A full decade ago, then-WWE superstar CM Punk’s logo featured a lightning bolt in a hand.
It’s fitting, because that’s exactly what Punk and WWE were able to do throughout the summer of 2011: capture lightning in the palm of their hands.
That stretch from June through July, known as the “Summer of Punk,” was the hottest thing in wrestling at the time, and is still remembered to this day as one of the greatest angles in WWE history.
While it’s common to look back in hindsight and label something as “great” or “game-changing,” it was easy for WWE fans at the time to see that something monumental was happening before their eyes, and all they could do was sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
When the angle started in June of 2011, as Punk announced publicly on Monday Night Raw that his contract would legitimately be running out after that July’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view, the lines between what was a “shoot,” or real, and what was deemed “kayfabe,” or scripted, were blurred.
At first, it all seemed like a way to hype up Punk’s upcoming title match against John Cena that was taking place during what is normally a slower time period for WWE storylines. If anything, it looked like it could just be an entertaining way to write Punk off of WWE television as his contract expired.
Instead, when the June 27, 2011 edition of Monday Night Raw rolled around, the storyline turned from something warm into the hottest product WWE could ever put together.
That June 27 episode of Raw is remembered simply for one word: Pipebomb.
At the end of the episode, Punk went nuclear on the microphone, delivering a promo that many believe even tops “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s “Austin 3:16” promo as the greatest in the company’s history.
He delivered a verbal beatdown on a who’s who of WWE royalty, and no one was off limits.
John Cena, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Triple H. All of them fell victim to Punk’s verbal onslaught. Even Vince McMahon, Punk’s own boss, caught some shots, with Punk saying that he “would like to think that maybe this company would be better after Vince McMahon’s dead.”
The slew of comments led to Punk’s microphone getting cut before a supposed story related to McMahon and WWE’s anti-bullying campaign, and Raw went off the air abruptly with Punk screaming to the crowd.
Fans instantly went to social media to talk about the historic moment, wondering about everything they just saw. Was it planned? Did Punk go off script? What would happen next?
It all played perfectly into Punk and WWE’s hands, and led all parties down a road that culminated with a highly-anticipated main event at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view on July 17, 2011.
Based in Punk’s hometown of Chicago, the Money in the Bank pay-per-view was built perfectly. Punk’s future was in doubt all the way through the night, with announcers perfectly selling the fact that Punk was refusing to accept any of WWE’s “lucrative” contract offers ahead of the main event.
Combine it all with the stipulation that Cena would be fired if he lost his title, and no one had any idea how the situation would all playout.
It all led to one of the most iconic matches in WWE history, and the type of magic that has become impossible for the company to replicate in the 10 years since.
After a perfect video to promote the match, WWE fans in Chicago were red-hot as they waited for Punk’s entrance, one that many believed could be his last in a WWE ring.
When “This Fire Burns” began belting through the speakers at the Allstate Arena in Punk’s hometown, it was almost impossible to hear the actual song through the ear-shattering pop that the “Best in the World” received.
Generating that kind of reaction is every superstar’s dream. It means that you’re the money, and the type of character a company can truly get behind. In this case, it was evident that Punk had built up his case to become the face of WWE.
But, only a select few, including Punk, Cena, McMahon and a few others, knew the answer to the question: “Is it too little, too late?”
When Cena came out after Punk’s hometown parade to the ring, it was the equivalent of the reaction to Cena’s entrance at ECW One Night Stand in 2006. You could even tell that the volume for Cena’s entrance music had to be raised to be heard over the raucous chorus of boo’s that were raining down on him.
All that was left at that point was the match, and what was undoubtedly going to be one of the most important finishes in WWE history.
For 33 minutes, Cena and Punk put on a clinic as only they could. Their chemistry throughout their time together in WWE was unmatched, and everything they ever did together was golden. But, on this July 17 night in 2011, they did exactly as previously mentioned: they caught lightning in the palms of their hands.
Everything they did generated a reaction, and fans were on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the match. The action was back-and-forth, and neither wrestler looked like they were getting out-shined by the other.
Between the technical skills of both wrestlers, and the combination of Punk’s athletic abilities with Cena’s sheer strength, the product the two superstars put together was every wrestling fan’s dream.
But, you knew the match wasn’t going to end “clean,” meaning with a cookie-cutter finish. Something had to happen at the hands of someone external.
In this case, that external someone was none other than Vince McMahon.
He and John Laurinaitis, one of the people who caught ricochet shots during Punk’s pipebomb, waltzed down towards the ring, and tried to end the match in controversial fashion by attempting to ring the bell to make it seem like Punk tapped out.
Instead, Cena made sure that didn’t happen, punching Laurinaitis and telling McMahon that it wasn’t going to end like that.
Punk took advantage of the moment, hitting Cena with his “GTS” finishing move to pick up the most important win of his career.
The excitement from the hometown fans for Punk’s victory, combined with the doubt about what would happen next, led to one of the greatest crowd reactions WWE has ever seen for a WWE title win.
When McMahon tried his best to thwart Punk’s efforts to leave the arena with the WWE Championship, the Chicago-born superstar overcame all of the odds and ran through the hometown crowd to escape, even blowing McMahon a kiss on the way out.
At that point, it was assumed that Punk would be returning to WWE at some point in the future, as McMahon realistically wouldn’t allow a wrestler to win the company’s biggest prize, only to walk out of the company and take their talents elsewhere.
But, for one night, and a monthlong stretch beforehand, everyone watching McMahon’s product was able to do so without any real inclination of what was going to happen.
Everything that happened after that July 17 night can be debated until the end of time.
The length of time between Punk’s title win and his return to WWE a few weeks later is criticized frequently. The decision to take the WWE Championship off of Punk at SummerSlam in August, rather than capitalizing on his worldwide stardom and unmatched momentum, is ridiculed constantly.
And, most importantly, how the company treated Punk two years later, which ended with Punk walking out of the company for real, is one of the frequent “What if?” scenarios that wrestling fans talk about to this day.
But, as much as fans will fault WWE for everything that happen after August of 2011, you have to appreciate what the company and Punk were able to produce throughout that once-in-a-lifetime summer.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “lightning never strikes the same place twice.”