In the wrong hands, professional wrestling can be a boring thing indeed, a rinse-and-repeat cycle of predictable storytelling and zero-stakes feuds. For a few years now, World Wrestling Entertainment has spent much of its time in a lamentable rut, focusing much of its attention on central figure John Cena and his kid-friendly potty humor and square-jawed heroics. But over the past month or so, that’s been changing. Cena has a new foe: C.M. Punk, a tatted-up, fire-eyed, uncommonly erudite bad guy who thinks, and sometimes acts, like a good guy. But there’s a catch to that feud. It won’t last long, since Punk doesn’t expect to be in the company a week from now.
C.M. Punk is a wrestling veteran, a guy who kicked around the small-time independent scene for years before finally linking up with the WWE. Within the company, he’s had an impressive run: Three world championships, a few memorable speeches, a string of wonderful matches. But he’s never been the focal point of the company, despite being arguably its most gifted in-ring storyteller, and that’s always eaten at him. So, about a month ago, he announced on live TV that his contract was about to be up and that he would wrestle John Cena for the WWE title the night before leaving the company. That match would go down at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view event, which comes to Chicago’s Allstate Arena on Sunday night.
Then, on an episode of “Monday Night Raw: two weeks ago, Punk absolutely laid into the company in a blistering, wild-eyed promo speech that indicted everything about the WWE. He invoked the names of fired wrestlers, he lamented the loss of emphasis on wrestling itself (rather than the more nebulous “entertainment” that the WWE likes to use these days), and he even tore into company figurehead Vince McMahon and his entire family. (In one particularly genius moment, he referred to McMahon’s son-in-law and presumed successor Triple H as a “doofus.”) He did all this with patience and writerly precision, eschewing catchphrases and building into a messianic fervor until his mic suddenly went silent and the show came to an abrupt halt. It was a genuinely electric moment on a show that’s had too few of those lately.
Now, Punk was telling a story, not staging an insurrection. Two weeks after that blast of invective, he was trading barbs in the ring with McMahon himself—the two teasing a contract renegotiation before a fed-up Punk stormed off. This was more standard wrestling storytelling that what we’d previously seen, but even here, Punk’s ferocious charisma shone through. At one point, he demanded the return of a discontinued line of WWE ice cream bars, and the crowd actually responded by chanting for said treats. It was a thing to behold.
The afternoon following his staged tete-a-tete with McMahon, Punk is at home in his apartment, a palatial loft in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Sitting amid strewn-about action figures and comic books while female wrestler Beth Phoenix lounged a few feet away, Punk took an hour of his off-day to tell GQ about his problems with the WWE, his tumultuous history with the company, and his plans for the future. An unstable live-wire in the wrestling ring, the off-duty Punk was measured and thoughtful, even diplomatic at times. But he remained a fierce devotee of the art of professional wrestling. Punk has become the most prominent crusader against the company that, at least for a few more days, employs him.
GQ: One of the things you said last night was that you made the WWE socially relevant, that the only times it’s socially relevant are when you’re talking and when somebody dies. Do you care to expand on that?
C.M. Punk: I think pro wrestling—for some reason, our company doesn’t like to call it that, but that’s what it is, so that’s what I call it—it doesn’t seem to get a lot of mainstream attention until somebody dies. There’s a negative connotation to that, but Randy Savage just passed away of natural causes. The poor guy was driving his car, and he had a heart attack. I think that was the last time we got any mainstream attention. And then all eyes are on the program, to see whether they’re going to do a memorial. Are they going to forget about this guy? Are they going to pretend he didn’t contribute to their product? It’s not just the negative stuff with stupid wrestlers dying in stupid ways. Savage was all over ESPN. Local news reported it. It was a big news story. They don’t report what happens on every other “Monday Night Raw.”
GQ: Why do you think that is?
C.M. Punk: Pro wrestling has always been ingrained into American culture. It was one of the first things that was ever on television, so everybody watched it. Countless people tell me, “I got into wrestling because my grandfather watched it.” It was always there. No matter how much people want to pretend that they’re embarrassed by it, that they don’t watch it, everybody knows about it. It’s truly, I believe, one of the only art forms that America has actually given to the world, besides jazz and comic books. The media, no offense, likes to latch onto negative stuff. They’re not going to report that—there’s no truth to this story; I’m just using it as an example—that John Cena and his wife just had an eight-pound baby. But you’d better believe that if somebody dies, they’re going to report it.
GQ: But when a story comes along that captures people’s imagination, like what you’re doing now, it does become relevant. How does that not happen more often?
C.M. Punk: That is a fantastic question. I don’t have the answer. If it happened more often, it wouldn’t be as special, right? I hear a lot of people compare what I did three weeks ago to Stone Cold Steve Austin. Everyone’s just waiting for that next polarizing character. I think that’s why this worked. I’ve been saying I’m that guy for five years. Different people are afforded different opportunities. I’ve been given some awesome opportunities, and I feel that I’ve always knocked them out of the park. But I’ve always been scaled back after that. This time, the genesis of it is that I’m leaving. I’m done. I’m tired. “What are they going to do, fire me?” That’s been my attitude for months and months now. That finally resonated through the television screen. And that’s something that everyone in this economic world can 100% relate to.
GQ: Is that parallel to Austin why you wore a Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt when you were delivering that promo?
C.M. Punk: I do a lot of weird little things like that because people talk about it. I don’t think it’s any secret; I think the biggest match any wrestling company can do right now is C.M. Punk vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’ve thought that since I was 15. I’m straight edge. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke. And that is the perfect protagonist or antagonist to Stone Cold Steve Austin, depending on how you want to spin it. It writes itself. You would have to try really, really hard to fuck that one up. The idea of being on television is to wear your T-shirt so people see it and maybe buy it. I had gone out previously in the night and wrestled. You throw your T-shirt on the ground, and I don’t know what the hell happens to it after that. I came to the back, and I was looking for another T-shirt. I sent somebody to go and get one, and they came back with a XXL. I was like, “I’m going to be swimming in this thing.” And it’s always creepy when you’re wearing wrestling trunks with a shirt because it doesn’t look like you’re wearing any pants. I had a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt in my bag, and it fit me. I chuckled to myself and put it on. Am I planting seeds? I don’t know. I can’t guarantee to anybody that that match is going to happen. Do I want it to happen? Absolutely.
GQ: In pro wrestling in general and especially with you right now, it’s hard to tell how much of what’s on TV is a storyline and how much of it is actually happening. But you’re really done with the company for now?
C.M. Punk: How much is real? That’s 100% real. That’s not to say that there are still not negotiations. It’s not like I’m leaving and they’re like, “Good. Go fuck yourself.” I think that’s why this whole thing works. I’m not doing my job if people are like, “What you do is fake.” And literally people on the street are confused, generally, for the first time. That’s a great thing. The funny part about it is that you’re going to have your staunchest critic who says that it’s all scripted. It’s not! Dusty Rhodes told me a long time ago that the best promos come from the heart. You watch anybody who’s ever cut a meaningful promo, and it means something to them. Everything I’ve said isn’t somebody else’s words that they put on paper. They tend to hand me things like, “Here, say this,” and I’m not saying any of it. If I went out there and laid an egg, if what I did was boring TV and nobody cared and nobody was talking about it, somebody would probably be pissed off. But I went out there and seemingly turned the place on its ear, and I have yet to hear one negative thing about any of it. I don’t really think Vince McMahon cares. The bottom line is making money. I’d like to think that that’s what I did. Whether it’s real or not is almost irrelevant, but I think people can see through it and realize that yeah, this guy’s pissed off, this guy’s fed up. They can relate to that.
GQ: Are you at all surprised at the enormity of the reaction?
C.M. Punk: Yeah. I’d like to go out there and do that all the time, but that’s just not the case. So to actually strike that nerve is tremendous. Right after that night in Vegas, we hit the ground running. We flew to Australia the next day, and that’s a 15-hour flight, so that’s 15 hours of everybody talking about what I did. And when I landed in Australia, I wasn’t really turning my phone on because of the roaming charges. People started emailing me and texting me. Jim Rome wants me on his show, and all these ESPN people are talking about it. Bill Simmons is writing about it. I wasn’t on the nine o’clock news or anything like that, but it seems like I made it socially relevant for the first time in a very long time.
GQ: You’ve talked a lot about your treatment within the WWE and the way the company generally runs. How could it be done better?
C.M. Punk: A lot of the people who are in charge—and this isn’t a negative thing—are old. They have a wealth of experience, yes, but there’s no youth that’s involved in anything. The youngest people there are all performers. I don’t envy their job, trying to get inside somebody’s head and figure out who they are and what their character is. It’s a nerve-racking thing when you first get there. If you’re like me, this was your dream job; you worked 13 years to get to where you are. The normal course of action is mouth shut, eyes and ears open, not stepping on toes. But that’s how you get ahead. A squeaky wheel gets the grease. If something sucks, I’ve always been completely vocal about it, and I’ve been punished many, many times because of that. But I don’t think I’d be in the spot I’m in right now if I wasn’t me. I’ve always just been me. I don’t think we should be looking externally for talent; there’s plenty of guys and girls in house that are super-talented that we don’t do enough with. A guy like Evan Bourne, who’s a fantastic high-flyer, does the most fantastic stuff on the roster. I could go on: Kofi Kingston, Dolph Ziggler, Beth Phoenix. There’s Nattie Neidhart, Tyson Kidd. Tyson Kidd is a fantastic wrestler, maybe not the greatest promo. So let’s help him. Let’s teach him to get better instead of signing someone from Europe who failed at Euro football. I could talk about this forever. Part of it is that there’s no territories; there’s no place for people to learn. And the places that people can learn aren’t the best, and they’re completely looked down upon. Like independent wrestling. It’s easy to shit on people from a great height, but it’s another thing to pull them aside and try to impart knowledge. And I’ve been on the other side of the coin where I try to help somebody out and they blow me off like they know everything.
GQ: When you say you’ve been punished, what does the company do?
C.M. Punk: We have dress code violations. For a while, the big thing was that people who wear suits get ahead. I’m not a suit and tie kind of guy. I wear a suit once a year, for the Hall of Fame, or if I have to go to a funeral or something. It’s just not me. And I think our travel is ridiculous enough. When we go overseas, it’s sometimes two flights to get to where we’re going, a three-hour bus ride, and then you’re in a hotel for four or five hours. You have to eat and try to work out, and you’re lugging your bags around. And you’re getting the crap beat out of you on a nightly basis. The last thing I’m worried about is wearing nice, uncomfortable shoes. I’ve never worn a dress show that’s been comfortable. I’ve always just worn dress shoes. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard that a champion should dress like a champion. But I’m a champion because of who I am. Who I am is not that guy. If everybody wears three-piece suits, everyone looks the same. When you hear “C.M. Punk,” what do you think of? I’m covered in tattoos. For a while there, I had a crazy hobo beard. And you want me to shatter that illusion I’m projecting by wearing an Armani suit? Not only am I not that guy; that doesn’t make sense business-wise for me.
GQ: When somebody like you comes from the indies, how do you even get a shot in the company at all?
C.M. Punk: I’m a very goal-oriented person. In 2004, I was working for [independent wrestling company] Ring of Honor. I didn’t create the place, but I’m proud to say I’m one of the guys that made it a hell of a place to work, for young guys to learn. We did a lot of awesome stuff there, and I helped out. And I was really bored. I’d done everything: Been to Japan, been to Puerto Rico, wrestled in Europe. Every company that I was ever in, I’d become their champion. And I have a very strong bond to the old school. I’m friends with a lot of legendary wrestlers that I respect, like Harley Race. I look at what they did, and what they did is so drastically different to what an independent wrestler did in 2004. Me and my friend Colt Cabana were working four days a week, which is insane and unheard of. But then you look at guys like Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, who wrestled every day of the week, twice on Saturday, and twice on Sunday. I craved that. I always said that I was born 20 years late; I would’ve thrived in the territory days. But I was bored. I needed something new. I set the bar high: Working with the WWE. I figured out that if I went to work there then, they’d say I’m not big enough, so I kicked my own ass and got into mega-shape. I ordered my own gear. They contacted me, and I said, “Give me three months to get into shape, so when I go there, you can’t say no.” That’s what I did. In any situation, the cream rises to the top. I didn’t have an easy go of it; they hired me and sent me into their developmental system. But I’ve always worked my ass off. I’m never satisfied. It’s like that now; that’s what keeps driving me. And I think that’s how I worked here, because I don’t take no for an answer.
GQ: When you look back at your time with the WWE, what were your proudest moments?
C.M. Punk: I will always say that my proudest moment was just being C.M. Punk. When I started wrestling in the backyard with my buddies, I was C.M. Punk. When we didn’t know anything about the wrestling business and decided that we needed to run shows because we were awesome, when we built a wooden ring and eventually bought a ring and started running shows—these untrained goofballs that we all were—I was obsessed with being the best wrestler. I think it’s an awesome story, that I’ve been C.M. Punk since I was 15, and that I went from rolling around in the backyard to Wrestlemania. I’m extremely proud of that. I’ve always been me. The last three weeks of my career, I’ve cut some of the best promos I’ve ever cut, and I do consider myself to be a promo guy. Winning the Heavyweight Title for the first time, when I cashed in on Edge, was awesome. The fact that I can work with anybody, from Undertaker to Big Show to Rey Mysterio.
I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I’m egotistical to an extent. If you’re in this business and you don’t think that you’re the best, or want to be the best, then I don’t know what you’re doing. I would never be happy with just coming to TV tapings, not working house shows, and just getting by, staying in the shadows. I’m proud of the fact that I can turn chickenshit to chicken salad.
GQ: What are some of your lowest moments in the company?
C.M. Punk: I’m not Superman. Eventually, the grind gets to you. If you’re away from your friends, you’re not traveling with anyone you like, and you’re doing stuff that doesn’t creatively stimulate you, that’s when it becomes a job. Sometimes, I think it’s easy to see who’s talented and what works. Oftentimes, they go the other way, and that’s frustrating. I was really bummed when Cabana got fired. I didn’t feel like it was my fault, but maybe there was something that I could’ve or should’ve done to prevent it. He’s a super-talented guy. I’m brutally honest; he knows that. I can look at him and be like, “Maybe trim up, work out harder, do more cardio.” But when he’s in the ring, he’s the most entertaining guy. A company slogan is “We put smiles on people’s faces.” That’s what that guy does, and he does it with his wrestling style. It’s amazing. I was so bummed when he got fired because I want the best for my friends. If I could somehow trade places with him, I probably would, just so he could experience what I have. He deserves it. My buddy Luke Gallows got fired; that sucked. I was with the company when Chris Benoit’s murder/suicide went down; that was a pretty fucking low point in everyone’s life. I still can’t explain that one. A lot of people don’t like to talk about it. It still blows my mind.
Professionally, what bums me out is not feeling like they ever really got behind me. My fan base, how I became popular, was really despite them. It was very organic. Instead of giving me the ball and letting me run with it, they would give me the ball to keep it warm for somebody else. I always just want to be the guy.
GQ: When you finished up your big promo and went backstage, what was the atmosphere?
C.M. Punk: Gorilla position is our central base of operation, right behind the curtain. It’s called that because that’s where Gorilla Monsoon, a legendary wrestler, used to sit and watch all the matches. That’s where the wrestlers come in and out. I cut that promo, and my mic was cut off. I knew we were on the air, and it didn’t make sense for me to walk back through there. There was going to be a lot of angry people waiting for me. So I jumped off the ramp, double birds in the air: “Fuck this place, I’m leaving.” I walked out a side ramp, and I actually walked past this gigantic group of people who were all waiting at the bottom of the stairs in Gorilla to see me coming out. I walked out and got to see everyone’s legit reaction. It wasn’t like, “Oh, he’s coming,” stone-faced. I walked behind people, and they had their hands on their heads, eyes wide open, looking around like, “Did you hear that?” I loved it. It couldn’t have been any better. If I can do that with employees, I was immediately thinking that maybe we did that with the live audience. And you couple that with the millions of people watching on television throughout the world—somebody in Egypt is probably sitting their, hands on their head, mouth wide open, calling their friends. By the time I left the ramp and got to my phone, I had more than 200 text messages. It’s a great feeling.
GQ: What kind of reactions have you gotten from your co-workers?
C.M. Punk: Nothing but positive stuff. Everybody wants to say what I said. There’s a lot of unrest. There are a lot of people who are unhappy. I don’t want to say I’m their hero, but a lot of people have said that. It’s not like we work for a tyrant. It’s like this in every job, I think. There’s certain people who are afforded privileges and maybe, maybe don’t deserve them.
GQ: When you do these promos, you weave in a lot of subtle references and inside jokes. Do you plan all these out?
C.M. Punk: No. Planning stuff out sucks. If you plan stuff out, you wind up talking in a very monotonous, unnatural way. For some reason, talking is easy for me. Practice does make perfect; I’ve been doing it for a while. Being out there in a high-pressure situation with a live audience and a live TV camera on you, it brings something out. It’s very organic. Obviously, I think about what I’m going to say. But no matter what I think I’m going to say, Vince McMahon or whoever I’m out there with could say something, and it would have zero relevance to what he just said. I don’t know an actor in Hollywood that could do what we do. For all of our superstars and divas who need improvement, they’re still light years ahead of anybody in Hollywood. I don’t think you could grab a Tom Hanks, and five minutes before he’s supposed to go on television, hand him a five-page script. That’s a meltdown. It’s what I do. I can’t explain it, really.
GQ: It was interesting watching you talk with McMahon. There seemed to be a little feeling-out period for the first couple of minutes…
C.M. Punk: And then it opened wide. I’ve always wanted to be in the ring to do stuff with Vince; I don’t think there’s anything bigger than that. But I’ve never been given that opportunity. So I’m not slowing down. Last night was that situation. I was going to go out there and do nothing but hit a grand slam.
GQ: Is he someone you feel comfortable talking to?
C.M. Punk: Yeah. He intimidates a lot of people. I’m certainly not intimidated, but he does have a very strong presence. If you ask for five minutes, he’ll say he’s got a TV show to write. But he’s not really blowing you off. He’s got a TV show to write. Only a few people can really command his attention, and I certainly couldn’t do that when I first got here. I can definitely do that now.
GQ: What made you demand the return of WWE Ice Cream Bars last night?
C.M. Punk: If I have Vince McMahon over a barrel and he wants me to re-sign—If I’m Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, everybody wants me, I can get whatever I want, and I’m this prick douchebag—I’m going to ask for ridiculous stuff. The idea came from those crazy rock and roll riders: “I need a football field of green M&Ms.” But I actually love those ice cream bars, and I would love to see them come back. And I’m always trying to crack up whoever I’m in the ring with. I think Vince subscribes to that theory, too. He’s calling me “Phil.” But that’s the chemistry. It’s just fun.
GQ: You always hear backstage stories, like about people like the Undertaker or John Bradshaw Leyfield being hardasses who keep everyone in line. What do you think your reputation is backstage?
C.M. Punk: I don’t know, and I would hate to assume. I would love to find out, though. Obviously, guys like Bradshaw and the Undertaker have been with the company for decades, and they’re good at what they do. They don’t suck. They’re fucking awesome; that’s why they’re here. If they have something to say, I would like to think that somebody’s going to listen. I’d imagine I fall somewhere in between hardass godfather type and the who-the-fuck-does-this-kid-think-he-is guy. There’s a lot of times when I’m throwing a fit because everyone has completely destroyed the locker room. I’m in these locker rooms more often than I’m sitting in my living room. To get back from working a main event match, where you’re hungry and tired and hurt, and everyone’s already left the building, there’s luggage bag-tags, half-eaten food, sweaty wrist-tape, shit strewn all about—I’m that guy who says, “Hey everybody, we’re going to have a meeting, and I’m going to tell you to clean up the fucking locker room.” It never gets done; it’s one of those things. I would think that is the genesis of adapting a leadership role in the WWE. I don’t think the Undertaker was like that when he first got here. Imagine him when he first walked in the building. There’s Jake Roberts, Jimmy Snuka, Hulk Hogan, all these guys. They’re probably looking at him like, “Who’s this new kid? I gotta put him over tonight?” I’m sure he was quiet, too. But then eventually, all these people fall to the wayside. I’m the old guy on the road now. We were just in Australia, and somebody on the babyface bus comes up to me and says, “Cena was at an appearance this morning, so do you know who was on the babyface bus with the most seniority? Kelly Kelly.” Your ascension as a locker-room leader is one of those things that naturally happens. I would like to think that, instead of being the guy who yells at them to pick shit up, maybe they look at me as a leader. But maybe that’s premature in my career.
GQ: So there’s really a babyface bus and a heel bus?
C.M. Punk: Absolutely.
GQ: Which one has the better atmosphere?
C.M. Punk: I don’t know, depends on who you ask. The business has changed a lot. It used to be about bragging rights between the buses, about who partied harder. Now, I’m the only heel who’s awake on the bus; everybody is passed out asleep. I can only comment on the heel bus. I wouldn’t set foot on that other bus.
GQ: Who do you hang out with on the bus?
C.M. Punk: I miss Luke Gallows. There’s really nobody I hang out with on the bus.
GQ: In Australia, somebody caught you on camera calling a ringside fan a “homo.” When it went public, you apologized for it immediately. What brought that on?
C.M. Punk: It was just me doing my job, being a bad guy. I’m glad you mentioned something. When I saw that TMZ picked it up, because what a salacious story, I was legit embarrassed. My best friend Chez, ever since I have known her, has tried to curb anyone around her from using any gay slur. It’s something that slipped out, more in reference to the guy’s faux-hawk. It’s not like he said anything that made me mad. It was just a back-and-forth that everybody was enjoying until I slipped and said something that could potentially damage somebody. I wasn’t proud of it. I have gay friends, and sitting there in Australia, I was immediately thinking, “What are they going to say? Are they going to be disappointed?” Before I even talked to anybody in the office, I went to Twitter, and I apologized. It wasn’t a public relations statement. It was just that I fucked up.
GQ: Now that you’re ending your time with the WWE, do you have any plans for the future?
C.M. Punk: I have no plans. Cabana was fired on a Friday and wrestling on a Saturday. That is not going to be me. I haven’t talked to anybody. Nobody’s contacted me. I’m positive that people will try to contact me on Monday, but I just want to sit on my couch. That’s kind of the idea. I’ve been doing this for a long time with no break. Especially over the last year, I had an elbow surgery and narrowly avoided hip surgery, so all my downtime’s been used up by rehabbing so I can get back in the ring. And I never missed a beat; I was doing commentary with my cracked-up hip. That wears on you after a while. I’m looking forward to not setting an alarm, not flying anywhere, not having a schedule. I think everyone’s dream is to do nothing. I want to have time off and not be injured. I want it to be summer vacation, where I don’t have anything to do for three months. I can do anything.
GQ: Are you set for life? Could you never work again?
C.M. Punk: I don’t know if this sounds bad, but I am set, yeah. I don’t spend my money. I don’t buy cars or have an expensive drug habit. The only thing I’ve ever bought with the money I’ve made is my house. My car was paid for in 2005. I don’t like having debts. I don’t like buying anything that I can’t buy in cash. I didn’t have a credit card until about a year ago. I’m not going to say I’m fortunate, because I’ve sacrificed a whole ton, but I’m set.
GQ: Does that have any appeal for you? Never working again?
C.M. Punk: No. Everybody jokes with me that I’m going to go crazy in the first week, and maybe I am. But maybe that’s what I need to experience. I’ve never not done this, whether it was because I needed to pay bills or because I was so passionate and obsessed about it. But I think I’m reaching a point where I can step away and where I need to step away for a while.