2011 turned out to be a year that took a rather unexpected turn. Although that year’s WrestleMania was undoubtedly the worst in years, it ended up leading to one of the best overall years in WWE programming for quite a while. It was a trend that would follow even in 2016, where WrestleMania 32 was met with negative reviews but the overall year turned into a fantastic one.
But that’s five years too far. When talking about WWE programming in 2011, the first name that pops up to mind is none other than CM Punk. It was the year of Punk, even though it took half the calendar year for him to reach that level. But the run that he had in that short period turned out to be one so impactful that it made him a massive star and one of the biggest in WWE – a name who is still missed after all these years away from the company.
The first half of CM Punk’s year began as the leader of the New Nexus and his targeted feud was Randy Orton, who he faced in a rather solid and underrated match-up at WrestleMania 27. He would lose after eating a big RKO mid-air, but he actually looked good in defeat. He would lose to Orton again in a Last Man Standing match, but this was where the turning point of his year would begin.
He would regain momentum in a big way after pinning John Cena on RAW and then defeating Rey Mysterio at Capitol Punishment before securing a WWE title opportunity after defeating Alberto Del Rio. Beating three major stars in a row instantly set him up for contention and this was where the twist was revealed – his WWE contract would be expiring on July 17th, 2011. And he vowed to leave the company with the WWE title.
Except, there was one major aspect of the story that people didn’t know about till later – the part about his contract was true. Punk was, in fact, running out of time on his contract and needed the win. It resulted in the famous “Pipebomb” promo, which shot Punk into a whole new stratosphere of superstardom.
After that promo, he became the voice of the voiceless and the rebellious star who people could get behind. It had been a while since a superstar got that hot and had that much momentum – which meant that no matter how much of a heel he was, fans would not boo him. And after weeks of exchanging harsh words, CM Punk and Cena met in what would turn out to be the most defining night of the former’s career. It happened to be at his hometown of Chicago, which meant that the crowd was always going to be 100% behind him.
And so the day came and Punk would receive the reaction of a lifetime, with the entire arena echoing in CM Punk’s name. Fans had seen many great hometown connections before, but this was unlike any other. It felt as though the crowd would legitimately riot if he didn’t win.
Thankfully, he did win in rather controversial fashion after having one of the all-time great WWE matches against John Cena. The crowd made that match and the sequence of events led to chaos and Punk running out with the WWE title. After “walking out” with the title, WWE wasted no time in trying to crown a new champion. Rey Mysterio won the tournament but lost to John Cena the same night.
It was then that Punk would come in and return, with a legitimate claim towards being champion. Since there were two WWE Champions, they had to unify the titles and that was exactly what happened at the main event of SummerSlam 2011. Triple H was the special guest referee and he would make the mistake of not seeing Cena’s foot on the rope, counting a 3 for Punk and making him the unified champion.
However, Alberto Del Rio would then cash in his MITB briefcase and win the title following an abrupt attack from Kevin Nash on Punk. After this, Punk would have to be on the sidelines of the WWE title picture while he feuded against Kevin Nash and for some reason…Triple H. This turned out to be a big mistake as Triple H beat Punk in the following PPV, derailing a whole lot of momentum. They were two babyfaces who couldn’t get along and it was seemingly a reflection of their real-life relationship, based on Punk’s comments after leaving WWE.
Shortly after this, the WWE title picture became a three-way involving Punk, Del Rio and John Cena. However, Cena would be eliminated from the title picture and more focused on the Awesome Truth and The Rock while Punk began an individual feud against Del Rio. This culminated at Survivor Series 2011 at Madison Square Garden, where Punk defeated Del Rio to kickstart his 434-day title reign. Those five months alone were a roller coaster in themselves and would kickstart an incredible run for Punk, where he spent the entirety of 2012 as the record-breaking WWE Champion – setting a modern record.