When describing himself, CM Punk said he is "the greatest don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover story." Despite his multitude of tattoos, long hair, piercings and love of hardcore punk rock, Punk shoots down any preconceived notions of what he is about by espousing the "straight edge" lifestyle.
And while he is not among the biggest, flashiest or most muscular performers in WWE, Punk, 28, has built a loyal following and is one of the centerpieces of ECW. On Sunday, Punk will wrestle ECW champion John Morrison (formerly Johnny Nitro) at The Great American Bash.
I spoke with Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, in a telephone interview yesterday.
Q: I know that living a straight edge lifestyle is not just a wrestling gimmick for you. How does it apply to your real life?
A: Straight edge is everything about a personal decision to not live my life under the influence or not being aware. I pretty much don't like anything that alters my view of reality or my perception or my grasp. It's not drinking. It's not smoking. It's a lot of things.
Q: What led you to adopt this type of lifestyle?
A: I just didn't want to be like everybody else. I didn't see the point in getting messed up to have fun. My dad was an alcoholic when I was growing up, and it never made any sense that my parents couldn't afford Christmas presents, but they could buy three cartons of cigarettes apiece a month. That definitely had a lot to do with it.
Q: How did the punk rock scene influence you?
A: Straight edge was started by a [punk] band called Minor Threat. They wrote a song called "Straight Edge." It's all about music, and they felt exactly how I felt. They didn't like guys coming to shows getting messed up when it was supposed to be about the music. They didn't understand how anyone could do that – not remember the show and all that stuff. Punk rock and straight edge will always be married together. As far as me integrating that with wrestling, I learned a lot from punk rock. The do-it-yourself lifestyle is something that I've translated into wrestling.
Q: As someone who is in the public eye, do you see yourself as a role model?
A: I definitely know that there are people out there that look up to me, and I think as an athlete in the public eye, it's dangerous ground to tread on because of the Charles Barkley thing of "I am not a role model." Even if it's just one kid, somebody's going to see you and take a liking to you and get attached to you, and you're a role model whether you like it or not. I actually like to say that I'm not one because I do do stupid things and everybody should make their own personal decisions. But I'm straight-edged, so I have a lot of parents that come up to me and thank me because their kids look up to me. That's really powerful, and I can't deny that.
Q: How tough is it to maintain the straight edge lifestyle being in the wrestling business and with all the temptations of the road?
A: Not tough at all. It's actually very easy. It's very black and white for me. You either do it or you don't – and I don't do it. It's not a wrestling thing; it's a thing in life. You can hurt yourself and take painkillers, or you can hurt yourself and just grit through it and let the body do what it's supposed to do. I fractured my skull [in a match in 2002] and I refused painkillers. I made it through that and I'm a stronger person for doing it. It's a personal choice, and you're either strong or you're not.
Q: How did you develop your unique in-ring style?
A: I just like a more realistic, wrestling-as-a-sport style, and I'm a big fan of Japanese wrestling. Integrating that with what I knew with my jujitsu, I don't know if I developed it, but it was natural for me.
Q: Do you think MMA will have more and more influence on what pro wrestling matches look like?
A: I think if you're smart, it has an influence on your wrestling style. I don't think you can ignore it. MMA is a force, just like pro wrestling is, and pretending it doesn't exist is a little bit ridiculous. If you've ever been thrown in an Anaconda Vise or a Jujigatame or any kind of standard jujitsu hold, you know the pain and you know how it feels, and I think a lot of fans can start to appreciate that a lot more. I'm sure there are kids that watch MMA that are trying these moves out on each other, and the stuff hurts. They come away with maybe a newfound respect for it. And then they see me doing that to people and they go, "Yeah, that stuff hurts." I think that's part of the appeal.
Q: Do you have any interest in doing MMA?
A: I would love to. I live in Chicago, and I know there are a lot of fighters out here. I just recently moved back, which to me is a big accomplishment. I moved away in 2001 or 2002 for wrestling, and I've come full circle and I've finally made it back home. I'm definitely going to start looking at gyms, and I've found a place that I can go back and start working on my jujitsu again, because it's been a long time since I've found a dojo that I felt comfortable enough where I can go in and work out. I've got friends here that are into it, so I'm probably just going to go check out their gyms and see what happens. I'm not saying I'm going to jump into it. I'm not fighting tomorrow or anything. But it's definitely something that interests me. But saying that, I also hate getting punched in the nose.
Q: I know that you grew up as a wrestling fan. Who were some of your favorites and when did you decide wrestling was something you wanted to pursue?
A: One of my first memories is of Roddy Piper smashing the coconut over Jimmy Snuka's head. This is the story I always tell. Ever since I saw that, I fell in love. It was so powerful and so raw and it just sucked me in, and it's all I ever wanted to do since then.
Q: What are your thoughts on ECW now being built around young guys such as yourself?
A: I love it. I love the fact that it's a little gritty and maybe a little bit darker. I love that it's a bunch of young guys and that we're all hungry and willing to step up and do what it takes. There's something romantic about that. It's a one-hour show and a lot of people complain that's not enough time, but I think it's great. You get in, you get it done and it's over with. Honestly, I think we're the best brand in the WWE. And that's no lie. That's my pride and that's how I operate. I'm definitely working hard to make sure it's the best brand.
Q: What would it mean to you to get a run as ECW champion?
A: I take a look around and I see posters for pay-per-views and I see magazine covers, and there are three guys on it: Bobby Lashley, Edge and John Cena, and those were the three champions. To be in the company of guys like that, that's amazing. I would love nothing more than to see my big ugly mug plastered all over pay-per-views posters and stuff like that. To be ECW champion is something that I take very, very seriously. I would always give it my all in the ring and I would have the company on my back, so to speak. I would do everything I possibly could to carry the brand, not only ratings-wise, but also at live shows, and make sure people got their money's worth out of the champion.
Photo courtesy of ECW.