A carny industry unlike even most any other carny-style industry, professional wrestling requires a certain level of acceptance of unusual and possibly untoward behavior as par for the course and meeting expectations. Thus, when learning the tale of why one-time champion CM Punk (Phil Brooks) left World Wrestling Entertainment 11 months ago – a tale recently told over two highly-ranked on iTunes episodes of best friend and independent (meaning not contracted by WWE) wrestler Colt Cabana’s podcast – there’s two questions. Foremost, Punk is rumored to have made $20 million over the past three years alone, so why leave future monies on the table? As well, why are we even discussing a pro wrestler leaving a pro wrestling company as a “big thing?” If saying that pro wrestling is a carny business like say, the circus, we don’t interview the tiger that goes rogue, nor if Gunther Gebel-Williams ever left Ringling Brothers behind, I’m not so certain that him revealing his reasons for leaving it would’ve caused a stir. But Punk leaving WWE and heading into the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization is certainly newsworthy in that it creates a great microcosm in which to study disruption and the future of industry in the modern age.
Since 1999, World Wrestling Entertainment has been a publicly traded corporation. Since ’99 the company has significantly embraced the digital age, globalism and a more family-friendly outlook. Insofar as being publicly traded and technologically/socially progressive, these are things that in being embraced by any other industry than pro wrestling, would be met with smashing success. For pro wrestling, the age of corporate growth and public awareness has also involved having to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the wrestling business forever. Regarding Punk’s podcast appearances, what is now coming to light makes the industry’s time-honored traditions feel antiquated, stupid and much-less than aligned with the modern facade that the company is portraying.
While Punk held the company’s World Championship and was (supposedly) the company’s headlining star for 434 days between 2011-2013, the company’s tumbling stock prices created a situation wherein former top company stars (and current action movie heroes) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista were asked to return to the company and billed above Punk for high-profile yearly events Wrestlemania and the Royal Rumble. Punk was also asked to lose to both stars – which given that professional wrestling is a fixed athletic event shouldn’t be an issue – but in the eyes of WWE fans who likely aren’t mainstream observers or company stockholders, Punk (likely correctly) felt that his losses to part-time talents would take considerable drawing ability from his name and talents.
Punk also questioned WWE’s “Network,” a digital streaming format that the company has embraced where for $9.99 per month a subscriber gets access to the company’s entire back catalog of televised programming and specialized tape/DVD offerings, as well as three first-run TV programs and pay-per-view offerings, too. Wrestlemania 29 was available via Pay-Per-View from WWE for $59.95. Wrestlemania 30? $9.99. This is a potential 84% drop-off in the company’s receipts for the show, which ultimately becomes a drop in talent paychecks for the show. Obviously if a corporation is going to radically change its non-base salary payment structure and the show that has the best bonus payouts is clearly affected, that’s an issue. If the company refuses to clarify what those new payments are going to be before rolling out the new scheme, that’s grounds to maybe find a new line of occupation.
Like many wrestlers, Punk oftentimes worked while injured. Of course, WWE has physicians on staff. However, the nature of being a WWE physician as opposed to being well, a physician in any other sport (or outside of athletics, too) is that you’re required to allow talents to oftentimes work through injuries that would cause a person not employed in that industry to be out of work for weeks, sometimes even possibly months. Most egregious to Punk was the fact that he had developed a golf ball-sized lump on his lower back which was diagnosed as being benign and treated with a “z-pak,” aka azithromycin, a bacteria-fighting antibiotic that fights respiratory infections, skin infections, ear infections, and sexually transmitted diseases. In a company where a wrestler could do everything from catch chlamydia from a groupie on the road or get a skin rash from wrestling someone oiled down with something to which they are allergic, it’s a terrific catch-all solution. However, in Punk’s case, the “z-pak” hid something far worse.
Punk’s golf ball-sized wound swelled into a lump over a few weeks and after he left the company following January 2014’s Royal Rumble, he had it examined at then fiance/now wife AJ Lee’s (April Mendez, more on her later) private physician’s office. What the physician found was that Punk’s lump was endemic to the MRSA-level staph infection. If not diagnosed and treated, he was risking possible death. Wrestlers get staph infections often, actually. Wrestling rings are obviously 20 foot x 20 foot germ containers, – that from being stored in damp and dank semi-truck trailers and then having upwards of 100 wrestlers rolling around in them wearing shoes and gear that are exposed to the elements – could easily have more than a few performers develop infections from even the smallest of open wounds picking up a mat-living virus or two. Working for a company wherein talents are routinely putting their bodies at the risk of such danger is something that any corporation should obviously frown upon.
Punk was required to wrestle talents who were in some cases ill-prepared to be wrestlers for WWE, a company that purports to be the top-tier wrestling company in the world. This situation is caused by the company giving these wrestlers opportunities based on their physical appearance more than their in-ring acumen and ability to wrestle in a manner where their opponent can be assured a certain level of physical safety. Also, Punk was granted numerous sponsorship opportunities because of his socially progressive, punk-rock loving, straight edge and devil may care persona. As any corporate employee would do, he approached WWE about these opportunities, only to see them not granted to him, but to other employees with whom they may have been better aligned from a branding standpoint. While seemingly something small, in a situation where you’re performing injured and attempting – against what you perceive to be better logic – to go along with company regulations, these small slights add up and turn into major concerns.
On June 13, 2014, CM Punk was five months into his self-imposed and contract-breaking exile from WWE and decided to get married to his then fiance and still-WWE employee AJ Lee. He was not receiving regular royalty checks for merchandise produced by the company bearing his likeness and was concerned that the company’s soon-to-be released yearly video game was going to have in-game storylines that were centered around him and his wrestling persona. Wanting nothing more than to be left alone by the company, he threatened legal action on both fronts, and intriguingly on his wedding day, was served papers from WWE terminating his at-will employment contract. Purposeful? Possibly (and WWE head honcho Vince McMahon on a podcast with WWE legend “Stone Cold” Steve Austin admitted it was not, an idea disbelieved by an incredulous Punk). A low blow? Absolutely. A seemingly fitting end to a bizarre tale of a corporation handling business in the modern age? Most definitely.
Whether in WWE or UFC, CM Punk is an independent-minded mainstream celebrity that wanted to be afforded respect and a level of common decency befitting an employee of a publicly traded corporation who earned $20 million dollars while being employed by the company over three years (which likely means an untold level of earnings for WWE overall). In being treated on every level like less than the level of employee that he rightfully thought himself, he was certainly justified in leaving. However, insofar as WWE’s future, the company employing wrestlers who are fully aware of the obviously less than traditionally corporate structure of the company makes WWE look like evil overseers owning slaves moreso than a progressive-minded pro wrestling outfit.
CM Punk’s disruptive moves showcase just what happens when antiquated industries move into the modern era. Doing so in a piecemeal format leaves open a space for situations like these to occur. Does that then make CM Punk a martyr for employees of staid businesses facing a wild new age? Well, if he’s knocked out in his UFC debut, it would certainly seem that the result would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.