Five Reasons Why CM Punk Was the Greatest Pro Wrestler of This Generation

ByJames Chairman

Just as you can never convince music lovers of a certain age that today's pop radio compares favorably to Nevermind, The ChronicTen or The Low End Theory, so too are wrestling fans who grew up during the Monday Night Wars devoutly faithful to the late '90s as a true Golden Era

But when it comes to the WWE, it's not mere nostalgia. Older was better. 

Fact is, pro wrestling was on a downward trend even before Triple H sexed up the corpse of Katie Vick in 2002 — a cynical nadir that lay bare how far the organization had strayed from the brilliant, inspired storytelling of its heyday. 

Sure, there have been a handful of fun moments in the decade since, but all things considered, the lone beacon of light during an otherwise staid era has been CM Punk.

Antihero. Iconoclast. Straight-edge talisman. One of the WWE's biggest stars.

And now he's gone.

On Tuesday, Punk was moved from the main roster to the alumni section of the WWE's website. The tweet that followed merely confirmed suspicions that had floated about since he'd walked out of the company in January before a broadcast of WWE Raw.

In no line of work is retirement as malleable a concept as pro wrestling, where comebacks are traditionally as common as winter colds. But there's reason to believe Punk's farewell is not a "work" (industry parlance for a deception) — not least due to the 35-year-old's mounting dissatisfaction with the company and whispers of concussion issues.

If this is indeed the end, Punk walks away as, beyond question, the greatest performer of his generation and something wrestling fans don't see too often: a true original. Here are five reasons why.

1. He infused Attitude into the post-Attitude Era. 

Kevin Nash and Scott Hall’s invasion of WCW gets the credit for ushering in the Attitude Era, but the true catalysts for the movement were Paul Heyman and his band of misfits in South Philly. Punk not only represented the ECW's renegade spirit metaphorically, but actually held the bastardized WWE version of the ECW belt and was repped by Heyman himself. He embodied attitude, an invaluable counterpoint in the sterilized, PG-rated version of the WWE.

2. He dominated on the stick and in the ring with equal aplomb.

Golden Era superstars like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Scott Hall rose to prominence because their formidable in-ring skills (a/k/a work rate) were equalled by the promos they cut. Kurt Angle and Ric Flair were two of the best ever when it came to elite performance in both facets. At the end of the day, CM Punk could be remembered as a more complete sports entertainer than either. 

3. He excelled equally as a heel and as a face.

Guys like Triple H and Jericho were phenomenal as heels — the dastardly villains in the black-vs.-white, good-vs.-evil dichotomy that embodies pro wrestling — but were never quite over the same way as faces. "Stone Cold" was the iconic face of the Attitude Era, but was never able to get over as a heel.

Punk could convincingly get over as both. And he never changed the core of his character to do so, just used different facets of who he was. He remains an all-time master at crowd control.

4. He convincingly held the strap for a stupid amount of time as a smaller performer.

Vince McMahon has always been enamored by giants: Hogan, Andre, Rikishi, Taker, Diesel, Luger, Kane. So it was no small achievement when Punk held the WWE title for 434 consecutive days — from Nov. 20, 2011 through Jan. 27, 2013 — earning recognition as the longest reigning champion of the modern era.

Shawn Michaels (a/k/a "The Heartbreak Kid") was the first smaller-statured performer to have a significant title reign. In an era when guys don't hold the strap for very long, Punk held the belt for 203 days longer than HBK's longest stint.

5. Pulled off the greatest shoot promo ever.

Was it a shoot? Was it a work? Only Vince and Punk know for sure. What everyone knows is it was very likely the most compelling promo ever cut — and an indelible part of a one-of-a-kind legacy.