Barnett's Blog: What happened to the build between CM Punk and The Undertaker?
By Jake Barnett
Barnett’s Blog: What happened to the build between CM Punk and the Undertaker?
At this point it’s probably not controversial to say that the build towards WrestleMania was not up to the very high bar that WWE has set for themselves over the years. John Cena and The Rock peaked early, leaving the final weeks of their build to languish a bit in the sense that most of the work had already been done. Jack Swagger and Alberto Del Rio never got off the ground, not so much because of bad performances as much as poorly written material, and the attempts made to reinvent the feud in the past few weeks haven’t really spoken to me in any meaningful way.
I have to give credit to Triple H and Brock Lesnar for making me more interested in their rematch than I thought possible, and that’s quite an accomplishment compared to where I was when the match first seemed inevitable. Chris Jericho and Fandango’s feud has also been refreshing in its simplicity and the promise of watching a new character get a chance to prove itself on the biggest Pro Wrestling stage in existence. The rest of the undercard felt rushed together and unexciting, despite the fact that it will likely produce some entertaining moments. There is another feud that deserves special mention here, and it is the reason for this blog, so let’s just get into it.
CM Punk and the Undertaker, from my perspective, has been the most disappointing element of this Road to WrestleMania. It had a lot of potential on paper, but never reached anywhere near my admittedly lofty expectations. The Streak alone is enough of a built in story that you would think they could send The Undertaker out there against just about anyone and deliver something memorable. I was legitimately excited about the match when it was initially made on Old School Raw, and CM Punk made a strong case verbally and physically on that show to get the feud started in earnest.
In his promo that opened Old School Raw, he said he felt robbed by the fans of an opportunity to headline WrestleMania. He was going to take something dear from them, just as they did him, and he was going to end the streak. He claimed to still hold the title of Best in the World, he was the longest reigning WWE Champion in decades, and he was drug free. It seemed in that moment that CM Punk had made was the perfect guy to make an attempt to end the streak. He wasn't intimidated or afraid, he was confident that the time had come for the streak to be over, and he wanted to be that got to rub it in everyone's face.
We all know better about his real odds of ending the streak, but CM Punk went on to win a very good match later in the show, and the Undertaker accepted the match by lighting the stage ablaze as only he can. That whole sequence of events was a home run. Punk had successfully put himself at odds with The Undertaker, had won his way into the match, and the game was afoot.
The day after that Raw, we all got news of the death of legendary wrestling figure and longtime WWE fixture William Moody A.K.A. Paul Bearer. I don’t wish to dwell on the tragedy, as it is irrelevant to this article, but the use of that tragic event on WWE television is my primary complaint with what was to come. Here are the major moments in the story that alluded to or directly mentioned Paul Bearer, and I’ll address them individually.
Week 1 - CM Punk interrupts the Paul Bearer Tribute to get heat: This was a very well done tribute video up until CM Punk's interruption. The way I interpreted the reaction to Punk's promo was a lot of stunned silence mixed in with people who wanted him to go away and allow the tribute to continue. It wasn’t particularly offensive to me, but the crowd reaction was the first sign that the WWE audience wasn't particularly receptive of this tragic real life scenario being the focus of what was already an entertaining story. The content of the promo wasn't in poor taste necessarily, and at the time I thought it might have been a temporary change in direction for that episode of Raw, but I was horribly wrong.
Week 2 – CM Punk juggles the Urn and drops it: This was our first hint that WWE was playing up the fact that the Urn may actually contain something. I didn’t really fathom what was to come at that point, but it seemed to me that neither CM Punk nor The Undertaker was particularly inspired by the change in the direction of their story. CM Punk sounded muted and looked distracted backstage as he juggled a prop urn, and the Undertaker seemed to have to dig deep to display the anger and consternation that would come from such a bombastic display of disrespect. This was also the point where they really stopped giving the expectation that Punk was a legitimate threat to the streak, as they announced that a DQ or count out would result in a loss for the Undertaker. Coincidentally, this was the point in time where rumors were floating that CM Punk was pulled from house shows over creative conflicts. Those were never substantiated that I’m aware of, but if they were real it was definitely evident in this promo.
Week 3 – CM Punk talks to the Urn, and makes little sense: If it were not CM Punk doing the talking in this segment, it would have been universally panned. Punk is brilliant in the sense that he took exceptionally bad material and managed to make it work for him through sheer will power, charisma and talent. Punk tried to say that he didn’t take the Urn to disrespect Paul Bearer, yet he talked to the Urn and addressed it as “Paul” and then slammed it on the ground. He then said he did it to disrespect The Undertaker and gain a psychological advantage, yet The Undertaker hadn’t used the urn as a part of his act in over a decade. It was only introduced into this story to parlay the death of Paul Bearer into a television angle, so Punk’s comments rang hollow and did nothing to deflect the criticism of those who felt the angle was crass and exploitative.
Week 4 – CM Punk bathes himself and The Undertaker in the supposed ashes of Paul Bearer: This segment immediately brought on images from The Big Lebowski where Walter (John Goodman) and The Dude (Jeff Bridges) go to spread the ashes of their mutual friend Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter is so blindingly selfish that he turns his eulogy of Donny into a rant about his own life altering experiences in the Vietnam War, and then scatters the ashes into the wind, where they blow directly back into his face and also cover The Dude. The reason I bring this up is because I find it completely relatable to what we saw just this past Monday. The WWE was so careless in the way that it handled the death of Paul Bearer, that it actually decided to have one of its characters bathe himself and his opponent in fake ashes that symbolized him, and it blew up in their face. It wasn’t shocking or controversial; it was just tacky and classless. The only evidence we needed to confirm this was more stunned silence from the vast majority of the crowd. Aside from the few clowns who were chanting for Punk, the crowd was horrified, and those chanting are presumably the same people who also start “THIS IS AWESOME” chants at the wrong moments at TNA events.
So what did we learn from this? I think it’s obvious that WWE should have stuck with their original plan. There was little to be gained from integrating the terrible news of Paul Bearer’s death into an onscreen story, as WWE has never shown itself to be competent and nuanced enough creatively to do so in a manner that doesn’t devolve into irreverence. What we saw take shape in this story was a callous reminder of this fact. It started out very promising with the original Punk Promo, the four way match, and The Undertaker’s larger than life way of accepting the challenge made to him.
The changes that were made following the death of Paul Bearer led this story on a tangent that it was unable to escape from. No matter what quality of match we receive on Sunday, when I look back on this I will always be reminded of the immaturity of these events and how much promise was squandered by the insistence of merging the real world with the fantasy one. I hope WWE has learned from this as well, and will resist future temptations to craft stories about profound personal tragedies that the medium of pro wrestling is ill equipped to convey.
Questions, comments, and concerns? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @barnettjake.
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