"High tide raises all ships."
That is a favorite quote of Duke Roufus. And one the highly-touted coach of Roufusport feels rings true when it comes to his fight academy and all who are a part of it.
Whether it's UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, ONE FC welterweight champion Ben Askren, or a teenager getting dropped off after school for his first striking lesson, the mantra is: when one fighter or student does well, the whole team and school does well. There is a trickle down effect, where the top fighters look after the up-and-comers and take them under their wing, not unlike a college football captain looking after a freshmen.
As far as new students go, it's now public knowledge that former WWE superstar CM Punk (real name Phil Brooks) has picked Roufusport as his new training home now that he has embarked on a new career in mixed martial arts (MMA). And Roufus is excited about taking on the challenge of coaching him.
He will remind you that Pettis was once a nobody while he was coming up through the ranks and not to automatically discount what Punk's capabilities are as a fighter. However, there are some definite disparities. Mainly that Punk is 35-years-old with very limited experience in martial arts and for all intents and purposes, he just got dropped off from school and has a limited time frame to prepare.
Roufus is confident he can get Punk ready to step into the Octagon.
"I like the challenge and I'm up for it to help him achieve," said Roufus. "As well, not many moons ago I was telling people how great Anthony Pettis was. People thought I was crazy. ‘Whatever you don't know what you are talking about.' His last two UFC title fights he submitted guys that have never been submitted and he beat up a guy, Donald Cerrone, who respectively I think is the second-best striker in the division. He just keeps doing things. Even me as a kid when I said I wanted to be a world champion, people thought I was crazy. ‘He'll never do that.' Well, four titles later, here I am. I'm a firm believer in the power of positive thinking and asserting yourself to your goals."
The former kickboxing champion knows it isn't going to be an easy road, but that doesn't mean he believes it can't be done, because he does.
"He has trained some in karate and he has been working with the Gracie family," he said. "Like you said, is it going to be tough? Yeah, but I didn't get involved with this because I didn't think he could do it. I think he can. That is the thing, he is going to fight guys in the UFC at his level, too."
Roufus first met Punk in Chicago a couple of years ago before one of Pettis' fights and said they had "mentalities that hit it off." The two have been friends ever since and he knew Punk was thinking about fighting professionally and expressed interested in coming to Roufusport. He just had to let him make up his mind. Once he decided "it went from there," Roufus said.
"The cool thing is I know Phil on a personal level and I know what type of person he is and I've known him a few years," said Roufus, who will begin coaching Punk on Monday (January 5, 2015). He has a unique background, his mindset and who he is. I'm excited to work with him. Knowing the type of person he is, I think he is going to surprise some people."
Now that Punk is not traveling over 250 days a year with WWE, he will be able to fully emerge himself into training at Roufusport, which is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and only an hour and a half drive time from Chicago, where the former WWE champion wanted to remain because he is a Midwest guy and also because his wife lives there too, Roufus said.
Being a gym rat will be crucial and so will his desire to learn and absorb any lesson that Roufus or any of the coaches at Roufusport have to offer like a sponge. "Attitude is everything," he says. And Punk being able to fully dedicate himself will prove greatly beneficial.
"The key thing he does have going for him is he now does have the time to train full time," Roufus explains. "I only have a few guys who do get to train full time. If you have the attitude to learn and to work hard and dedicate yourself, if you believe you can achieve and you put your work in, anything can happen in the Octagon. When Brock Lesnar started everybody doubted him. Yes, he had his amateur wrestling pedigree, but still, a lot of people doubted him and look how far he went with it."
Roufus said he will doing a lot of "hands on" work with Punk in addition to his other training. He gave some insight onto how his academy works and on how Punk will get acclimated to the surroundings.
"The nice thing is I have so many different stages of athletes at the academy that he can work his way up the ladder to each type of athlete," Roufus said.
"He is going to get exposed working with the world-class guys, but he is also going to get exposed to newer guys, too. That is the key to what we have going on is you have some high-level guys working together and you can experiment a lot with newer guys and use them as quality sparring partners to get your confidence better.
"Not beating them up, but knowing that you are working with different levels and you can move your way up the ladder. Not unlike being in a jiu-jitsu class with white belts, blue belts, purple, brown and black. There are different levels of your training."
Roufus revealed that Ben Askren, who was very outspoken of the UFC signing Punk to its roster of fighters, will be a "big part" of the neophyte's development.
"Here is the thing: people have asked me about the banter on Twitter. I didn't see it, but I heard about it," he said. "The thing is with Ben, he is just stating the fact that ‘hey put me in the UFC too.' Phil gets it. Phil is the king of Twitter banter and things of that nature. That is what built his career in the WWE. So, no hard feelings on both sides, they are both happy to work with one another."
Once he makes it to his first fight, Roufus will be in his corner, he said. But that won't be for quite some time. The championship coach has final say along with the coaches on when Punk will be ready, but Roufus thinks it will most likely be "six months to a year."
"We are going to take it step by step," he explained. "What I don't want to do is put him in there too fast and ruin his confidence. Confidence is everything in the fight business and that is what I am going to do: build his confidence. I have a huge resource of great coaches, great teammates and great students. I have a lot of longtime students who know how to properly spar with people that will bring him along well. I'm going to do a lot of sparring, myself, with Phil, just because I have the experience of control. I've been in martial arts since I was four, I have such control that I can help him learn the sport and not get hurt at the same time."
With his background of being a WWE personality and the fact that a lot of fighters are not supportive of Punk getting a shot in the UFC, one could assume he would have a target on his back for other's to take it to him during training, just to stick it to him. Roufus knows how it is going to other gyms, he said, before telling a story about when he traveled to Amsterdam to train years back.
"I didn't have any of my Roufus gear on and a bunch of guys didn't know who I was," he recalled. "They tried to kick my ass. They couldn't. Funny, I've been growing up and going to boxing gyms and different places and everyone has a different approach. For me that stuff doesn't count until fight night anyway. I've never really liked to fight for free or not to fight until it counts. Being a practice-room All-American or being the best guy in open mat or the best guy in sparing means you are the best guy with gear on when no one's watching."
Roufus said he has never had any issues like that at Roufusport, even with Ben Askren having different people visiting, and different fighters and students visiting from his affiliate schools. He said a lot of the guys at the gym are "excited" for Punk's arrival and not just to help him, but to learn other business aspects from the former WWE star.
"Phil knows about marketing himself and getting his name out there and it is going to be reciprocal with a lot of the guys," he said. "Just him helping these guys grow their brands too and I think all my athletes can really learn a lot from Phil to help them.
"That is what I really like about the group of athletes I work with. They think outside of the Octagon as well as in the Octagon. Like Ben, he has a lot of opportunities going with his life, Anthony as well. And I'm trying to teach guys to really think secondary ideas and really turn yourself into a brand. I know that sounds cliché, but if you can make yourself known and there are ways to fast track it by doing the right things and obviously Phil can teach these guys that."
Aside from his WWE persona, Punk has been anything but that. He has been nothing by humble and respectful in interviews and has turned his cheek to any negativity that has come his way. That side of him, is what Roufus has already known for the last two years and what really drew him to the former WWE champion.
"That is the cool thing about it. You are going to see the real Phil in the Octagon," he said.
"He is used to every man hating him," he said. "He is a black cat heel. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. You see a lot of guys in the UFC attacking him or guys are hoping for a fight. Let's face it, it's prize fighting and Phil brings crowds.
"If Mike Tyson said that he would want to box right now and someone would license him, it would happen, you know what I mean? Somewhere, somehow, some way, because he is a marquee attraction. Do I agree with it, not necessarily, but I'm just giving you an example that is just how fighting sports are completely different than any other sport."
Roufus thinks it is great that Punk is in UFC, not just because he is involved with him, as he also thought it was great when "Brock Lesnar was involved," he said.
"What is good for the UFC is good for all the athletes. A lot of people don't believe that. This will be my tenth year coming to the UFC events. I worked with Stephan Bonnar and I've seen everything grow exponentially and for a lot of guys. I think guys like Phil and guys like Brock can help our industry even more."
What about the pressure on him and Roufusport if Punk fails when he finally steps into the Ocatgon?
"I don't care about my reputation. I always feel pressure for every one of the fighters I coach, especially professional athletes. I know the sacrifice and the heart, blood, sweat and tears these kids put into it. I feel their disappointment just as much as them because I used to be an athlete. I'm committed in that fact. He is giving up his WWE contract to pursue this one. Everyone sacrifices to achieve and it is tough to see people not reach their goals. I'm not worried about me, it's them.
"If you truly love coaching it's about the athletes, not about yourself. The things that I do for myself: I do jiu-jitsu tournaments. That is where I put it on the line for myself and my reputation. For these guys I don't worry about my gym's reputation because there is going to be more guys coming and going. I've got a generation of teenagers that are going to replace this wave of athletes already. So I'm confident there are going to be more great athletes, so I don't worry about that. I just worry about the well-being of that person in front of me, if that makes sense."
Punk will begin training on Monday and Roufus said he isn't sure if the UFC will be documenting his training, but that "it would be in their best interest to do so." He also mentioned he, himself, will be seeking to do a documentary on everything that Roufusport has done over the last two years.
Roufus will take the challenge of training Punk into a legit UFC fighter head on and Pettis, Askren, and the rest of Roufusport will rally around him and their newest fighter. Of course they are preparing to succeed, but should Punk fall short, it won't be because they didn't give it their all.
"If he is proved wrong, than we can all live with that too, because we did our best to go out there and do it," he said. "I don't think he is committing himself to do this because he doesn't want to be successful. There's certain types of people that have that mindset of achieving and he is one of them."
The success of Askren and Pettis has allowed for other fighters at Roufusport to gain more opportunities. Punk coming to Roufusport will no doubt add attention, and if he wins, additional opportunities will continue to come.
"High tide raises all ships."