It is inevitable that comparisons will be made to former in-ring WWE rivals CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Now that both are retired I thought it would be fun to look back at who had the better WWE run, Bryan or Punk.
It’s hard to believe that it was just a little over two years ago that both men were heading onto WrestleMania 30. The Royal Rumble 2014 would change destiny for both men as frustrations boiled over and Punk quit a day later and the Yes! Movement had officially taken over. Today neither are likely to ever wrestle again in a WWE ring or any ring at all.
The similar trajectory and in-ring rivalry in the WWE will forever have these two greats joined in history. While both took different paths to reach the pinnacles of their success in the WWE, the roads looked a lot alike. But at the end of the day whose peak was higher and will have the longer lasting legacy in WWE history?
Let’s take CM Punk first. Punk entered the WWE in 2205 after spending approximately five years on the independent scene. Going into the WWE there is little debate that Punk was the hottest free agent on the indys. Fans expected big things while cynics never expected Punk to get past ECW. There was no doubt that it was going to be a uphill battle for Punk to succeed in the WWE.
Punk had what I would call a “fluke” WWE title reign by story a few years later after cashing in Money in the Bank. While he was technically champion, he was hardly booked like a top guy by creative. He was a solid hand and he finally started to break out with feuds against Undertaker, Randy Orton, and Rey Mysterio.
Punk turned the corner in 2011 when he played on the real-life contract negotiations between he and the company. The company shot one of the greatest angles with Punk, turning his real-life frustrations into a story. The story peaked with one of the most memorable moments in WWE history when Punk defeated John Cena in at Money in the Bank to win the WWE title as his “contract expired.”
What could have been the launch of the next face of the company turned out to be one of the most botched angles in company history. Punk returned after only a couple of weeks on the sidelines and dropped the belt on his first night back. The legacy of that angle will go down as one of the all-time greats, but the true impact fell way short of what it could have been.
Arguably the peak of Punk’s success came when he filed 434 days as WWE world champion. While the 434 days looks great on paper, the run was hardly what you would expect of a guy that had 434 days as champ. He was never truly positioned as the top guy, always taking a backseat to John Cena. I think there is a fair argument to be made as to whether his 434 day title run or brief “Summer of Punk” angle in 2014 were his peak in the company.
Daniel Bryan’s road to the WWE was paved with similar obstacles but was a much longer journey. While Bryan had a developmental run early in his career, he didn’t truly make it to the company until 2009, almost ten years after starting in the business. Unlike Punk, Bryan would have two short stints with the company before starting his last and most memorable run in the company.
Ironically like Punk, Bryan also had a “fluke” WWE world title win before he truly broke out. Bryan defeated the Big Show, cashing in his MITB like Punk to win the world heavyweight title. Like Punk, Bryan was booked like a fluke and not taken seriously by creative. It wasn’t until a feud with…CM Punk that Bryan started to turn the corner.
Debuting the “Yes” chant, taken from UFC fighter Diego Sanchez changed Bryan’s entire career. It was a chant just like “What” which caught on rather quickly. Instead of running with it, the entire thing was turned into a joke with Team Hell No. However, Bryan’s talents shined through in matches against the Shield and there was no denying that the company was onto something.
Bryan finally got his first real WWE world title run after defeating John Cena, the same guy Punk beat to earn his first “real” title win (see a pattern here). Unfortunately Bryan’s run didn’t last as long as he was beaten by Randy Orton and ridiculed weekly by Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. The WWE thought they could control their own fans but what they never counted on was the chant going viral with fans outside of the WWE pulling for Bryan.
Bryan finally got the ball shortly after Punk left in the winter of 2014. This started what culminated in what was one of the greatest WrestleMania performances in event history as Bryan had two outstanding matches to open and close the show. It was all uphill for Bryan until injuries began slowly chipping away and he had to vacate the title in May, ending one of the most fun three-month runs in company history.
While Bryan returned later that year, he was never booked as strong as he was during his run through Mania 30. Bryan was relegated to the intercontinental title at WrestleMania 31 and looked like he was heading towards a feud with Sheamus before his final injury took him down. Who knows what would have happened if the company picked right back up on his push when he returned at the Royal Rumble last year?
So what you have here are two guys that peaked only for a brief time before being cut off by different reasons. It’s incredibly ironic if you think about it (especially when you add in that both men met their future wives in the WWE). Punk’s peak was undoubtedly his angle in the summer of 2011 from June-August while Bryan’s peak was unquestionably his run from February-May in 2014. It’s truly amazing when you really think about it.
I think Punk had the better body of work but he never had the WrestleMania moment that Bryan had. Not only did Bryan have a WrestleMania moment, he may have had the best in the history of the event. Plus, Bryan’s Yes! Movement went viral, far outside of pro wrestling whereas Punk never had anywhere close to that kind of impact, even at his hottest in the summer of 2011.
By body of work, Punk gets the nod. If you are going to judge this based on impact, I go with Bryan. In the end I’d probably say that Bryan had the better run and will probably have a greater legacy, especially with the dramatic retirement speech, something Punk never had.
Yet in the end both guys were incredibly important to the history of the WWE. If not for Punk breaking down barriers there is a great chance that Bryan would have never been hired back by the company. If not for Bryan breaking down his own barriers, guys like Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, and AJ Styles may still be on the outside hoping to get in.
In the end there are no losers here and I can’t imagine any two guys having the comparable WWE careers that Punk and Bryan had. Both should be celebrated today, tomorrow, and for years to come.