WWE's "Road To WrestleMania" runs through Long Island Friday night, when the Nassau Coliseum hosts its first house show in four years.
I'm looking forward to being in attendance. Before the days of regular TV tapings and pay per views in our areas, Coliseum house shows were pretty much where I'd get my live wrestling fix growing up. It should be a good time.
You can get more information about the event in a story I wrote for Explore LI here.
Among those sure to be on the card at the Raw brand event is Intercontinental Champion C.M. Punk. WWE's "Straight Edge Superstar" recently became the only wrestler in history to wear the ECW Championship, World Heavyweight Championship, World Tag Team Championship and Intercontinental Championship all in the span of 12 months. He's also the entrant in this year's Money in the Bank ladder match.
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Punk. In this interview, he talks about his whirlwind year, where he hopes to go from here, WWE's new family-friendly direction, Rick Steamboat's induction into the Hall of Fame, his thoughts on "The Wrestler," and the growth of Ring of Honor.
Alfonso Castillo: Let me start by asking you about, from your perspective, what are some of the differences between what’s known as a “house show” and doing television or pay per view? I know people who don’t like going to house shows, feeling that nothing is ever going to happen there. And then there are some people – myself included – that really enjoy going to the shows because they’re more intimate, there’s not as big production, and there’s more concentration on the actual matches. What are your thoughts?
C.M. Punk: I think you nailed it on the head. I think as a fan of wrestling, you can’t beat going to TV for the grand spectacle of the whole thing with the pyro, the music, and just the entire event atmosphere. It’s larger than life. But when you go to a house show, if you’re a wrestling fan, I think you have a better time because we have the freedom to pay more attention to the audience. We have the freedom to kind of go a little bit off in different directions. It’s more relaxed if that makes any sense. I know personally, I always have a better time on house shows. Sometimes at television you have to think about it. You’re doing a specific timed, television show. On a house show, we don’t have those restraints.
AC: To that end, I imagine one of the big thrills of your world title reign and of your career was probably at a house show. I was there and I remember thinking, “This must be a pretty big deal for him.” And that was the Madison Square Garden house show where you defended the world title in the main event in a cage match. I talked to Cary Silkin who told me he was at ringside and how you came over to him and hugged him and how, having talked to you, he knew that as a fan this must have been a huge deal for you. Can you talk a bit about that night and what that meant to you to be in that spot?
CMP: It was nothing short of amazing. If you’re a kid that grows up watching wrestling, everybody always made a big deal about the Garden – Madison Square Garden. I’m from Chicago. I guess, to be blunt, I really didn’t care about the Garden. For me, it was the Rosemont Horizon. So, wrestling there is always super cool for me because that’s where I grew up watching wrestling and where I’d go see live wrestling. But when you’re in this industry, you realize the magnitude of how important the Garden was to Vince McMahon Sr. and Vince.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Business goes where the Garden goes.” The Garden can make or break a guy. If they don’t like you – or conversely, if they do like you – it can change your career. So, to debut in the Garden a couple of months into my WWE career and having 18,000 people chanting my name to main eventing the Garden in a cage in just two short years, to me is mind boggling. It’s one of those things that I don’t think enough people talk about. I don’t like to toot my horn too much, but that’s pretty rad, when you step back and look at the whole thing.
AC: In a way, I think people do underrate you – not in terms of your ability or your potential, but what you’ve done already. I think people would be surprised if they saw your resume. Would you agree with that?
CMP: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. The fact that I’m 30 years old, and in just this last year, in one entire year, I was ECW champion, I won the Money in the Bank at WrestleMania, I became world champion, I was tag team champion and I was the Intercontinental champion, you know? And I won a Slammy.
CMP: That’s a hell of a year. For a 30 year old? That’s crazy.
AC: Do you worry about a sort of sophomore jinx? After a year like that, what do you do? How do you follow up?
CMP: To me, I just keep on going. I don’t worry about a sophomore jinx at all, because there’s still stuff I have to do in this business. I still have to win a Royal Rumble. I still have to main event a WrestleMania. And, just like I always knew being world champion was an attainable goal for me, I know those things are going to happen somewhere down the line.
AC: This house show and this tour that’s coming through is called “The Road to WrestleMania Tour.” I know it’s mostly kind of a marketing thing, but is this sort of the time of year that you notice yourself and your colleagues kind of getting amped up for the show? Can you talk about what the atmosphere is on the shows and on the road? Is it different than the rest of the year?
CMP: I’d say so. This is like a major league ball team in the playoffs getting ready for the World Series. Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to be at WrestleMania. So I think everybody maybe sleeps a little bit more, works out a little bit harder. It sounds silly – but maybe they even tan a little bit more. Everybody just kind of ups the intensity. I know I always do, and I always will. Nobody ever works house shows like 50 percent or anything like that, but I do definitely think around this time of year – heading into WrestleMania – people do give a little bit more.
AC: One thing I’ve noticed at shows, and maybe even more at house when I’ve gone and I’ve found pretty incredible, is the number of kids in the audience. They’ve always been a part of the show, but I feel like I’m seeing more kids in the audience than I have since maybe the early 90’s or 80’s.
CMP: Yeah, I definitely do think there have been a lot more kids at the shows recently.
AC: Are you OK with that direction and does it change what you have do as a performer?
CMP: To me, no. I think it’s great. I think the more kids the better, because that used to be me. I think the kids bring a different dynamic to it because they look at guys like Rey Mysterio and John Cena as super heroes. And when they come to the shows they can reach out and they can touch them. If anything it makes our job easier. The only thing we have to sell to these little kids is that it’s good vs. evil. And you cheer and you boo who you like and how you don’t like.
AC: Are you glad that it’s gone in that direction? I know that for so long it was all about the “anti-hero” and those lines between hero and villain were blurred. It does seem that it has gone back, to some extent, to just that – good and bad and babyfaces and heels.
CMP: This is why I love wrestling, because every crowd is different. Every city is different. Every show is different. So there will be some cities that love Randy Orton. They’ll be some cities that hate C.M. Punk. And to me, that’s what’s so magical about wresting. Every show you have to change and you have to adapt to what your audience wants. It’s not just a blockbuster movie that’s opening up around the world with the same thing being watched by all these people in different cities. It’s different every time you go to it. It’s different in every city we go.
So I love adapting to whatever the trend in the business is or whatever a certain crowd wants. They want more hard hitting, high flying action, we can give that to them. We listen to what the crowd wants. If they want hokey, carnival stuff, we’ll give them that too.
AC: Is there something unique about a Long Island audience? Over the years they’ve gotten the reputation for being tough to please and sometimes not going along, and cheering the heels and booing the babyfaces and that kind of thing.
CMP: Yeah, I think that’s their reputation. But, to me, that’s the challenge. That’s just them being them. I don’t think anybody purposely goes out of their way and says, “Oh, I’m going to boo this guy just because everyone else likes him.” I think that’s just the New Yorker attitude. They boo and they cheer who they want. I remember the last time we were there. I was the champion and I wrestled Batista on a pay per view.
AC: That’s right – the Great American Bash.
CMP: I remember Batista saying, “Oh, this crowd hates me.” And he went out there, and they didn’t really hate him. They didn’t love him like they do everywhere. But it was such an interesting dynamic for a match because I was pretty much the new kid on the block being champion and Batista was just this monsterly loved guy everywhere else. So it was almost like an even playing field. And it was just great.
AC: I actually forgot about that match and I’m glad you brought that up. That’s interesting. That was your first world title defense on pay per view. A pretty big match for you, and it takes place before a crowd that has a reputation kind of not going along sometimes and doing their own thing. Did you have any kind of butterflies or nervousness before going out there as far as how the crowd would react to you as champion?
CMP: No, I don’t want to sound like a tough guy, but it takes lot more than that to get me nervous anymore. I wish I got nervous more often, because I’ve just been doing it so long now that I just go out there and I have fun. I think sometimes if I do get nervous, I just become too focused on doing what I’m doing out there and I don’t really just tend to relax and have fun. I had a last that night. It was great. The crowd loved it and that helped me focus in the ring on just trying to have a good time.
AC: We didn’t get a snow angel that day.
CMP: No, but the Garden got one. The Garden got a snow angel.
AC: What’s the deal with the snow angel?
CMP: I was under contract and I was working down in OVW. I wasn’t called up yet and I wasn’t doing really anything. And my old company Ring of Honor, an independent organization, out of the northeast ran into a whole bunch of trouble with their competitor, TNA, pulling guys off their shows. They [ROH] had a show on Long Island that on paper was set to be really great, and turned out to be a real cluster disaster because TNA was having a pay per view and decided that their guys needed to fly in a day earlier. It was like real cutthroat, BS maneuver, but that’s the wrestling business.
But, basically I asked my office if I could go help out because they were going to lose their ass on the show, and they graciously – and this is one of the coolest things – they told me I could go. I couldn’t be advertised, I couldn’t be listed on the DVD when it came out. They give me the list of rules, and I just kind of showed up unannounced and I wrestled. And there was this giant blizzard and all the fans got like snowed in. And everybody stayed to watch me wrestle in the main event. So afterwards I ran outside and made snow angels.
So, making snow angels has kind of become this bizarre thing that I do at career high points. I did a snow angel there at the Ring of Honor show because it was fun being back in my old stomping grounds. I thought that was super cool for my office to let me go and do it. I did a snow angel at the Garden that night. And I did a snow angel when I was world champ and wrestled in the All-State Arena, a.k.a. the Rosemont Horizon, in my hometown of Chicago. Three snow angels.
AC: You mentioned Ring of Honor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you just your thoughts on where they’ve gone since you left. They just landed this television deal. They were prominently featured in the movie, “The Wrestler,” that you guys are helping promote. Are you happy to see the success that they’ve had?
CMP: Of course. I always say I was born 20 years too late, because I think I would have been one of the guys who wrestled the territories. Because whether I’m world champion in WWE or I’m still doing independents, if I got fired tomorrow, I’d still be wrestling. Because I love wrestling. It has nothing to do with the money or fame or anything like that. It’s just the one thing I wanted to do ever since I was little, so I went and I did it. And regardless of any kind of circumstances, I’d still be doing it tomorrow if for, whatever reason, I got fired.
AC: And they take a lot of pride in saying you came out there. I talked to Cary after you won the world title and he said that was a big moment for him and everybody at Ring of Honor too, because it kind of helped solidify them as a place that produces world champions. Did you kind of think of that too? Were you proud of having come out of Ring of Honor and winning a world title?
CMP: Oh, definitely. I’m proud to be able to say that I’m one of the guys that built that places – to just be able to say that that place is around because of me and handful of other guys. When times were tough, we were the guys who carried that place on our back – me, Samoa Joe, Homicide, Gabe Sapolsky. And of course there are countless others who are probably going to be mad that I didn’t mention them in this interview. But when you boil it down, we were the core guys. And I just love the fact that we built a place for guys to work and to learn. I’m very proud of that.
AC: I mentioned that ROH is featured in “The Wrestler” and that WWE is helping promote the movie. Have you seen it and do you have any thoughts on it.
CMP: Yeah, I saw it twice. And I’d love to have conversation with Mickey Rourke about it and I’d love to have a conversation with Bruce Springsteen of all people about writing a song about exactly how I feel at various points. That song is so amazing to me. There are a lot of us wrestlers who do what we love, but when we go tout there we give everything we have… Hell, I was world champion and I was the last guy in the building and I was leaving with ice all over my body. No fans outside telling me, ‘You had a good match.” Nobody asking me for my autograph because it was so late. You’ve got to drive somewhere the next night. You’ve got to wake up early and do it all over again.
It’s like no rest for the wicked, but I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world. He wrote a song that just really hit home. And the movie as a whole I loved. I’ve wrestled in every single one of those building that they had in the movie. The locker room scenes were just dead on, with the camaraderie with the boys and everything like that. I’ve done a lot of knuckle-headed things in my career in regards to people that I’ve cared about that I’ve pretty much lost touch with or ignored because of wrestling. So it kind of hit home.
AC: The Hall of Fame is coming also as part of WrestleMania. I guess it hasn’t been made official, but at least a rumor is that Rick Steamboat is going in. I know he was a big part of your career back in your Ring of Honor days. What do you think about that?
CMP: I think it’ll be great, and I’m really hoping that it does happen this year, because Steamboat was extremely influential in my career not only for me to want to become a wrestler – because he was the greatest babyface of all time – but the fact that I got to work with him and wrestle with him for a little bit. He’s a guy, who I remember, when I won the world title he walked up to me and said, “We’re a long way from Ring of Honor, huh?” and gave me a big hug.
It was like if my dad was there and my dad was like, “Hey, good job.” I don’t have that kind of relationship with my father where my dad supported my wrestling, because he hasn’t. But I had Ricky Steamboat there to get kind of misty eyed and give me a big hug and tell me congratulations. So that’s awesome, and I hope I’m able to give him a hug and tell him I’m proud of him and congratulate him on becoming a hall of famer.
And Terry Funk, too. Terry Funk’s another guy who, throughout my career… I’ve known Terry for a very long time and I’ve wrestled him countless times and I’m super stoked that I get to be there to watch him and his brother Dory get inducted into the hall of fame.
AC: How about Steve Austin? I don’t know how much you’ve gotten to know him in your time there, but do you have any thoughts on what his place in history should be?
CMP: Without a doubt, Steve Austin is a hall of famer. He kind of changed the business, you know? It’s the fans, more or less, who kind of dictate where we go, but he just kicked the door wide open. I thought Steve Austin was the best wrestler in the world when he was in WCW as “Stunning” Steve during his tail end there. And then he came to WWE and he wasn’t really the same because he was “Million Dollar Champion” and all that. But once he had that freedom to be himself, there was nobody better. One of my favorite matches of all time was form the Clash of Champions – “Stunning” Steve Austin against Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat. And it’s just pro wrestling at its finest as an art form. Watching that match is simply amazing.
AC: Another great wrestler, William Regal, I heard had some good things to say about you in a recent interview, saying, essentially, that he’s having the best time he’s had in along time working with you. Any thought on working with him?
CMP: There’s really nothing like it. I think he’s a guy who has always wrestled my kind of style. I mean, it’s rough. I’m hurting right now from wrestling William regal for so long, but it’s worth it. Literally, it doesn’t get any more real than that. My head’s full of lumps and my body is extremely sore. I’ve been dumped on my head. And it may sound bizarre, but I love it.
Wrestling a guy like that I don’t really have to worry about hokey kind of pro wrasslin’ stuff, because we go out there and it’s the closest thing to an athletic contest that you’re going to get on one of our shows. It’s brutal and it’s violent and it’s different, and that’s why I love it. Me and him understand each other so well. It's a kind of chemistry that we can do whatever we want. We can probably have the best four-minute match you’ll ever see or we can wrestle a half-hour. It’s dynamic. It’s exciting. I learn from him. He’s a great teacher. And we just kind of have that bond where we gel in the ring. It’s nothing short of awesome.
AC: Looking toward WrestleMania, do you have any thoughts on what you hope to be doing there this year?
CMP: I would love nothing more than to defend the IC title. I think the that’s something that has kind of lost its luster and I would love to be known as the guy who brought it back to the heights of like Bret Hart, Curt Hennig “Mr. Perfect,” hell even Tito Santana. You watch that Intercontinental title DVD that’s out, and it’s amazing those. Those are the guys hustling underneath. Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage. You throw my name into the hat with those guys. I want to be having the amazing matches. Honestly, my dream match at WrestleMania would be against Rey Mysterio for the IC title.
AC: That sounds good, I’d like to see that. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
CMP: No problem, Alfonso. Take it easy.