Austin Aries vs. CM Punk (ROH Death Before Dishonor III 6/18/05)

Match Reviews

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

In lesser hands, it all falls apart. This is one of ROH’s most iconic moments, the big CM Punk championship win and everything that follows it has left an indelible mark on pro wrestling. Echoes of it form the backbone of one of wrestling’s most popular moments ever in Money in the Bank 2011, and even today vestiges of it linger on national TV in companies Punk’s no longer even in. Narratively, there’s so much going on here that requires such a fine touch, and they nail so goddamn much of it.

First, the match.

Watching this title match with the benefit of hindsight is really something else. At face value, there’s a simple story being told for the New Jersey crowd in attendance. Ring of Honor legend and reformed hero CM Punk gets one last shot at the title he never won. Adding more wrinkles to this, the defending champion Austin Aries is the man who did what Punk couldn’t: beat Samoa Joe for the belt. Those who know the history here understand the trick being played, but even on its face, what we get bell to bell here is an absolute delight.

There’s a few things the match is working towards. Aries has been killing himself trying to live up to the standard Joe set before him, which has led to him overextending with a brutal schedule. Compound with a neck injury from a Muscle Buster and a super Ki Krusher from the weeks before, and there’s a natural target for Punk to go after to finally get the belt. Having Aries walk in with a neck injury too allows Punk to finally pay off a story he’d worked the year before: successfully figuring out how to wear down a champion with a headlock.

Punk utilizes the headlock here early, as he did with Joe, but it’s far more effective against an already worn down champion. But it’s in how Punk deploys this tactic that his talent as a performer really shines through. Despite controlling the entire first third of the match, and keeping it mostly grounded to the mat, he’s able to maintain a babyface demeanor and mystique to him. Even going after an already injured champion, starting things slow, Punk never comes across as much of a bully in the early moments. He comes across canny and clever, to be sure, but the neck work never feels meanspirited.

Aries has his role to making this work as well. He’s incredulous at how warmly the crowd is receiving Punk—an anomaly of a reception from New Jersey at this time—and his acting in this works so well. There’s a bitterness to how he reacts to it all that casts him as the natural heel of the occasion. When Aries is able to seize control too, he’s able to distinguish it from how Punk controlled him in the shine. Aries’ approach is far more aggressive and bullyish, notably bumping Punk on the apron, into the barricades, and into the corner with an exposed turnbuckle. It’s a shitty way to act but it speaks to the desperation of feeling the title slipping away and it works to great to allow Punk to draw in the crowd’s sympathy.

And on that note, what a babyface performance from Punk here.

Just watch him in the heat segments, the way he balls up his fists to rile up the crowd, the Dustin Rhodes-esque pounding of the mat to invite the crowd to slap the barricades in time to his theme song. Hell, for all the weekly Colliders too, there’s also him with a big “You!” Hogan point, which the crowd delights in playing along with. There’s a lot of big choices here too, that in later years might feel cliché, but work to perfection in the moment. Aries stealing Punk’s Pepsi Plunge and Punk kicking out at one feels just as fresh and vibrant nearly two decades later in spite of poor imitators watering down the trope. Again, it does not work in lesser hands, but here it feels like Punk is giving his whole self to the moment. It’s his last shot at the title, his final night in ROH, and he taps into a near superhuman resilience along with the energy of a devoted crowd fueling his comebacks.

It’s a perfect farewell that ties up so many loose ends. Not only Aries paying for trying to live up to Joe, but Punk figuring out the headlock and turning it into sustained neck work that topples the champion. Pure, fist pumping babyface energy combined with the cleverness of the NWA World Champions Punk always spoke so highly of. It’s masterful.

And then, the turn.

The promo is the most famous part of this all these years later. Punk creates a legend in real time—mentioning the pipebomb, the greatest trick the devil ever played, the story of the snake and the old man. At this point indelible contributions to the pantheon of pro wrestling promos, in the moment making good on his promise to leave us words that would become anthems. The twist of the knife doesn’t function half as well if his babyface performance between the ropes wasn’t so well-done. With his promo, he exposes himself as the truest worker, cruelly toying with the fans’ emotions in order to push him towards his highest success yet.

What some fans might not realize though, is just how much goes into the performance and construction of this heel turn. Those lines from the promo live on in a million recap videos and highlight reels, but it’s the things that follow up that really make it stick the landing. In 2024, it may feel odd for a Christopher Daniels run-in to feel like such a big deal, but it’s necessary to really making this angle feel so transcendent. Daniels gives the crowd someone to root for while cauterizing their hatred for Punk’s betrayal.

Just minutes after rooting him on wholeheartedly to a victory, this crowd unloads venom with “CM Pussy!” and “Punk’s a bitch!” chants. And to Punk’s credit, his entire demeanor shifts as well. It’s in the way he cowardly clutches to his stolen goods, how he bumps and stooges for Daniels’ run in, the fear in his eyes when confronted by this ghost from his past. Like a switch flipping, immediately becoming the most detestable, foul being imaginable. It is unreal to see unfold, the kind of thing one needs to experience to appreciate the sheer magnitude of.

It’s peak ROH at its best. The booking, the wrestling, but above all else, the sincerity of it. Even with Punk, there’s an obscene sort of sincerity to his duplicity. That final promo and turn is one of wrestling’s great mask off moments—and for his greatest detractors, probably one that stings a little more in hindsight.

Across the board, one of ROH’s finest hours.

IS IT BETTER THAN 6/3/94? In pretty much every way, more impressive than the King’s Road classic. Perhaps not as hard hitting, sure, but with all the goals this is juggling and the finesse they achieve it, it’s hard not to pick this. Once again, the super indies take my heart.

Rating: ****1/2

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