Historic SummerSlam Feuds (Part 1): Jeff Hardy vs. CM Punk

After CM Punk won his second Money in the Bank briefcase, the WrestleMania crowd booed him. They were tired of CM Punk’s vanilla character and surprised he won the MITB, due to him having little build or coming off any interesting feuds beforehand. The few people who followed CM Punk’s career outside of WWE knew what he was capable of, portraying a babyface or heel; but, at the time, WWE was not giving him interesting enough content or the ability to convey his aptitudes.

Conversely, the fans were vehemently supporting Jeff Hardy. No matter how many times Hardy came up short in title matches, the fans never jumped off his bandwagon. In fact, he was very analogous to Tommy Dreamer in ECW. The more Hardy lost, the more sympathetic he became. He was undersized, fearlessly willing to throw around his body, and possessed an abundance of perseverance and resiliency.

At Extreme Rules 2009, Jeff Hardy faced one of his arch-rivals, Edge, for the WWE championship in a ladder Match. In a creative and inventive match, Hardy overcame the Ultimate Opportunist’s bag-of-tricks, becoming the new World Heavyweight Champion. Because of Matt Hardy turning on his brother, Jeff Hardy’s first title reign quickly ended. But, before Hardy fans could breathe a sigh of relief, hoping this will be Hardy’s first true title reign, CM Punk crashed the party and stole the title from Hardy.

Despite most of the crowd disliking Punk, he did not turn full-fledged heel. Instead, he played the victim who did nothing wrong and does not know why people suddenly dislike him, especially considering he did the same thing to Edge last year and the fans were happy for him. It was ultimately a smart decision to do a slow-burn CM Punk turn because WWE got much more content out of it.

CM Punk’s character was more-or-less like Bret Hart in 1997. HE did not really do anything wrong. He just happened to screw over someone the WWE audience liked more than they did him. At The Bash 2009, Jeff Hardy receives a change to regain the title over the "undeserving" champion. In the match, Jeff Hardy was the superior wrestler, and CM Punk seemingly had little chance of keeping the title. That was until CM Punk kicked the referee in the head, which resulted in him keeping the title off a DQ. But the story coming out was not CM Punk turning full-fledged heel. It was whether CM Punk meant to do it. CM Punk was "suffering" an eye injury. His defense story was he did it by accident, whereas Jeff Hardy’s defense story was he did it on purpose.

For the buildup to Night of Champion, CM Punk took personal shots at Jeff Hardy about over drug problems as retribution for Hardy not believing his eye was hurt and questioning his integrity. CM Punk also portrayed his holler-than-thou Straight Edge persona, pointing out how he is superior to those who do drugs, drink alcohol and smoke. CM Punk said Jeff Hardy’s chances of winning were less than zero, but Jeff Hardy ended up defeating CM Punk at Night of Championships in a highly competitive contest, in which Hardy was on his game playing the plucky, sympathetic babyface and Punk on his game his heelish tactics, facial expressions, and vicious offensive attacks.

CM Punk received his title rematch on Smackdown, and lucky for him, Vince McMahon named Matt Hardy, who just came off a heated feud with his brother, the special enforcer for the match. After the referee became unconscious, Matt Hardy stepped in as the referee. Yet, for some reason, he did not help the person people expected him to. He made a fairly fast-count, costing CM Punk the title. CM Punk viciously attacked Jeff Hardy and then demanded his rematch. Teddy Long voiced that Punk would get his rematch at Summerslam – if Hardy was physically able to wrestle – but it would be a Jeff Hardy specialty: a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match.

In the buildup to their TLC match, CM Punk ferociously targeted Jeff Hardy’s head and neck area and articulated Jeff Hardy’s in the moment lifestyle will cost him the TLC match. CM Punk’s promise ended up being true. CM Punk wrestled a smart match, in which he hardly took any bumps, and instead zeroed in on Hardy’s injured neck and head. He did this so when Hardy did high-risk moves, they affected him more than they affected Punk, even when Hardy perfectly executed the moves.

Their TLC match was more analogous to the HBK vs. Razor ladder matches than the wild, crazy and spotty Hardy TLC matches we were accustomed to seeing. The ladder was an ingredient used to convey the match’s arch-plot instead of being used as stunt machine. In the match, Hardy was the superior athlete and wrestler and felt at home in this type of match. He lives in the moment with no caution. Unlike Hardy, CM Punk studies and thinks about things, which means he does not go into a match without a plan.

Jeff Hardy is also a showman. As much as he wants to win, he wants to give all his fans a show to remember. However, his extreme care for his fans’ appreciation sometimes leads to his downfall, and it was why he lost the Summerslam match. Hardy did not have to perform a Swanton off the ladder, nor did he have to pander to the crowd whilst making his way up it. He did both, though, because he lives in the moment and cares for his fans, but he ended up hurting himself and it costed him the match. And, as a conceited heel should, CM Punk, the inferior wrestler, somehow managed to win – which, of course, pisses off fans much more than when the villain fairly conquers their hero.

In addition to the exquisite storytelling, the other reason this TLC was so awesome was due to the selling. From the way they made everything look dangerously painful, the way they fell back to the ground after they delivered a desperate move due to exhaustion, to the way they had to use the ropes to pull themselves up, all elevated the brutality and drama of the match.

Without a doubt, CM Punk vs. Jeff Hardy’s feud was an exemplary illustration of how to write a compelling story. Its most admirable characteristic was its progression. It was a multi-layered feud because WWE kept adding new components to it each week (which is what makes serial television worth tuning into each week, to either the anticipation to see something promised or being intrigued to see which direction a story takes next). Furthermore, their matches together did the same, as they kept getting longer and better after each one. The story kept evolving and the abhorrence did too, as WWE even interjected real-life elements into the conflict to make it as personal as possible, and both wrestlers personified their roles to perfect. And, if you add everything up, it indisputably solidifies this feud as one of the greatest WWE storylines ever.

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