Not since Chris Benoit and Eddy Guerrero represented their respective brands have there been two distinct wrestling champions who rivaled one another as well as CM Punk and Daniel Bryan.
For those who missed Super SmackDown LIVE (judging by the ratings, it may have been many), you missed a solid show that main-evented CM Punk versus Daniel Bryan. Although it broke down into what I’m calling the Great Pissing Contest of 2012 between John Laurinaitis and Teddy Long, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan still went back and forth for almost a half hour.
Rumor is they will do it again on RAW.
While another match between Punk and Bryan would be a win for wrestling fans, it would do little to answer the question I am posing here.
Which is: Who is the best in the world between CM Punk and Daniel Bryan? Champion versus Champion, based on their work since December 18, 2011, who is the best in the world right now?
The conversation has to begin with CM Punk.
It can be argued that all the success we’ve seen from CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and even Zack Ryder, came because of the wave of momentum we now know as the summer of Punk.
Remember that June 27th promo?
Of course you do.
Aside from the fact that I have eyes and ears, do you know how else I knew that night was special? I got a text from my buddy who doesn’t even watch wrestling. He wanted to know if I had seen CM Punk on RAW and if it had been real.
I knew what he meant when he said “real” (a term wrestling fans know better than to use). But I listened to the Punk promo that night—in context of his question—and felt every word spoken truly belonged to CM Punk.
So, I responded: Oh yeah. It was real.
In a business that is often dominated by rehearsed promos and wooden emotions, CM Punk deserves credit, above all else, for bringing authenticity to the forefront again.
And from the pathway created by Punk emerged Daniel Bryan.
Let’s be clear: Had it not been for the summer of Punk, there is no scenario where Daniel Bryan would be heading into WrestleMania 28 as a world champion.
It just wouldn’t be so.
When Bryan had the briefcase, he promised to cash it in at WrestleMania 28 (and even that was more than his fans dared to dream a few months ago).
After all, he was Daniel Bryan—the only man who had to cash in the same briefcase twice to become a heavyweight champion once.
Remember the RAW in Philadelphia following TLC?
You know, where CM Punk gathered his by-products (Ryder and Bryan) under his wing.
Now, I’m not saying this wasn’t a special moment in WWE history—it certainly was. And I’m not saying CM Punk wasn’t authentically happy for the new champs—indeed he was. But I am saying that CM Punk is intelligent and is a competitor and the takeaway from that promo, of which is not lost on Punk, is that these are the men who became champions because of Punk. Ryder and Bryan (and potential WWE Ice Cream Bars) are the evidence of Punk’s summer struggle.
And it’s a good thing he had such strong evidence on December 19, 2011. I’m not sure it has been as clear since that day.
Instead, there is a trail of evidence that leads from December 19 all the way to the words of this column.
And that trail leads to Daniel Bryan.
If 2011 gave us the summer of Punk, 2012 is now giving us the winter of Bryan.
No, it didn’t come in one promo. Nor did he threaten to quit the WWE. Nor is he riding a mega-wave of momentum. It has happened, instead, match upon match and promo into promo, so that some of the greatest stories and rivalries in recent history have now been created at the hands of the world champion.
Daniel Bryan has become the Tom and Jerry champion, escaping within an inch of his life by means of the count out, disqualification, and even by way of the love of AJ. The level of villain Bryan has portrayed—that he has become—is so strong that the only problem facing WWE is that there are more people seeking retribution against him than time to let it all play out.
It is ironic, I suppose, but the Vessel of Veganism has become the most hunted man in all of WWE.
Line them up, like Ryder and Bryan after the summer of Punk. Line up the evidence surrounding Daniel Bryan.
There is the Big Show, who, against Bryan, with the assist from AJ, has done some of his best work in years in a rivalry that, to this day, remains unfinished.
And then there is AJ. While I am a fan, her last promo with Michael Cole proved she might not be main-event ready, yet she gets to improve under the brightest SmackDown spotlight because she stands next to the champ.
And Michael Cole. Has he ever had a more complex relationship than the one he has with Daniel Bryan?
Add Randy Orton to those names. It doesn’t take the excuse of a concussion to make me excited to see another Randy Orton/Daniel Bryan title match.
And for those of you who followed NXT: Did you ever imagine the day that the Miz would appear on Bryan’s show in hopes of revitalizing his career through his former Rookie?
Bryan has that touch right now. It’s not the Midas touch—he already has gold. Bryan has a touch far more coveted in professional wrestling: Everything he’s touched since December has turned to intrigue. Bryan is so in-demand that it has been difficult to see him transition to Sheamus. For the first time, simply winning the Royal Rumble isn’t enough when the champion has built so many storied and unfinished rivalries in such a short amount of time.
And what about Punk?
Nobody expected him to maintain summer of Punk level momentum. If anything, WWE assured that wouldn’t happen.
While I’m not here to say he is losing steam, neither am I sure he is gaining any.
A friend and fellow writer presented me with the best of CM Punk since December, and it’s nothing to ignore. From the TLC match to the contests with Ziggler to the simple fact that he has maintained his status despite being booked with John Laurinaitis, CM Punk has remained credible in his claim that he is the best in the world.
And there was a moment today I almost believed he actually was.
It came as I watched his promo with Foley and John Laurinaitis in January 2012. It was clear from the moment he opened his mouth—RAW still belongs to CM Punk. He owns Laurinaitis like Austin owned Vince. As he rose in voice and assertiveness, the crowd rose with him and Mick Foley stood back and watched, not as a wrestler, but as a fan.
It reminded me that on any given day—in the ring or in promo—CM Punk could still be the best in the world.
Just not today.
In the context of the last two months, as it stands right now, CM Punk is not the best in the world.
For my money, the best in the world right now is Daniel Bryan.
I know there will be some who disagree. Those who love CM Punk and follow RAW closely—you think Punk is the best in the world right now? Fine. Tell me why.
If you think it’s Bryan, tell me why.
One thing that strikes me as I close this conversation is once upon a time the future remained wide open for both Chris Benoit and Eddy Guerrero. Those two men finished out in ways completely opposite of one another, ways we couldn’t have guessed and ways, in one regard, we wouldn’t have wanted to.
In a sense, their spirits have been reborn in CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, and, as was evident in Philadelphia, ECW has been reborn in Ring of Honor.
There is best in the world for a day, a month, a year, or even a career.
But it’s not how you start or even how you continue, but how you finish that counts as well.
Here’s hoping this debate can go on for many years and that both men can finish with the same integrity they have carried to this day.