CM Punk is an action figure, a video game character, and WWE champion.
He’s also the most controversial and debated wrestling personality since Steve Austin gave Mike Tyson the finger.
But a few months ago, he was ready to give up this superstar lifestyle, go home, and try to live the life of the anonymous, a life he hasn’t known in over a decade.
“This wasn’t a contract negotiation. I wasn’t playing hardball or holding out for more money or anything like that,” Punk tells me as we meet in Manhattan just days before he won the WWE Championship inside Madison Square Garden, a win he celebrated by stage-diving into the first row, caught by his chant-happy fans.
“I had 100-percent made up my mind that I was leaving,” says Punk. “I was just burnt out and I wanted to go home and chill out. I have never had a break. I’ve never had time off, ever, and I’ve been doing this since 1997. I’ve never taken time off for anything, and the way I figured it, the door was always open for me to come back. So I wasn’t going to wrestle anywhere else, I just wanted to go home and do nothing and see what that was like for a while.”
But that time out from the squared-circle never happened, as the buzz and hype surrounding Punk and what could’ve been his last match turned the “Chicago Made” wrestler into the sport’s latest cult hero thanks to a promo that exploded with pipe bomb intensity, delivered with such passion and authenticity, it left even the most faithful followers of professional wrestling’s male soap opera wondering if this was all part of the script or Punk’s way of burning every last bridge before he left the business.
What followed was the “Summer of Punk,” as we had the hottest wrestling crowd WWE has seen in years at Money in the Bank, a couple of classic matches against wrestling’s PG coverboy, John Cena, and a period of time where Punk just showed up random places with his belt (including Wrigley Field!), taunting the WWE that their champion was no longer playing under their contract or by their rules.
I talked with Punk about these epic few months, his thoughts on the Rock’s comeback, and “WWE 12? as we munched on bagels in the NYC. And as always, the WWE champ didn’t hold any punches.
Jon Robinson: After winning the belt, do you think you came back to Raw too quick? It was pretty cool how you just kept popping up everywhere but WWE with the title. It really made people talk.
CM Punk: In a perfect world, yeah, you could stretch everything out more, but realistically, it’s a business. You needed a main event for SummerSlam. So for all of the armchair bookers out there who are like, “No, Punk came back too soon!” I agree with you, but, the second largest pay-per-view of the year, what match are you going to put in the main event? People need to take that into account. Nobody ever likes to look into things, they just like to bitch and complain about everything.
Jon Robinson: That’s not just wrestling, that’s sports, that’s everything these days. With social media, everyone has a voice, and everyone wants to complain about everything instantly, whether it’s your football team, the movie you just saw, or your last match.
CM Punk: That’s life. That’s the way it is now. You can pick apart Tom Brady and say he sucks one minute, then he does some miraculous fourth quarter comeback and he’s the greatest thing ever. I’m just happy people are emotionally invested enough to Tweet to me 6,000 times a day that I suck and that I shouldn’t have come back so soon.
Jon Robinson: Looking back at your match at Money in the Bank, is that your favorite match that you’ve been a part of?
CM Punk: I don’t know, I haven’t watched it. I did live it, but I haven’t watched it because I don’t think it was as good as I could’ve made it. I’m my own worst critic, so I don’t know, but I had a lot of fun. I can recall certain parts of that match and just having fun. I saw (Colt) Cabana and Ace (Steel) in the front row and high fiving them, and my little sister was sitting by them, so that was a blast. We definitely did something special that night.
Jon Robinson: I know you travel from show to show with Kofi Kingston. Kofi is one of the biggest gamers I know. Does he talk your ear off about “Madden” and “WWE 12??
CM Punk: He does. [laughs] I have a bus that I travel on now, and we have an Xbox 360 and some games hooked up in there. I throw Kofi on the bus with me because he’s my road wife. It’s odd that you find somebody that you get along well enough with that you can travel that long with, so now he’s trying to educate me on the video game world. It’s a lot of fun.
Jon Robinson: What do you guys play?
CM Punk: ”Mortal Kombat,” and now, “WWE 12? because we have our sneaky advanced copies. “WWE 12? is awesome. My character has a crooked face just like I do in real life. It’s the spitting image of me. It’s so realistic, it’s almost creepy.
Jon Robinson: I know Kofi and Miz play “Madden” non-stop. I’m surprised you don’t get in on that.
CM Punk: I’m not big into “Madden.” Besides, I don’t want to play Miz at anything.
Jon Robinson: Who is your favorite “Mortal Kombat” character?
CM Punk: Back in the day, I was a huge Sub-Zero guy, but the fact that you can download Freddy Krueger is the coolest thing I’ve heard of in a very long time.
Jon Robinson: Survivor Series, you have The Rock back …
CM Punk: Yay.
Jon Robinson: Wrestlemania, it’s The Rock versus John Cena. What do you think about him coming back and getting the main event spot when most of what we’ve seen of him throughout the year has been via satellite?
CM Punk: I don’t know if it’s some weird vanity project for him to come back and fraternize with us little people, but I appreciate it. If it puts more money in my bank account, that’s cool, even if I’m not a money guy. I’m very passionate about wrestling. This is what I do. I’m not leaving to go film movies. It’s just me and the rest of the crew, the men and women of the WWE who are on the road constantly, and I’m not the only one who is, I don’t want to say bitter, because I get it, it’s a business move where Dwayne comes in and people buy some pay-per-views, but it’s the attitude that gets to me. He’s very bourgeoisie Hollywood, and I just wish he would say hello to people backstage and not act like he was above everybody. Cena doesn’t act like that. Cena sits and talks and fraternizes with everybody, but Dwayne just can’t be bothered. Then again, I don’t know if anyone really wants to hang out with him. He was in the “Tooth Fairy.” If he’s so good at what he does, why doesn’t he impart some of that knowledge to the young guys and help out? I guess I’m just trying to figure out why he came back. I don’t think it’s money. I think he’s OK money-wise, so I don’t know.
Jon Robinson: Looking ahead to Wrestlemania, there’s Rock versus John Cena, but I’d actually rather see Austin versus Punk. Will we ever get a CM Punk versus Steve Austin main event?
CM Punk: I would rather see Austin/Punk, too. I would love to poll everybody who is going to order Wrestlemania and ask them, what would you rather see. Would you rather see Cena/Rock or Stone Cold/CM Punk? I’m biased, obviously, but I think we’d have a landslide victory. It’s up to Steve, really, but he’s certainly not going to do it this year. Honestly, if Steve Austin comes back to wrestling, he should be the main event of Wrestlemania, but he can’t right now, because Dwayne is. I think Dwayne would get a little butt hurt if Steve took his Mania spot, but then at least Dwayne would understand how the rest of us feel. So I know that’s not going to happen this year, but I would love for it to happen next year. I don’t want to say it’s a goal of mine, but it’s definitely something that would be challenging and fun to do. I think Austin was the best worker for many, many, many, many, many years, and that’s even pre-Stone Cold. “Stunning” Steve Austin was amazing.
Jon Robinson: So with Austin out this year, who would you like to face? Chris Jericho? The Undertaker?
CM Punk: To me, this is the $65,000 question … or is it $64,000? It’s tough to tell with inflation. Anyway, that’s the thing, I guess I’ve finally broken through and now I’m this newly minted main event, top WWE wrestler and everybody is wondering what I’m doing for Wrestlemania. This has been the story of my life. Every year leading up to Wrestlemania, I don’t even know if I’m going to be on the show. I remember I had to pitch in order to get me and Rey (Mysterio) for Wrestlemania. It’s not like they were coming to me, so I went to Rey, asked him if he knew what he was doing, and came to him with my idea. He loved it, so we ran with it. So every year, I’m sitting here crossing my fingers that I’m in Wrestlemania. Even last year, I was on Wrestlemania because Randy (Orton) needed somebody to wrestle, let’s be honest. This is the first year where it really seems like, oh crap, we actually have to do something with Punk at Wrestlemania and it has to be high-caliber, it has to be big.
So who am I going to wrestle? I don’t know. I get a lot of, “You should wrestle Undertaker.” I would love to. That would kick ass. He is one of my favorite guys to work with. I get a lot of, “It’s going to be you and Jericho,” but you know what, he doesn’t work here. Obviously, he could come back between now and then, but who knows.
Jon Robinson: You live the Straight Edge lifestyle and preach about it on the show. I was just wondering if you got the chance to watch the E:60 feature on Scott Hall, and from your drug free perspective, what you thought of watching the rise and fall due to drugs of someone who at one time was at the top of this business?
CM Punk: I’m not going to say it’s a sad story. He’s in an unfortunate situation, but anyone in that situation has to want to get well. I have plenty of friends who were junkies, but they’re clean now. They always come to a point in their lives where it’s rock bottom, and they realize they have to get better. People can try and help Scott as much as they want, but he’s not going to get better unless he really wants to. One thing that bothers me about the whole thing is the perception that it’s wrestling that drives people to do these things, because it’s not. I think drugs and alcohol aren’t a wrestling problem, it’s a life problem, it’s a people problem. There are people every day who succumb to their demons and it has nothing to do with wrestling. I’m a living, breathing example of someone who does the same exact thing, but drugs and alcohol just aren’t a part of who I am. I live on the road and I’m fine. This isn’t a wrestling thing.
The saddest thing about the whole Scott Hall story that I watched is when he says something like, “What do you do when the people don’t cheer for you anymore?” That’s way more psychologically damning than anything. I’m a realist. I know that I’m not going to be able to do this forever, nor do I want to do this forever. Do I like people chanting my name? Yes, absolutely. Do I need people chanting my name all the time? No, I like my alone time, too. I would like people to not chant my name when I’m in Whole Foods in Chicago, but that happens too, so there’s a fine line. I just hope Scott wants to get better.