wrestler in every match on a disc like this, but the quality opponents he faces are more than up to it. I don’t star rate, but if someone out there does I’m sure that at least half these matches are north of 4 stars. The storyline stuff was revelatory for its time, and it still stands as a fascinating contrast to 2011’s Summer of Punk. While we all know what kind of bigger and better things CM Punk would ascend to in WWE, in his last 2 months with the company, Punk worked overtime to make sure that ROH was, as Foley said, better than when he got there.

Highly recommended.