It’s the battle of the a**holes! All kidding aside, ROH was pretty damn great during its first big run in the 2000s.
The company boasted a deep roster of talented wrestlers, most of whom would later go on to wrestle for WWE. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this that one of the longest-running jokes among the IWC is that ROH was WWE’s developmental territory before Triple H created NXT.
As further proof of that, we have this match. It’s a fight between two former champions in WWE and two of the most talented in-ring performers to ever step foot in an ROH ring. And since both of these guys aren’t really getting much positive attention these days, it’s worthwhile to revisit some of their halcyon days. But was this match of theirs as good as fans said back then? Read on to find out.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-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.
Punk spent many years working his way up the ROH ladder until, finally, he got a title shot. He proved his worth by completing a trilogy of matches against Samoa Joe that did wonders for both his reputation and that of ROH. But that buzz also got Punk attention from elsewhere. His fame reached the WWE and they offered him a contract. And yet, Punk remained undecided on whether or not he’d sign with WWE for quite some time. Eventually, speculation reached the wider wrestling world and loomed overhead during Punk’s final days as a wrestler, which included this match.
This was considered something of a swansong for Punk. By this time it was public knowledge that he had signed with WWE and so he was indeed leaving ROH very soon. But before he’d go there, he wanted to achieve the one thing that eluded him: the ROH World Championship.
But this was no small task since there were many factors working against Punk. First, most people were convinced he wouldn’t win; after all, why would ROH book a title change on a guy that MIGHT leave? Second, he was facing Austin Aries, who was proving himself to be a dangerous threat as champion. From January to June 2005, Aries made seventeen successful title defenses all over the world, sometimes on back-to-back shows. He beat a veritable who’s who of the indy wrestling scene including Samoa Joe, Roderick Strong, Homicide, Bryan Danielson, and a very young Kevin Steen/Owens. Aries fancied himself a miniature Ric Flair with so many successful yet grueling title defenses in such a short timespan. It seemed like no one could dethrone Aries.
But could Punk pull off the seemingly impossible? Could he win despite so many factors working against him? Or would something magical happen with a Punk title win before he leaves for WWE?
This match originally took place on June 18th, 2005. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for Aries’ ROH World Championship. Aries gets a clean break on the ropes and gloats which leads to boos. They exchange technical holds as the commentators note that Aries has an injured neck going into this match. I’m sure Punk’s going to ignore that factor completely here. Punk gets a clean break and on the next lock-up Aries gets a quick shoulder check to Punk’s gut but Punk hits back with a forearm to the back of Aries’ neck. Aries riles the crowd up as they chant Punk’s name and then this time it’s Punk who lands a shoulder to Aries’ gut and Aries hits a forearm club. Punk hits some corner strikes and whip Aries into the opposite corner but Aries flips out of it, runs into a different corner, and hits a springboard back elbow. Then he slows the match down with a headlock takeover. Aries mocks the crowd some more for cheering for Punk but Punk rolls Aries over for a quick one-count.
Punk goes for the same headlock escape every wrestler does in every match but Aries counters and reapplies his grounded headlock. The two trade quick near-falls until Punk counters into a headscissor, which he cranks as tightly as possible to exploit Aries’ key weakness. Aries tries bridging out but it fails. He tries the headstand escape but Punk puts him back down. But Aries is persistent and manages a headstand, which Punk answers by releasing his own headscissor hold and hitting a basement dropkick to Aries’ head and neck. Then Punk lands his own headlock takeover and traps Aries’ arm while locking his head in a grounded chinlock-type move. Aries rolls over for a one-count but Punk tightens and grinds Aries’ head as much as he can. Aries tries escaping with an Irish whip but Punk refuses to let go.
Aries tries a back suplex counter but Punk counters that with yet another headlock takeover. He keeps trying every possible headlock escape but Punk either won’t let go or thinks one step ahead. Then Aries walks over to the ropes to force a break, but Punk’s smart enough to pull him over the rope by his head and do yet another headlock takeover. Aries fights to his feet so Punk goes for the Paul London corner takeover. But Aries counters that with a back suplex. Except Punk doesn’t let go of his headlock despite the impact; in fact, he tightens his hold. Aries fights up again. He tries several Irish whip escapes but Punk holds on and then catches on and counters with a facecrusher for a two-count.
Punk lands elbows to Aries head and then lands a snapmare/kneedrop combo for another two-count. He gets two more two-counts following a dropkick to the back of Aries’ head and then a bridging Perfect-plex. Punk follows with a backbreaker into a bow-and-arrow-/neck stretch, and then punts Aries’ arm and back for yet another two-count. Punk goes for a suplex but Aries lands behind him. Aries goes for a Brainbuster but Punk lands behind him and then rolls him into a standing neckbreaker. Punk follows with a neck crank/elbow strike combo and then lands multiple knees to Aries’ back for still yet another two-count. Punk’s dominating this match so far, to the point that it makes me wonder if he’s really the babyface here.
Punk hits a corner strike barrage but then Aries reverses a corner whip. Punk blocks a charge, elbows Aries on a springboard attempt, and hits a Chris Jericho-style triangle dropkick. Aries falls to the floor and Punk follows with a topé suicida through the ropes which causes the crowd to roar in approval. Punk tosses Aries into the ring and tries an over-the-rope suplex. But somehow Aries reverses it and both men end up on the apron. Then out of nowhere Aries hits an elbow and an apron Death Valley Driver! Big move for Aries. Just like that Aries has taken control.
Aries whips Punk into the barricade a few times to do more damage to Punk’s head and neck. But he tries one time too many as Punk reverses the whip and sends Aries into the barricade with even more force than when Aries did it. Punk tries to follow-up as the crowd chants his name but Aries trips Punk to send him into the barricade once more. Aries drapes Punk over the edge of the ring and lands big forearms and a running knee to Punk’s neck. Back in the ring, Aries hits a springboard splash to Punk’s back and then a quebrada for a two-count. The two have a quick yay/boo strike exchange and Punk looks like he’s making a comeback when suddenly Aries reverses a corner whip and Punk hits the corner hard. the crowd gets more animated as Aries lands a knee crusher/back suplex combo for another two-count. the last pro-Aries chant dies down as the venue is filled with a “you suck Aries, you suck” chant. Their booing gets even louder as Aries drives Punk shoulder-first into a ringpost so hard that the turnbuckle comes undone. Aries covers but only gets a two-count, which gets a big pop from the crowd.
A “let’s go Punk” chant is quickly drowned out by sustained boos as Aries lands a snampare into a chinlock. Punk channels their energy into a comeback…but Aries shuts him down with a high-angle sidewalk slam for a close two-count. Punk hits back with chops and tries to whip Aries into the exposed corner but Aries blocks it and then sends Punk into that corner instead. Aries charges but Punk blocks with a big boot. Aries blocks a tornado DDT and the crowd boos. Punk reverses a corner whip and Aries does the Bret bump and they cheer. A big clothesline from Punk sends both wrestlers crashing down and the crowd goes nuts!
The sustained booing returns as Aries gets up first at the ref’s count of seven. Punk fires up out of nowhere with a chop elbow exchange and they cheer again. Aries reverses an Irish whip but Punk fires back with a flying forearm. Punk hits some clotheslines and a big back body drop. Then he does a hogan-like power-up, blocks a big boot, and lands his Welcome to Chicago double underhook backbreaker. One, two, Aries kicks out. Springboard crossbody. Aries kicks out again. Punk hits two hook kicks, ducks an elbow, and tries the Pepsi Twist. But Aries blocks that and hits a big clothesline. One, two, Punk survives. Punk blocks a Brainbuster so Aries lands a corner dropkick. Punk ducks a running discus forearm but Aries trips him and goes for a jackknife cover. Punk bridges out and lands a backslide. Aries kicks out and lands a piledriver for a two-count of his own.
Aries hits a rolling foreman’s carry slam and teases a 450 Splash. Punk cuts him off and slams him from the top rope. Punk lands a free fall drop followed by a Shining Wizard. One, two, Aries survives. Punk teases the Pepsi Plunge but takes too long setting up and Aries cuts him off. Super Brainbuster! One, two, and thr – no, Punk kicks out at 2.8! Aries goes for the 450 again but takes too long climbing the turnbuckle. Punk cuts him off with a barrage of punches and tries the Pepsi Plunge again. The two wrestlers have a long strike exchange until Aries out-hits Punk. Pepsi Plunge by Aries! Punk kicks out at one! Aries is completely flabbergasted as Punk fires up. Punk acts like indy Hogan but then he walks into a discus back elbow. Aries kicks Punk’s head and then lands the 450 Splash. He goes for a cover and – Punk counters! Punk locks in the Anaconda Vice. Aries gets his foot on the ropes so Punk pulls him away. He tries to lock that hold in again but Aries counters with a crucifix pin. One, two, Punk survivevs once more. Aries tries another crucifix. Punk counters into a TKO and then lands another Shining Wizard. Then Punk lands his Pepsi Plungs. One, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winner and NEW ROH World Champion after 30:26: CM Punk
Note: the match starts at the 21:41 mark in the above video
Post-match, the ref hands the title belt to Punk but Aries snatches it away. Punk’s still delirious over winning and takes a moment to bask in the crowd’s adulation as they throw more streamers at him and chant “thank you Punk”, “please don’t go” and “we will miss you”. Aries and Punk shake hands and then Aries hands Punk the belt. After Aries leaves, Punk grabs a microphone. Now for the cherry on top.
Punk lauds the ROH World title as the prettiest thing in the world and talks about his past struggles around it. He says: “This belt, in the hands of any other man is just a belt’ in my hands it becomes power. Just like this microphone, in the hands of any other man in the back is just a microphone; you put it in the hands of a dangerous man like myself a pipebomb!” Punk talks about an old man who found a snake frozen in ice and took it home to thaw it out and nurse it back to health. And when the snake was nursed back to health, it bit the old man and the old man died. As he lay dying the old man asked the snake why it bit him and the snake called him a stupid old man. Cue the ‘devil’s greatest trick’ promo that MJF referenced at AEW All Out 2022.
Punk continues lambasting the crowd saying he feels sorry for them as they fell for his shtick hook, line, and sinker. The crowd starts turning on him after being so firmly behind him for the prior thirty minutes plus. He closes by saying that he’ll be taking the ROH title with him, effectively starting the (first) “Summer of Punk”. This was such an ingeniously creative moment that Punk re-created it six years later in WWE.
If there was ever a match that really defined what “indy-style wrestling” is, it’s this one. It was 30 minutes of awesome wrestling. It told a great story. There wasn’t much downtime or wasted motion. There was a clear direction and progression in action with a sense of escalation that led to a tense crescendo of a finishing stretch. The match was compelling, competitive, and creative. This is a must-watch match for any ROH fan, any CM Punk fan, and anyone else looking for quality wrestling that has more than just over-the-top characters or flashy moves.
The first ten minutes here featured some of the smartest wrestling from the indies seen in many years. It wasn’t the flashiest of acts but it had plenty of substance. What Punk did early on was set things up in a logical way so that near-falls towards the end would be more believable and exciting. By softening up Aries’ weakened neck and going back to it over and over, Aries would have a much harder time kicking out of Punk’s biggest moves, many of which also target the head and neck. He spent a long time in control until Aries hit a quick elbow to stun Punk long enough to spike him on the apron with a DVD. That was enough of an equalizer to take control away from Punk and make everything thereafter much more tense and competitive. After that point, the match switched from classic, 190s NWA-style grappling to a somewhat flashier and more overt indy-style match with high-impact bombs, strike exchanges, and playing to the crowd. And while there were some brief moments that messed with the match’s pacing – both Punk and Aries took too long ascending the turnbuckle to pose for the fans and got cut off as a result – most of what they did was fun. Both guys took the crowd’s intensity and passion and worked it into the second half of the match. That led to some great last-second counters that both played into the match’s story and played with the crowd’s emotions.
But best of all, this came across as a wrestling match and not a spot-fest. One of the reasons matches in today’s ROH and other companies rarely hold up is because they’re all too formulaic. The formula has changed (not evolved; changed) so that almost every big match these days must have the same nonsensical fluff thrown into every match. Whether it’s dives aplenty, never-ending and somewhat nonsensical strike exchanges, wasted motion through flips and rolls, or over-the-top nonsense that emphasizes surrealism over realism; many more recent matches lack the more believable and sound action shown in this match. Sure, it was slow at first. But faster =/= better. Matches are better when the audience can follow the action without requiring explanation and believe that it makes sense. Both wrestlers had plenty of ideas but kept things simple with classical strategy and logic instead of using every possible trick and risking going too far. It’s more refreshing to see something like Punk target Aries’ neck because it’s a weakness than it is to see two wrestlers just do ‘stuff’ without rhyme or reason. This match had solid pacing, good action, and psychology that made it more digestible than many matches to take place in the years after it happened.
The only thing holding it back, though, was the blatant no-selling at many points in the match. Some of it was done for the sake of emotion, like when Punk kicks out of Aries’ Pepsi Plunge at one to really bring the crowd up. Other moments, meanwhile, were more meaningless and rendered the earlier stuff less impactful, such as Aries moving so smoothly after spending almost the entire first half of the match getting his neck tenderized. By the time the final sprint began, both Punk and Aries moved like the first half of the match didn’t really matter. It was as if they lost the plot a bit and treated that final stretch as a separate entity from the first half instead of everything being pieced together as one seamless piece. Punk regained the plot towards the end by going after Aries’ neck as much as possible, but Aries’ inconsistent selling made it more difficult for Punk than necessary to keep things cohesive.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This is the best match in Austin Aries’ career and among the best matches of Punk’s storied career without a doubt. It’s better than Punk vs. Bryan, Punk vs Joe II, and Punk vs. Lesnar, all of which are highly regarded among Punk fans as some of his best matches. After over fifteen years, it still holds up as one of the best matches in ROH history and a definite treasure from ROH’s old match vault.
There’s something about that mid-2000s era of ROH that had so many fantastic wrestling classics like this one. There’s much more realism and a focus on grappling and logic that has become rarer in recent years. With few exceptions, the wrestling landscape has shifted more towards style over substance in recent years much to the detriment of the idea of wrestling as something serious. Some people like their entertainment goofy and over-the-top; but for those that prefer realism and treating wrestling less like a joke and more like a sport, rest assured that matches like this still exist and can be found if you look hard enough.