By Mike Mooneyham

July 22, 2007

It could have been the highlight of his career. But the match never happened.

CM Punk was scheduled to face Chris Benoit for the vacated ECW world title on the evening of June 24 at WWE’s Vengeance pay-per-view in Houston. Benoit, of course, never showed. The following night Punk and the other superstars of WWE received the chilling news that Benoit, one of the most respected performers in the company, had allegedly killed his wife and his 7-year-old son before taking his own life.

Punk, like the rest of his colleagues, was stunned and saddened.bbb

[the_ad id=”2337“]”Mind, you, when I first heard, there were no details. I was pretty sad. I was disappointed because I was supposed to wrestle him at the pay-per-view. I guess I was confused and disappointed. Obviously my confusion would grow the next day.”

The tragedy hit Punk especially hard since he grew up a fan of Benoit.

“I was always a huge fan of Chris Benoit and was extremely influenced by him and his work ethic,” says Punk. He says he was even more flattered when he first met Benoit, and the Canadian-born wrestler told the youngster that he was a fan of his.

“That paints a picture of who Chris Benoit was. He was a student of the game. He was a student when he really didn’t need to be anymore.”

But, says Punk, Benoit was first and foremost a teacher.

“I think that’s the relationship he and I had. We were buddies, and he’d go out of his way to talk to me. Not only about wrestling, but about the music I liked and what was going on in my life. He took care of everybody in the locker room. He asked questions, and he wanted to know what was going on with everybody.”

Benoit was a product of the old school of wrestling, a graduate of Stu Hart’s infamous dungeon facility in Calgary, and knew when to push the right buttons, says Punk.

“He could also be very stern. I remember staying late many times cleaning up the locker room. But I did it not just because I had to do it, but because it was what needed to be done.”

The 28-year-old Punk says Benoit was constantly giving him advice.

“He always told me to push myself. He told me that no matter how hard I worked, I could always do better. He’d tell me when my match wasn’t good and what I did wrong. He trained with me. I would go to gyms and work out with Chris. It was always intense, and he would always be there yelling at me and pushing me. I was pushing ridiculous weight and doing extra reps. He always would settle for nothing but the best for myself.”

C.M. PunkThe tragedy has left Punk – and all his WWE counterparts – at a loss. He says he’s not sure what should be done. There are more questions than answers, and Punk says he wonders if anyone will ever know exactly what happened that fateful weekend in suburban Atlanta.

“An awful thing happened, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I know the guy who did it … but I was friends with him. As far as answers go, I don’t think we’re ever going to find out exactly what happened. It’s not like we can crack open someone’s brain and analyze it and figure out why they did what they did.

“And honestly, me being the straight-edge guy, everyone’s jumping all over the steroids thing. If I’m not mistaken, he was on Xanax, but it was prescription level, and that was all on the up and up. But that stuff scares me. Anything that alters your feelings or anything like that … That’s precisely why I’m drug-free. I don’t even take Advil. I’m extreme with things, and I don’t preach to anybody about being straight-edge. I just tell people to live their lives like they want, but understand it’s a conscious decision. I’ve got no answers for anybody. I’m looking for some myself.”

Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, is a straight shooter inside and outside the ring who espouses clean living and what he calls a “straight-edge” lifestyle. He’s gritty and unorthodox yet grounded and disciplined, and is a strong advocate of being drug- and alcohol-free.

“I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I don’t do anything that would interfere with me trying to be a better athlete and a better wrestler. I can have fun without drinking and that kind of stuff.” There’s a reason, though, behind Punk’s chosen lifestyle.

“Growing up, my dad had a little problem with the alcohol,” says the Chicago native. “He wasn’t the typical alcoholic – he didn’t beat me, he wasn’t abusive to my mother. It was just something I saw. Even my mom would constantly have to have a glass of wine before bed. They both smoked like chimneys.”

Punk has spoken in schools and to children through D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs.

“It’s something I’m passionate about. I’m the perfect ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ kind of guy. I have full-sleeve tattoos, I got long hair, I got my lip pierced, I don’t shave. I look stereotypically like I might be doing and selling drugs. I’m honest about it. I know that. The fact is I’m not. When I was growing up and I had the D.A.R.E. program, to me it was kind of laughable because you had this cop who you couldn’t identify with talking to you and saying, ‘Hey, drugs aren’t cool.’ To a lot of kids that doesn’t cut it. I really don’t go in and preach to kids. I just tell them my story and I tell them there’s nothing wrong to saying no (to drugs). You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You might get made fun of, but trust me, in the end it all works out.”

Punk, who meets Johnny Morrison (the former Johnny Nitro) for the ECW world title at tonight’s Great American Bash pay-per-view, says he’s gotten a push despite his size.

“I attribute it to work ethic and knowing what I’m doing. Pro wrestling is an art form, and I’ve always been an artist. I had a full ride to an art school that I neglected to take because I was busy wrestling. I definitely don’t think it’s the size of the guy. I’m a perfect example. I just work hard and I think I connect with the fans on some level. Whether it’s good or bad, I think I’m the kind of guy you either love or you hate, but there’s something about me that makes fans want to watch.”

Punk, who joined the company a little more than a year ago, says he’s enjoying the ride.

“Life’s good. It’s hectic, and I’m very, very busy. I lead a crazy lifestyle, but it’s good.”

He also likes working with Morrison. He sees himself and Morrison as the frontrunners in the ECW title picture, but adds that he has a “peculiar curiosity” about Big Daddy V (the former Viscera). “I think Matt Striker is shining as his mouthpiece.”

He also sees The Miz as a vastly underrated performer. “I think Miz gets a bad rap. I know when I first met Miz I hated his guts. But that’s Miz. But I think a lot of people maybe have that same story for me too. We don’t compromise who we are, and maybe we’re a little abrasive and out there when you first meet us. But he’s definitely underrated as wrestling goes.”

Punk also says he’s pleased with the way ECW has evolved.

“A lot of it has to do with the guys I mentioned. It has everything to do with talent. We’re all young and we’re all hungry and we all want to go above and beyond. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it.”

Punk sees tonight’s match as the possible pinnacle of his career to this point. “Winning the world title would be like a big middle finger to everybody who said I’d never be anything. That’s kind of the way I live my life. I’m very goal-oriented. People said I’d never get a job. Boom – I got it. They said I’d never be on TV. Boom – I was on TV. Nobody thought I’d ever make it this far, but I’m just going to keep pushing forward and doing the best I can. There’s setbacks, but I just get back on my horse and ride and work harder and harder. Eventually the cream rises to the top.”

As far as a dream match, Punk says he would love to square off with current WWE champ John Cena. If he could pick his all-time favorite opponent, it would be the late Jumbo Tsuruta in his prime.

“I’m a huge Japanese wrestling fan. Jumbo Tsuruta is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. I’m sure a lot of the younger guys don’t know who in the hell he is, but they should. That’s just a pick off the top of my head, but who’d pass on (Ric) Flair in his prime?”

– Hermie Sadler and his UFW (United Wrestling Federation) crew delivered another top-notch show Thursday night at Rick Hendrick Jeep Chrysler. The only major setback was the no-show of Ricky Morton, half of the original Rock ‘N Roll Express, for whom last weekend’s three-city weekend tournament was named.

Morton reportedly backed out of the event due to a financial dispute. According to a post by Tracy Smothers, Morton requested more money after finding out what his partner, Robert Gibson, was receiving.

“He was not even booked to appear until he was already listed on the advertisements. He did not know he would be teaming with Robert until he gave Sadler the info to contact him,” according to Smothers’ post. “Then he learned that Robert was going to be making three times what he had agreed to work for. Ricky didn’t feel that it was fair for him to have ‘to carry Robert’s fat (behind) again’ by doing all the work and all the talking while Robert stands in the corner making three times what Ricky was supposed to get. He discussed the issue with Sadler in an attempt to resolve the issue before deciding to cancel his appearance. He felt that he was disrespected by Sadler and has no interest in working for him again. He is sorry about having to disappoint the fans that were looking forward to seeing him.”

Sadler was also disappointed and upset that Morton bowed out at the last minute.

“Since Ricky Morton decided to offer a public statement on his decision to cancel his appearance on our shows this weekend, I wanted to make one to clear the air about what happened,” countered Sadler. “I contacted Ricky over two months ago and told him that we wanted to do a tag-tournament in the honor of the Rock ‘N Roll Express. I asked Ricky if he was OK with it, invited him to be on the shows, asked him what he wanted me to pay him, agreed to the full price he gave me and made a deal with him. I called him back the following week and told him I thought it would be neat for the Rock and Roll Express to wrestle in the tournament, and he gave me Robert Gibson’s number to call him.

“Just as I did with Ricky, I called Robert and asked him to be on the shows and tag with Ricky in the tournament. I heard nothing out of Ricky until this week. He called me Monday and asked me if I had gotten in touch with Robert. He called me Tuesday and wanted to make sure I had reserved him a hotel room. He called me Wednesday and said he may have to be late to the Friday show in Myrtle Beach as his son had fallen and he needed to take him for a CAT scan. Then yesterday (Friday), while Earl Hebner and I were driving to Charleston, he called me and said he was not coming to work the show for our agreed price. I could not make out much of what he was saying but he seemed agitated.

“The bottom line is that we made a deal for him to work three shows for us and for he and Robert to present the trophies to the winners Saturday night in Columbia. He called me the day of the show and wanted more money and canceled. I guess he thought we would do whatever he wanted. Other than for injury, this is the first time someone we advertised for our shows did not appear. I personally apologize to our fans for this unfortunate incident.”

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Great American Bash pay-per-view at 8 p.m. tonight. Cover charge is $7.

– Old School Championship Wrestling will hold a show July 29 at Weekend’s Pub, 428 Red Bank Road, Goose Creek. Top matches are Malachi vs. Sixx for the title of Hardcore King, and The Foreigners vs. The Armed Forces. Bell time is 6 p.m. Adult admission is $8. Kids 12 and under is $5. For more information, call 824-1477.

– Wrestling For Jesus will hold a benefit show Aug. 25 at B&H Banquet Hall, 1505 W. North St., Summerville. Among those performing will be former NWA world champ Ron ‘The Truth’ Killings, Chris Hamrick, Dynamite Dave, T-Money and more. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12, and children under 6 are free. For advance tickets or more information, call Willie Atkinson at 926-5774.