Once in a decade a WWE Superstar comes along and changes the game. CM Punk’s secret is that he isn’t a character, he is who he is—and he’s badass. See for yourself, below, and compare during WrestleMania XXVIII this month.
Few lifestyles seem more at odds than pro wrestling and straight edge punk. The success of WWE relies on its ability to tell over-the-top stories involving larger-than-life Superstars to millions watching on TV or in packed arenas. Excess is the key to the WWE image: enormous egos, huge physiques, gigantic spectacles. The straight edge movement is more defined by substance than style, outspoken but less brash (unless the target is Chris Brown). Straight edge finds its home at all-ages basement punk shows free of alcohol and drugs. Serving as a bridge between these two divergent worlds, we find WWE champion CM Punk.
Since arriving in the WWE in 2005, Punk has introduced a whole legion of WWE fans to straight edge and punk rock while also converting some young punks to fans of combat sport. He also has eccentric ink, from a large Pepsi logo to a slice of deep-dish pizza. If you disapprove of his tattoos, Punk doesn’t care: “These are all things that make me who I am. So, yeah, you’re damn right I ink them on my body and I want them to be with me for the rest of my life.” Many would try to conform to one lifestyle or the other—not Punk. He has always found himself out of step with the world, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
INKED: After you first won the champion title at Money in the Bank and “quit” the WWE, you took the story line beyond Monday Night Raw and other WWE events by posting pictures of the belt in your fridge on Twitter and by showing up at Comic Con. What made you want to use alternate media to move the story line forward?
CM Punk: Pure boredom. That and my belief that I have my fingers on the pulse of what our audience wants way more than management. I think that it’s important for me and for any other Superstar that works for the company to be in the public eye, to be out there, to be considered celebrities. TMZ sees me on the street now and they want to ask stupid questions like they would with some phony like Tom Cruise. We’re on television and we seem to have this one niche audience, and I want to expand way beyond that.
Leading up to your championship you were portrayed as an outsider and an underdog. You’ve talked about how you weren’t marketed correctly or enough. Now that you have been crowned champion, can you still make that claim?
Not without adding some sort of severe backlash from people. It’s hard to say you’re an underdog when you’re the champ. There are still people who are crossing their fingers waiting to see me fail. This industry has always been about image, and I don’t fit that image. I’m the one standing up and saying, “So what?” I’m the best wrestler in the world, and that is what this is about. Who cares if I don’t look like you want me to? That’s something I’ve been dealing with my entire life.
Your wrestling persona doesn’t seem to differ too much from your actual personality.
I don’t really have a different persona. Now, I don’t walk around the street and kick people in the face to solve my problems, obviously—I would be in jail. [Laughs.] There is really no other difference between inside and outside of the ring.
Was this a conscious decision? We ask because some of your earlier WWE story lines almost seemed to mock the straight edge lifestyle.
That was an extreme interpretation of the idea of straight edge. I’m not preachy like that when I’m in my jeans and my hoodie. I’m straight edge for me. That’s one thing about the business that I’m in: It’s my job to twist and bend reality to meet my needs. It was fun to get people pissed at me because the straight edge thing always draws a line in the sand.
Have you always been straight edge?
I never really fit in anywhere. When I read about Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat, and straight edge I thought, Oh, there’s a label for what I am—cool.
It would be safe to say that the first time your average wrestling fan was introduced to straight edge was through you. How do you feel about this?
It’s kind of a when-worlds-collide situation. I’ve always been the punk rock kid who grew up listening to the Clash and the Ramones. Straight edge has always been associated with the hardcore scene—with music—so for it to be associated with combat sports all of a sudden is a little bit of a culture shock. Some people can’t handle it. For me, the bottom line is that no matter who you are or where you come from, just be yourself. The message is positive and I don’t force it on anybody. If one kid can take away anything positive from that, I think it’s awesome.
What bands got you into punk?
I think everybody had to like Naked Raygun, which was a rite of passage. I was a big Slapstick fan; I thought those guys were awesome. Obviously, later on, all the members of Slapstick were in various bands like Alkaline Trio and the Lawrence Arms. I’m drawing a blank on any others—I do get hit in the head for a living, so my memory is not the best.
Who does your tattoo work?
I’m fortunate enough to have parlayed what celebrity I have into the opportunity to get tattooed by great artists. I had Dan Smith draw me up some stuff to work with him out in L.A. Recently I had Luke Westman, a friend of mine, tattoo me. So I get to bounce around now. For me the meaning is still there, but when you’re as tattooed as I am it ends up being:
“What are you doing?”
“Luke is around—wanna go get tattoos?”
“Oh, yeah, great.”
So I wound up getting a lot of—I guess there’s no other way to describe them, but—bro tattoos. My friends and I all have a lot of the same tattoos.
When you’re not using those celebrity connections, who inks you at home?
Robin King is the one who did my chest, and it’s gorgeous. I’m in love with that tattoo. She works out of Metamorph in Chicago. I have to mention Mike Baalke, who has done probably 85 percent of my work. He works out of Tattoo Factory in Chicago. I’ve been going to him for years and years.
What is it about tattoos that you are so drawn to? And what are some of the ones that have great meaning to you?
They all have a lot of meaning to me. The reason that I like tattoos is that I’m a very heart-on-my-sleeve kind of guy. I can cover my body in my beliefs and the things that I love. Tattoos are very subjective. I know there are a lot of people who look at me and think, Your tattoos are stupid, you have a tattoo of a slice of pizza. Well, guess what? I’m from Chicago and I love Chicago pizza. So I got a tattoo of it. It’s sad to me that they don’t have any tattoos because they can’t possibly love something as much as I love pizza. Or my little sister’s jersey number, which I have behind my left ear. These are all things I love. These aren’t things that I’m going to grow out of or grow tired of. So, yeah, you’re damn right I ink them on my body and I want them to be with me for the rest of my life. I love that idea. There’s something romantic about that.
While being a straight edge punk is the most prominent way that you stand out from your fellow WWE Superstars, another thing that people might not know is that you are a huge comic fan. Most people don’t expect a pro wrestler to be a comic book nerd.
I get that all of the time. The funny thing about that is that comic books and wrestling are two of the original arts that America has given to the world—the other being jazz. Those are the three things we can lay claim to, while everything else is just bastardized from other cultures. Once again, I feel sorry for people who want to make fun of me for reading comic books because they’re the ones missing out. They don’t get to experience these awesome stories and characters that I’ve been reading about, and I’ve just been a fan of them for my entire life.
Has your love of comics found its way into any of your ink?
I guess you can count my Cobra tattoo as a comic tattoo. That’s me; I’m a bad guy. If G.I. Joe was a reality, and there was a Cobra and a G.I. Joe, I can honestly say I would be on the dark side, for sure. I’m trying to remember if I have any other comic book tattoos.
One of the most noticeable things about you in the ring is your love for your hometown, Chicago. You have the stars from the flag on your tights and boots. Were you motivated to do that to stand out, or is it just a reflection of your true self?
I was born in Chicago and it’s a huge part of who I am. I have such a love for the city that it made sense to me to rep that. Ironically enough, it’s the one tattoo I don’t have yet. I can’t really think of exactly what I want to represent my love of Chicago. Do I get the Chicago flag? I’m not really sure. That’s one that is always on the back burner; it’s always on my mind. I do have the pizza. But I do need to have the El in there or something else.
You seem to be cognizant of wrestling history. For example, after Macho Man Randy Savage’s death, you wore tights designed like his and performed his elbow drop. Why is the past so important to you?
Like they say, if you don’t remember the past you’re doomed to repeat it. Not that repeating pro wrestling’s past would be such a horrible thing; there were certain aspects that were a lot cooler back then. When I was a kid, Macho Man was the shit. When he passed away I just felt the need to do something. So I had some classic WrestleMania III Macho Man tights made and I wore them, thinking that maybe someone who didn’t know who he is would hear people talking about him and check him out. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Macho Man. He is cooler than anyone around today, myself included.
What’s it like to wrestle alongside or against the same guys you idolized as a kid?
I wrestled independently for a very long time and wrestled guys like Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, and Ricky Steamboat, so that stuff blows my mind. I met Mick Foley in 2003 and he said, “I think you’re awesome and you need to be in WWE.” Mick’s been waving the CM Punk flag for damn near a decade. Having these old-school guys have my back, having Dusty and Terry Funk telling me that I’m the man after wrestling in front of 500 people in Philadelphia—to me that’s bigger and better than any paycheck I’ll ever get. That’s validation from people who are as close to being my heroes as you can get.
Do you think people understand how many years of effort it took to finally reach the main stage?
When I came to WWE I was already world traveled, I had all these tools, and I knew how to wrestle all these different styles. That made me know how to deal with all the pitfalls and land mines I have to navigate in WWE. I think that’s something a lot of guys today are lacking.
It seems like wrestling has always struggled to gain respect from the general public. What are your thoughts on that?
We’ve always had that stigma. There are always people who are going to harp on, “Oh, it’s fake!” I dare anybody who has the balls to say that to my face to step into my shoes for one day and do what I do.
Do you think that those opinions will ever change? Or do you think that the lack of respect is something that will always be there?
I’m sure golf can be viewed the same way. Is golf a sport? I’m not going to criticize these people because I’m kind of in their shoes. I have people telling me wrestling’s not a sport all the time. They can’t tell me that it’s not, and I can’t tell them that it is. It’s a stalemate. To me it’s like religion. The people who believe in God can’t be convinced otherwise, and for the atheists there is no explanation to get them to believe. I love pro wrestling. I’m a fan of it and I’m going to champion its history until the day I die. I just wish there were more people who honestly respected it as much as I do.