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ROH Title - CM Punk's Advertised ROH Farewell
Austin Aries vs. CM Punk
If one looks back at every ROH show I've reviewed so far for 2005, there are plenty of great matches listed, one after another that I gush over. But no match so far had been up to par with the majority of the top ten matches I had for 2004. With this match, that finally came to an end. The first half of 2005 for ROH concluded with its greatest match, and a moment that defines why I watch professional wrestling. This match is what makes all of the shitty wrestling, tedious storylines, disappointing payoffs, all of that bullshit worth suffering through.
From the very moment that the lights were dimmed out for Punk's entrance, that trademark opening sequence for AFI's "Miseria Cantare," it was obvious that this was to be a special moment, assuming one wasn't already convinced by Punk's match days earlier against Roderick Strong and all of the reflections Punk had about his ROH career. The New Jersey crowd, one that had been the most spiteful towards Punk since the first ROH event in that state two years earlier, was 100% on the side of Punk, slapping the barricades and their hands in unison to show appreciation for Punk, to root for him to achieve his final indy goal, in his farewell match.
The in-ring introductions were also epic. Punk got the farewell/one night only streamer treatment that Paul London and Jushin Liger had experienced, and had "GOODBYE" written on his wrist tape. Aries got booed out of the building, but it wasn't because the crowd hated him, it was because they wanted to witness Punk's special moment so badly. Aries was already showing potential to be a babyface against Low Ki days earlier anyway, with the NYC crowd getting behind him.
Aries came into this match with a well-known damaged neck, at the hands of Joe, Ki, and Brian Kendrick, and he even acknowledged it during a promo earlier in the day. For the first several minutes of this match, it was almost all Punk on offense, just working on that bad neck. Even with the occasional hope spot from Aries, it seemed like he couldn't get any advantage whatsoever, not on this night.
But once the opportunity came knocking, Aries executed a Death Valley Driver to Punk on the apron, bringing the match to a pretty much even level. Neck for a neck! But even with that nasty bump, Aries couldn't get a full advantage on Punk on the outside as they exchanged strikes and throwing each other into barricades. It wasn't until the action got back in the ring that Aries fully got the heat on Punk.
I must of course mention that around this point, the crowd treated this match like it was the Rock vs. Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8. Every time Punk got an advantage - complete cheers. Every time Aries got an advantage - complete boos. Aries used the hostile crowd, even though deep down he knew it wasn't personal, to fuel him, as a means to step up his game, which he was gonna have to do in this match anyway. He became more focused, more vicious, more antagonistic of the crowd, even going so far as to spit towards a fan at ringside.
But Aries made the mistake of using Punk's Pepsi Plunge finisher. Rather than wiping Punk out, it only managed to give him an adrenaline rush and wake up the part machine, part animal he said he was six days earlier. At this point, it was inevitable. Even with Aries using his own finishers too, it wasn't enough on this night. When Punk executed the Pepsi Plunge on Aries and captured the ROH Title, it was a fitting end to not just an excellent title reign, but to a memorable chapter for independent wrestling as well.
Or so we thought.
Post-match, Aries showed nothing but class as Joe had shown for him six months earlier, and was shown the proper appreciation from the crowd as he exited ringside. It was a nice, brief moment for Aries to be recognized for his excellent work as ROH Champion, which was often overshadowed by personal feuds and grudge matches. While none of his matches were on par with Joe vs. Punk and Joe vs. Bryan Danielson, they were still tremendous matches that maintained the prestige of the championship, and his schedule during the second half of his reign was truly something to behold.
What followed was one of the three greatest promos Punk has ever delivered during his Hall of Fame career.
With the audience begging for and expecting a farewell speech from the new ROH Champion, Punk reminded the crowd how much that championship had always meant to him, and meant even more now that he had finally won it. He went off into a story about an ill snake that betrayed an old man that saved him, and revealed that he used the emotions of the audience to toy with them. While he never mentioned it, I would assume he did it to give himself a "home-field" advantage in most of his matches as well.
The crowd's reaction was quite priceless - some celebrated because they knew they were in the presence of something more special than they could have pictured beforehand, while others went along with the storyline and gave Punk their two cents on his shitty attitude. I must note that there was no better place for this heel turn than New Jersey, which as I mentioned is the crowd that had hated Punk the most throughout most of his tenure in ROH. It was also where Punk had turned babyface 11 months earlier at Reborn: Completion, bringing his trolling of this location full circle.
Immediately after Punk said he was gonna take the belt with him to WWE, and that nobody would stop him, came the ROH return of Christopher Daniels after a 17 month absence from the company, challenging Punk for the title. But the champion would have none of it, taking a powder when Daniels got the upper hand during their brief physical altercation. Punk told Daniels to kiss his ass.
While the fans of course wanted Punk to defend the title after proving what an arrogant son of a bitch he was, and also because it would be "right for business" on his last advertised ROH appearance, I don't blame him for telling Daniels to fuck off. Punk is a vengeful character, and I'm sure that he remembered why he had issues with Daniels in the first place. No way would I have gifted Daniels with an immediate title shot after a grueling main event either, not with everything Daniels had done to Punk that led to the Fallen Angel getting eliminated from ROH.
Daniels, left in the ring by himself, explains why he was gone from ROH, but that despite everything he had ever done, he always loved pro wrestling, including ROH. He says he's excited to return to the company and take on so many of the new characters that had become established names and in-ring performers since his last ROH match at The Battle Lines Are Drawn. This was an excellent "put the company over" promo, as it felt genuine and was delivered at the most appropriate emotional time for the audience. I'm definitely interested to see if his in-ring work in ROH matches up to this promo though.
This isn't technically a perfect match. Many will argue that Punk's "Hulking Up" moments were too absurd for fighting spirit or adrenaline rush spots, degrading his own finisher in the process. I would disagree based on the atmosphere of this match, the history Punk had in getting title shots and that this was his last opportunity, and he admitted six days earlier how dialed-in he was, that a side was coming out of him which Aries wouldn't be able to overcome.
This match was an emotional roller-coaster. On Dwayne Johnson's biography, during the Rock vs. Hogan chapter, John Cena makes it very clear that pro wrestling is ultimately about delivering special, unforgettable moments. That is the #1 goal for every wrestler when performing in the squared circle. This match delivered that, and was also a much technically superior match to Rock vs. Hogan.
I won't say that this match is perfect. If others believe it is due to the emotions before, during, and afterwards, that's certainly not something I'd argue against. Those who felt taken out by Punk's no-selling, that's fine too. But I balance it out - Punk's no-selling was just a tad bit too much (I think a two-count when Aries hit the Pepsi Plunge would have gotten the same result), but not to the point of overshadowing everything that Aries, Punk, and Daniels got right during this special segment.