On January 7th, The Rock faced off against CM Punk in what can only be the first of many meetings between the two wrestlers. While the show down was the next step in the build-up for their match tomorrow night at the Royal Rumble, it also symbolized a much more subtle battle between two of the most marketable men in the industry. While The Rock is revered as the golden boy of wrestling, the one man left who can raise television ratings and sell out arenas just by being advertised, what CM Punk has done for wrestling in the past few years might just be more impressive.
The obvious difference between The Rock and CM Punk is their appearance. When one glances upon the Rock, the word "superstar" instantly comes to mind. A gifted athlete who also possessed movie star good looks, The Rock is everything that a professional wrestling champion should be. Well over 6 feet tall and weighing in access of 250lbs. with a chiseled physique, The Rock has every conceivable tool a professional wrestler (and the WWE) would want. Contrasting to the Rock, who may as well have been born in a lab, is CM Punk. Listed at 6'2", but closer to 6 feet even and relatively scrawny, Punk does not possess the natural build for a wrestler that The Rock does. However, Punk's success has helped open the doors for hundreds of individuals to pursue their dreams in pro-wrestling. Only a handful of wrestlers are as genetically gifted as The Rock, therefore it is hard to imagine yourself as The Rock, since most people are not 6'5". Because CM Punk is so average looking, and because he has achieved so much success, the pro wrestling industry is changing.
An independent wrestling promoter once told me that most promoters look towards the WWE for how they are going to model their promotion. If the WWE is doing well, then a trickle-down effect takes place and all the smaller promotions fall in line. This became extremely evident when CM Punk dropped his first pipebomb in Las Vegas and the Summer of Punk began in 2011. By the next year, the wrestling industry had changed dramatically. Austin Aries, a worker similar in build and ability to Punk, went from being a mid-carder to world champion in Impact Wrestling because he could connect to the crowd in a way most wrestlers could not. Kevin Steen, who for years had been passed over because of his physical build and questionable attitude, was given the ROH World Championship and a microphone and has since become one of the most entertaining and popular wrestlers in the industry today. The success of Punk in the WWE gave other wrestlers a chance to shine, and they ran away with it.
Not only was Punk a trendsetter in the main-event department, he also became the first independent wrestler to have as much success in the WWE as he did on the indy circuit. When Punk first arrived in the WWE in 2005, he was sent to OVW to work with Paul Heyman and to get some more seasoning. Disappointed at his relegation of OVW, Punk began to act like he had a massive chip on his shoulder in and out of the ring. Although higher ups in the company were interested in changing Punk's character, Heyman insisted that the gimmick he played on the indy circuit would work in the WWE. After much trial and tribulation, Heyman was right and Punk's anti-authority / progressivist character made it huge in the WWE.
The fact that Punk, who had been called "King of the Indys" during his time in OVW, achieved so much success led to the WWE becoming more confident and adamant about signing wrestlers who were prominent independent wrestlers. Without CM Punk, Daniel Bryan probably is never signed by the WWE. Neither is Antonio Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, El Generico, PAC, Sara Del Ray, Kassius Ohno and a host of other guys currently working for the WWE. Punk led the way for the WWE to fill its ranks with talented but maybe not stereotypical wrestlers, and the WWE will see the impact that those guys can make in the upcoming years.
CM Punk vs The Rock has the potential to be one of the most intriguing feuds in wrestling history. Both men have their own vast collections of supporters and detractors, comprised by both casual and hardcore fans. Although The Rock may go down as one of (if not the) greatest wrestler of all time, the true impact of CM Punk cannot be measured by TV Ratings or PPV Buys. Punk can only be measured by the success of wrestling as a whole in the next 5 years or so, since he is responsible for changing it.