It goes without saying that when CM Punk steps into the Octagon to face Mickey Gall at UFC 203 on Saturday night (Sept. 10, 2016), he will have been afforded an opportunity that many other fighters would not have received. But that's just the world we live in when you are a former WWE superstar seeking employment in the world of face punching, you get to obtain certain goals long before others.
Say what you will about Punk (real name Phil Brooks), but when the pin drops down and the Octagon door locks in the Quicken Loans Arena at UFC 203, the conversation about special chances, pay-per-view points and salaries gives way to the brutal art of fighting. And in that sense, MMA is an equal opportunity employer. Once the bullets start flying for real, preferential treatment goes out the window, and Punk, who began training at Roufusport after officially signing with UFC in December of 2014, will get exactly what he wanted: the chance to test himself in a real fight.
The fact that he has the willingness to go through with it, is something his head coach and former world champion kickboxer, Duke Roufus, respects a great deal.
"He doesn’t have to do this," Roufus told MMAmania.com recently. "That’s what is special about it. That’s what’s inspiring. A lot of my guys are fighting to get out. We have a lot of kids come from rough upbringings. Their motivation is… Anthony bought his mom a house and car. Emmanuel Sanchez—a Bellator fighter—bought his mom a car last year. A lot of my guys come from humble beginnings, but to see a guy who has a lot, work just as hard as the kid over here who has nothing, I just bow down and give him so much respect. That's what our team is built on is respect for one another.
"We all see each other at our worst and our best. They don't see me broken down as a fighter. Luckily, the cool thing is Anthony saw me at the end of my career. That being said, as a fighter I have a great, great appreciation (for Punk's courage to get in the Octagon). Because to me, that's the hardest thing where I've had tension with fighters I've trained in the past and where we don't see eye to eye on is training. Fighting is won in the gym. Confidence comes from being prepared. Roger Staubach, that's his famous quote. This guy [Punk] has worked, worked and worked and dedicated himself."
This isn't a try out for a NFL training camp, or Tim Tebow trying to catch on in Major League Baseball. This is mixed martial arts where fighters put their health on the line every time they step in the cage. Roufus takes this very seriously as he's seen his fighters get hurt and he's been hurt himself when he fought. He knows full well if you aren't putting the work in, the chances of getting hurt increase dramatically.
"To me, as a trainer, we always have a hypothetical like a doctor. I'm putting him in a prize fight where he can get beat up bad. So, it's a two-way street. If you aren't on board to dedicate yourself to the process of training for a prize fight, you are going to put a lot of pressure on the coaches. I hate seeing my guys get beat up. It was a terrible night in the hospital with Anthony Pettis after the dos Anjos fight. Still to this day--I've been in this game my whole life--I hate going home with casualties. Winning and losing that's one thing. I hate seeing my guys touched up in the ring. It breaks my heart and I try and do everything in my power to not get them touched up in the ring. But if they don't put the process in, it's hard to not help them not get touched up like that. Because it is a dangerous sport when you don't commit yourself. It's a dangerous sport when you do commit yourself. I love it and there is something inside of me that will never stop loving it, but I have great empathy for these guys when they get beat up because I've caught my beats too. I got sent to the hospital twice during my career. That's when you really got the gut check."
Roufus, 46, first met Punk in Chicago while he was at the UFC on FOX 13 card for Anthony Pettis' fight against Donald Cerrone and was immediately drawn to the former WWE champion.
"He's always just had a special aura about him," said Roufus. "I'm blessed. I've met a lot of different athletes and celebrities my whole life and I'm actually not blown away by them. The athletes and the celebrities that I'm blown away by are the ones who really got that aura. He has that aura. I was just talking to Anthony yesterday about… my brother used to be managed by 'Sugar' Ray Leonard. He had that aura around him. There's certain people if you are around them that person stands out as special."
But what really stood out to to the Milwaukee native once training began was Punk's work ethic. "He's a very dedicated individual," Roufus said. "Again, that is what made him get to the top in his former career. People who are at the top of any career have those elite work and drive characteristics that most don’t."
And according to Roufus, that was evident relatively early on in the training process when the mid-thirties novice showcased the eagerness to work his tail off, and grow--the same traits that made him so successful in pro wrestling.
"Right away, it was just his mentality," he said. "This was a guy that on paper probably wasn’t supposed to succeed in the WWE and he made it happen. That’s what it takes to be an incredible fighter. A lot of people look at a guy like Anthony Pettis and think he is a good looking kid, flashy style. They think he is all flash and no dash. I gotta tell you the kid has a heart for days and he showed it last weekend (Pettis defeated Charles Oliveira at UFC on FOX 21) and that is the type of guy Punk is, he’s got heart. I can teach you skill. I cannot teach you will and when you get people like him that are willing to invest spiritually and emotionally, physically and go through the process ... So many people they want to skip pages on the script. He’s read every page and mastered it along the way. He’s learned… I shouldn’t say learned. He enjoyed the process. Most people hate the process. You have to love it to be great."
From day one in January of 2015 to now, Roufus says Punk's transformation has been "incredible considering where he's coming from to be a professional." Punk has taken his share of whoopings along the way in both the striking and grappling departments. Digesting a steady diet of getting taken down, tagged on the feet and submitted, which is par for the course for any new fighter, Punk paid his dues and then some.
The saying, "high tide raises all ships" has always been a staple for Roufus. And now, nearly two years in, Roufus says the "brotherhood has been extended to Punk" and all of his teammates have rallied around him (He's become close with Erik Koch. Pettis and Tyron Woodley will be in Cleveland to support him) as he continues to evolve as a mixed martial artist and now he's starting to "shorten the gap."
"There is not as many takedowns," Roufus said. "On Wednesday night he ended up taking down a really good wrestler and I was like, ‘wow.’ He is shrinking the gap to what was happening to him to what he is now doing to high-level guys. That’s the thing: he’s landing punches, hitting submissions, hitting takedowns against guys, who on paper should have a lot more than him."
When I spoke to Roufus back in 2015 right after the announcement that Punk would be training at Roufusport, he said, "I think he's going to surprise some people." Now that he has worked with him a great deal, I asked him if Punk reminds him of any particular fighter when they first started. He didn't compare Punk stylistically to any of his fighters, but did bring up some similarities on him being unrefined like Anthony Pettis was when he first started.
"Here’s the thing about it, he’s going to be raw, but raw in a good way," Roufus explained. "If you look at a guy like Anthony Pettis even as polished as he is now, if you watched him when he was younger on YouTube, he was just raw. He just came out and fought. That is the one thing we are focusing on with Punk: don’t over think this thing. Get in there and bite on the mouth guard. You are striking. You are wrestling. You are submitting. Just get in there and fight. Don’t over game plan. Don’t over think things. That’s the thing: MMA is the most chaotic of all the combat sports because there is so many weapons. If we are just going to sword fight you have to watch out for the sword, but MMA is like modern warfare there are so many weapons, so many ways to win, so many ways to lose. Sometimes you have to use that to your advantage and go out there and create the chaos and make it a fight. That’s going to be important for him."
What is the single biggest strength of Punks game?
"He can hit," Roufus revealed. "He’s got a punch. He can crack. But, every day he is getting better. Again, he just took down a good wrestler the other day. He’s submitting guys I’m surprised he’s submitting. So, he’s taking turns. The cool thing is we are only a few years into this, so his growth phase is still very strong. He’s growing every week where sometimes fighters the higher they get their growth gets slower. His is coming fast. I saw him become a completely different dude. That is what we are doing today. We are getting together with all the submission coaches and just working these scenarios and getting him ready. Nobody knows they can fight until they get in there and fight. So we are trying to do everything in our power so he can get in that Octagon and go full tilt."
But how about taking a punch? That's usually not something that comes easy to a newcomer and Roufus affirmed that with Punk it didn't.
"That took awhile," he said. "That was the hardest stage honestly. That is the hardest stage for anyone. I gotta high-level jiu-jitsu black belt and a high-level wrestler and the hardest part—I still think—in martial arts is someone hitting you in the face. It freaks those people out. It’s the hardest part. Luckily we have a good system for reaction and we do a lot of drilling to get him used to having guys strike at him. Even Anthony had some commentary today saying, ‘Wow, Punk is doing way better.’ He’s been kind of going easy on Punk and Punk cracked him with a good one and Anthony started to get after him a little bit and Punk weathered the storm very nicely. That being said, part of striking is accepting the fact that you are going to get a little sauce on the apron when you are cooking."
That's a classic Roufus phrase if you haven't heard it before, and one of many. The highly acclaimed striking coach has a knack for applying real life analogies to the fight game to get a point across. He's seen all there is to see in the world of combat sports. He knows many are counting Punk out. He also knows that anything can happen in a fight and he's preached that plenty to his new student, who he says has an abundance of durability and toughness to make up for lack of technical prowess.
"I have a lot of technical guys at gym: the Pettis brothers, Tyron Woodley, Mike ‘Biggie’ Rhodes, Erik Koch," Roufus pointed out. "On their feet they are very polished guys. They give a lot of people problems because they are technical. So I teach Punk not to get upset because you are going up against some of the more technical strikers in the game. You gotta get in there and outwork those guys or attempt to. That’s the biggest thing is really understanding what stage of the fight career he’s at. That’s how we can build our game plan better."
Roufus made a point to reference the beginning of his career and an old adage from his father and how they relate to Punk and his upcoming fight vs. Gall at UFC 203.
"When I came into the sport of kickboxing I was 16 and my brother [Rick 'The Jet' Roufus] was already world champion and he used to run circles around me. I had a lot of very, very bad sparring sessions in the beginning, but you don’t hear about the guy who quit, you hear about the guy that stuck with it. I remember guys like Anthony Pettis, Sergio, when they first came they weren’t the guys they were and they were on the receiving end of the sparring sessions. That’s just what it takes, the guy who decides I’m just going to gut it out day by day and I’m going to get better and better and better. My dad always taught me, who was my long time coach, inch by inch is a cinch. You just gotta show up every day inch by inch and get better and just keep moving forward whether it’s an inch it doesn’t matter. By the yard it’s hard, by the mile it’s a trial. If you look for a result, a small result every day at the end of a series of time you will see a lot of big results from small results being compiled."
Those small results really started to add up after Punk had surgery on his back in February. According to Roufus, that is when Punk's training really began to turn the corner.
"Well the shoulder surgery was a bummer for sure, but the back surgery was incredible because when he first came to us we were like, ‘wow this guy is not that strong from being in the WWE and lifting these big dudes up.’ Well that wasn’t the case. The guy’s back was so fried and his pain threshold was so high. Guys in the WWE, they have to drive from venue to venue. 300 nights a year they’re doing that. It’s so rough on their bodies. The pain threshold is one thing that people understand from that industry they have to go wrestle every day. The show must go on. So once he got the surgery we were like, ‘wow this guy is a completely different guy now that his back is fixed.’ That was the turning point to this whole situation when he got his power back."
Roufus has the physical aspect of Punk's preparation handled, but what about the mental aspect?
Punk has shown obvious frustration and in some cases flat out indignation for the questions he's been asked and the subject matter discussed in several interviews since joining the UFC. There are plenty of fans and media, who have panned his signing when it happened and those who have continue to do so all along. That's not going to slow down any time soon. So how does his coach help to block out the noise and keep his first-time fighter focused for Mickey Gall and UFC 203?
"That is what we are doing over the next week is rallying the troops," Roufus explained. "No one thought Anthony was going to win or even do well at 145 last week. When I won my first world title no one gave me a snow ball’s chance in hell of knocking out Stan Longinidis. But knowing we can get those results, we don’t focus on criticism. We go to the gym. You go do the work. You set your mind in a winning mindset that you are going to come out and do this. That’s how you showtime kick people. That’s how you go out and submit people that have never been submitted in MMA like Anthony did.
"That being said, screw the critics," he continued. "No disrespect, but their voice doesn’t count in our world. The only voice that counts is the hard work in the gym every day, rest, recovery, and repeat and kick ass and do it all over again. If I spent the whole day on the internet worrying about the criticisms and everything that goes around us we wouldn’t accomplish anything. You gotta block that out. This is America, everyone has a right to free speech and I respect that, but I don’t have to tune into it either. I don’t focus on criticism. I focus on results. That’s what I teach my guys and my team and that’s how you get great things done. We were losing World War II as a country and guys like my father, a sergeant major, went up at Omaha Beach. He found a will, a way in his heart, in his mind, in his bones to get off that beach safe and home to our family. So there’s been many things over history… That’s what the movies and great books are written about. Your mind and your heart are stronger than anything in your body is trained to be."
Roufus, again, went back to the well on Punk's attitude, determination and work ethic, and mentioned the time Punk wrestled in Japan in the early aughts for the Zero 1 promotion, where he was a newcomer just like he is now in MMA.
"There is a philosophy," Roufus explained. "The philosophy there is that you are one of the young boys. The young boy is the first stage of new wrestlers. And he went and did that. He was the gaijin. He had to mop the floors. Do the laundry. Clean the dorms. Do the dishes etc. He's that type of guy, who enjoys that process." By the way, Punk, currently cleans the mats every day after practice at Roufusport, according to Roufus, who also called the former WWE champion the "most humble dude around."
"That process got him to the top of the wrestling world and this isn't a one-time thing for Punk," he continued. "This is a long-term thing. He wants to make a career in mixed martial arts. This is just not a cash grab or a one-and-done for him. This is a personal journey. I like to say, kind of like Rocky--I"m a sucker for those Rocky movies--but when Rocky went to Russia to fight it had nothing to do with money or things of that nature. He was on a personal journey."
The next stop on the journey for Punk is in Cleveland, which is quite befitting to this story and just seems to fit the narrative so much more so than the bright lights of Las Vegas ever could.
"I think it really fits the whole storyline as well,"said Roufus, who said they will be using Strong Style Gym in Cleveland during fight week due to his relationship with Stipe Miocic's coach Marcus Marinelli. "I love Cleveland. I used to help do some broadcasting in Cleveland and I've spent some time. To me it's the sister city of Milwaukee. When they did the movie Major League they shot the movie in Milwaukee and made it look like Cleveland. To me, I feel like it's a second city for me. I feel like it's gritty, tough, hard-nosed people and fans. Punk spent a lot of time wrestling when he was younger. It is definitely going to be cool."
As for the scouting report on Gall, Roufus believes it's a good matchup for Punk.
"He is a young tough kid," he said. "He can strike and he can do jiu-jitsu. It's not like he's a scrub by any means. He's a purple belt in jiu-jitsu. He's proficient and he's a tough kid. But, I think stylistically I think his style matches up very well with what Punk can do. Mickey has been talking a lot about how he is going to finish Punk so early, but that is a double-edged sword, though. When Punk is there after the 45 seconds and keeping going. That is the thing you gotta be careful with. Be careful for what you wish for. If the fight didn't end early, wait a minute, it's not the script you wrote. We are going to be flipping the script for sure."
Punk has put in all the hard work and Roufus feels confident he is ready for battle. He emphasizes the "telltale" of the fight will be who Punk is inside, not necessarily his level of skill in the Octagon. Sure, everyone is counting on Mickey Gall, who is the favorite, to win the contest, but we've all seen plenty of unpredictable fight outcomes while watching this wild and often uncanny sport.
"That's the cool thing about a fight is it's so gladiatorial in nature that… It's like the great fight years ago," Roufus dove into one of the most historic heavyweight boxing bouts of all time. One of my idols lost to Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali. On that night, Joe Frazier--in Madison Square Garden--set his mind out that he was going to whoop Muhammad Ali. I think it was the thirteenth round and Ali was talking trash. He goes, 'you can't beat a God.' And Frazier, right before he left hooked him, I think he said, 'well God is about to get his ass kicked tonight.' That's how winning is done. You gotta have that mentality."
Should Punk prove victorious at UFC 203, it would indeed be a feather in the cap for Roufus as a coach. "Of course," he said. "But again, it's all about Punk." More than anything, he just wants the win for his fighter.
"I think it would be awesome to have him win. For me, it's cool, but I'm blessed. I have a lot of great fighters around me. I just want this for Punk so much. I know what's he's sacrificed. What he's committed to and just what he's done over the last couple of years to do this. It would be so rewarding personally for him. He wants it. That's what I respect in people is their desire. Today we live in a world where social media forces people to talk and not to do action. I love this guy. He's acta non verba. Very little talk, lots of action. He deserves it. He's put the work in and I"m confident he's going to get it next week."