Paul Heyman saw greatness in CM Punk and spent years trying to get WWE to see it too.
Punk has gone from favorite of the independent circuit to the longest reigning WWE champ in the modern era, from wrestling in backyard promotions in Chicago to wrestling The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
That's a journey that would have been a long more arduous without Heyman, his guide and friend.
Heyman and Punk's past has become storyline fodder, blending real-life with entertainment. The bond we see on TV between these two friends is made more convincing and given more emotional weight because it is based on reality.
Since Punk's arrival to WWE’s former developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), Heyman has been his advocate and his biggest supporter.
One could say that Heyman was a "CM Punk guy" long before Punk became a "Paul Heyman guy."
Punk had been wrestling for half a decade when WWE signed him in 2005. He was a fiery performer who had excelled with every promotion he worked for. Fans of Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South (IWA-MS) and Ring of Honor already saw Punk in action, roundhouse kicking his way to several championships.
WWE sent him first to OVW in Louisville, KY where luckily Heyman was in charge.
WWE had assigned Heyman to write and produce the OVW developmental television show. Having seen Punk's indy work already, Heyman said that he "was salivating at the opportunity to work with him."
Had Heyman not been there to champion Punk's talents, perhaps WWE would have just let him waste away in development before eventually releasing him. Instead, Heyman continually sent glowing progress reports on Punk to WWE and continually told the company that they had a huge star ready to shine.
While it took years for WWE officials to recognize what they had in Punk, Heyman believed in him before he even saw him in person. He said in a Q&A for USAirwaysCenter.com that when watching Punk on tape, "he came off like a gigantic superstar that was appearing on this small show."
Why then didn't WWE see things the same way as Heyman?
Punk didn't look like other wrestlers for one thing.
He was smaller and had a less sculpted physique than the prototypical WWE Superstar. He wasn't a typical cruiserweight who flew around the ring either. He was a new breed and WWE didn't know what to make of him.
In a column in The Sun, Heyman wrote of Punk, "His subtle heel mannerisms in OVW were that of a seasoned professional and when he was presented as a babyface, his ability to connect with the crowd could not be denied."
Heyman saw past Punk's unique look and saw a man great at telling stories in the ring.
He wrote in the piece in The Sun that WWE called more than 30 wrestlers up from OVW and Punk was not among them.
Seeing the company continue to pass on him was baffling for Heyman. It was as if Heyman was looking at a great work of art and every gallery owner he showed it to just shrugged their shoulders.
"This is not usually what we display," they'd say.
Fast forward to 2006 and Punk and Heyman crossed paths again, this time in a relaunched version of Heyman's old ECW.
He wrote in The Sun, "When I had to build a roster for the resurrected ECW brand, Punk was my first draft choice from the developmental system. That was a no-brainer."
WWE wasn't sure what Punk could offer, but Heyman saw him as a centerpiece of a franchise.
ECW was once the third-biggest wrestling company in the U.S. and one that had a rabid fanbase. This new version was partially built on nostalgia, but also infused with new talent. Heyman was supposed to be in charge of this offshoot before a struggle for creative power ultimately sank it.
He saw working with Punk again as an opportunity to showcase him, but Vince McMahon had a different vision.
Heyman told WWE.com, "There was no doubt in my mind that CM Punk was ready to explode and carry ECW. But because the headbutting had gotten so out of control between me and Mr. McMahon, I couldn't get him on board."
Bobby Lashley was instead chosen as the brand's big star, at least at first. Lashley certainly looked more like a wrestler than Punk, but as we can see definitively now with the benefit of hindsight, Punk is miles better than Lashley.
Heyman, like he'd done since Punk’s arrival, did everything he could to convince the higher ups that Punk was a huge star.
Maybe it finally sunk in years later when Punk joined WWE SmackDown and eventually won two consecutive Money in the Bank ladder matches. Maybe it was Heyman's continued insistence about Punk’s talents that inspired WWE to give him a shot.
The former ECW head now gets more than the pleasure of saying, "I told you so," he also gets to work side-by-side and now face-to-face with a friend and a man in whom he has long believed.
Punk and Heyman's splintering relationship is sure to be one of the highlights of the summer. Curtis Axel and Brock Lesnar are sure to play their parts in the unfolding saga, but at the heart of it will be two men who have been connected for years elevating each other in the spotlight.
Call Heyman a wrestling genius or not, there's no doubt that he is an excellent talent evaluator, stubbornly persistent and in the case of Punk, absolutely correct.
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