Welcome back to another edition of Retroactive Reconstruction! Here we take a look at abortive, not-quite-there, or downright abysmal gimmicks or angles, analyze what went wrong, before retroactively rebuilding them into something that can last. It's fantasy booking at its finest! Today, we look at an angle that could be best described by the words "Just say no."
Angle Slammin' Season continues, folks!
Let's take a look at an angle where the hero really should have been the villain, and vice versa.
I've avoided commenting or getting very involved in the never-ending CM Punk saga (and let's not kid ourselves. It's never ending.) in the world of professional wrestling, as well as here at cSs, for a couple of reasons. One, I can understand why everyone liked him, but I guess something about him rubbed me the wrong way so I didn't. Two, I recognize the significance of the Pipe Bomb promo…but I guess I'm still a little sore that Cane Dewey didn't go up against it in the Greatest Promo Tournament we had a few weeks back, because I always liked Dewey better. And finally, thinking too much about his anti-establishment gimmick he had for the last few years of his career mades me depressed because it's pretty clear that not a whole lot has changed from the day where he wondered if the company would be better off when Vince was dead. (Why oh why did he forget to mention the alleged Kevin Dunn in the Pipe Bomb? Ah well, can't win them all.)
This Reconstruction, however, covers none of those things. Instead, it covers one of my favorite angles to mock for the cognitive dissonance it required to work out logically, as well as the unfortunate implications it sent to the more-impressionable younger fans watching it unfold in front of them.
I'm of course talking about the infamous CM Punk-Jeff Hardy feud.
I've always been a fan of CM Punk's Straight Edge Society, because in today's day and age that's about as good of a heat magnet as you can get. By and large, we Americans buy…and are large, so the idea of some smug health nut acting like he's better than us doesn't really sit too well with our cultural beliefs. Shut the fuck up about your pescetarian diet already, you weirdo, 'cuz we 'Muricans have Fifth Third Burgers to eat!
It's even better when you have a talented snarker to play the morally-superior high ground like CM Punk could. Okay, let's be honest here. CM Punk was a really, really, really good face. But he was a legendarily good heel. And the Straight Edge Society gimmick was perfect for some good television. You can always hate that sunavagun whenever he shows up on your TV screen. What an asshole...
…But what happens when that asshole makes more sense than the good guy?
CM Punk was initially signed to WWE's brand of ECW, and as our colleague Vectron pointed out, he was crazy over and supposed to be the face of WWECW until Vince decided that Bobby Lashley should hold the title. Oy.
He got his start on WWE's ECW brand, was drafted to RAW over Smackdown, and then at Wrestlemania XXIV he won Money in the Bank, whereupon he cashed in on a weakened Edge (after Batista had beaten the shit out of Edge because he evidently thought Edge deserved it. How Rudetista). Shenanigans (and no doubt Vince's concerns that a guy whose neck was clearly visible can't draw) forced Punk to forfeit the title, but he won MiTB again at Wrestlemania XXV…and cashed in on Jeff Hardy after the latter had had a ladder match against Edge for the World Heavyweight Championship.
You can skip to the end if you want, but truthfully the match between Edge and Jeff isn't too bad itself.
From there, Punk exhibited elements of chickenshit heel behavior, acting as though his eye was bothering him and using that excuse to "accidentally" kick the ref because he "couldn't see him" thus "coincidentally" holding onto his title because titles don't change hands during a disqualification. Hardy, just like the rest of us, called bullshit on Punk, and the latter resorted by turning heel and attacking Hardy.
WHY IT WAS (SUPPOSED TO BE) AWESOME
Punk is a great worker. Before his body starting giving out on him at the end of his run with WWE and he started mailing it in so that he didn't end up in a wheelchair like Dynamite Kid, he was fucking incredible. And Jeff Hardy, at his best, is one of the most exciting Spot Monkeys you'll see in a ring. I might not like the guy, but god damn if the Swanton Bomb isn't visually impressive. Or brave. Or stupid. Perhaps all three.
Also, CM Punk is being given a microphone. Remember, he gave "The Farmer and the Viper" promo for ROH before he even came to WWE, so it's not like he was an unpolished talker. It's a general rule of thumb that if your action movie villain is interesting, the movie's goodness is directly correlated to how interesting that baddie is. For example: See Hans Gruber in Die Hard. I rest my freaking case.
And the inner booker in you starts salivating at the potential spots you can plan out. Hardy goes for a Swanton off the top rope? Have Punk catch him and nail an inverted GTS on the guy. Hardy counter a Punk hit and go for a GTS of his own? See? There's a lot you can work with here. Two ostensibly exciting guys, getting involved in what should be a high-flying feud for the WHC.
Of course, until CM Punk opened his mouth and blurred the line between fiction and reality.
WHAT KILLED THE ANGLE?
Based on my PhD. in GImmickology and my Master's in Anglenomics, I have concluded that there were Four major things that killed the CM Punk-Jeff Hardy feud.
First, the villain was waaaaaayyyy more interesting than the hero.
In fiction, be it comics or movies or books or games or any other medium, a good villain is crucial in order for the story to be interesting. Otherwise, you'll get that creeping sense of "I've seen this story before" where the good guy triumphs over the bad guy without any real worry. And CM Punk, bless his heart, is a dynamite bad guy. He was smug, he was not only sharp on the mic but eloquent, he didn't stutter, he wasn't nervous, and he was also blessed with an incredible sense of when it was time to absolutely chew the scenery.
Me, an over-actor? Why…I never!
It's the perfect blend of a talented in-ring performer mixed with a talented personality to create a well-rounded superstar. (See: The Rock, Stone Cold, Ric Flair, etc.)
On the other hand, you have Jeff Hardy.
The guy is absolutely brilliant…in the ring. His mic skills? Not so much. It's similar to when Goldberg made his debut as the "Face" against Hollywood Rock. Jeff Hardy didn't just have circles get run around him…CM Punk was doing the Reject around Jeff, with one of Punk's hands doing the "U-Can't-See-Me" while his other one was flipping Hardy off. Just a complete and total outclassing in every category.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing on the surface. The villain has usually been more entertaining than the Face throughout wrestling history, for the simple reason that you need a heat magnet that people are willing to pay all the money to see get his/her shit ruined. We're not really interested in a boring heel. We want someone to actively despise. There can be nothing that he says or does that makes us want to root for him.
Second, Punk made it personal and had a legitimate point.
Look…I understand that kayfabe has been dead for a very long time. Longer even than when Mr. McMahon screamed "Ring the bell! Ring the fucking bell!" But one of my least favorite things that has come with this self-aware Reality Era is the shoehorning in of real-life issues that don't work as storyline fodder.
Exhibit A? Anytime someone in TNA accuses an old-timer of trying to repeat WCW's failings. Guys, WCW shuttered its doors thirteen years ago. The key demographic of professional wrestling (if Cena merchandise will have you believe) wasn't even alive when Shane McMahon announced the contract news. We don't care about that shit as a storyline anymore. Find something else to talk about.
Exhibit B? The Edge-Lita-Matt Hardy affair (no pun intended). Just…let's leave it with the thought that I don't particularly think justice was properly handled in this situation.
Exhibit C? CM Punk calling out Jeff Hardy's drug problems.
There's really no way for Hardy to win in this situation. Because while he's characterized himself as a "free spirit" who "isn't bound by the rules," CM Punk lives a hardcore Straight Edge lifestyle. Why does Punk do that? Because he doesn't want to end up an alcoholic like his father (an element frequently used in Punk feuds). Thus, when Punk mocks Hardy and the fans for being lesser to him because he doesn't do any of these things yet Jeff does…you can think that he's an asshole, but there's an element of sympathy that follows. The dude just doesn't want to be a burned out husk of a man. Jeff Hardy seems like he's a "free spirit" because he doesn't want to live a life of responsibility. It's an even more destructive version of Peter Pan. That's not terribly sympathetic.
Also, because WWE doesn't allow its performers (or fans) to reference marijuana in any way shape or form, that left CM Punk to name drop classic vices like alcohol…cigarettes…and prescription medication. Those are…quite possibly the most-commonly known inhibitory substances that are almost always portrayed poorly in fictional media. And they can cause serious, life-lasting damage to someone that abuses them. So if CM Punk, the asshole, is telling me that Jeff Hardy is a habitual abuser of that unholy trinity and that he wants to save Jeff…I might just root for the asshole in this situation.
WWE apparently didn't want us to.
Third, the unfortunate implications this sent to the fans.
Pay attention to the fan reactions during this video.
They start out cheering because they think it's Jeff Hardy, slowly they start booing when they realize that it's CM Punk, and then it just goes downhill from there.
I'm not going to spend too much time hashing out why this was a bad angle, but it becomes uncomfortable watching the heartbroken reactions from female fans (cuz I guess they were marketing Hardy as a heartthrob? I dunno, lady Cagesiders, he didn't strike me as one.) and younger fans (because when we are little we are fascinated with flippy shit that makes us go "WOW!") The way the angle was constructed, the WWE was banking on CM Punk being that much of an asshole that we would ignore the fact that he was the one that was making the most sense.
In that regard, it was a rousing success. Re-watching this promo makes me want to reach through the screen and cinch in an Anaconda Vise on that bastard. But the nuggets of info he peppers his promo with about Jeff Hardy ring true, and they go directly against the subtext of Jeff and Punk's battles.
Never underestimate the subliminal, subtextual message a story holds. Sure, on one hand Jeff Hardy is trying to get the belt off of that chickenshit heel CM Punk (which he did at Night of Champions 2009, but Punk took it back at SummerSlam). But on the other hand, Punk has spun the narrative in a way that says "If you disagree with me, that's fine. I don't expect you to like me. But if you root for Jeff Hardy…you're an enabler for a drug addict. And I'm the bad guy?"
I don't do drugs. I don't smoke. And when I hit legal age I intend to drink responsibly. Why should I cheer an addict, WWE? Shouldn't I root for him to get help?
Which leads us to...
Fourth, Jeff Hardy's real-life backstage problems.
Towards the end of Jeff Hardy's WWE run, his career as a high-flying maniac and habitual usage of barbiturates and other substances started to catch up to him. He had a neck injury, two herniated discs in his lower back, and suffered from Restless Legs Syndrome. And those are just the injuries that we know about.
In addition to that, Jeff Hardy exhibited some bad backstage behavior. On September 17, 2008, Hardy was not allowed to board a flight due to an attendant believing that he was intoxicated or impaired to some degree before boarding (a big no-no). Punk, as you probably saw, mocked that in his CM Hardy promo. Then, on September 11, 2009, a few weeks after losing a Loser Leaves WWE match against CM Punk in a steel cage match…Jeff Hardy got arrested for possessing a mind-boggling amount of illegal substances and drugs. This retroactively proved CM Punk's point all along: Jeff Hardy was an unreliable drug addict. And we were supposed to ignore that and cheer him like sheep.
Oy. Let's get moving.
First things first, this angle probably shouldn't have happened…at least not without some house-cleaning in the background. Here's route number one.
After the airport incident, we're gonna drag Jeff Hardy into our fantasy booker office and stage an intervention. Sort of a come-to-Jesus moment for Jeff about how dangerous this is getting. To help things out (and I know we're a few years early), we're gonna enlist this guy's help.
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Hey, if DDP can pretty much bring Jake Roberts to respectability in general and save Scott Hall from death's fucking door, then I think that he can be a positive force to tell Jeff that "Yeah, dropping this shit will suck. But I guarantee you that you'll feel better once it's done," except that DDP is such a sincere dude that Jeff might actually believe in his somewhat-hokey words of advice, and work on getting better.
Of course, we'll need some time for this to stick. Have Punk attack and kayfabe-injure Hardy so that he's out for a few months resting and recovering.
Which, in turn, would lead to Jeff embracing what I like to call Warrior's Therapy. Want an example?
In one napalm-hot three minute stretch at the end of 8 Mile, Eminem's character removes every piece of ammunition that his opponent could throw at him, and turns the tables. Jeff Hardy (with enough love and support in the background and a shitload of coaching from promo gurus) could pull the same stunt.
CM Punk is onstage, mocking the fans for being enablers and being beneath him, yadda yadda yadda. He makes a crack at Jeff's expense. That's when Hardy's music hits, and he silently gets into the ring and just stares at Punk. AK-47 holes. We're talking through Punk's eyes and directly into his Straight Edge soul. Punk tries antagonizing him a little more about the fact that Hardy was gone, and then makes one more crack about Jeff being a hopeless drug addict before Hardy cuts him off.
"Do you know what it feels like, losing yourself in that mess? (Vague enough to keep it PG, folks) To feel so unbelievably high one day, and then so incredibly low the next? And then to know that everything bad that's happened to you…it's all your own fault? No. Of course you don't. Because you're Straight Edge and because of that choice you never have to worry about any side effects from the stuff that could make the pain go away, at least for a little while. You've never had to worry about what aftermath all that crap'll leave your body in, and the worry and pain it causes your loved ones that maybe you're going to do something too dangerous to handle. You've never had to worry about that. You've seen it, you've witnessed it, but you've never had to personally worry about it. Because you beat it, huh? Well, I got news for you Punk: Yes, I've struggled with demons and yes they've knocked me down again and again and yes I know that it's all my fault. But I'm. Still. Here. I've owned up to my mistakes, and I know that it's going to be a lifelong journey but I'm not afraid because if I can be a hopeful symbol to people out there that are also struggling with problems then maybe I'll climb another ladder, take another leap, and risk it all to let them know that they have a hero that has felt their pain. You've done nothing but sneer at it. That doesn't make you strong. It makes you weak. I fight my own fight. These people fight their own fight. They don't need you to dictate their lives for them, and don't want you to dictate their lives for them. Have some faith in people's better nature. Have some faith that fate isn't a foregone conclusion. In fact, it can twist."
Twist of Fate to Punk. End segment.
But that might be too wishful thinking.
A far more likely (though far more risky) idea would be to book a double turn. Hardy becomes a heel, and Punk a slightly prickish Face. In the background, we keep guys like DDP on speed dial to talk to Jeff and keep him from spiraling down into a nadir of abuse, and we work really goddamn hard on the booking so that the message "Drugs are bad" doesn't get watered down in a bunch of stupid bullshit…and that Jeff Hardy doesn't take this as an opportunity to get even more hooked than he was before.
Just writing about this angle makes me mad. It was literally a no-win situation for everyone involved, yet they went ahead and did it anyway. And now, fast forward a few years, look at how things have changed. Jeff Hardy is gone from WWE, hanging on (sort of) at TNA because WWE decided that he wasn't worth the trouble…and most likely is going to have a hellish physical post-wrestling life because of the high-risk maneuvers that were the staple of his wrestling diet, and the many drugs he abused to numb the pain if only for a little while. CM Punk…is also gone, his own body possibly breaking down under the relentless stress and pain that living the Straight Edge lifestyle forced him to take so that he didn't become an addict himself.
And the WWE machine rolls on.
Well, that was a slightly depressing and frustrating angle to slam. I sincerely wish CM Punk happiness in retirement, and I pray to God that Jeff Hardy finds his way. They both deserve it, for everything that they've given us.
What do you guys think? Agree with my madness? Disagree with my methods? Drop a line in the comments below. For those of you that are new to the series, be sure to check out my profile for all of the previous RR Posts.
Tune in next time, when we look at an angle that could best be described as "Poison."