Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. The Rock.
Those three rivalries are iconic in the annals of professional wrestling’s long and illustrious history. They captivated audiences and made big, or bigger, stars of those involved and made Vince McMahon’s sports-entertainment promotion a lot of money. Today’s top draw is a feud between the two top, full-time Superstars remaining on the roster.
John Cena and CM Punk have competed against one another in some of the truly great matches in recent WWE history. Their match at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in July of 2011 was an all-time great affair that captured nearly every “Match of the Year” award possible and resulted in a meteoric rise for the ultra-talented Punk.
More importantly, it gave World Wrestling Entertainment something it desperately needed: a legitimate rivalry between two top stars that fans could immerse themselves in.
The two characters, performers and men are so completely polar opposites that the dynamic between them is one that any fan, of any age or sex, can understand. Fans can buy into the issues between them and, as a result, the reaction for their matches is very vocal.
John Cena is the Superstar who was anointed as “the guy” way back in 2005 and has not relinquished his grasp on the top of the card since. He is a tremendous spokesperson for World Wrestling Entertainment, a man who goes above and beyond what is expected as him as the face of the industry. He has, and has had, the marketing machine of the company behind him for a very long time and has felt the hatred of diehard wrestling fans as a result, regardless of whether he deserves it or not.
CM Punk, on the other hand, is a self-made star who worked his way up the independent circuit. He paid his dues, built his reputation and became one of the most critically acclaimed wrestlers in the world. There were clearly no real plans for the Chicago native, however, because he was signed by WWE and immediately assigned to Ohio Valley Wrestling, the then-developmental territory for McMahon’s wrestling empire.
Punk worked his way up the card, but any time it appeared he was gaining momentum as either a babyface or a heel, he had his legs cut out from underneath him and he once again assumed the role of entertaining midcard act.
That changed on June 24, 2011, when Punk took to the Raw stage and voiced his frustration in front of thousands live in Las Vegas and millions watching around the world. Since that monumental promo, Punk has been one of the top Superstars in the sport.
The fan interaction in the Punk-Cena rivalry also assures it will always remain relevant, interesting and profitable.
The general fanbase loves Cena. He is World Wrestling Entertainment’s answer to a superhero. He somehow always manages to overcome the odds and leave the arena with a victory of some sort. He is the hero to millions across the globe and the biggest star the company has had since the heyday of The Rock and Steve Austin.
Because he is portrayed as as superhero in the same vein as Hulk Hogan during the 1980s, so-called “smart” Internet wrestling fans despise him. They hate that he is shoved down their throats on a weekly basis and is typically never put in position to look weak for any lengthy period of time. They boo him in arenas around the world and hurl profanity-laced insults in his direction.
CM Punk, on the other hand, is a conniving and manipulative villain. He calls himself the “Best in the World” and often backs it up between the ropes. He is the antithesis of what Vince McMahon typically looks for in a top Superstar, but his hard work and dedication helped elevate him to the position he is in.
The general fanbase never quite accepted him as the top babyface when he was one from the summer of 2011 until the summer of 2012, and they like him even less now that he has resumed his villainous ways.
Those same Internet diehards, however, support Punk. They cheer his promo skills and promote the fact that he is a far better traditional, technically-sound wrestler than Cena. While most will boo him, they voice their approval with thunderous chants on a weekly basis.
Each man has a very different attitude that also captures fans' interest. John Cena is the performer who tows the company line and, at least publicly, backs WWE's decisions. He is a model employee who does what is best for the company at any given time, to the disapproval of those bored with his “good guy” persona.
CM Punk speaks from the heart, unafraid of whether or not what he says will earn him heat from the boys in the back or those in management. He is very opinionated and will not hesitate to let anyone around him know if he thinks something is good, bad or just plan sucks. He is deeply passionate about the sport of professional wrestling and that passion has gotten him in trouble in the past and will probably continue to do so in the future.
The fans who have become disenfranchised by Cena’s act greatly appreciate someone so brutally honest, even if what Punk says may be something they do not want to hear.
Even the look of the two Superstars is different. John Cena is the clean-cut, muscular gym rat. An ex-jock who looks every bit the invincible superhero he portrays. CM Punk is the tattooed, 222-pound indy star with facial hair and piercings. They are absolutely, positively polar opposites of one another.
And that is why fans will always buy into their rivalry and slap down their hard-earned money to watch them compete against one another.
Much like Bret Hart versus Shawn Michaels and The Rock versus Steve Austin, John Cena versus CM Punk offers fans two very different personas doing battle, often for the most prestigious prize the company has to offer: the WWE Championship. And in that rivalry, fans have the opportunity to get behind and support whichever Superstar they more closely associate with.
Monday night’s Raw will be the most recent clash between the two highly talented performers, and they will, if given time, probably deliver another high-quality bout in a long series of them. The fans will be split (as usual) and the atmosphere will be electric. There will be no elementary-aged jokes, no Twitter trends and no tired catchphrases to manufacture that electricity.
It will simply be two very different men working together to provide the best match they possibly can.
And the fans will reward them, both with their very vocal reaction as well as their purchase of tickets and pay-per-views to see Cena and Punk do it all over again.