CM Punk just won the fight of a lifetime.
But the fight of his career? The 39-year-old former WWE champion knows that 19 months after he whiffed on the only punch he threw in a lopsided defeat in his UFC debut , it’s win-or-else in his second bout if he wants to fight again for the promotion.
“I definitely do feel that way,” Punk said. “I’m pretty sure I’d feel there would be a lot riding on a fight no matter what number fight it was or if I was coming off a win or loss. But I don’t think anything is guaranteed in life or the UFC. Different people get cut for different reason. But I feel that pressure, for sure.”
He felt heavier adversity this week in a Chicago courtroom. Punk (0-1) returns to the cage Saturday at UFC 225 at the United Center just days after a jury cleared him in a defamation lawsuit.
WWE doctor Christopher Amann had sued Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, over comments that he made in a podcast in 2014 in which he criticized WWE doctors for failing to diagnose a lump that was a staph infection. Fellow wrestler Colt Cabana hosted the podcast and also was cleared. Punk was cleared of defamation and invasion of privacy.
Punk and his wife, former WWE star A.J. Lee, took the stand during a grueling six-day trial that was both emotionally draining and a severe interruption of his training schedule.
“Personally and professionally, the preparation for this fight has been tough,” Punk told The Associated Press. “It’s just mostly because there’s been a lot of stuff going on. Balancing everything has been more difficult this time around.”
Punk quit WWE in January 2014 after a miserable final two years and soon made the stunning move to UFC . He was enough of a marquee attraction that he landed a spot on the UFC 203 card in September 2016.
It was a night to forget.
Punk tapped out just 2:14 into the first round after he was pummeled and choked by Mickey Gall. Punk was on his back less than 10 seconds into the fight. Pinned up against the octagon’s cage, he was unable to get out from under Gall, who landed numerous blows to both sides of Punk’s head.
Punk, who works with Duke Roufus and other top trainers at the Roufusport Martial Arts Academy in Milwaukee, refused to let the dominant defeat crush his spirit. Fellow UFC fighter Gerald Meerschaert tried to keep Punk’s chin up with a bit of gallows humor.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘It sucks doesn’t it? But hey, listen, I lost my first three fights,”’ Punk said with a laugh. “It was like, well, all right. I don’t know what that feels like. I just lost my first one. It helps put it in perspective.”
Punk called UFC President Dana White and apologized for a performance that was mocked on WWE TV .
“I talked to him day after and was just like, ‘If you cut me, you cut me. I get it. Just know that I’m going to fight somewhere else,”’ he said. “That was neither a threat or anything. I was just like, hey I get it. Whatever your decision is, it’s cool with me.”
White called Punk “a good dude” in a January interview with the AP and said the fighter — who finally testified under oath that CM stood for Chick Magnet — would get a second shot. Punk got the call to fight Mike Jackson (0-1) who lost his only career fight — to Gall.
“We both fought the same guy, we both lost to the same guy in the first round,” Punk said. “It makes sense in that aspect. We match up closer in age, closer in skill.”
Robert Whittaker defends the middleweight title in a rematch against Yoel Romero in the main event and Holly Holm, who handed Ronda Rousey her first loss, fights Megan Anderson on the main card.
“The intensity level was definitely dialed up,” Punk said. “I think Duke was pushing me a lot harder this time. Not that he didn’t the first time around. But as you progress, you’re unlocking doors.”
Punk had more than his second bout to contend with leading up to UFC 225. He unloaded the details of his acrimonious departure from WWE on Cabana’s “Art of Wrestling” podcast and said, among a list of complaints, the company pressured him to return to the ring following surgeries, said Amann misdiagnosed a staph infection in his back, and concussion symptoms had been ignored.
Amann filed suit in February 2015 and the matter dragged until this week. Punk was brought to tears on the stand as he described the physical and personal breakdowns he suffered as he wrestled his final match in the 2014 Royal Rumble.
“I didn’t think I would get as emotional as I did, but having to watch myself get a concussion, then listen to people on both sides and hear their versions of stories were all consistent,” he said. “‘Oh yeah, we all knew he had a concussion.’ I just had to sit there frustrated. Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you help me?”
Punk, whose 434 days with the WWE championship was the longest reign since Hulk Hogan in the 1980s, had grown deflated on the road, unhappy with the grind and injuries that continued to pile up when he walked out.
“I was crying out for help. I wasn’t finding it,” he said. “I really needed to focus on me. Some people want to say it’s dramatic, but I watched friends in wrestling turn to drugs and alcohol and eventually die because they can’t get the help that they need. I had to force myself to do it and step back. I’m not the one to generally ask for help. So when I finally was doing it, that should have alarmed a lot of people. But it didn’t. I was just one of the cattle.”
He hopes the baggage from his previous life is over and Saturday night in his home city is a new page in solidifying his UFC future.
“It’s a step forward in the future, toward all the stuff I wanted to get away from,” he said.