When he blasted WWE’s higher-ups on live TV, CM Punk had GQ, ESPN and “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” banging on his door. TMZ and CNN interviewed him about his recent Twitter feud with pop star Chris Brown. But on this particular March afternoon on the Blue Line — the train he takes to and from O’Hare International Airport every week with the diamond-encrusted WWE Championship belt in his suitcase — Punk appears to have gone unrecognized by those sitting around him.
That’s just how he likes it.
“I’m so cranky,” admits Punk, holding onto a pole by the “L” train’s doors to keep his balance. Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) is on the third day of a diet that requires him to skip food entirely in favor of juices because “I’m bored out of my mind and I’m trying to get in wrestling shape. I can’t work out harder than I do. I’ve been a (pescetarian) for three months.”
The pro wrestler is by no means out of shape. But when you compare his heavily tattooed body to the superhero physiques of The Rock or John Cena, you can see why WWE’s muscle-obsessed CEO, Vince McMahon, may have overlooked Punk for so long, and why 13-time WWE champion Triple H called him a “skinny fat kid.”
“I think that’s (Triple H’s) perception of me,” says Punk, who will defend his title against Chris Jericho on Sunday at Wrestlemania XXVIII in Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens. “It shows the perception people have is completely archaic and outdated. I assume it’s a bodybuilding thing. I’m not skinny, and I’m not fat. I’ve never used a drug in my life.”
Punk famously has the words “Drug” and “Free” tattooed on his knuckles and “Straight Edge” inked on his stomach (he says he’s never used steroids, painkillers or recreational drugs or drunk alcohol, due to his Straight Edge lifestyle). And on this afternoon, what was supposed to be a day off from his hectic schedule, he is wearing a “Drug Free” T-shirt underneath a baggy black hooded sweatshirt, along with a Cubs cap that appears to be on its last legs.
“I can be pretty incognito,” Punk says of getting recognized on the train. “I’ll have my hood up and hands in my pocket. … It doesn’t stop a lot of people. They’ll talk to me for a while, and I’ll stare at them for a while (with headphones on), and I’ll say, ‘I didn’t hear a word you just said.’”
The Lockport native is, in wrestling parlance, a baby face (good guy) and soaks up the fan adoration every time he walks to the ring with his theme song, Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” playing over the loudspeakers. But Punk can come off as an unapologetic, walking “do not disturb” sign when he isn’t working.
He’s been known to vent about fans who don’t respect his privacy — specifically the ones who tap him on the shoulder when he’s checking in at the airport or the ones who take off his headphones to get his attention — and has laid into autograph hounds with binders full of photos who he feels are trying to make money off of him. He’s more than willing to communicate with his fans and critics on Twitter, but anyone who tweets him risks a sarcastic or insulting response, including making fun of spelling and grammar. When one follower tweeted, “I’m going to Chicago for the 1st time for St Pattys Day. What places should I visit?” Punk simply replied, “Indiana.” When another tweeted, “noone cares where ur going or what your doing,” Punk fired back, “You mean ‘you’re’. Unfollow me. Or kill yourself.”
“I’ve tweeted a few things that I thought for sure would get me a call from (WWE’s) office,” Punk says as the train approaches his stop. “It never happened. … Maybe I need to be more rebellious.”
The Bongo Room in Wicker Park is known for its brunch and isn’t juice-diet-friendly, but Punk would rather go there than a juice bar just a few blocks away. Why? It becomes apparent right away that he feels at home at The Bongo Room.
“Welcome back,” the waitress says after Punk slides in a wooden booth “How have you been?”
The restaurant, just like the neighborhood, has a hipster feel to it. That’s one of the reasons Punk likes both. He says most of the hipsters who recognize him are “too cool for school” to approach him. And when people approach him at the bar, the Bongo Room’s staff tells them to back off.
It wasn’t always this way. A year ago, Punk was one of many WWE wrestlers hoping to join the ranks of the organization’s elite (and stay there). The difference was Punk clearly belonged among the elite due to his superior wrestling skills and mic work — and he knew it. But after years of wrestling through injuries only to see the same guys holding the title, he revealed to the company six months before his contract expired in July that he would not be re-signing. Punk blurred the lines of reality last June when he announced why he was leaving during a memorable episode of USA network’s “Monday Night Raw.”
“I’ve proved to everybody in the world that I’m the best on this microphone, in that ring, even on commentary,” Punk told the crowd and the millions watching at home. “And yet, no matter how many times I prove it, I’m not on your lovely little collector cups, I’m not on the cover of the program, I’m barely promoted. I don’t get to be in movies, I’m certainly not on any crappy shows on the USA Network. … But the fact of the matter is I should (be). … Vince McMahon’s going to make money despite himself. He’s a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he’s not a billionaire? It’s ’cause he surrounds himself with glad-handing, nonsensical, yes men. … I’d like to think that maybe this company will be better after Vince McMahon’s dead, but the fact is it’s going to get taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family.”
Punk’s closest friend on the WWE roster, Kofi Kingston, was well aware of his frustrations. He just didn’t know Punk would air them on live TV.
“Backstage, it was quiet,” says Kingston over the phone from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where WWE recently taped “Raw.” “Everyone was viewing the TV. I get goose bumps thinking about it. He said what everybody wanted to say. … (Afterward) I went up to him smiling — ‘That was incredible’ — as people hugged him. … (He was) same as always: ice cold. You never see him celebrating. … He won’t let emotions show on his face. … It’s pretty cool. He acts like he’s been there before.”
Punk, it turns out, was told by WWE that he could air his grievances but had to run them by McMahon first. Because he knew McMahon wouldn’t let him say everything he wanted to say, Punk claimed he handed McMahon a piece of paper with talking points that were “completely different” from what Punk actually said.
Asked during a later phone conversation about McMahon’s reaction to the speech, Punk says, “He had dollar signs in his eyes. He said, ‘Hell of a promo. Too bad you’re leaving. We could make a lot of money together.’ “As for the enormous response he received from peers, fans and media, Punk says, “At that point, I was so out the door. … I was counting down the days.”
On the last day of his contract, Punk was scheduled to wrestle Cena for the WWE championship at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena. The hometown crowd was rabid in its support for Punk even though he was a heel at the time, and it erupted after he pinned Cena and exited through the crowd with the belt in hand.
Little did fans know Punk had signed a contract extension shortly after the pay-per-view had begun broadcasting.
Eight days later, Punk returned to WWE TV, lost the title at the next pay-per-view and then lost his match at the pay-per-view after that. But he won the title back in November and will defend it at Wrestlemania (the Super Bowl of wrestling). Besides, WWE’s higher-ups are starting to see what many fans have been seeing in Punk all along — well, most fans.
“We heckled him at a house show here in Hartford (Conn.) a year and a half ago before he had blown up,” says Michelle Beadle, co-host of ESPN’s “SportsNation” and a die-hard wrestling fan, over the phone from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. “‘Who is this dork with a Pepsi tattoo?’ Fast-forward a few months, and now I’m, like, ‘That’s the greatest wrestler of all time.’ … We thought he was a dork, and now we’re big fans.”
Asked whether he has the marketability to be the face of WWE, Beadle, who calls Punk a friend, says, “He’s where he is because he’s been very successful. I don’t think he will be that guy who is overly nice — that’s just not his (shtick). If people want to take pictures with him on his own time, they may not get a nice answer or reaction from him. But I think he sells tickets. Attaching the wagon to that guy is not a bad idea.”
He wouldn’t reveal how long he re-signed for, but the 33-year-old Punk says he isn’t interested in wrestling into his 40s. He has goals outside of wrestling, including opening a doughnut shop and naming his baked goods after wrestling terms such as “The Bear Claw.”
One goal that doesn’t seem to be at the top of his list? Marriage.
“I don’t think marriage is in the cards for me,” says Punk. “I think it’s an archaic institution. I think people got married when their life expectancy was (shorter). It kind of made sense then. … People now live to 100. But who’s to say? I would love to find a woman who will absolutely floor me, make me stop everything, intrigue me that much that everything stops. I’m not positive she exists.”
Punk believes dating within the industry helps, because of the grueling road schedule, but says you risk bringing your work home with you and talking about wrestling seven days a week. That’s not to say he hasn’t done it. Punk has been linked to WWE Divas champion Beth Phoenix and ex-WWE Divas Lita and Maria Kanellis, an Ottawa, Ill., native and former”Celebrity Apprentice” contestant now with the Ring of Honor wrestling promotion.
Kanellis notes that she dated Punk for a year and a half and got to know his protective side — she says he once texted her right before his Wrestlemania match to let her know a wrestler was flirting with her sister — as well as his sentimental side. “Giant Sweet Tarts are my favorite candy,” says Kanellis over the phone from her Los Angeles condo. “And from the day I met him until the day I left WWE, he gave me giant Sweet Tarts — even when we weren’t together.”
Asked whether he considers himself romantic, Punk locks his hands together on the table at The Bongo Room and reveals a tattoo on his fingers: “Romance.” “I’m a hopeless romantic,” Punk says. “Nobody believes me.”
Whether to make conversation or move the focus away from the tattoo, Punk praises the waitress for refilling his tea without his noticing. “You’re good,” he tells her. “You’re (expletive) good. I held up my cup (for a refill) and spilled boiling water on my phone.” Pressed about the origin of the tattoo, Punk says, “I don’t even know. I think I just want my hands to be all tattooed to make it look like I was in a Russian gulag, and it made sense at the time, so …”
The conversation soon shifts to romantic comedies.
“Dude, you know what’s a good movie?” Punk exclaims. “It’s got Ryan Reynolds, and he has a daughter and tells her stories about four different girlfriends and she has to figure out which one was her mom. What I do on international flights is watch crappy, sappy love movies. … Sometimes they’re so bad, it’s laughable. It kills time.”
Punk says part of the reason he likes the movie “Definitely, Maybe” is because he can relate to it, but he doesn’t elaborate. Also, he wants a daughter. He has a soft spot for children — even if they do stare at his tattoos and lip ring — and tries to make time for the young fans who want autographs and photos.
“I do envision myself having kids one day, and I always wanted a little girl,” says Punk. “I figure it will happen regardless — especially if I don’t want one. ‘No, I can’t have a little girl. It would be torture if I have a little girl.’ It’s like a wrestling curse.”
Ever since he re-signed, Punk seems to have taken a greater leadership role in the WWE locker room. He volunteers to do interviews on his days off when a show’s ticket sales could be better; he is adamant that wrestlers leave the locker room the way they found it; and he is giving more of the younger guys advice on their matches.
Kingston believes young wrestlers can learn a lot from Punk — just as he did back in the day.
“I’m really lucky Punk chose to take me under his wing,” Kingston says. “A lot of people have a story about the first time they met Punk and how he was kind of a jerk. The earliest thing I remember is him coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, want a piece of advice? … Remember, they all came here to see you.’ I had been jumping around nervous, and he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable.”
On the road, Punk takes Kingston along on his personal bus, which saves them the trouble of having to drive and find time for sleep. The bus was one of Punk’s contract stipulations when he re-signed, along with a raise. But Punk claims it was never about the money. He says he isn’t much of a spender. Still, he did make sure it was enough to make WWE think twice about not using him again.
And then there’s the intro song he’s been using since “returning” to WWE: “Cult of Personality.” While most wrestlers have theme music created in-house, Punk asked WWE to pay for the rights for the popular 1988 Living Colour song.
Was it expensive?
“Yeah,” Punk says about the song he listened to during his Little League baseball days. “But (expletive) it.”