On July 9, 2005 – ten years ago today – CM Punk defended the Ring of Honor World championship against Roderick Strong in New York City in a match that clicked on virtually all cylinders. Roderick Strong has not been in a better match since and it stands as one of my favorite Punk matches of all-time. It was one of those great wrestling matches where the circumstances and in-ring work come together to form something unexpectedly memorable.
The match was Punk’s second title defense after defeating Austin Aries for the title on June 18th and immediately turning heel. The title win and heel turn set “The Summer of Punk” storyline in motion. It is difficult to describe just how fresh and exciting the “Summer of Punk” angle felt as it played out in real time. My recollection is that most fans surmised that Punk’s advertised end date with ROH (the June 18th Aries match) was a work all along and that he would drop the title sometime over the next couple months. That was about all that was certain and even then, neither the promotion nor Punk did anything to telegraph that outcome. There was very much a fun “where is this going?” feeling to all of it.
Punk made his first ROH appearance since winning the title the day before this match when he defended versus Jay Lethal on Long Island. The idea was that Punk continued to show up for work and make title defenses while claiming he was going to leave as champion in order to feed his ego and rub it in just a little bit longer. He agreed to defend against Lethal figuring Lethal didn’t stand much of a chance. The match itself was rather mundane. From a storyline perspective, Lethal gave Punk enough of a scare that he showed up in New York City with no intention of defending versus Roderick Strong. Mick Foley and Samoa Joe – who up until that moment were positioned as adversaries – bullied Punk into putting the title on the line in the main event.
During ring introductions and throughout the match, it stands out just how much relative heat Punk received from the fans. You run this angle in 2015 and everyone is cheering Punk for his great heel work, while not holding any ill will towards him for wanting to go to NXT. That is not to say there weren’t fans that cheered Punk in New York and elsewhere during this angle, but it was not widespread. The 2005 landscape was far different than it is now. The majority opinion was that Punk would get a new name, spend several years in OVW, than be spit back out the other side. It was a pessimistic point of view for sure, but not an unreasonable one. In the years since ROH formed in 2002 and the indies became the indies, WWE had a poor track record of using the few indie wrestlers they did sign to their fullest potential. I was in the crowd for Punk’s match with Christopher Daniels a month later and there were plenty of people who felt that Punk was making an obviously dumb decision and they were going to let him know how they felt. Those sorts of feelings resulted in Punk drawing some genuine heat in this match in a way that I am not sure could happen in 2015.
The booking decision to go with Lethal and Strong as the first two challengers to Punk seemed to point to the idea that Punk would be around for at least a few more shows. There was not any reason to believe they were not going to do matches with Daniels and Joe (which were set up on June 18th and earlier this show, respectively) before ending the storyline. Punk’s match with Lethal had largely been straight forward. Punk drew heat and Lethal picked up some obligatory 2-counts late in the match. The execution was not too great – what else would you expect from those guys in 2005 – but the bland structure and layout did not help things. Nobody thought Lethal had much of a shot at winning and the match gave viewers few other reasons to care.
The odds of Strong winning the championship from Punk were only marginally better than they had been for Lethal. The match needed a hook – or several hooks – to avoid becoming another time killer on the way to the major Punk title defenses.
As mentioned, Punk was drawing good heat before the match started due to his smug attitude and the fan’s genuine belief that he was about to make a foolish mistake with his career. Strong was over merely by providing the opposition. To sustain that pre-match anticipation they needed a strong opening segment. They found what they needed by building around a combination of stalling, move teases, and a perfectly balance ebb and flow of high spots and heat building.
Strong’s offense at the time was heavily predicated on chops and backbreakers, even more so than it is today. He was promoted as the hardest chopper in the promotion and the “messiah of the backbreaker”. Strong throws a chop or two early on, with Punk avoiding them. It is subtle stuff and to the credit of the announcers they do not immediately draw attention to it. As the minutes progressed and Strong continually whiffed on the chops, the game plan became obvious. Punk avoided the chops in several different ways. He puts on the brakes, hits the mat, and bails. He ducks under and lands a chop of his own. He ducks under and takes Strong down with a headlock. For a guy who was never and will never be remembered for his execution, Punk’s timing on these counter/evasion spots was top notch.
During the beginning portion of the match – particularly in the first few minutes – Punk bails out of the ring to stall. Really great wrestling stall jobs have a sense of purpose behind them. It can be as simple as establishing that the opposition is just too fast or too big to take head on. It can be that the heel is playing mind games. It can be a case of the baby face having an injury that he does not want to exacerbate with a foolish early match miscue. Stalling works when there is a logical, clear reason for it and the fans buy into that logic.
In this case, Punk did not want to be in this title match to begin with. He thinks he holds all of the cards and there is little sense in doing anything he doesn’t want to do. His sole purpose of even being in the building on this night is to gloat about the master ruse he is in the midst of pulling off. So when he chooses to bail out of the ring rather than run into the back of Strong’s hand, it is understandable because he doesn’t want to be in the ring to begin with. When he jaws with the ringside fans with a smirk on his face, it fits. All the while it is having the added impact of building anticipation.
In addition to the chops, Strong also teases a couple of backbreakers but they are likewise unsuccessful. Punk has him scouted out perfectly. Punk’s role during the angle was that of the master manipulator. Five minutes into this match, it is clear that he is pulling all of the strings.
There is a rhythm to the ups and downs of the opening segment that is reminiscent of Ric Flair wrestling Ricky Steamboat or Barry Windham. Punk executes his game plan as well as could reasonably be executed but it is not perfect execution. There are times where Strong builds some momentum – a necessity to keep the match from being too one dimensional in the early going. Strong rallies on a few occasions by avoiding a move, countering a move, or hitting something of his own. Punk will stooge or bump momentarily, allowing the crowd to believe that the transition is coming. Strong goes for something else – often a chop – and Punk takes him right down with a headlock takedown. That ebb and flow – up and down – rhythm is a huge part of the early match success.
We get a little over seven minutes into the match and Punk is feeling pretty good about himself. As he should be; his plan is working and he is in full control. Punk never gets careless but he does not exactly anticipate his young opponent outsmarting him at this stage. Strong hits the ropes and runs towards the center. Instinctively, Punk leapfrogs to once again avoid any sort of serious contact. Strong is – finally – one step ahead. He slams on the breaks. By the time Punk’s feet into the mat, there is no way he can defend himself. Strong rears back and chops the champion hard across the chest. Punk grimaces and hops around in pain while the crowd pops for the long overdue chop.
At the risk of descending into hyperbole, that chop is the conclusion of a brilliant seven minute stretch that ended as finely as it started. Punk did not necessarily make a mistake, but rather Strong was able to capitalize on the smallest of opportunities. The first chop was not some big dramatic moment. Rather it was Punk doing what he should have done with the leapfrog and Strong being just quick enough to take advantage of it. The work in the opening minutes was subtle enough that it deserved a low key but satisfying payoff. When Strong lands the chop, Dave Prazak states in a matter of fact manner, “there is the first one!” It was a great transition to the next segment of the match.
With the chop monkey final off of his back, Strong can finally mount some offense. Strong pulls off a flurry of moves including the first backbreakers of the match. The crowd gets into Strong’s offense in major way which proves the effectiveness of the first section. Punk is great bumping for Strong and scrambling during this part. The crowd was hot enough for Strong’s flurry that they probably could have gone straight for the attempted near falls right there and then.
The route they do go is for Punk to take over again to build more heat for the actual end run. Having survived the initial onslaught, Punk’s confidence shoots back up. The comeback and hope spots go up another notch at this level, as the simplicity of the early match stuff will not carry the same weight at this juncture. Strong escapes a sleeper hold and goes for a sunset flip. Strong pulls down Punk’s trunks during the struggle which allows Punk to do his best Ric Flair impression as he stumbles around the ring with his bare ass showing. Punk milks this opportunity for all its worth, including getting tossed off the top rope Flair style with his trunks still pulled down. Not playing the segment only for comedy, it serves as a transition of sorts. Punk finally takes the time to cover himself but in doing so, he provides Strong with enough of an opening to go back on offense.
The pin attempts start to roll out one after another around this time. The major issue the match has is that this segment goes on a bit too long and is a bit too back and forth structurally. The opening and early part of the body are built around Punk being a smart but also arrogant and cowardly. An extended period of back and forth big moves was at odds with what they established early on. Allowing Strong to survive some of Punk’s signature moves made sense because the more he survived, the more likely that he could theoretically win. However, there were likely better ways of doing that without giving Punk so much. Cutting down run time of the match by a few minutes would have gone a long ways to solving that inconsistency.
The actual finish is pulled off in a satisfying manner and is fully in-line with how Punk wrestled the bulk of the match. Punk blocks a rollup by Strong by putting his feet on the ropes and getting the pin himself. Punk saw his initial game plan thwarted. Strong humiliated him and beat him up around the ring. Strong kept on coming even with all of the signature offense Punk threw at him. Punk’s feet on the ropes pin was not a cheap finish, at least in the sense that it did not rip off the fans. The match needed to end with Punk escaping in a dubious manner to pay off the earlier work. Pin ball bumping, stooging, and obligatory attempts at near falls mean less if the heel decisively wins in the end.
The match still stands as arguably the best of Roderick Strong’s career. Strong looked like a superstar babyface after this match in a way that he never really did again, at least until recently perhaps. Strong’s hard strikes and explosive offense served as the perfect counter balance for Punk’s crafty, cowardly heel shtick. Considering Strong was only 21 years old at the time of the match, it was hard to not come away from it feeling he was a future star.
Strong was good but Punk was undoubtedly the star of the match. There were a lot of heel Flair elements in Punk’s performance but this wasn’t a Flair tribute act. This was CM Punk at his heel best. As mentioned, he executed relatively well particularly considering that has never been an obvious strength of his. Punk made the match memorable with the well thought out and executed opening segment. It was a memorable opening segment that holds up even today.
Strong vs. Punk would turn out to be the high water mark for the “Summer of Punk” from a match quality standpoint. Punk and Daniels had their long awaited match the next month in Philadelphia in what was the second best match of the entire angle. Similar to Punk-Strong, the 60-minue Punk-Daniels draw was a quality match that seemingly came out of nowhere. The Daniels match was not as good as the Strong match, but considering they went to a draw, they did very well. The James Gibson singles disappointed, as did most Gibson ROH matches, and the angle ending four-way was bloated. Strong-Punk provided the “Summer of Punk” angle with a match that was as good and memorable as the storyline itself.