Phil Brooks was an angry kid. God knows he had every right to be. Growing up in Chicago with an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, ultimately betrayed by a thieving sibling, it’s no wonder he kept getting into trouble with local police. With little guidance and no appropriate outlet for his rage, he was lost.
Five things saved him: the much nicer family that took him in when he reached his mid-teens, comic books, punk rock, the straight edge lifestyle and professional wrestling.
Establishing his own renegade backyard promotion, the Lunatic Wrestling Federation, in the late 1990s without immediately seeking any proper training (he would eventually get it and later train others), it would mark an important albeit reckless turning point. (Before learning how to wrestle like the pros, he took needless risks to entertain the small but loyal audiences these independent shows attracted.)
During this period he would be briefly placed in a tag team after one of LWF’s performers dropped out. He became CM Punk, his partner was CM Venom. Together, they were The Chick Magnets. The gimmick didn’t last but the name sure did. Despite numerous attempts to change it, Phil Brooks and CM Punk were married for life, professionally speaking.
Then, betrayal. Brooks discovered that his brother, Mike, had been secretly stealing thousands of dollars from LWF. They haven’t spoken since. They may never again.
In 2000, he left his extreme backyard wrestling days behind to try his luck in the independent pro scene. The Independent Wrestling Association in the Mid-South is where he first worked with Eddie Guerrero and met lifelong friends Colt Cabana and Chris Hero (who had a short run in WWE’s NXT development roster as Kassius Ohno). His matches with Hero were often old-school NWA-style time limit draws that lasted an hour apiece. One such encounter, a 2-out-of-3 falls bout that was part of a well-respected trilogy for the IWA Mid-South Heavyweight title, went over 90 minutes.
Three years later, he moved on to Ring Of Honor. It was here that he would develop the character that would go to become one of the most unique in WWE history. After reading about Fugazi in a punk zine in his teens, he realized that living a life without drugs (both recreational and medicinal) was a good fit for him, considering his dysfunctional family history. In ROH, he started to use his real-life straight edge philosophy in promos as a reason to be arrogant and snobby. “I’m better than you,” he would say because he didn’t succumb to the same chemical temptations everyone else did. No wonder he was booked to work with real-life recovering addict Raven (one of the defining characters of the ECW era). The worked feud, where Brooks often compared him to his own alcoholic father, got him heat. It also afforded him the opportunity to wrestle the legendary Terry Funk. Brooks also worked with future Total Non-Stop Action talents like AJ Styles, Austin Aries and Samoa Joe. Oh, and some guy named Bryan Danielson, another close friend.
Speaking of TNA, he would work there himself for a short period in late 2003/early 2004 but it was a tumultuous stint filled with in-fighting, creative differences and one controversy unrelated to him.
By 2005, during what became known as The Summer Of Punk in Ring Of Honor, Brooks caught the break he had long sought. He signed a development deal with WWE. During what many thought was going to be his last match in ROH, he beat the champion Aries at the Death Before Dishonour III show in May. A babyface at the time, after winning he suddenly turned heel and threatened to take his title with him to Vince McMahon Jr.’s promotion. (At several subsequent shows, Mick Foley urged him to stay and defend it before jumping promotions.)
That ultimately didn’t happen. Brooks dropped the title three months later. The very next night, August 13, he put over his friend Colt Cabana and made a teary-eyed exit for the big leagues.
Not at all happy to be placed in the WWE’s then-development territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling, instead of the main roster, it ultimately worked out for the best. OVW’s showrunner, Paul Heyman, the man who transformed Eastern Championship Wrestling into Extreme Championship Wrestling, was an early, vocal supporter who took him under his wing. When ECW was revived as a third WWE brand, alongside Raw and Smackdown, the following year, Heyman felt Brooks was ready to join him.
Eight years later, after numerous highs and lows, CM Punk is now officially done with the company.
The day after the 2014 Royal Rumble in January, where he lasted almost the entire hour-long match as the number one entrant, Brooks finally made the decision he had been wanting to make for quite some time. He told McMahon he was done and he was going home.
Bizarrely, the WWE avoided telling its audience this for weeks. As the sounds of occasionally loud “CM Punk” chants reverberated in arenas during TV and pay-per-view broadcasts, it was absurd for the company to just pretend he didn’t exist anymore or that he might change his mind for one last run. Finally, some time later, lifelong friend (and recent on-screen rival) Paul Heyman cut a terrific promo at the start of a Chicago Raw that fully addressed how everyone was feeling while maintaining his villainous ways. From that point on, the chants would still continue but Punk would be mentioned only obliquely by The Authority, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley’s current collective heel moniker, and only rarely. Never was it positive.
While there was much hope and speculation that he would indeed come back, it always seemed doubtful to the extreme. Punk’s body is seriously banged up, he was deeply unhappy with the direction of his character, and judging by this, he was just tired of being CM Punk. Who can blame him? While fame has its perks, it can also turn you into a walking zoo exhibit where so many demand your attention when you just want to buy groceries, watch a ball game or eat with your friends in peace. We don’t treat celebrities with a lot of respect. In fact, we think we own them, especially during their free time. Quite frankly, we don’t believe they should be left alone when they’re not performing.
It’s utter stupidity. In fact, it’s madness. Just because a man can convince you to hate him or cheer for him in the context of a wrestling show doesn’t mean he’s inviting you into his personal life. And Phil Brooks has made it clear on countless occasions that while he’s grateful for his professional success and his supporters, and is usually gracious to respectful fans who approach him or send him thoughtful messages, paintings & gifts, he’s not your friend. He doesn’t owe you anything. Neither does his beautiful and talented wife who he recently married.
What we owe him, however, is a big thank you. So, here goes: Thank you, Phil Brooks, for deciding to become a professional wrestler. Thank you for staying away from drugs your entire life. (I’m glad I wasn’t the only one, minus the occasional Aleve for bad headaches.) Thank you for your creativity, your wit, your articulation, your originality, your respect for the ones who came before you, your ballsiness and your remarkable athleticism. Thank you for sticking it out as long as you did despite your frustration and your pain. Thank you for your world class matches with John Cena, Chris Jericho, Jeff Hardy, Rey Mysterio, Triple H, The Undertaker and Daniel Bryan. Thank you for the Pipe Bomb in 2011. Thank you for mocking John Laryngitis (“clown shoes”, “toolbox”, “douchebag”) and Vince McMahon (“What a maneuver!”). Thank you for cutting that promo on Chris Brown. Thank you for The Straight Edge Society. Thank you for your participation in CM Punk: Best In The World, especially for insisting on having complete TV matches that include action from the commercial breaks. Thank you for your underappreciated and short-lived stint as a colour commentator. Thank you for apologizing when you fucked up. Thank you for your love of punk rock, most especially The Ramones, who I also adore.
Most importantly, thank you for retiring when you did, while you can still walk and think. I never had the pleasure of seeing you work in person (I haven’t been to a live show in 25 years) but TV and DVD have been welcome consolations. I will continue to appreciate your legacy while you appreciate a life after wrestling.
Thank you, CM Punk. You are the Best In The World.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, July 16, 2014