Interview: Behind the snarl of CM Punk

WWE champ and Chicago resident CM Punk battles management -- but not fans who respect his privacy

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CM Punk

WWE Champion CM Punk on the CTA Blue Line March 8, 2012 (Chicago Tribune/ Phil Velasquez)

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 fromO'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 "It shows the perception people have is completely archaic and outdated.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.

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