Few, if any, could have seen it coming.

C.M. Punk, Daniel Bryan and Zack Ryder holding WWE’s most prestigious titles. And at the same time.

But that’s exactly what we have heading into 2012. Three young lions who overcame the underground indy stigma and broke through the corporate glass ceiling now stand atop the WWE heap.

With Bryan’s world heavyweight championship victory over Mark Henry and Ryder’s upset of Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental crown at Sunday night’s TLC pay-per-view, the two now join WWE champ Punk as the three major titleholders in WWE.

That scenario would have been unheard of just a year ago. With perennial kingpins such as John Cena, Randy Orton and Triple H in the mix, no one outside of Titan Tower — and probably even inside Titan Tower — would have envisioned this trio as the company’s top champions.

But perseverance has paid off in dividends for the new babyface champs.

Punk (Phil Brooks), 33, was a battle-tested natural when he joined WWE six years. A multi-time champion in Ring of Honor, Punk had the goods to deliver, but for the most part was never viewed by WWE brass as main-event material. Until, of course, he began dropping his verbal “pipe bombs” earlier this year and took his rightful place at the top.

Bryan, 30, who as Bryan Danielson was one of ROH’s premier talents, worked his way up the WWE ladder a tad slower and much more quietly, but ultimately won over his critics with his stellar in-ring ability “I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Shawn Michaels, who trained Bryan more than a decade ago. “Awesome young man whose bright future has started!”

Ryder (Matt Cardona), 26, took an entirely different route, using social media as his major means of attack. A You Tube web series called “Z! True Long Island Story” has amassed more than seven million viewers since February. Ryder’s popularity also translated to Twitter where he has nearly 300,000 followers; this led him to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s list of the 100 most influential social media users in sports.

“Very proud right now,” Punk tweeted Sunday after the pay-per-view. “Proud of Daniel Bryan, proud of Zack Ryder, proud of my crew of young, talented, hard workers. Evan Bourne, Kofi Kingston and a ton of others.”

“Tonight was a great step toward the future of the wrestling business,” added Punk. “That change I’ve been talking about? Started. My march to Wrestlemania doesn’t begin after the (Royal) Rumble. It starts today. You’re in or you’re out. If you’re out, you’ll be left behind.”

Confidence is an asset that Punk definitely doesn’t lack.

When a fan asked him if he ever thought he and Bryan would be where they are now back when they were working in front of 100 people in high school gyms, Punk’s answer was predictably short and sweet.


“I think a boundary was broken last night by two remarkable athletes and people,” said Gabe Sapolsky, former Ring of Honor booker and current Evolve owner and Dragon Gate USA vice president. “This just validates that the best talent and the new generation of stars can come from the independent wrestling scene.”

Punk’s immense popularity was reflected in a recent listing on Guyism.com of the “Top 75 Guys We Wish We Were in 2011.” The list, which looks at feats by celebrities from all forms of sports and entertainment, ranked Punk at No. 5. By comparison, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson came in at No. 17, in between Charlie Sheen and Eminem.

-- “Too close for comfort?”

First it was Hulk Hogan’s ex-wife Linda. Now the estranged wife of Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake (Ed Leslie) is throwing out allegations of a homosexual relationship between the two wrestlers.

“I’ve watched my husband and Hulk interact for the past 20 years, and there have been many times when I felt they were much too close for comfort,” Barbara Leslie told the National Enquirer.

Women scorned? Bromance or romance?

“I have absolutely no knowledge of a homosexual relationship going on between my husband and Hulk, nor has Linda ever shared anything with me that would indicate she has knowledge of that. But I’ve been acquainted with her for a long time and have never known her to say anything that serious unless she could back it up. She must know some¬thing.”

The two separated several months ago after 18 years of marriage when she suspected him of cheating.

Barbara Leslie, 47, also said that Beefcake, 54, has not spoken with their 15-year-old daughter — who is the goddaughter of Hulk Hogan — in three months, yet speaks with Hogan a few times each day.

“My husband has not made contact with his daughter in more than three months, yet he speaks with Hulk several times a day and has for many years,” she told the Enquirer. “My daughter and I have spent most of our lives taking a backseat to Hulk Hogan.”

Hogan, 58, recently filed a defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife over claims of abuse in her autobiography. He says Linda wrote the book “in an effort to revive her sagging career.”

“Hulk tore my shirt, threw lamps and held me down on the bed with his hands around my throat during arguments. I was always afraid he would kill me in one of his rages,” she wrote in “Wrestling the Hulk — My Life Against the Ropes.”

The Hogans settled their highly publicized divorce earlier this month, with Linda receiving roughly 70 percent of the liquid assets.

Beefcake has indicated that he also intends to sue. He said he was blindsided by Linda’s allegations that he had an intimate relationship with his best friend for nearly 40 years.

“I’ve known Linda for almost 40 years ... but when she starts trying to ruin our careers, it just ain’t fair,” Beefcake told TMZ. “Hulk is a tremendous person ... a great man who deserves to be happy.”

“Thank God any negative or blood-sucking vampires are dead and gone in my new life,” Hogan tweeted last month.

Linda suggested during promotional interviews that Hogan and Beefcake, longtime friends and former wrestling tag-team partners, had engaged in a sexual relationship at one time. The Hulkster flatly denied the allegations.

“After the four-year crazy divorce I thought I’d heard everything I could hear in the courtroom,” said Hogan. “Then, all of a sudden she says I abused her, that I was violent. She told everybody that I was a homosexual.”

“If any of that was true, I would admit it, and (if) I was a homosexual, I would embrace it,” added Hogan, who celebrated his first anni¬versary with new wife Jennifer McDaniel on Dec. 14. “It’s just so crazy to hear, so I have a real problem with it ... If you’re going to say I’m something that I’m not to try to ruin my career and my livelihood ... I have to answer her back. It’s so ridiculous. I don’t mean to laugh about it, because it’s not funny. But it’s insane. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Barbara Leslie, however, said the two “share a bond tighter than most marriages — so maybe they should just run off and get married.”

Beefcake, who once appeared as “Booty Man,” and his current girlfriend, Melissa Caruso, 40, did some damage control when they discounted the rumors in an interview with Rumorfix.com.

“I don’t know what is going through her (Linda Hogan) mind right now,” said Caruso. “It’s probably her grasping at straws — she wrote a book that’s not doing well and she’s needing more attention. She’s fame starved. Brutus is mortified about the whole thing. A lot of fans have been asking, were they gay, did they have an affair? And the answer is no ... absolutely not. It’s very common for women to have a very close friendship, but when two men are close, occasionally the woman will get jealous. Linda was very jealous.”

Caruso and Beefcake, who reportedly have been living together since July, claimed his relationship with his estranged wife was over years ago.

“The truth is the marriage has been over for a long time,” said Caruso. “They’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for 15 years. Brutus only stayed for his daughter Alana. She is his life. He loves her and he’s really hurting that he hasn’t seen his daughter since July. He calls every day, he texts and he’s trying to let his daughter know how much he loves her and wants to be with her.”

-- Whatcha gonna do when the cougar runs wild on you?

Linda Hogan (Bollea), 52, and her 23-year-old fiance, Charlie Hill, are scheduled to appear on VH1’s “Relationship Rehab.”

Thet two reportedly have agreed to appear on the reality show to “fix their crumbling relationship.”

-- Hulk Hogan, whose acting abilities will never be mistaken for The Rock’s, recently made the Worst Christmas Movie list. His 1996 Christmas-themed vehicle, “Santa With Muscles,” has been ranked as the No. 5 Worst Christmas Movie of all time by online movie ticket seller Fandago.com.

Hogan filmed the movie while on hiatus from WCW shortly before his heel turn at the 1996 Bash the Beach pay-per-view.

Earning top honors as worst movie was the 1964 fantasy “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”

-- It appears that Kevin Nash’s bout with Triple H (Paul Levesque) at the TLC PPV may have been his last WWE match for the foreseeable future.

Nash, who did a stretcher job after taking a sledgehammer to the head, commented on Twitter: “Thanks, Paul, nice to end it with someone I love.”

The WWE website, however, later ran a story that claimed Nash was rushed to a medical facility after the match and will be out up to six weeks with a nasal fracture and other contusions.

-- Don’t look for Batista (Dave Bautista) to resurface in WWE anytime soon.

The former WWE champ called the WWE product “brutal” to watch in a recent interview with the Daily Star newspaper in the U.K.

“I no longer know this business. I don’t do PG wrestling,” said Batista. “Love me or hate me, when I was there everyone took one look at me and knew I could beat someone up. I don’t think they look at Miz that way. It’s sad. It’s not their fault. These days the guys have their hands tied, they are so limited in what they can do.”