Most wrestlers wouldn’t think of themselves as underdogs after a 434-day reign with the most prestigious title in the business. They also probably wouldn’t feel they had anything to prove after they just took part in a match that was nearly universally acclaimed as the high point of WrestleMania 29.
Clearly, CM Punk is not most wrestlers. Even with everything he’s accomplished over the past few years, he’s still driven by his desire for more. It’s an unwillingness to rest on his laurels, of course, but it’s also the first of many contradictions that help explain his character both in and out of the ring.
Punk is a former indy star who has made it near the top of the WWE. He’s one of the top guys anywhere with a microphone in his hand, yet he’s currently paired up with Paul Heyman — something he says was to “get people to hate me more.” And though his WWE tagline has been “Best in the World” for some time, he’s a perfectionist who could still do more, a least in his own mind.
“This is a problem I’ve been struggling with lately,” Punk said to the media assembled Sunday afternoon for the pre-WrestleMania press conference. “I’m never happy with anything I do.”
That didn’t mean he was upset at working with The Undertaker and getting the (ultimately unsuccessful) opportunity to break “The Streak.” Punk made it clear that he was grateful to be up against the Deadman, but that his ultimate goal was to be in the last match on the WWE’s biggest show.
Until then, he’s not a malcontent, as he claims others sometimes make him out to be. He’s simply frustrated in a way that most anyone can relate.
“For me personally, I fell short of a goal, so it sucks,” Punk said. “I understand the business more than everybody who says that I don’t. Normally I would just kind of grin and bear it — you know, eyes forward, head down — and work harder. I don’t know how much harder I can possibly work. This business takes its toll. It ages you. Obviously, I’ve made it very well known that I would like to main event.”
Punk is also unapologetic about why he wants that top spot. Put bluntly but logically, it’s for financial as well as professional reasons.
“You’ve got to understand, too, because I’m a businessman, the difference between where [The Rock and John Cena are] at and where I am is millions of dollars,” he said. “If there’s one person in this room who wouldn’t like to get paid a couple extra million dollars for your hard work, I would like to see you right now and punch you in the face. That’s ridiculous.”
That kind of honesty may surprise adoring fans who see him only in a wrestling purist light, but that’s Punk in a nutshell. He zigs when people think he’ll zag.
Case in point: Punk’s now famous “pipe bomb” that set the wrestling world abuzz in the summer of 2011. Though it went a long way toward raising his profile, he certainly didn’t let it define him. Punk has actually changed directions with his on-camera persona several times since then.
Others may have expected him to remain the “Voice of the Voiceless” for a longer period of time, but staying in that proverbial box for too long wouldn’t have been true to himself.
“I just like evolving,” Punk said. “It was definitely fun doing that, but I don’t know. I cut that promo in Vegas, and then everyone expected me to almost do something similar next week or next month. You keep doing that, it becomes middle of the road, and it’s no longer special.”
Even when you think you know the answers to the questions you ask him, Punk can surprise you. When SLAM! Wrestling wanted his pick for the first-time WrestleMania performer most likely to have a standout debut, he didn’t pick The Shield’s Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose — guys who were also indy darlings before WWE came calling.
Instead, Punk went with the man with the ballroom dancer gimmick. And judging by the reaction that man got the next night on Raw (albeit from an unusually raucous and sometimes contrary crowd), he wasn’t wrong.
“Fandango,” Punk said without hesitation. “I think he’s got the perfect opportunity to really have all eyes on him. He can seize this day, absolutely. He’s an excellent, excellent wrestler. Making him the dancer, I think a lot of people don’t know that yet, and it’s going to open a lot of eyes.”
You also can’t completely rule out the idea that Punk was joking, as he certainly was when a reporter asked him a follow-up question about facing or teaming with Fandango next year. Punk suggested a debate or a game of Words With Friends instead, turning truthful just for a second when he noted that, “It hurts a lot less.”
Joking, but with a seed of truth inside. A somewhat open book in an industry built on illusion. In case that isn’t enough contradictions for one talented performer, here’s one more: he knows his greatest strength is also his biggest weakness, and one that could get him in the end.
Punk is going to keep at it, confident that he will outwork everyone to close the show at WrestleMania some year and leave no doubts that he’s made it to the very top of the business. And he’ll do it even though he understands that his perfectionist streak, and the self-induced stress that comes with it, probably isn’t the healthiest state of mind.
“If I didn’t put what a lot of people call unnecessary pressure on myself to be the best that I can be, to want to be further up the card, to want a better spot, a bigger payday, I wouldn’t be who I am,” Punk said. “That’s me, and it’s like my Shakespearean tragic flaw. I know that it’s no good for me, and it’s going to absolutely burn me out, but I do nothing to stop it, because this is just who I am.”