Lutz's Blog: Undertaker offers a lesson to C.M. Punk on how to walk away
By Jeffrey Lutz
I wasn't particularly vexed by C.M. Punk's decision to leave WWE until after Brock Lesnar ended Undertaker's WrestleMania undefeated streak.
Those events are barely connected except for the fact that each represents, presumably, the end of a career. That decision hasn't been officially or publicly made by either Undertaker or Punk, but most signs point to each being finished.
I was initially supportive of Punk's decision because I believed that he was left with no other choice, and I understood his similar belief brought on by injury and disillusionment over the direction of the business. After witnessing a more graceful and exceedingly shocking departure by Undertaker, aka Mark Calaway, I have set up shop in his corner, even though I still understand why Punk left.
While Punk was clamoring for a spot on the souvenir cup, a more prominent placing in the signature during Raw's theme song, and, of course, an ice cream bar featuring his likeness, Undertaker willingly gave up the most marketable aspect of his character because he felt it was right (if not best) for business. That decision was so stunning and disappointing that we hoped it was made by someone other than Undertaker. Let Vince McMahon be responsible -- it won't be any less anger-inducing, but at least we'll know that Undertaker was protective of his legacy and The Streak.
Even if he was at peace with letting go of his undefeated WrestleMania record, Undertaker completely lived up to his legacy by letting someone else capitalize on what The Streak meant. It might not be Lesnar, who is established enough to handle the pressure of beating Undertaker but too established to truly gain from it, but the person who beats Lesnar will instantly be made a star because that aura will be transferred to someone new. As I've written before, Undertaker is probably the most loyal performer to walk through a WWE curtain, and his last act as an active performer lived up to that billing.
Punk, meanwhile, never found peace with abandoning the most distinctive aspects of his real-life personality that made him such an effective and unique character. That stubbornness is admirable on many levels, but it's not how the wrestling business usually works. As Dolph Ziggler, Kofi Kingston, Wade Barrett and others have learned, 95 percent of performers in the industry are forced to eat crap before finding their niche or even being allowed to find it. Punk had obviously found his niche, but he wasn't prepared for the down-cycle his career had predictably entered after a WWE Championship reign of more than 400 days.
Punk loved wrestling but he probably wasn't made for the highest level of the business, which is more of a criticism on a business that is often slow to adapt than an admonishment of Punk's refusal to reform and conform. Punk, an outsider from the start because of his straight-edge lifestyle and his loner mentality, never completely navigated the business in a way that made both WWE and himself look good -- for example, while he was doing the best work of his career as champion, WWE neglected to bill him as a true main-eventer. When Punk cycled down to the mid-card and learned that he once again wouldn't achieve his goal to headline WrestleMania, he walked away because his benchmarks looked permanently unattainable.
Which is probably how Undertaker's goals looked to him in 1994, when he was an established star and a former champion but when WWE was in a severe creative lull because of the distraction of Vince McMahon's steroid trial. Undertaker, of course, wasn't as close to the end of his career as Punk would have been even if he hadn't left, but there were certainly greener pastures for Undertaker to explore and probably facets of his real-life personality to which he believed he wasn't being true by staying in WWE.
Undertaker, though, did stay, apparently happy with just being a cog in the wheel, a designation lamented by Punk during his pipe-bomb promo three summers ago. Punk had been simply a cog, and after earning a taste of the luxury and fame his hard work had allowed him to realize. Punk wanted more progress, while Undertaker learned to live with the peaks and valleys, becoming a locker room leader in the process and helping others cope with similar unavoidable circumstances.
My goal isn't to come down hard on Punk. I believe what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of his departure, that he likely had valid reasons to leave and that walking away without a grand announcement was true to the low-key but attention-seeking balance he managed to find. After this much time away, though, Punk owes his fans an explanation even if he has no motivation to give one. I understand his desire to take a break -- even if it's a permanent one. I don't understand leaving the people who loved him enough to help him reach stardom out to dry.
Undertaker, at least until he's ready to break character to permanently become Mark Calaway, might not give an explanation, either. But he will give. That's all he has done since his arrival in it -- give. When he transitions away from his character, he'll probably continue to give. Contributions to DVD projects and books. Training and instruction to up-and-coming wrestlers and the training facility. Hall of Fame induction speeches. Undertaker gave more than he had left for one final match because he believed it was right to end The Streak.
Punk always wanted more, while Undertaker always made the best of what he had. Both traits are commendable, but there is a reason why Undertaker will be forever celebrated while Punk may slip out of the consciousness of wrestling fans sooner or later. In walking away, Punk stayed under WWE contract even though he's not working. He took the money and Undertaker paid it forward.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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