If you’re even remotely familiar with World Wrestling Entertainment, just one look at CM Punk on a Monday Night Raw telecast will tell you everything that makes his narrative so compelling: in an industry built upon and carried by Herculean physiques, CM Punk doesn’t fit the mould. If you are familiar with WWE, familiar enough, perhaps, to’ve seen one of their many retrospective documentaries, then the difference between Punk and men like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and John Cena are even more clear cut.
The documentaries chronicling the rise of your typical ten-time world champion all make the same point: becoming a legend in professional wrestling from the outset of one’s career is as unlikely for Ric Flair as anybody else. But many of the narratives pushed by the WWE are remarkably similar, involving men of uncommon drive and ambition who were standout college athletes, second- or third-generation performers, or who had the luck and good fortune to see the workaday, bingo hall grind of territory day wrestling pay off in the most unimaginable, improbable way. They all say something along the lines of “I wasn’t supposed to make it,” but, for whatever polish a man like John Cena lacked upon his debut in the big time, it’s hard to not look at his story—and most stories like it—with a sense of inevitability. Some men were born to be superstars.
A particular subset of wrestling fans will tell you that CM Punk was destined to be a superstar, and to some extent, that’s true. Wrestling has shrunk and grown, grown and shrunk, and otherwise mutated since Vincent Kennedy McMahon ended the territory system by taking the World Wrestling Federation national on the back of Hulk Hogan, but the cyclical nature of wrestling almost dictated that the territories would come back. They have in the form of independent wrestling, and if CM Punk had never been signed by the WWE, he’d almost indisputably be the biggest wrestler in the world not employed by McMahon’s corporate juggernaut (a slot currently occupied by Punk’s best friend, Colt Cabana), the best independent wrestler in the world. But the WWE is given to signing buzzed-about talent, and in 2005, few men had as much buzz as CM Punk. His story would be unusual enough were it to end there, the land of giants inviting a small, scrappy punk into its fold, and had anybody with the power to hire wrestlers to contracts known what they were getting into with Punk, it’s likely that his story wouldn’t have made it that far. But Punk’s an odd character, a man driven to make it despite his apparent flaws, a man confident enough in his abilities to recognize those flaws as a potential strength. Punk doesn’t fit the WWE’s mould, and he’s just fine with that.
Best in the World plays a lot like a typical WWE DVD release, with a documentary feature on the superstar in question and a collection of his best matches spanning two discs. The difference here, however, is that Punk did not come up through the modern WWE Superstar’s usual channel (the various promotions WWE has used to develop its future talent), nor are any of his classic independent matches part of the WWE’s mammoth video library. In direct contrast to the company’s “Don’t Try This” PSAs, Punk began his career in a friend’s backyard, a kid with a shameless DIY aesthetic that led him to become one of Chicago’s most successful independent wrestling promoters before seeking proper wrestling training. The nature of Punk’s career and the WWE’s obsession with charting the rise of its most bankable stars necessitates the video libraries of entities like IWA: Mid-South and Ring of Honor—promotions most members of the WWE Universe would be forgiven for not knowing—and interviews with indie wrestling luminaries Ace Steel, Colt Cabana, Bryan Danielson, and Chris Hero, not to mention WWE personel, midcard fixtures, Punk’s friends and surrogate family, and punk musician Lars Fredrickson. That Punk’s early story is supplemented with footage of his contests against Cabana, Hero, and Samoa Joe is an unexpected bonus, something that has the potential to open a WWE fan’s world to a different kind of wrestling in a way that never existed before now.
It’s a unique line-up of talking heads, all of whom do an exceptional job of telling the story of WWE’s least-likely company figurehead. The “wrestler who wasn’t supposed to make it” storyline is personified by Punk to the point that it should forever be retired. Here’s a guy who is too small and too different to make it (his Pepsi and G.I. Joe tattoos are regularly left off his action figures and video game likenesses), but a man who is nevertheless too vocal, too passionate to submit to a role less than the one he currently occupies. Though Vince McMahon does not appear on this DVD (the Chairman is likely being saved for a a sequel somewhere doen the line), he is very much the authority Punk rages against, even if it’s clear that Punk’s eventual breakthrough in 2011 was good for his company’s bottom line. The WWE version of the Summer of Punk—the 2011 saga that saw Punk give unbelievable speeches about the state of the WWE, threaten to beat John Cena for his WWE Championship on Punk’s final night with the company, then leave with the title—was largely borne from Punk’s frustration with his position on the card and the overall direction of the WWE, a theme that’s being revisited even now as Punk angles his way towards yet another confrontation with Cena over the title the two have come to define.
If Punk has beaten the odds placed before him—and WWE creative and corporate figures like Michael Hayes (of 1970s and 80s Freebirds glory) and Triple H will be the first to tell you that he has—it’s due to his willingness to barge into McMahon’s office and ask (or demand) for something better. It’s not surprising to learn that the Straight Edge Society—Punk’s messiah-like play on cults and his own straight edge lifestyle—was his idea, but it’s practically unheard of for a wrestler to drop 14 weeks of television on the boss’ desk, even rarer for that plan to be carried even partially to fruition. Best in the World shows Punk at his best in the ring, but its greatest pleasure is in detailing the way CM Punk thinks about the business. To that end, Best in the World doesn’t mythologize its subject, as most WWE documentaries attempt to. This is a quieter, more intimate portrait of a wrestler, something along the lines of WWE’s recent Steve Austin documentary and its earlier efforts focusing on Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero. It doesn’t offer much for those who aren’t wrestling fans, but for those who are, it’s an impressive look at one of the medium’s smartest, most gifted performers, a surprisingly strong argument in favor of viewing professional wrestling as art.
CM Punk: Best in the World. Directed by Kevin Dunn. A documentary featuring CM Punk, Colt Cabana, Chris Hero, Daniel Bryan, John Cena, Triple H, Michael Hayes, Paul Heyman, and others. Released October 9, 2012, by WWE Films. Extras include documentary footage and matches across Punk’s career.