“Bop, bop, bop!”
With every series of jabs CM Punk lands, his muay thai coach, Scott Cushman, annunciates the impact. Bouncing on his toes, Punk lunges forward for another combination into Cushman’s gloves. “Bop, bop!” This carries on for a few more minutes until a tiny digital timekeeper buzzes, signaling that it’s time to rotate and simulate a new series of strikes. When their hour-long session expires, Punk’s sweat-soaked Marvel T-shirt is saturated a new hue of blue.
“I’m always a little bit frustrated, because it’s just repetition to get muscle memory down so I’m not making the same mistakes,” he says, pausing to catch his breath and peel a banana, which is all he can really keep down during workouts. “I think it’s a lot harder than people realize. You’re re-learning this entirely new skillset and trying to condition your body to do things it wouldn’t normally do. It’s challenging and it’s fun.”
That’s good news for fans of the 36-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight rookie and retired pro wrestler, who haven’t seen him relish his work for some time. Toward the end of his nearly eight-year stint with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment – during which he became arguably the promotion’s second-most widely recognized personality after John Cena – Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) was openly wary of his employer and always seemed close to walking out. Finally, after the company’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view event in January 2014, he did just that. Ten months later, he broke his silence with an interview on good friend and fellow grappler Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast, in which he lashed out at WWE’s “lazy” medical staff for what he saw as a mishandling of his health and wellness (that appearance resulted in a still-ongoing defamation lawsuit filed against Punk and Cabana, aka Scott Colton, by WWE senior ringside physician Chris Amann). A couple weeks later, he stunned just about everyone by announcing he’d signed with UFC. And despite initial backlash from a contingent of wrestling audiences and requisite skepticism from mixed martial arts competitors and admirers, he couldn’t be more content.
“For the longest time [in] what I did, the competition wasn’t that clean-cut,” he reflects on his WWE tenure. “It didn’t matter if you were the best. There’s slimy backstage politics, there’s always somebody trying to undercut you. To me, there’s something romantic about just you and another guy locked inside a cage and the better man wins. In that time and space, nothing else matters. I definitely think it can be fucking scary, but I like embracing the things that scare me.”
And to most people, the dungeon-like atmosphere of Milwaukee’s Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy, where Punk trains for several hours a day during the week, would be pretty damn foreboding. The facility itself – named for and co-founded by Punk’s head coach, kickboxing legend Duke Roufus – is tucked away inside an entrance across from a drive-thru ATM kiosk and down two flights of stairs. Whatever air makes its way into that basement gym is dense and odorous. Nineties hip-hop blares, and the décor is spare, to say the least. Workout mats, mesh netting, a practice ring and some punching bags are about all that spruces up the joint. Fliers for upcoming MMA fights and posters of Roufusport-bred success stories like local hero and former UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis sporadically adorn the walls as motivation. The trainees keep their waters, protein drinks, smoothies and salads in a modest fridge behind the reception desk, and there’s a break room/pro-shop of sorts to the far right, bedecked with folding chairs and Roufusport-branded equipment and apparel. It’s a far cry from the arenas Punk had grown accustomed to selling out, and there’s certainly no road crew building up and breaking down the space. He even helps spray down mats after workouts. They all do. It’s a communal environment, and Punk’s eager to pay his dues.
“I’ve thanked everybody for letting me train there, and they’re always like, ‘You’ve been here six months. You’re part of the team,'” he says appreciatively, between bites of an Asian salad with grilled chicken at his preferred Milwaukee burger joint following a rigorous Monday afternoon of fight prep. “To me, that means a lot, ’cause not a single person needed to be nice to me. I will maybe always feel like, ‘Eh, I’m kinda not [part of the team],’ so when I’m in that gym I try to be low-key, have my mouth shut and keep my eyes and ears open. But they’ve welcomed me with open arms.”
For those endeared to Punk’s more outsized persona, the one that’s made headlines in wrestling circles and beyond with fourth-wall-breaking “pipe bomb” promos and confrontational social-media outbursts, fear not: He is still plenty gruff and guarded. Regarding skeptics who’ve grown impatient waiting for his debut UFC battle to be announced – this December remains an aspirational, if not realistic, goal – he rebuts, “I gotta train, I gotta fight, and everybody’s already like, ‘I’m bored. He hasn’t fought yet.’ Well go fuck yourself.” And on the topic of over-enthusiastic fans that spy him on the streets of Milwaukee with his dog, Larry Talbot (named for Lon Chaney Jr.’s character in the The Wolf Man), and get a bit too close for comfort, he advises, “If you recognize that I’m walking my dog, don’t sprint at me from across the street. My dog is going to bite you. I’m always amazed that people are shocked when their despicable action causes an equally despicable reaction.”
It’s enough to make you wonder why on Earth he’d allow a journalist to shadow him for two days, let alone spend time in his home and among the second family of MMA comrades he’s come to value dearly. According to Punk, it’s precisely so that his peers get the spotlight they deserve, and so that the hubbub surrounding his transition into UFC helps recontextualize a sport that, for many, still seems barbaric.
“Part of me thinks doing it will hopefully get some eyes on the fighters I train with who deserve to be where I am already or signed by other organizations,” he says, having polished off his salad and requested a refill of ice water. “Duke [Roufus] and I have the same philosophy of a high tide raises all ships, so whatever good I can bring anybody’s way, I look at it as a positive. I know this is a piece on me, but where I train and who I train with is a big part of my life.”
And besides, he insists that he’s getting “less cynical with age, maybe,” or at least that “the stuff that really grinds my gears has happened to me so often that I’m over it. I’m trying to react different ways and see how it works. You can only wig out on people so much.” (Case in point: His subsequent, relatively composed handling of an aggressive Q&A participant four days later.)
The other major component that’s helped rewrite Punk’s narrative over the past couple years is marrying former WWE superstar and road ally April “AJ Lee” Mendez-Brooks. He and Mendez-Brooks − whom he affectionately refers to by the shorthand “Ape” − grew to become confidants and close pals while touring with WWE as the promotion’s top male and female superstar, respectively. While trapped in what often felt like a traveling circus with no honesty or transparency, Punk at last found someone he could count on.
“That’s the whole reason I asked her to marry me,” he says with a satisfied smile as the waitress metes out our check. “We were friends on the road for so long and she knew everything about me. I would tell her every stupid thing I ever did, and it’s come back to bite me in the ass in certain respects, but there’s no secrets, and I’d have it no other way.”
And like any grateful husband whose partner supports their latest whim, he’s quick to thank Mendez-Brooks, who’s in Las Vegas for her sister’s wedding at present, “for moving to Milwaukee because I wanna do this stupid thing where I get punched in the face.” He’s also head over heels enough to assert that if “she wants to move somewhere because of something she has an opportunity to do, I would jump at it.”
Conviction about high tides and devout straight-edge ethos (Punk has always been outspoken on and off-screen about abstaining from drugs and alcohol) notwithstanding, that restlessness sums up Punk’s fundamental philosophy: Leap before you look, and don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s the mindset that steered the proud Chicago native (he sports a tattoo of his beloved Blackhawks on his shin) toward backyard wrestling when he was 15 and couldn’t work his way onto the high school football team. It’s what compelled him to get in the van with buddy Cabana and perform for peanuts in gyms and VFW halls. And most recently, it’s the attitude that enabled him to walk out of a lucrative career and try his hand at something comparatively alien, scrutiny be damned. Per his showbiz name, and consistent with the company he keeps (Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen is among his close friends), it’s all punk to Punk.
“I think, fundamentally, the core of everything I do is punk rock,” he explains over kale, eggs, almond butter and toast at the renovated loft he shares with Mendez-Brooks (whom he credits with decorations like skull-emblazoned throw pillows) prior to that Monday’s workout. “[People ask], ‘Why do you wanna fight? You have this great wrestling career. Aren’t you worried you’re gonna lose?’ Well, if I was worried about losing, I would have never done anything in life. Why do people go to college? Aren’t they afraid of getting an F? Why do you get in your car to go to work? Aren’t you afraid of getting hit by a car? I don’t dwell on the negative stuff.”
That last part is hard to authenticate. Spend enough time with Punk, and it’s clear that for every coach’s mantra that’s sunk in, there are just as many critical voices to tune out. Asked matter-of-factly while being seated for dinner about the choice to compete in UFC as CM Punk and not Phil Brooks, he non-sequiturs from pointing out how, “Nobody calls Rampage ‘Quinton Jackson.’ Nobody calls Korean Zombie whatever the fuck his real name is,” to inferring judgment and remarking, “I think there’s people who are negative for the sake of being negative and that’s just something they can pick on. Who gives a shit? Who cares?” But by the time he’s polished off his meal and grown less wary of being cornered, he surmises, “I understand all the negativity, but I only have so many goes around the sun. I’m gonna capitalize on everything I can, and I’m gonna be the best at whatever I can.”
This duality is an on-the-nose, but accurate, metaphor for his tendencies as an MMA fighter. Box him in, and he’ll batter his way out. Give him some space, and he’ll stay nimble on his toes and get in a rhythm of purposeful uppercuts and cross-strikes. Right now, he’s enduring what coaches Cushman and Roufus call a “crash course” of training. (Or, as Cushman sums up more pointedly, “He’s jumping in to the deep end of the pool without his floaties.”) Punk’s age and the anticipation of a near-future bout have hastened the usual process, but he seems to thriving off the constraints.
“I don’t waste time when I’m in here,” he says after a round of group jiu-jitsu drills. “I don’t play grab-ass and I don’t fuck around. Every day I’m walking out the door, I feel, ‘That’s a good workout and I gave it my all,’ but I also can’t wait to get back in there, because there’s so much more I need to work on.”
In terms of technique, that translates to moving through his body more and throwing from his shoulders less. Punk will be the first one to confess that he’s more comfortable on the ground, and he proves that point during mat-wrestling rotations with his teammates, where even when he’s being dominated from up top and good-naturedly berated, he’s grinning through his “Brooks”-embossed mouthpiece and getting off on the challenge. (“I talk shit back,” he promises.) It’s on two feet that he’s prone to frustrated body language, even pausing while shadowboxing with Cushman to acknowledge, “This is where I’m thinking too much.” He’s not intimidated by the physicality, but coming from 15 years in pro wrestling, it’s been an unnatural adjustment to going full throttle.
“Everything I did prior to me training here full-time was to protect the other guy, to put them before me,” he explains. “People get so mad at me when I say this, but [pro wrestling] was fake. This is not. When we do jiu-jitsu, you’re getting hit. That changes everything drastically. When we’re in those situations, I’m too nice. I’m just wired that way, and I think it will work its way out.”
Roufus concurs. Furthermore, he cautions those who underestimate Punk’s abilities because of his previous profession. “I know people that are way more skilled than him but can’t get in there on game night,” he says. “All the experience he has being in these big crowds and performing well, that’s something a lot of people don’t think about. It’s awesome to be a god in here in front of 20 people, but do that in front of 20,000 people when everything’s at stake. That’s what I’m excited about, and he’s gonna excel at that.”
Though in case you were wondering, Punk’s not self-consciously channeling that sensation, at least not yet. Heading back to his loft after dinner, it’s hard not to note that, at that very instant, Monday Night Raw is broadcasting live from Kansas City, and Punk’s all the way over here in Milwaukee walking off a chopped salad. He laughs, eager to report that, “My life used to be governed by that. I would know what day it was because I would be at Monday Night Raw or SmackDown on Tuesday. My life is no longer governed by that, so I don’t know when the fuck it is.”
And though clearly genuine about having moved on, a bit of that trademark Punk edge (and not the straight kind) seeps in on the subject. “Put it this way,” he says. “To me, Sundays are now my day to watch True Detective, The Strain and Ray Donovan. If I tweet, ‘Hey, True Detective‘s so awesome,’ there’ll be a slew of people who will tweet back, ‘Oh, you’re tweeting during the WWE pay-per-view because you’re missing it or you’re really watching that.’ I always go, ‘What the fuck? No. I didn’t know there was a pay-per-view. I’m watching goddamn Ray Donovan.’ I love that I don’t know my whereabouts based on, ‘Oh, it’s Monday night.'”
The next day, he’s back at it at Roufus, though the workouts are a bit less strenuous than the prior afternoon. Maybe that has to do with everything on his plate outside the gym. While he and Cushman were sparring on Monday, news outlets began reporting that attempts by Punk’s camp to dismiss Amann’s lawsuit were denied. (Punk declined to comment on the matter.) And the next morning, he’s due in Chicago for a gauntlet of media commitments leading up to UFC’s next PPV event, even though he himself is not on the card. He’s understandably distracted, but – go figure – looks back at his run as self-proclaimed “best in the world” in WWE for insight into staying focused and forging ahead.
“I think at some point in my wrestling career, I took myself way too seriously, and I took the wrestling business way too seriously,” he reflects. “It probably helped sour me on the whole process. It probably helped burn me out.”
Now, unlikely, as it seems, this unconventional punk-rock kid finds absolute solace in broad assessments like, “Life’s too short.” Whenever and whomever he fights, he’s not prevailingly concerned about the outcome or even entertaining the masses. True to his track record and polarizing popularity, Punk is going to do Punk. Or as he puts it before heading up Roufusport’s stairwell and resting up for a trip back home, “The entire reason I’m doing this isn’t about the fight. It’s about learning martial [arts], as well as something about myself. It’s literally all about the journey.”