CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE Over the Limit 5/20/12)

Match Reviews

This review was commissioned by Saul Delgado over on my Ko-fi account.

This is the best NWA World Championship match to ever take place in the WWE. There’s a certain timeless quality to it that always follows the best of CM Punk’s work no matter where he ends up wrestling. That kind of patient, step-by-step work that brings you into the action without screaming its points at you regardless of how blunt the commentary or production might be. It’s an inviting kind of wrestling, sort of warm in terms just how rooted it is in the fabric of what I like about pro wrestling from North America specifically.

With a match like this, it’s CM Punk’s sort of approaches to structure that feel more clear. Punk casts himself in this as a consummate babyface champion. Steady and ready to take on all comers but without feeling like an overwhelming favorite in the way that other WWE Champions have. He’s not throwing those big wind up punches or steamrolling through with natural strength and power, it’s always the mind of Punk that’s worked best for him. It’s about having strategies, plans, and plugging away at it until it works or something better comes along. He’s a lot closer to his competition, or even beneath them at times, and it’s a more active struggle to overcome than other archetypal WWE main event babyfaces.

In this match, we see that applied to a title match that’s built entirely around opposing strategies from the workers. Punk’s is a very direct one. After hitting a few leg kicks to open, he immediately targets Bryan’s leg by tying it up in the ropes and stomping away at it. While this isn’t the most subtle way to initiate leg work, it does get that story started efficiently and Punk doesn’t belabor the point to soon. It’s a minor investment, a first step in a larger story that is allowed time to breathe. Even after attacking the leg, he still goes back to the headlocks instead of torturing Bryan—a means of maintaining the integrity of the babyface champion he is while opening up avenues of attack he could use later on. There’s a more cerebral approach to it without feeling malicious.

By contrast, Bryan’s introduction of the body work that he focuses on here is a little more intricate. It takes a few more steps for him to really get going, suffering for most of the first act of the match with Punk controlling him through the leg work, and even dumping him out onto the floor. Dragon uses the opportunity on the floor through to finally disrupt Punk’s control, driving him into the barricades to start wearing down the champion’s midsection. Bryan’s body work is a lot more aggressive in terms of getting straight to the attack, and that allows him a much longer and more successful bout of control against the champion.

And it’s really in reacting to these two strategies that we get the best of what both men have to offer as performers.

For Punk, reacting to the body work and that control segment, we get a lot of his classical flourishes. Textbook Steamboat rule, for example, when doggedly going after the leg for a potential figure four even when Bryan flusters those attempts. A very grounded approach to selling the midsection too—having it flare up at inopportune times like when he crashes into a double crossbody attempt, or later on when nailing the elbow drop from the top causing a delay in getting a cover on Dragon.

Meanwhile, Dragon’s more robust and modern influences are felt in his approach to Punk’s leg work. Something like bringing the knee pad down for a stiffer strike might recall Ric Flair doing the same in WCW, but there’s a certain contemporary vibe to doing it as a part of limb selling. And those big strikes to Punk’s gut too feel closer to something I might see in MMA than an old school title bout. I imagine that’s part of what made Bryan such an indelible part of Ring of Honor’s best years—having the ability to fit in newer pieces from wider influences into something that still felt so rooted in the fundamental qualities of American pro wrestling.

His leg selling too has a real refined nature to it as well. It straddles the line of being present and mindful without ever feeling sympathetic. A lot of that comes down to Dragon’s facial expressions, always more internally frustrated and bitter as opposed to externally inviting sympathy. At some points, he even reminds of one of the finer heel limb selling performances of all time in Steve Williams losing the Triple Crown title to Kawada.

All these things come together with patience. They work in unison so that as the match escalates towards big finisher teases, nearfalls, and counters, we get the proper emotional arc of what a match like this should bring. Not only feeling the larger emotions as they come, but grounding that in a more solid understanding of the combatants learning each other’s approaches and techniques as it goes along.

And that’s what makes the finish work here. We’ve spent close to half an hour learning alongside both men that when Punk’s able to bust out this clever little counter to get Dragon’s shoulders on the mat while the YES! Lock is locked in, and he gets that three count just before he has to tap or have his arm break, it feels as much our accomplishment as his. There’s room left to expand, and questions left to be answered, but it’s a satisfying stop for what we have here.

IS IT BETTER THAN 6/3/94? Stylistically, this hits a lot of points that is often weaker in King’s Road epics. Not only a more interesting moment-to-moment flow of action, especially for those who prefer pro-style mat work, but also a might tighter structure overall. Point goes to my super indie boys, as always.

Rating: ****1/2

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