Friday April 10th, 2015

For as often as athletes vow to “keep it real,” well, here’s an accomplished sports figure competing honestly for the first time. After becoming WWE royalty, Phil Brooks (d/b/a CM Punk) decided that the slickly marketed burlesque that is pro wrestling was no longer for him. Recently, at age 36, he quit the WWE to join the UFC’s roster of mixed martial arts fighters.

This career change has cleaved fan bases in both sports. To WWE Nation, he is a rebel—Che Guevara in boots and body oil—who made his break from an oppressive regime; or he is a the ultimate heel, a self-indulgent traitor who has chomped the hand that fed him. The UFC tribalists either admire and welcome a celebrity from another sport, who, as Punk tweeted, “would rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity.” Others resent his perceived hubris and the fact that, instantly, he has become one of the more popular fighters in the promotion.

Though training intensely, Punk has yet to be given an opponent or a date for his UFC debut. Which only intensifies chatter and speculation. After a four-mile training run, he joined SI for an oyster brunch in downtown Chicago to discuss his transition and all it represents.

Sports Illustrated: You prefer I call you CM Punk or Phil Brooks?

CM Punk: Either one. You can call me Phil. I answer to both. I don’t really care either way. At the end of the day, Tiger Williams’ real name isn't Tiger.

SI: Tiger Woods?

CMP: Him, too. I’m a hockey guy. Tiger Williams played for the Vancouver Canucks.

SI: But doesn’t this [name issue] go to the heart of a personal dilemma, right? How much do you trade on your past, and how much is this a new career? There’s a backstory you don't want to ignore, but this is a new pursuit.

CMP: I get it. I’m a goal-oriented person and instead of focusing on the past, I'd rather focus on the future. But I understand that I have this gigantic fan base from almost a different life. And it would be foolish to ignore that. So, I accept it. I’d be crazy to think I could ignore and turn my back on it. That would be wacky. At the same time, I don't want to dwell on the past.

SI: What have you learned about MMA?

CMP: I don’t think I’ve learned much that I didn't already know—apart from technique. It’s not like the first day I got hit in the head and said, ‘This is actually hard.’ I know it was hard and I knew what went into it.

SI: Seems like you're in this weird place, though. You have accumulated wisdom. Financially, you're in a much different place than most fighters at your level. But you’re starting as this blank slate.

CMP: I’m in a great place! Isn’t that a great place to be? The real tough sons of bitches are the guys who train as hard as I do and then have to go to their nine-to-five job. I’m fortunate enough to do this as a full-time job. So I get to train two or three times a day. Things are going to be okay for me.

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SI: Before we talk more MMA, I’m curious: what’s WWE training like?

CMP: You're on the road pretty much every day of the year, at least when you’re in the position I was in. Fly into a town. Find a gym, work out. Go to the building. Stretch. Wrestle. Cool down. Drive to the next town. Wash, rinse, repeat.

SI: On your own?

CMP: You’re responsible for your travel. I mean, little cliques will form. You travel with your friends. But, yeah, you’re on your own.

SI: So compare that to now, your rhythms now, when you don’t have a date to fight yet, you don't have an opponent. You’ll go months without competing.

CMP: Just training. What an easy job, right? It's way better for me. I was burnt out on traveling, so over it. People think I’m crazy, living in Chicago and driving to Milwaukee every day to train. That’s the easiest thing in the world! Ninety minutes from my front door and I can be in my own bed every night? It's a different lifestyle and it’s done me wonders. Amazing. I love it.

SI: Your head is in a different place. Your body, too, I’m guessing. How banged up do you get wrestling?

CMP: When I stopped wrestling I literally lay in bed for two weeks. In a lot of ways I’m still decompressing for leading that life. I definitely went through a transitional period, probably with some depression mixed in—waking up and not knowing what to do. Normally you're waking up to catch a plane, in a different zone. But yeah, physically, you take a beating.

SI: Hard to keep weight when you're traveling.

CMP: Hard to keep good weight. You're in the Bible Belt and it’s three in the morning and you want something to eat? You’re lucky to get fast food.

SI: Do you feel like you're competing in WWE?

CMP: It's definitely a competition. Backstage is so shark-infested and political. It’s almost comical. A lot of people are more interested in the backstage goings-on than what they see on television. A lot of ways it’s more fascinating. It’s a competition for sure.

SI: Do you have a say over storylines?

CMP: Yeah, eventually. But I was one of the few. And even in that, I could make a recommendation but at the end of the day, it’s Vince’s company and his say.

SI: Was there one catalyzing moment: I want to fight MMA?

CMP: I’d say there were a lot of little moments. I'd accomplished pretty much all I wanted. I was getting tired of being on the road, tired of getting beat up. Most of the big reasons had to do with my health. Like getting knee surgery and then being told, ‘You need to be in the ring in three weeks.’ I’m like, ‘That’s great. I can suck it up and be the tough guy. But wouldn’t it be smarter to give me six weeks?’ Stuff like that. Again, it's so cutthroat and political backstage. I always felt like I was fighting. I’d much rather just lock the cage door and really fight it out.

SI: Not a lot of grey area in MMA—

CMP: Exactly. In pro wrestling, it’s fake. People always get offended by that word. ‘No, we like to say it’s pre-determined.’ For whatever reason, people get angry at fake; pre-determined eases the blow? It’s fake. At the end of the day it doesn’t really mean anything. So after a while, it was, ‘Let’s just really fight and see what happens.’ Now I get to.

SI: Brock Lesnar did this before you—

CMP: I love him. I think he’s awesome This is what we have in common: I’ll tell you how I am. Now don't be surprised when I’m like that. No apologies. No bulls---.

SI: He was also, obviously, coming from wrestling to the UFC. But we’re talking about an Olympic-caliber wrestler. It was clear what he needed to do, what his strengths and weaknesses were going to be. You don't have that.

CMP: I know what I have to do.

SI: What’s that?

CMP: I’ve been thrown in the deep end. I need to be good at everything. I don’t have the base Brock did. I have an understanding of the sport, though. It’s not just about wrestling or jiu-jitsu and striking. It’s about all those things. I went to [renowned MMA trainer] Duke Roufus and said, Forget about what I little I do know. You're my coach. Anything you say, I will do. I think Duke loved that. I’m 100 percent coachable. I’m moldable. I don’t have bad habits. Some days are good. Some days are humbling. But I love it. I’m learning every day.


SI: How’d you pick Duke?

CMP: Proximity was a big factor. But also, I didn't feel like I was sacrificing quality with him being 90 minutes from my front door. I met Duke years ago and we kept in touch. Always gotten along. I agree with his philosophy. I called him before Christmas and had a great conversation with him. It was a good fit. Just fell into place and it worked. There are so many good fighters there, I can’t not get better.

SI: How do you compare MMA shape to pro wrestling shape?

CMP: I’ve never had a problem cardiovascularly. That’s always been my thing. So in the gym I’ll keep coming and coming. ‘You’ve done enough today.’ But weight-wise, I haven't been this light since high school. And I’m sure more is coming off. It’s just different. I’m not lifting heavy weights every day anymore. In wrestling it’s being as big as you can. That’s out the window. I have a weight to focus on.

SI: Which is what, 185?

CMP: I’m walking around now at 190, so I’m thinking 170.

SI: Have you ever done a weight cut?

CMP: No, we’re talking about doing a test weight cut in a couple of months of seeing how that goes.

SI: You were just in Dallas [at UFC 185] seeing the whole production from backstage. What did you learn?

CMP: Well, me walking [headliner Anthony] Pettis to the cage was more an exercise in team unity. See how the day of the fight goes, that’s something Duke likes to do with all his young fighters. It helps gets acclimated and you can see it when it’s your turn. You're not shocked or confused when it happens to you. Nothing shocked me. It was more fun than anything. And I was visualizing: this is going to be me in eight months, 12 months, whatever.

SI: You saw Anthony after the fight—

CMP: Yeah, I was disappointed. I wished it had been me. There’s nothing you can do. Pat him and tell him, ‘Get ‘em next time?’ That doesn't mean s--- at that point. I was like, ‘I’m here, if there’s anything I can do’ and that’s about it.

SI: But you didn’t see him—needing stitches, bloody—and say what have I gotten myself into?

CMP: Not at all. I’ve been beat up before. What it boils down to: what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to me? I’m going to get beat up? All right. That’s how I look at it.

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SI: You’re getting used to fighting with gloves?

CMP: The hardest part of the gloves is jiu-jitsu. It changes everything. Grips. Getting able to slide your hands for an underhook. But that’s another tiny little thing to get used to. The other adjustment is just letting my hands go in training.

SI: I’m surprised more wrestlers haven't tried to make this transition.

CMP: I am, too. I’ve always been surrounded by guys who talked about it. Half of them talk about it; none of them do it. They have their little comfortable safety net doing WWE stuff, I guess. I would much rather give it a shot than just talk about it.

SI: Itching to find out who your opponent is?

CMP: I wouldn't say itching. It almost doesn't matter. Sure, based on what tools he brings, we’ll make a fight plan, whether he’s a wrestler or a striker or whatnot. But I don't think about it. I have, in my opinion, a long way to go in a lot of categories, so that’s what I’m focused on. Not how good or bad the guy I am fighting is going to be. I’m worried about how good or bad I am.

SI: Were you into MMA, 10-15 years ago?

CMP: Huge into it.

SI: Like who?

CMP: People ask who my favorite was. I would say Dan Henderson. Like in hockey, I’m drawn to the defensive players who play the most ice time, who are just gnarly. Blue collar, hardworking guys. That was Dan Henderson to me. He was the first guy in PRIDE to hold two titles in two different weight classes. Stuff like that, I love. Yeah, I’ll fight him.

SI: What made you a good pro wrestler?

CMP: Well, that’s another thing in that phony world. What does it mean to be a good fake wrestler? That’s an identity crisis that I think I struggled with. It doesn't matter if you're the best; someone else picks who they want in the top spot.

Moses Robinson/Getty Images

SI: But were you particularly adept at the choreography—

CMP: I think I connected with the people. And the people drive the sport. If they don’t like—or they don't care about you and sit on their hands or take a piss or get popcorn when you’re on—that’s when you're no good. But if you can captivate a room, whether it’s 300 or 80,000, that’s when you’re good.

SI: Go back to the politics in WWE.  That’s among fighters?

CMP: You wonder, Did you really punch me in the face? You say it was an accident but I know you and I think you're a p----- and I’ve seen you do this to other people. Are you doing this to me? Did you kick me in the ribs as hard as you can?  No, no I would never do that! In [MMA] I know the other guy is going to try and kick me in the ribs as hard as he can. No, not maliciously. But I’ve been in the [wrestling] ring with plenty of guys where I’m wondering, Is he is trying hurt me? Is he mad because he is losing? I don’t have to deal with that bulls--- any more. It's a godsend.

SI: Passive-aggressive—

CMP: Passive-aggressive is the worst thing in the world to me! And there was a lot of that where I came from.

SI: How big an adjustment will timing be? What I mean is, no one is saying, ‘At the four-minute mark, you’re going to do XYZ.’ In terms of pacing—

CMP: That all defends on the strategy. But I was watching some fights the other night. Guy came out of the gate throwing bombs and it looked like the other guy was in trouble. After about 40 seconds, he weathered the storm. And the guy throwing bombs was shot. Just shot. It was a five-round fight and he had nothing left. So that’s something I’m going to have to learn to manage.

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SI: What else?

CMP: Managing distance. I have long arms. If I’m fighting at 170, that can be an advantage.

SI: I think another advantage has to be your comfort performing in front of crowds. Some of these guys are fighting in strip clubs and suddenly, whoa, they’re in the UFC in big arenas—

CMP: Easily my biggest advantage. Whether that factors into a fight, I’m not sure. But, yeah, bright lights don’t bother me. Attention doesn't bother me. I’ve walked out too many times to count in front of 70,000 or 80,000 people and it was like, Eh, another day at the office.

SI: Another advantage: your opponent is going to be under pressure—

CMP: Yeah, he has to beat up the fake wrestler guy.

SI: Wish you had done this earlier?

CMP: Every day. Damn it, why didn't I do this ten years ago? I’ll watch an Anthony Pettis from five years ago and go, He was good. Then I’ll watch him fight now and think, Jesus he is like a totally different fighter. Thinking about all the knowledge I could have attained, yeah, I wish I had started earlier. But again, why dwell? Why not just fill my brain full of knowledge today.

SI: Some of the issues you’re mentioning with the WWE—you don’t want stars to get too big; management has a heavy grip on labor—honestly, that sounds not dissimilar to the fighter discontent in the UFC. Do you see yourself getting involved?

CMP: At the moment, no. Everyone’s situation is different. It's an interesting question and I don't know how to answer it. I’m not trying to shy away from it. But I’ve been treated great. At lot of what I said and did in WWE, that was about trying to help out the other guys. After a while, I realized, Wow, that other guy doesn’t even appreciate it; he could give a s---. Nobody cared. Why was I bending over backwards to make it a better workplace for you, when you don’t give a s---? I see the similarities [between WWE and UFC] but I see the differences. And, again, I’ve been treated great….I do things based on firsthand experience.

SI: Is this met with full spousal support?

CMP: Sure. She doesn’t like it when I come home with black eyes. But what are you gonna do?

SI: This has always been your personality?

CMP: I’m in eighth grade. I don't play sports. We’re poor. Sports are another bill—buy equipment?  I wasn’t that into sports, but I wanted to do something though, so I tried out for the football team even though I was the antithesis of a jock. I think I played Little League but stopped when I had to get glasses and my parents couldn’t afford glasses. The glasses wouldn’t fit in the catchers’ mask. It was a whole thing and I quit. I realized I shouldn’t have just because of my glasses, but, anyway, I wanted to do something. I tried out for the football team and the wrestling team. And I made it. But I had a Mohawk. And both times, they said, ‘You have to cut your hair.’ And I was more into being the opinionated punk rock kid. I said, ‘F--- you, that’s dumb.’ And I don't regret that decision. But it’s also always been my mentality. You don’t like the way I look? You go f--- yourself. I’ll peace out and do something else.

SI: Didn’t play high school football, weren’t a high school wrestler after that?

CMP: Nope.

SI: So you would say this leap is in keeping with your character?

CMP: Yeah, but I don't think of it as a leap. The people who are mad or think this is an embarrassment to the UFC or the sport? I used to not be able to ride a bike. So when I was learning how to ride a bike, does Lance Armstrong come up to me and say: Who the f--- are you, trying to learn how to ride a bike? My attitude is punk rock across the board: Oh, you don't think I should do it? Well, I’m going to do it and I’m going to try to be the best I f---ing can. At the end of the day, it’s about me and not anyone else. But, yeah, I used to not be able to read or walk or ride a bike or drive a car. Those people who are down on me trying this? Shut the f--- up and don't watch the fight.

SI: That isn’t my sense at all.

CMP: No?

SI: My sense is that more people are saying, How cool that this guy is giving up his seven-figure WWE job to follow his bliss and start at the bottom.

CMP: That’s the positive view. But there are so many negative people.

SI: But that’s the thing about UFC, right? Ain’t a lot of nuance or politics—

CMP: Exactly! That’s the whole appeal. Here’s what it comes down to: I could win and I could get my ass kicked in 30 seconds. Either way, we’re gonna find out.

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