In the 50s and 60s, back when wrestling companies were divided into small, regional promotions, it was relatively easy to hold a championship for an extended number of years. Wrestling was not nearly as popular then, and certainly was not viewed as a global form of sport and entertainment like it is today. The pageantry, the theatrics, the storylines that make the modern product so compelling were lacking in that era. The lack of popularity, and the divided territories, played a large part in Bruno Sammartino's nearly eight consecutive years as world champion, and Fabulous Moolah's decades as women's champion. In keeping with changing times, the current WWE has become much more fast paced, with men like Jeff Hardy and the Big Show being crowned world champions for mere seconds. To hold a title for over a year, and to remain fresh and relevant as champion, is a feat few wrestlers could accomplish. CM Punk has done it. His year-long title reign has seen him turn heel, align himself with one of the most diabolical minds in wrestling history in Paul Heyman, and beat wrestling's biggest babyface multiple times. He has stolen victories from the jaws of sure defeat, sometimes by a draw, sometimes by a disqualification, sometimes by the help of a rogue referee or some disgruntled characters from developmental. His gimmick is in continuous progression, and this has kept him from becoming stale and predictable. His mockery of Jerry Lawler's onscreen heart attack, while considered by many to be in bad taste, was different and surprising. This segment really cemented Punk as the nastiest heel in the business, yet one that is entertaining to watch every week. He has defended his title against a number of adversaries, and none of them have been able to best him. CM Punk has waltzed into the history books right in the face of the WWE Universe.
In January, there looms a new challenge for Punk; the prospect of defending the title against The Rock at the Royal Rumble. The rivalry began at Raw's 1000th episode in July, and for months, the two have been trading barbs both onscreen and on Twitter. It's understandable why the WWE would want The Rock back in the title picture. He is one of the greatest Superstars of all time, a bona fide movie star, a face recognizable to your average consumer, to your average non-wrestling fan. Certainly the WWE expects an escalated number of pay-per-view buys for the Rumble because The Rock is advertised, and rightfully so. However, the single worst thing that could happen at the Rumble would be to have The Rock go over, and take the WWE title from Punk. It would be a slap in the face to Punk, his background and his hard work. It would be a slap in the face to men like John Cena, who travel extensively for house shows and TV tapings and promotional spots and charity work. And it undoubtedly would leave a sour taste in the mouth of many of the younger or mid-card wrestlers, who are chomping at the bit for just one chance to prove their mettle.
Sure, The Rock is "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment." He is a nine time world champion, a definite ballot for the Hall of Fame, and one of the best talkers in the history of wrestling. It's not that he is out of shape, or can no longer perform in the ring. He can. The fact is, he is no longer a wrestler. He is an actor. He is not like Chris Jericho, who works a full-time wrestling schedule in between touring with his band, Fozzy. The Rock does most of his wrestling appearances by satellite, and every once in awhile Tweets something storyline-related to keep himself fresh in the minds of the WWE Universe. He cannot be bothered with trivial matters like house shows. At his level of super stardom, he shouldn't have to be, but he shouldn't expect to be the WWE champion after the Royal Rumble, either. What will it mean for the WWE to have an absentee champion, who only communicates through videos shot in between takes of his new movie? The championship is far more prestigious than that. It will cheapen the title if it is to be worn by someone who is not going to be putting in the work necessary that comes with the honor of being a champion. It is nothing personal against The Rock; the sentiments would be exactly the same if it was Brock Lesnar facing Punk at the Rumble instead. The Rock will always be a memorable character, and sporadic appearances similar to those made by Edge or Shawn Michaels would be better suited to his current status. Hopefully the WWE realizes that it's not 2001 anymore; there are younger men who are struggling to maintain their morale, waiting for their opportunity. What exactly will be proven by putting the title on The Rock?
Assuming Punk escapes the December TLC pay-per-view unscathed, by the Royal Rumble, he will have surpassed the title reign of one of his heroes, 'Macho Man' Randy Savage. For 14 months, Cena was unable to beat Punk. Ryback was unable to beat him. Neither could Chris Jericho, Alberto Del Rio, The Miz or Daniel Bryan. For Punk to hold the title for so long, only to drop it to someone who is allowed to pick and choose his minimal appearances, will completely do dirt on what Punk has worked so hard to achieve for so many years. He has beaten a plethora of formidable opponents, including multiple victories over John Cena. For Punk to just go one-and-done at the Rumble against The Rock would send the product cycling furiously backwards. Before their WrestleMania match, Cena told Rock "you tell these people that you love them, but I'm here every week to show it." This same phrase applies to Rock's match with Punk. While Rock was on his movie sets, Punk was getting staples on his head from hardway injuries in cage matches and getting Shellshocked by Ryback on top of cells. The prestige that comes with being a world champion should be reserved for those who are giving their all to their fans, to their craft, to their company. Unfortunately, The Rock no longer considers wrestling his craft, but that is his prerogative. However, he shouldn't expect the same treatment, or better treatment, than men who are performing every night, working through injuries.
When Rock pinned Cena cleanly at WrestleMania, it was a surprising turn of events for many fans who were certain Cena would come away victorious. Some even speculated that The Rock's victory was merely a foil for a possible Cena heel turn. Though the persevering Cena was able to recover relatively quickly from his 'Mania loss, and Rock was likely booked to win the match for sentimental reasons, this needs to be pushed aside in January. Rock vs. Punk will certainly be a draw, and should be an entertaining match. Suspicions have arisen that if Punk loses, it will be to set up Cena vs. Rock II at WrestleMania 29, this time with the title at stake. This would be a colossal mistake, because a match of that caliber doesn't need a title attached to it to generate viewers. It is imperative that Punk retains his title at the Rumble. It is imperative that his historical reign is not rendered obsolete, and that the integrity of the WWE title is not compromised. The WWE should recognize that The Rock is wrestling's past, and needs to keep championships around the waists of the men of the present, if they are to cement the world's most famous wrestling company for the future.