CM Punk is sitting front row at Newark’s Prudential Center for a Devils-Senators game. His beard is coming in, and he’s dressed comfortably in post-workout clothes, blending into the crowd. Most of his famous tattoos are covered, with the exception of the words “DRUG” and “FREE” across his knuckles, which are clasped under his chin. He stares at the ice, avoiding eye contact. He mutters, “Fuck,” under his breath.
This is the mental state of the man I was sent to interview. He’s giving off all sorts of signals that a person makes when he or she doesn’t want to engage in conversation. These are not overt, deliberate tells; they’re subliminal symptoms of discomfort, defensiveness, and unwillingness to engage.
Not surprisingly, our conversation ends quickly. Twenty-five minutes after I first shake his hand, I realize how seriously the former WWE Champion and current UFC fighter takes himself. And just how frustrated he is with people who question his resolve, or ask him to deconstruct it.
The old saying goes, “It takes a lot of hard work to make it look this easy.” But Punk, born Phil Brooks in Chicago, has spent the better part of his life making his hard work look damn near impossible.
That’s the trade of a professional wrestler. Stage a scripted fight and make it look real. Make each punch seem painful. Force the audience to feel every body slam, every suplex, and every suicide dive outside of the ring. Real pain is immaterial; professional wrestlers absorb heaps of physical punishment, return to the ring the next day, and work through the injuries. It’s why they fear a single concept, the dreaded F-word: fake.
In the unique arena of professional wrestling, CM Punk was one of its best practitioners. He had the persona; straight edge, pierced, and tattooed, standing out amongst his more action figure-esque counterparts. He had the technical chops, cutting his teeth in IWA: Mid-South and Ring of Honor, where he held the heavyweight championship. He then spent a year in OVW, WWE’s developmental territory, before being moved to WWE’s main roster. His early career in WWE was successful, if not unexpected. He won titles, was consistently in the main event picture, and was involved in feud after feud.
But Punk reached his cultural watermark on June 27, 2011, when he delivered what WWE fans refer to as the “Pipe Bomb” promo. Punk had always been talented on the microphone, usually appropriating his straight edge persona as a face or heel persona when necessary. But that evening on Monday Night Raw, at the top of the ramp, Punk delivered a blistering indictment of the WWE and their backstage politicking, echoing concerns that had built amongst fans for months:
“…The reason I’m leaving is you people. Because after I’m gone, you’re still going to pour money into this company. I’m just a spoke on the wheel. The wheel is going to keep turning and I understand that. Vince McMahon is going to make money despite himself. He’s a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he’s not a billionaire? Because he surrounds himself with glad-handed, nonsensical, douchebag (censored) yes men, like John Laurinaitis, who’s going to tell him everything he wants to hear, and I’d like to think that maybe this company will better after Vince McMahon is dead. But the fact is, it’s going to be taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family.”
Wrestling, for a moment in time, seemed real again. His rant got mainstream press; as Punk himself would later remark, the only other time wrestling gets this much press is when somebody dies. It all built to an incredible match at the following Money in the Bank pay-per-view, which saw Punk pin John Cena and become WWE Champion. The latter part of his career was filled with great achievements. He held the WWE title a second time for an unprecedented 434 days. He fought the Undertaker at WrestleMania, an honor that places him in an exclusive class of Superstars.
“I don’t justify stupidity with an answer. I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks of me.”
Throughout it all, he continued to rebel, in storyline, against the villainous Authority of the WWE and stoke the die-hard fans. But then, before the Monday Night Raw after the Royal Rumble, on January 27, 2014, Punk walked out on his contract. He and the WWE are longer on friendly terms. The WWE served his termination papers to him on his wedding day (which Vince McMahon apologized for, claiming it was an error in communication).
During an interview on Colt Cabana’s podcast several months later, Punk finally explained his motivations, and painted an ugly picture of the WWE’s medical staff. He alleges they misdiagnosed a staph infection near his waistline, a mistake that could have killed him. A defamation lawsuit, filed against Punk by WWE doctor Chris Amann, is currently winding its way through the court system.
Since leaving, Punk has been pursuing a couple of interests—the first wholly cerebral, the second physical.
He’s co-writing a Drax the Destroyer series for Marvel with Cullen Bunn; three issues have been released thus far. Like unscripted fighting, it’s a completely new experience for him.
“Everybody knows how to throw a punch. Not correctly—he or she might not know how to turn the wrist or know what part of the hand to hit with,” says Punk. “But humans instinctively know to fight, whether they bite, or claw, or pull hair. It’s an instinct. I know how to tell a story. I know how to write. But structurally, I didn’t know how to write a fucking comic book. It’s more nerve-wracking than sparring. I would rather get punched in the face than look at a deadline and not feel like writing.”
Who he really wants to write a comic about, and who he’s still angling for, is the Punisher. Punk says he has a story about him in his head, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets the chance to tell it.
“I’ve kind of gotten mad over the years, reading different Punisher stories and seeing multiple Punisher movies. Nobody gets the character right,” says Punk. “To me, Punisher is pretty black and white. He’s very simple, and at the same time, he’s very complex. I don’t know why I think I understand the guy, but I feel I do.”
One would imagine that it might be daunting—to leave behind a career which one had great facility and mastery, and trade that in for something that one has little knowledge of. WWE, MMA, and comic fans have had a mixture of reactions to Punk’s sudden transition.
When wrestlers quit the business in such a public manner, the response from fans is the same: “He’ll be back.” Bruno Sammartino came back. Ultimate Warrior came back. If the WWE can repair those bridges, then surely CM Punk will be back. But CM Punk has no plans to return, and he’s reluctant to discuss any possibility of it, lest he gets fans’ hopes up. Punk likes that MMA, unlike professional wrestling, is determined by his performance; that win or lose, the outcome will be his alone, and there will no one else determining his destiny.
“I don’t feel like fielding questions about it [WWE],” says Punk. “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’ve accomplished everything I was going to.
But despite every indication that he’s not coming back, the WWE fans won’t leave Punk alone. And his identification with the solitary Punisher makes more sense in this context. His ex-girlfriend and close friend, Natalie Slater, wrote an article for Red Eye Chicago, in which she lamented the fans’ obsessiveness and relenting unwillingness to leave the man alone.
“He's one of the most isolated people I've ever known,” Slater wrote. “A few weeks ago he found a young fan and his mom cramming Easter candy into the mail slot of his front door. Just before that, he walked out of his back door to throw out the trash only to be met by fans camped out in his alley for hours just to see him.”
This is how bitterness and defensiveness develops—knowing that your reactions, even to the most offensive actions of others, will be judged. It’s knowing that you’re constantly under surveillance and constantly being evaluated—at the airport, at a Cubs game, at a restaurant.
Or, in this case, at a Devils game.
The reason why Punk is in Newark, NJ, far from home, is to train. Punk is currently signed to the UFC. He was originally slated to fight for the first time at the end of last year, but a shoulder injury ruined those plans. His current plan is to fight in June or July of this year, probably against Mickey Gall, so long as the 1-0 fighter wins his next match at UFC 196. Beyond that fight, Punk will be entering the Octagon at least seven more times.
The UFC and the Devils are collaborating on cross training—by training in disciplines other than the one they are specialized in, they will gain more techniques and more strategies for performing at the highest level. The Devils’ current strength and conditioning coach is Joe Lorincz, who came to the organization via the Penguins. He’s largely credited with moving the team’s training regimen into the modern age. Less bulk, and more mobility. Less machines, and more free weights. Less isolation of individual muscles, and more “quality movement,” which allows for all of the muscles to work in conjunction with one another.
“The UFC is building a big ol’ Athlete Performance Center, so what we’ve been doing is teaming up with different sports franchises,” says Punk. “We basically get to spy on them and what they do for their training, recovery, days off, and what not. And in turn, we share with them what we do. It’s two brain trusts coming together to help young athletes, when they come into the UFC, be able to develop better and function better as athletes.”
As a guy who always stood out as lean and athletic, versus his more imposing, enhanced competitors, Punk was very receptive to the Devils’ new training environment. And this was no average, tune-up workout that the Devils might engage in during a season. The UFC fighters trained for approximately two hours through a typical Devils off-season program—weight was lighter, volume was higher—and Lorincz was impressed by the level of dedication and focus that Punk demonstrated.
“If I did anything in my life based on someone’s negative opinion on me, I would never fucking leave my house.”
“I think they liked a lot of the movement drills—a lot of the quick feet and agility drills,” says Lorincz. “Which is stuff they get to do with their own trainers, it’s just that they got to see some new ideas. Punk picked up things very quickly; you could see that with the WWE background, he moves well, he trains, he’s in good shape. He’s a legitimate athlete.”
Punk engages in the majority of his training in Milwaukee, under the watchful eye of Duke Roufus, a renowned trainer who’s worked with former UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis. Roufus’ association means legitimacy, and Roufus has been forthcoming in his praise of Punk’s work ethic, calling the 37-year-old a “natural striker.” Punk, likewise, praises Roufus’ coaching.
“It’s great training with Duke,” says Punk. “Obviously, he’s one of the most talented striking coaches in MMA. He’s super knowledgeable about Muay Thai. He’s super knowledgeable about boxing, various styles and multiple styles, kickboxing. The first time we met, we hit it off like kindred spirits. I’m the kind of guy that comes to the gym and works hard every day. My coaches tell me to do something, and I do it.”
Punk considers his lack of MMA experience an advantage. He doesn’t have to spend time unlearning poor technique in order to do things the proper way. He also defends Roufus from some recurring allegations—that there’s a hazing culture at his gym and depending on who you are, you might be treated differently.
“I think that’s all bullshit,” says Punk. “From my perspective, I’ve been treated with nothing but respect. And I’ve treated everybody with respect. And in no way, shape, or form do they take it easy on me, but all these stories I’ve heard about Duke? I’ve never seen anything like that. I can’t comment on anyone else’s perspective but my own, but my perspective is that it’s a bunch of horse shit.”
Then things get a little awkward.
When he’s asked about the specific areas he’s working on to improve—a weakness or flaw in his form that he might have fixed—he keeps it general.
“I work on everything,” he says.
I rephrase the question, and his tone gets sharper. He lets out an exasperated chuckle, and shrugs his shoulders.
“It’s a boring answer, because it’s kind of a boring question,” says Punk, making eye contact for the first time since we were introduced. “This is mixed martial arts. I’m not in there one day, working on one specific thing, I’m in there everyday, working on everything. My defense, my wrestling defense, my striking defense. And not only do you have to defend, but you’re being judged by three people who don’t always see what other people are seeing.”
That seems to be the recurring trigger. When asked for specifics or to react to criticisms, Punk is outwardly insulted. The intent of these questions is to allow him to reflect. But he interprets them as personal attacks, either on his intelligence or his moral consistency.
When he’s asked if he is anxious or intimidated to make the transition from professional wrestling (where the punches are performed) to MMA (where the punches have malicious intent), he pushes back. His tone is even, but testy. His smirk seems strained.
“I get this question a lot, and it’s like you guys think I’m an idiot. Like I didn’t know MMA wasn’t pre-determined or something like that,” says Punk. After a pause, he gives me side-eye. “Have you ever tweeted at me, ‘Hey, do you know what you’re getting into?’”
“I never have.”
“Okay. It sounds like you might have.”
“I don’t mean to put you on the defensive…”
“I’m not on the defensive. Your question is insulting. You’re asking me if I know the difference between the WWE and the UFC?”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“That’s exactly what you’re asking.” When he’s asked how he might respond to fans who question his motives for going into MMA, wonder if it is a publicity stunt, or wonder if he’s ever going to fight, he pushes back again. Now, he’s no longer smiling. “You say my fans say that? You’re mistaken. My fans do not say that. I wouldn’t say anything to them [my critics]. I don’t justify stupidity with an answer. I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks of me, whether I’m going to fight or not. I know what I’m going to do.
“If I did anything in my life based on someone’s negative opinion on me, I would never fucking leave my house. My fans are people who don’t tweet negative shit at me.”
Punk appears to have a strict definition of what a fan is. But there’s an element of interactive dialogue inherent in social media. Can a person be a fan of one aspect or part of person, while disliking other parts? And is there any way to engage in civilized dialogue, or are all criticisms and questions inherently negative?
Punk doesn’t appear to ask those questions, make those distinctions, or care about them, and perhaps this is an essential precaution for someone of his infamy. You stop differentiating between a fan who wants to know more about your thought process, and a fan who is concertedly trolling you—both are still criticism. You stop distinguishing between a fan asking for an autograph and the fan waiting outside your home. Both are still invasive. You surround yourself with unquestioned positivity, because the negativity can be overwhelming and toxic, regardless of its motive. You probably don’t leave your house that much, if you have to face skeptics at every turn.
Now I’m part of it.
He expresses resentment, pointing towards the recorder near the end of the interview, nervous that I’ll edit the tape, and run a hatchet job on him. One can empathize with the sentiment. Punk gets up, shakes my hand, and gives me a pat on the back. His handler motions for Punk to come with him, and I’m escorted in the opposite direction. I’m told later that Punk has no interest in talking to me ever again.
CM Punk has several more months to go before his first fight, when the cage door slams and the speculation stops. He doesn’t traditionally do many interviews, and he’ll have to endure many more press functions, journalists, and questions about his state of mind and motives. But he’d rather talk with his fists than continue to explain himself with words. He’d rather be left alone.
Kevin is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinjameswong.