WWE Money in the Bank 2011 surely became one of the greatest events in recent WWE history, and most likely, the history of sports entertainment altogether. Each and every match delivered, it was rarely predictable, and if it was, it presented itself in a manner that retained every ounce of excitement. I can honestly tell you, that as a fan who grew up watching legends like Hulk Hogan, and was lucky enough to be along for the wild ride that was the "Attitude Era", I've never seen a WWE PPV that delivered like tonight did. If you for some reason missed this show, stop reading this now, and go watch. If you missed something, go watch. If you're a fan of wrestling, go watch again. Tonight, as it was hyped in the lead up, may very well have changed the landscape of professional wrestling. Today, we take a look at the main event from the 2011 edition of Money in the Bank – the WWE Championship match between John Cena and CM Punk
Following the dissolution of the Straight Edge Society in the fall of 2010, CM Punk eventually revealed himself to be the leader of the (New) Nexus after attacking John Cena. While one would assume such an action would be a one-way ticket straight to the main event, that took a little time; Punk instead feuded with Randy Orton through WrestleMania XXVII and Extreme Rules. Concurrently, John Cena was feuding with the Nexus, until LOLCENA at the Royal Rumble when he eliminated the vast majority of the group, at which point he entered into a feud with WWE Champion The Miz (Really? Really.) and The Rock (because we can’t have nice things).
While losing his championship match at WrestleMania, Cena would defeat The Miz and John Morrison at Extreme Rules to regain the WWE Championship, defending it against The Miz at Over the Limit and R-Truth (2010 was a weird time, man) at Capitol Punishment. Around the same time, CM Punk became the #1 Contender for Cena’s championship, before announcing that his contract would end immediately following the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. The infamous “pipe bomb” was delivered from the stage of Monday Night Raw, leading to Punk’s kayfabe suspension from the company, and the loss of his title shot.
John Cena, being John Cena, demanded that Vince McMahon reinstate Punk and return his title shot, because John Cena loves this business and this company and I wasn’t really paying attention to the reasoning, but McMahon agreed. However, Vinny Mac added a stipulation: If Cena failed to defeat Punk and retain his title, Cena would be fired. The following week saw McMahon trying to get Punk to agree to a new contract as a means of ensuring the WWE Championship would stay in the WWE, but after a brawl between Cena and Punk the contract negotiations ended. But the match was set for Money in the Bank. Did I mention that the pay-per-view emanated from (just outside of) Chicago, Punk’s hometown?
The event as a whole was a solid show. The opening contest was the SmackDown Money in the Bank ladder match, where Daniel Bryan won a contract for the World Heavyweight Championship. Kelly Kelly defended her Divas Championship against Brie Bella; Mark Henry defeated Big Show, and Alberto Del Rio won the Raw Money in the Bank ladder match. While the two ladder matches featured a few memorable moments, there really wasn’t much spectacle involved in the preliminary matches.
The Raw match, in particular, seemed very short – just shy of 16 minutes, compared to about 25 for the SmackDown affair – though it was long enough for Evan Bourne to perform a shooting star press from (almost) the top of a ladder. On the SmackDown match’s highlight reel, Sheamus power bombed Sin Cara onto a horizontally propped table, causing him to be carried away on a stretcher convulsing. Immediately preceding the Punk-Cena match was Randy Orton defending his World Heavyweight Championship against Christian; as an added stipulation, Orton would lose his championship if he was disqualified, or if there was questionable officiating.
While not talked about in the same reverent manner as the main event of the show, Orton and Christian put on a hell of a match. Christian tried to entice Orton into doing something to get disqualified, but the Viper kept his cool – early on, at least. After kicking out of the KillSwitch, Orton was setting up to hit an RKO when Christian spit in his face; enraged, Orton retaliated with a kick below the belt, getting himself disqualified and losing his championship. To get the crowd extra hot for the main event, Orton took out his frustration by hitting Christian with two RKOs on the announce table.
Throughout the history of WWE, only five matches have ever been rated as five-star matches by storied wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer but I disagree with him. The first four were all gimmick/stipulation matches – Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon in a ladder match at WrestleMania X; Bret Hart and Owen Hart in a cage match at SummerSlam 1994; Bret Hart and Steve Austin in a submission match at WrestleMania 13; and Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker in a Hell in a Cell at Badd Blood in 1997. The fifth is this match right here.
Few matches have such an emotional charge to them, since when you get right down to it a wrestling match is just a couple of guys doing their jobs. But, just like the exceptional actors “just doing their jobs” can evoke an emotional response in a movie that is just as fake as anything, Cena and Punk were on top of their game and made magic in the ring. From the entrances that firmly showed whom the partisan Chicago crowd was pulling for, to the opening of the contest that let everyone know the competitors needed to feel each other out, to the first high spots, to the sequence of finishers and reversals, everything was turned up to 11.
The crowd was hot for the match to begin with, and the card to that point had only gotten them more amped up. Punk had his family in the front row, and I’m pretty sure I saw his buddy Scotty Goldman in there too! Everything got a huge response, from simple punches and kicks to signature moves to finishers. And as good as the entire match was, the finishing sequence managed to be both super-predictable and a perfect finish to the story being told throughout the match.
Punk had one foot out the door and acted like he had nothing to lose; Cena was fighting to keep his job, but still remain honorable and live up to his motto of hustle, loyalty, and respect, and Vince McMahon was willing to do whatever it took to keep his prized championship in his company. So after Punk had kicked out of two Attitude Adjustments, and he hit Cena with a GTS – but caught him in the ribs instead of the face – Vince came out with John Laurinaitis. While Punk was distracted – classic wrestling trope – Cena came to and applied the STFU to Punk. Recalling the Montreal Screwjob, Vince immediately called for the bell and sent Big Johnny down to ring it.
Cena – being honorable – didn’t want a tainted victory, so he released the hold before the bell could be rung and confronted Laurinaitis. When he returned to the ring, Punk had sufficiently recovered and hit a GTS more solidly, earning the three-count and the WWE Championship. An irate McMahon, seeing his greatest fears realized – not only would he be forced to fire his top star in Cena, but his champion was walking out the door with his title, heading to Ring of Honor, or NJPW, or god forbid TNA – had one last play at hand. He summoned Alberto Del Rio, who earlier in the evening had won a contract to challenge the WWE Champion at any time and any place.
McMahon was determined to force Del Rio to cash in his contract immediately, so the freshman could easily defeat Punk – who just completed a grueling 30+ minute match to win the title. But as Del Rio hit the ring, Punk kicked him in the head, and Del Rio retreated. In one of the iconic images of WWE from the past 5 years or so, Punk blew a kiss to Vince and escaped through the crowd, not to be seen again for a week. When wrestlers can effectively tell a story during a match, it’s truly a sight to see. Too often, a set of combatants is just going through the motions; it’s doing the little things that makes a match truly special.
Think of those other five-star matches listed above. Each one has a deeper story behind the in-ring action. The Hart brothers had been feuding for months over a perceived family slight before the championship was added to the mix. Razor and Michaels both had legitimate claims to the Intercontinental Championship and made it known, and ladder matches were super rare in the WWE at that point. The Austin-Michaels match was built over the course of months, and it featured the ultra-rare double turn. Michaels-Undertaker was the first ever Hell in a Cell match, and had been brewing for months. But Cena-Punk was different.
Sure, they had feuded before, but this particular feud was more about the contract situation than the two men. This wasn’t a gimmick match, or any kind of special stipulation match (aside from Cena being “fired” for losing). This was a regular old one-on-one championship wrestling match. The build was truly only a couple of weeks. But everything fell together perfectly. The appearances of McMahon and Laurinaitis and the call-back to the Montreal Screwjob were inspired, and avoided the trope of “authority figure gets what he wants.” The fact that two guys basically in their primes got 30+ minutes to tear the house down helped the match. The fact that Cena and Punk have tremendous chemistry together also elevated this to exceptional heights. To truly get a sense of how good these two are together, check out their match for the #1 contender’s spot to The Rock’s WWE Championship from Raw in February 2013. This was nearly as good as the Money in the Bank match, although the commercial breaks do it a disservice.
Punk disappeared with the title, leading to a tournament to crown a new champion; of course, John Cena would become champ, despite not being in the tournament or the company when all of it went down. As soon as Cena regained the title, Cult of Personality hit, and Punk emerged with his own championship, setting up a showdown at SummerSlam to unite the two championships. Punk would win that battle, and go on to hold the championship for 434 days, in his second title reign, because this one ended immediately after he defeated Cena. Kevin Nash, of all people, attacked Punk, and Alberto Del Rio cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to take the WWE Title.
After trading wins over it with Cena, Del Rio would drop the belt for good to CM Punk at Survivor Series 2011, kicking off his historic 434-day reign. Meanwhile, John Cena reignited his feud with The Rock, headlining WrestleManias XXVIII and 29 with the same crappy once-in-a-lifetime match. In the second match, Cena won the WWE Championship, which he would then drop to Daniel Bryan, and the aftermath of that match eventually led to the greatest feel-good moment for wrestling fans in a long time when Bryan defeated Randy Orton and Batista to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for a reign longer than 24 hours at WrestleMania XXX. So, that’s a good thing. And Punk walked out, to further make that whole “Bryan as champ” thing happen. Since Punk bailed, there has been no shortage of “WILL HE OR WON’T HE” rumors that haven’t been this prevalent since Moonlighting.