Months before Phil Brooks – the man known to wrestling fans everywhere as superstar CM Punk – announced he'd signed with Ultimate Fighting Championship, the former World Wrestling Entertainment champion's next move was a mystery.
He was last seen performing for WWE on January 26 at the Royal Rumble, and until speaking out in incendiary fashion on friend Colt Cabana's Art of Wrestling podcast last month, Brooks had fans speculating about his status, and dirt sheets digging for clues as to whether his disappearance was all a "work." Or, if it were legit, the public wanted answers as to why he left, whether he'd ever return and – either way – what comes next.
Well, now you know. The 36-year-old Chicagoan, who has no in-ring mixed martial arts experience, will step inside the Octagon some time next year, where he'll likely spar as a middleweight. In the interim, he'll continue his training in Jiu-Jitsu (his mentor is martial-arts icon Rener Gracie) and other MMA techniques, answer critics and try to dodge social-media scuttlebutt, all while enjoying whatever free time he can find with new bride AJ Lee, who remains a high-profile draw for WWE's Divas division.
Three days removed from his blockbuster deal, Brooks emerged from his mainstream-media blackout and spoke with Rolling Stone – while doing Christmas-accessory shopping at a Chicago Walgreens – about communication breakdowns, building his brand and always striving to be the best in the world.
Have you been surprised by the range of reactions to your UFC signing?
I can't say it's gone as I expected. A few notable, big names in UFC have been extremely supportive. Whether they have ulterior motives is yet to be seen. I tend to tune out the negativity, and there's been a lot of positive stuff. I think a lot of people are curious, and I think a lot of people understand my mindset.
Are critics not being realistic about what a win-win this is for you and the company?
I definitely do think it's a win-win for myself and the UFC, but I will be quick to point out that, normally, the first person to tell you that something's impossible has already failed at it. And this is not me passing judgment on anyone else. It's just my perception of things. There's a very real possibility that whatever anybody's definition of failure is, that might happen to me, but I'm confident it won't, because I believe in myself and I believe in my ability. All this is me; it's my life. I've seen some people get really bent out of shape about it, and that I can't really spend time trying to grasp. If you're really that upset about it, you're going to see me get punched in the face, so it's a win-win for you too.
To that end, should everyone – yourself included – reserve judgment until you step inside the Octagon?
For sure. I'm not gonna sit here and make bold predictions about first-round head kicks and beating ranked opponents. This is about me and my journey to get there. I understand other peoples' point of view about, "Oh, there's great fighters out there like Ben Askren." My only point on that is, "Don't be mad at me, Ben. Be mad at [UFC President] Dana [White]." I'm sure Ben Askren's a nice guy. If he's mad at me, I understand. But if the Blackhawks came to me before Dana and Lorenzo did and were like, "We're gonna put you in goal," I'd be like, "That's great. I played a little hockey when I was a kid." You know what I mean? I'm not gonna deny myself some opportunity because somebody on Twitter thinks I shouldn't have it.
What convinced you UFC would be more positive for you than the WWE?
I'm not sure I did know. If I can maybe throw out an example of how things are different – the lack of communication from the WWE office was astounding. They said they suspended me and never contacted me. They were in my town, about an eight-minute drive from my house multiple times, and didn't feel like it was necessary to come try and talk to me, so I assumed that they didn't want to talk to me.
Then, you've got Dana and [UFC CEO] Lorenzo Fertitta wanting to talk to me, and they get on a jet and fly to Chicago to talk to me. So that pretty much told me exactly how Dana and Lorenzo do business. I'm sure there are other people out there who have different situations with them, but they're playing straight with me. And being backstage [at last Saturday's UFC 181] and introducing everybody to my wife, it was such a great experience. And I'm sure part of that is the name value and who I am, but everyone seemed to be happy, which is different and odd for me.
And just to clarify, your settlement with WWE absolved you of your no-compete clause with UFC?
Yes. Otherwise I'd be waiting till the summer.
Once you do step inside the Octagon in 2015, will there be any fear about getting hurt?
No. I've been getting beat up for most of my adult life. Pro wrestling is a lot different than MMA. Most recently, I had a conversation with King Mo, and he's been training to be a pro wrestler, and he was like, "Pro wrestling is harder." Now, that doesn't make my decision to do MMA like, "Oh, this is easy," because I know it's not. I just know I've put in work in pro wrestling, and the work ethic you learn from doing that will translate for me. It will put me in a good position.
Is there actually a higher risk of injury amid the choreographed violence of wrestling than in the specialized fighting of MMA?
I definitely think pro wrestling's more risky. The pro wrestler's mentality, and it's ingrained in them from the start, is you have to work hurt. And I know guys in MMA are banged up and will "work hurt," but if you tear your knee up, you're gonna get surgery. Pro wrestlers will not, because they're afraid about losing their jobs. They will work through torn ligaments and everything, and I've done it and it's not smart, and it's not the healthiest work environment.
If I step in the Octagon and I get knocked out, I don't gotta keep fighting. If that was pro wrestling, and I slipped and I fell and something happened to me and I got knocked out and I woke up three seconds later, guess what: I gotta finish this match. That's just the pro wrestler's mentality, and I'm glad I don't really have to be subjected to that anymore. Imagine if an MMA fighter fought four-to-five nights a week. That's essentially what I was doing in pro wrestling. Obviously, there's big differences between a real fight and a fake one, but it's a lot more wear and tear on your body, the travel is brutal. So I won't be doing that.
How did you convince your wife AJ to be on board, given the physical risks?
After I spoke with Dana and Lorenzo, that's when it got serious and that's when I brought it to her attention. Trust me, whatever nerves I'm gonna have stepping into the Octagon will pale in comparison to the nerves I had when I had to bring this up to my wife. I was honestly terrified. I was like, "She's gonna shut it down, and I'm gonna have to figure out a way to smooth it over so I can do this, because I don't take no for an answer, she doesn't take no for an answer, and this is something I really wanna do." Right off the bat she recognized that. She's been around me long enough to know that, ever since the first day I met her, this is something I talked about doing, and she's not somebody that's gonna step in front of her husband trying to accomplish something that he dreamed about.
Any idea where you'll be training?
I can't answer that right now. That's one of the things I've been most overwhelmed about, is the amount of people who've approached me privately or publicly and said, "Hey, train here." I don't know, 'cause the best gyms I have to travel to, and I'm not gonna travel back and forth. I need a home base. I'm gonna have to be somewhere where the gym's close so I can train twice a day. I'm sort of in a hurry to make that decision, but I'm also afforded a little bit of time, so we're gonna have to see what happens.
What specifically is your training going to entail?
Any number of things. Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, boxing, everything. And on top of that, strength and conditioning.
Are there any techniques you're most looking forward to improving?
Oh, striking, absolutely. I'm a raw nerve. I'm exposed to the world here, and I don't think people realize I'm used to this. Nothing scares me. Nothing embarrasses me, so I'm gonna say it right now: Striking's my weakest point, and I'm excited to get that up to the level where I feel it needs to be. But who's to say what it takes to step into the Octagon? I think I need to up my game on everything, and that's the plan, but I think striking's going to be the most fun for me.
On the flipside, what skill of yours might surprise people?
I would definitely surprise people with my ground game. I'm very comfortable on the ground. I think it'd be great if, once we nail down a fight date and an opponent, I think it's gonna be wonderful if he underestimates me.
Is this all ultimately part of a bigger plan to build the business of Phil Brooks?
Sure, but that's not the sole purpose of doing it. Obviously, because it's such a high-profile move and all eyes are on me right now, yeah, why wouldn't you classify that as the building of a brand or a business? That's what it is. I could easily just not be doing interviews and telling people, "No, I'm gonna hole up here and train, and you're never gonna see me until I fight," but that's unrealistic. I think somewhere along the lines after I disappeared from WWE, people got this idea that I hate being famous. And if anybody is famous, they know that fame isn't really a thing. Fame is an apparition. Fame is a side effect of success. I did not wake up one day and say, "I wanna be famous." I did not wake up and say, "I wanna be a UFC fighter." I woke up and said, "I want to be successful at something I want to do. I want to fight."
You've also said you don't want your work to define your life, so what do you hope defines your life?
I'm somebody who constantly wants to challenge himself, evolve and grow. Because if you don't, you fade. You become stagnant. I'm somebody who tries to remain positive and looks forward to setting goals and reaching them. But that's easier said than done. When it's all said and done, my actions will speak for me to help define me.
And when it's all said and done, there's no part of you that pines for that WrestleMania main event one day?
No, absolutely not.