Class of 2018
Ever since my colleague and good friend The Doc inaugurated the LOP Hall of Fame back in 2013, I’ve had the privilege of inducting some of the greatest matches of all-time: Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage (WrestleMania III), Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XII) and Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels (WrestleMania XXV). Today is a bit different, though. Not only am I welcoming into the LOP Hall of Fame one of the greatest matches of all-time, but also one of my favourite matches in my fifteen-plus years of watching this amazing sport. It is with great honour, ladies and gentlemen, that I present to you one of the LOP HOF members of 2018 – CM Punk vs. John Cena for the WWE Championship (Money in the Bank 2011).
Can you think of a match that you can rewatch over and over again and either notice something you missed on previous viewings and/or holds up to your enjoyment factor every single time? For me, it would have to be Punk vs. Cena. Everything about this match – the atmosphere, the action, the ‘sports entertainment’ leading to the finish, the finish itself – emphasizes what I love so much about WWE. When WWE get it right, they hit a home-run and on this fateful night in Chicago – underdog CM Punk’s hometown, of course – the ball went flying way further than anyone could have dreamed.
Going into this match, no one really knew what to expect. Was CM Punk’s contract really expiring? According to Punk’s infamous ‘Pipe Bomb’ segment a few weeks before on Raw, it was, and Money in the Bank was confirmed to be Punk’s final night as a WWE employee. Therefore, most people assumed Punk was going to put over his opponent – WWE Champion John Cena – on his way out the door, since that’s what happens 99% of the time, right?
Wrong. During his ‘Pipe Bomb’, Punk promised the WWE Universe – among other things – that he would rewrite history by leaving Chicago with the WWE Championship and even teased defending it in other wrestling companies, such as Ring of Honour. Unsurprisingly, most fans enjoyed the hell out of Punk kicking down the fourth wall and rallied behind the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ more than ever before, even though we all knew Vince McMahon would never let a departing superstar (who had just RIPPED him and his family to shreds on live television) defeat John Cena, the face of his company since 2005, and leave the WWE with his top championship. Although Punk would have the hometown advantage at Money in the Bank, the odds were still heavily stacked against Punk.
That hometown advantage ended up being something else, though. I honestly rank Chicago’s reaction to Punk from the second his music hit to the ending of the Pay-Per-View as one of the greatest crowd reactions of all-time. You know how John Cena matches – no matter which city they’re in – almost always garner a 50/50 “Let’s Go Cena/Cena Sucks” chant? Not at Money in the Bank 2011. If you go back and watch Punk’s entrance that night, there’s a camera shot of a young boy decked out in John Cena gear who looks absolutely terrified by the immensely pro-Punk army around him. The thousands of fans in attendance were solidly behind Punk, to the point where I truly believe they would have rushed the ring had Cena gotten the 1-2-3. The All-State arena was deafening and added so much to the match that without their energy, this probably would have gone down in history as a 4-4.5/5 stars match; you can thank Chicago for playing their part in placing Punk vs. Cena in ‘all-time great’ territory.
For their part, both Punk and Cena over-delivered that night. As we’ve seen from them over the years – including another fantastic match on Raw weeks before WrestleMania 29 – Punk and Cena have amazing chemistry in the ring. On July 17, 2011, Punk and Cena had a match that lasted for over thirty-three minutes that felt like only fifteen. Although disdain for Cena during this period was at an all-time high (not just in Chicago, but for the majority of the cities WWE visited), performances like the one he gave at Money in the Bank made you seriously question why crowds like Chicago still chanted “You Can’t Wrestle” at him. Cena wrestled his butt off that night. He and Punk started off slow, very slow, but steadily picked up the pace and not once did they ever lose the crowd’s interest. Each false finish (most of which consisted of Punk kicking out of multiple AA’s, which didn’t happen often in 2011) felt like Punk’s time was finally up. The entire audience was literally on their feet for the final ten minutes, and for good reason. Something had to give!
Critics of Punk vs. Cena tend to blame Vince and Big Johnny’s involvement as unnecessary, outside interference that disrupted a highly competitive, one-on-one match. I couldn’t disagree more. Vince and John L. wanted to make sure that the rebellious, ‘willing-to-do-anything’ Punk did not leave the arena with the WWE Championship. Cena, being the classic hero, did not want any assistance from two corrupt authority figures and so he did what he thought was right by taking out Johnny and warning Vince to “let him do it his way”. It was this moral decision that cost Cena in the end, as the desperate Punk had no issue taking advantage of a distracted Cena to nail Cena with a thundurus GTS for arguably the biggest win of his WWE career (which was supposedly ‘over’ at the time). As Punk celebrated with his newly-won championship, a furious Vince ordered Money in the Bank briefcase holder Alberto del Rio to the ring to cash-in his title shot against Punk before The Straight-Edge Superstar could exit the arena with the gold. Punk, however, preemptively took out del Rio and literally blew a goodbye-kiss to Vince as he escaped through his hometown crowd. What a moment!
CM Punk was absolutely elevated to main-event superstardom thanks to his match with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011. Although WWE failed miserably to capitalize on Punk’s momentum in the weeks and months that followed, that faithful night in Chicago made history for a plethora of reasons. In addition to solidifying Punk as a main attraction, it blended reality with fiction so perfectly that many credit it as the beginning of the ‘Reality Era’. Moreover, it showed that WWE is willing to listen to their fans every now and then. As I just mentioned, they foolishly took the title off Punk the following month at SummerSlam (since the plan had been for Del Rio to headline the upcoming tour of Mexico as WWE Champion, and Vince would not relent on that) and fed him to Triple H two months later, but Punk’s popularity forced WWE to call an audible and change their creative direction, at least for a little while. Some would even say that Punk’s momentum in the summer of 2011 opened the door for WWE to call another audible in regards to Daniel Bryan and his Road to WrestleMania 30, just a few years later…
The aftermath aside, it doesn’t change the fact that Punk and Cena had one of the greatest matches of all-time at 2011’s Money in the Bank. You simply can’t come up with two greater opponents in terms of style, character and accomplishments than those two and book them in the main-event of a Pay-Per-View in front of such an energetic crowd at the perfect time. In addition to the accolades I listed above, I also feel that Punk vs. Cena helped solidify Money in the Bank as a ‘must-see’ Pay-Per-View; from that night onward, MitB felt less like a B-show and more along the lines of a member of the ‘Big 4’, surpassing SummerSlam and/or Survivor Series until about 2015 or so. It was quite remarkable.
That’s why I have no problem calling Punk vs. Cena one of my all-time favourite matches. It’s extremely rewatchable, historic and provides an atmosphere and story that will never be duplicated, no matter how much longer WWE is around for. It’s one of those matches I would proudly show a non-WWE fan to try and make him or her understand why I’m so in love with all this ‘fake fighting’. Even though both Punk and Cena each have a long list of must-see matches on their respective resumes, I truly think this one should top both men’s lists. Disagree with that statement if you will, but you cannot debate whether this match is worthy of entering the LOP Hall of Fame.
Bravo, gentlemen. I doubt either of you will ever read this, but on behalf of us here at LOP, I thank you for providing us with this timeless classic. I for one will never get tired of seeing you two go to war.