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5-Star Match Reviews: CM Punk vs. John Cena at WWE Money In The Bank 2011, by Alex Podgorski

John Cena locks in STF on CM Punk

There are many reasons why, after almost six full years, some fans still chant the name ‘CM Punk’ during WWE programming. This match is one of them. It was a once-in-a-decade storyline, and the last time that a main roster storyline captivated fan interest so greatly. It was the perfect example of blurring the lines between scripted and reality. And the mastermind behind it was none other than CM Punk.

The Story

Punk has spent many years cultivating an image for himself as an ‘alternative’ choice for WWE’s fans. He was the polar opposite to Vince McMahon’s handpicked golden boys. While sitting on a stage on Raw in Las Vegas on June 27, 2011, Punk denounced everything wrong with WWE’s corporate and sanitized product, and lambasted the company in what is still the greatest ‘worked shoot’ promo of all time.

For many people, Punk was their hero. He said things they only wished they could. And WWE seemed to finally be listening to someone like Punk (at least, on camera). He became the underdog, the maverick that spat in the face of the corporate machine. He was the 2010s version of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and was the talk of the entire wrestling industry.

And standing in Punk’s way was his antithesis, the man that exemplified everything Punk had condemned, John Cena. Cena was the poster boy of WWE, representing all the things Vince McMahon liked into one person. He was also the symbol of everything that many fans hated about WWE: he didn’t always wrestle at his best (despite being fully capable of doing so), he was overexposed, he rarely changed, and he was the most blatant child-friendly hero character since Hulk Hogan. Many fans didn’t want to see Cena in the main event anymore and hoped someone would come along and destroy the fake superhero aura he had created.

That is where Punk comes in.

The circumstances leading up to this match couldn’t’ve been more ideal. Punk cut a scathing promo on WWE and those in power and got everyone’s attention. In the weeks after and leading up to this match, Punk continued to throw barbs at WWE management and Cena over how he (Punk) was the better wrestler.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The Match

Before the match even begins, Punk gets an enormous reaction from the local Chicago faithful. Even with many fans dressed in Cena merchandise and chanting his name, those are completely drowned out by the explosive CM Punk chants that reverberated throughout the arena. Despite portraying an antihero character, on this night, Punk entered the arena as a true hometown hero. This crowd’s reaction is amazing because you don’t hear WWE crowds this loud nowadays. They’re completely enamored with Punk, and given how much they hate Cena, you could actually believe the fans would riot if Punk lost.

Speaking of Cena, this is one of his shortest entrances ever. He doesn’t do his usual poses or salutes on the entrance ramp. He heads straight to the ring, serious as ever. And for once Michael Cole actually says something appropriate on commentary: “John Cena is in enemy territory.”

The match begins and Punk lands a light kick to Cena’s leg. They lock up and Punk begins with some chain grappling. Cena briefly takes control and the fans boo loudly. They get a clean break and Cena ducks a spin kick. As the fans chant ‘you can’t wrestle’, Punk toys with the fans asking ‘me?’, and then points to Cena and they cheer loudly once more. Cena takes Punk down and tries a Fujiwara armbar, and Cena takes control by working the arm. Cena hits a shoulder tackle sending Punk down. A light and high-pitched ‘let’s go Cena’ chant is overpowered by a much louder ‘Cena sucks’ chant as the wrestlers continue to exchange holds in the ring. Cena hits another shoulder tackle, but Punk counters with a hip-toss and locks in a headlock of his own this time, which the crowd really appreciates. That’s a perfect example of working the crowd if there ever was one.

They both get up and this time Punk hits a shoulder tackle that knocks Cena down, and then mocks him with his trademark ‘you can’t see me’ gesture. They continue running and ducking each other, and both of them attempt their respective finishers but each man escapes. This is a total stalemate, and neither man has gotten a major advantage as of yet.

Punk goes on the attack with muay thai kicks and then stomps Cena. Cena whips Punk into the corner and hits a bulldog before locking in a front facelock. Punk punches his way out but eats a huge clothesline from Cena, who returns to the headlock as the dueling chants return. This goes for some time but Punk escapes via a back suplex. Punk whips Cena into the corner and Cena does the Bret Hart bump of going into the turnbuckle chest-first. Cena takes control after a few Irish whips and hits a fisherman suplex for a two-count. The match is going great but the commentary is dreadful, especially Lawler who says “I don’t think there’s even one Cena fan in this arena” despite a pro-Cena chant ending literally a second before he says this. If you wonder why WWE’s commentary sucks, here’s your proof.

Cena attempts the AA, but Punk counters with a DDT for a two-count. Punk locks in the figure-4 necklock as the fans chant for Colt Cabana. Cena shows his incredible strength by standing up with Punk sitting on his shoulders, but Punk responds by tossing Cena out of the ring. Punk drapes Cena over the apron and hits an Akiyama diving knee to the back of Cena’s head. Great move targeting Cena’s surgically-repaired neck. Punk tosses Cena back into the ring but his pin attempt only leads to a two-count. Punk whips Cena into a turnbuckle and attempts a running charge, but Cena dodges and Punk goes shoulder-first into the ringpost. Cena tries for the STF but Punk dodges again and pins for yet another two-count.

Punk maintains control with a headlock but Cena gets to his feet and powers out. He whips Punk into a corner but Punk kicks him as he charges, and then hits a diving crossbody from the top rope that didn’t hit all the way for a two-count. Cena heads for the apron clasping his knee, possibly hurt. Punk tries to suplex Cena over the top rope into the ring, but Cena powers out and instead suplexes Punk over the rope out of the ring and onto the mats. Wow, that was a great move.

Cena tosses Punk back into the ring and gets a two-count. He hits another fisherman suplex and a running elbow strike, seemingly no longer suffering any pain in his knee. Cena scoops Punk up but Punk escapes, and then Cena hoists him onto his shoulders and hits a move that somewhat resembles an Emerald Flowsion, only for Punk to kick out at 2.5. They begin trading strikes which leads to the classic ‘yay/boo’ moment, and then Cena locks in an abdominal stretch as the crowd boos. Punk escapes and they hit double clotheslines and now both of them are down. They both get up and Cena does his usual comeback, but Punk escapes from the side suplex awkwardly, and then tries a roll-up which gets a two-count.

Again Punk whips Cena into the corner and Cena dodges a shining knee attempt by Punk. That allows Cena to hit his side suplex, and goes for the Five-Knuckle Shuffle which gets a torrent of boos, but as he taunts punk kicks him in the face, which in turn gets tons of cheers from the fans. Punk pushes Cena out of the ring and then hits a suicide dive through the ropes onto Cena as the crowd explodes in ‘CM Punk’ chants.

Punk tries for a springboard crossbody but Cena ducks and Punk eats the ring mat. Cena hits the Five Knuckle Shuffle as the crowd boos hard again. Cena tries for the AA but Punk lands on his ass (or feet, of you believe Michael Cole) and kicks Cena hard before getting another two-count. Punk then attempts the GTS but Cena blocks it and hits a Gutwrench suplex for a two-count of his own. Cena tries the AA once more, but Punk escapes and hits two shining knees to Cena on the rope followed by a bulldog of his own.

Punk follows this with a springboard elbow and gets another two-count. Punk starts kicking Cena’s chest Bryan-style, but then he ducks one and locks in the STF in the middle of the ring. The crowd begins to cheer wildly for their hometown hero to win, and they cheer extremely loudly when he does.

Punk hits another big kick to Cena’s head which leads to a 2.5-count. Punk hits a diving crossbody from the top rope, but Cena rolls through and shows his crazy strength by lifting Punk onto his shoulders as if that crossbody was nothing. But as he tries to throw Punk, Punk escapes and tries the GTS. He almost lands the knee, but Cena reverses that into another STF. The commentators beg for Punk to tap out as Punk approaches the bottom rope. But Cena sees this and drags Punk back to the middle of the ring and locks the hold in again.

The crowd is roaring for Punk to escape, but Punk somehow reverses the STF into the Anaconda Vice. Cena manages to get to his feet and transition the Vice into an AA, but Punk kicks out of Cena’s killer finisher. The crowd explodes as soon as that happens. Suddenly this is no longer a generic Cena main event, and Punk actually has a chance to win.

Cena ascends the top rope for his Kobashi diving leg drop, but Punk reverses into a Powerbomb for two. Punk again tries for the GTS, but Cena again blocks it, before climbing the top rope again and successfully lands the diving leg drop but again Punk kicks out. Punk gets up slowly and Cena lands a perfect AA but Punk again kicks out at 2.9. That was a close one.

Cena argues with the referee and appears to be smirking as the fans chant Punk’s name some more. He hoists Punk onto the top turnbuckle and goes for the Avalanche AA, but Punk elbows his way out of it and hits a frankensteiner from the top rope. Punk hits a running shining knee with his kneepad removed and then hits the GTS as Cena rolls out of the ring.

Both men are exhausted as Punk tosses Cena back into the ring, but out comes Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis. Punk stares daggers at both of them, and gets back into the ring. That brief staredown allows Cena to capitalize and lock in the STF in the center of the ring. From the entrance ramp, Vince starts gesturing for the ring bell to be rung despite the match not being over, in shades of the Montreal Screwjob. Cena sees Laurinaitis head for the ring bell and breaks the hold and decks Johnny Ace, much to the crowd’s delight. For all his faults, Cena is a man of honor and wants this match decided fair and square, which is admirable for his character. Cena charges back into the ring but Punk was waiting for him, and hits a GTS at last.

The referee and the fans in attendance all count one…two…three.

Winner and NEW WWE Champion after 33:45: CM Punk

Post-match, the bell rings and the crowd explodes in cheers as Punk is declared champion. Vince has a defeated look on his face as the commentators go silent. As Punk celebrates, Vince goes to Lawler’s headset and demands Alberto Del Rio come out to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase. Sure enough, Del Rio runs in but eats a kick to the head and goes down. Punk then escapes through the crowd with the WWE title and blows Vince a kiss as he disappears through his Chicagoans. The broadcast ends with Punk holding up his newly-won title as fans around him roar in joy.

 

Review

This is the toughest match that I’ve had to review to date. It was a truly fun match to watch, and has withstood the test of time, which is more than what can be said about a lot of matches that have been rated 5 stars. But this match is harder to rate because it had so many strong positives and glaring negatives at the same time.

Let’s start with what made this match great. The story going into the match was superb. This match had the greatest build-up of any big-time match in years, and it felt ‘legitimate’ and not like one of WWE’s usual overly-scripted and unrealistic ‘stories’. Because of the match’s consequences, the action was actually captivating, especially during the last ten minutes. Vince and Johnny appearing at the end was a brilliant touch. They were both despised heels, but Ace more so because he had been a direct target of Punk’s previous promos. The tease of screwing Punk over was a perfect decision because it furthered the storyline that Vince and the WWE machine wanted to ruin Punk’s chances in front of his home crowd. Their plan blowing up in their faces made the ending that much sweeter, and turned a great ending into a legendary one.

Punk and Cena managed to put together an impressive match, for what it’s worth. They worked well with each other, they had great reversal sequences, and the near-falls and submission sequences were believable. This made for a rare treat: a WWE match in which the winner wasn’t obvious or easily telegraphed.

Finally, special thanks should go to the crowd because they made this match feel epic. They were so viciously anti-Cena and they made far more noise than your usual WWE crowds. To be a Cena fan on that night was sacrilegious. This Chicago crowd added an enormous layer of gravitas to this match and made it into something legendary. The noise they made when Vince and Johnny Ace came out, and when Punk won and celebrated with his people, was something otherworldly at the time. This was, for all intents and purposes, Punk’s crowning achievement as a professional wrestler at the time, and the fans helped him make it into something even more special.

This match did also have some glaring problems. Watching the actual moves, I felt like both Punk and Cena were ‘going through the motions’, in that they spent a lot of time doing very basic moves and took too much time to bring the crowd into the match. As John Canton said in his original review in 2011, ‘five minutes in and not a whole lot has happened’. In my opinion, a five- star match should have something important happen in those opening moments: one wrestler gaining an advantage, a big bump of some kind, some limb work, etc. I understand that they had plenty of time for this match, but there’s a difference between slowing the pace down a bit and slowing it to a snail’s pace.

As for psychology, there was a lot to be desired in this match. I am a firm believer in the notion of targeting and exploiting weaknesses in a wrestling match. If one wrestler has a history of leg injuries, their opponent should absolutely target that limb in a big match. Even if they don’t, if a wrestler relies on their knee for their finishing maneuver, attacking that body part early on will make that move weaker and will add to the drama later on.

In this match, Punk made a few attempts to target Cena’s neck, while Cena barely concentrated on a body part at all. They had over thirty minutes for this match and Cena barely so much as used any holds other than a headlock and his STF. He did use an armbar early in the match, but it didn’t lead to anything and didn’t factor into the later parts of the match. Sure, his character is meant to be a superhero that never shows any signs of pain or weakness, but that doesn’t mean Cena can’t use some wrestling logic and try and weaken Punk in some way. How hard would it have been for Cena to begin the match by attacking Punk’s left leg or knee, thereby weakening it for his eventual attempt at a GTS later on thin the match?

Then there’s the whole pacing of the action. In a match of this magnitude and with this many big moments, one would expect both wrestlers to be moving slowly and being exhausted towards the end. But Punk was the only one to show any sort of exhaustion or sold the difficulty of his opponent. When he hit his shining knee towards the end, he basically limped towards the corner because he was both tired and was selling Cena’s offense.

Cena, meanwhile, barely showed any sign of pain or exhaustion, and jumped back in the ring for the finish with the same speed and level of energy as when the match started. That really took away the drama of the match because it looked like Cena wasn’t even that badly damaged by all Punk had done.

This was not the John Cena of 2015, who was a much better performer overall. In 2015 matches, John Cena actually learned from his past mistakes and added more moves to his repertoire to make his bouts more dramatic and unpredictable. That level of unpredictability on Cena’s part took away from this match. Cena seemed to only go for a handful of big moves, while Punk had a bottomless pit of tricks to use in preparation for his GTS finisher. In that regard, Punk did way more work in this contest than Cena to make it exciting.

Lastly, this match was dragged down by awful commentary. Michael Cole really showed his flaws in this match, calling the action with the emotion of a wooden plank. He tried his best to bring more energy into it when he begged for Punk to tap, but it came across as forced and unrealistic. He also seemed to do something unusual and actually called Punk’s botches instead of covering for them. Cole’s commentary was great compared to Jerry Lawler’s. Sure, he’s being commanded what to say for the most part, but I’m sure he had some freedom to say certain comments of his own volition. When he mentioned that there were no Cena fans in the building 20 seconds after a pro-Cena chant had ended, it made him sound like an idiot and it took away from the serious tone of this match.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Let me begin by saying that this whole CM Punk vs. the system story was just that: a great story. The promos were outstanding, the insults were fantastic, and Punk’s overall performance as a speaker and as an athlete was second to none in this storyline. But the match itself was not perfect by any means.

In the matches I have reviewed so far, I’ve looked at multiple elements in determining what makes a match worthy of five stars. The crowd, the action, the story, the drama, the selling, the moves, the psychology, the commentary, all of these things are important. While this contest did have some obvious great aspects, the weaknesses shown in the match were too obvious to ignore.

That isn’t to say that this isn’t a great match, far from it. This was a fantastic wrestling match in 2011, and it still holds as one of the best WWE matches of the past decade. Cena definitely proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he CAN wrestle, and Punk showed the world why he deserved to call himself the best in the world. The story they told in the weeks leading up to and concluding in this match is one of the best WWE has ever produced, and this closing match certainly deserves to be re-watched.

But if you do decide to re-watch it, I suggest you find a way to tune out the awful commentary.

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The TJRWrestling bossman John Canton has reviewed Money in the Bank 2011 and he gave the match five stars. Check out that review here.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.

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