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Duke Roufus out to prove CM Punk’s ‘naysayers’ wrong

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Now that it’s official that Roufusport in Milwaukee will be the new training grounds for Phil Brooks -- more commonly known as former pro wrestler, CM Punk -- as he ventures into MMA, we can move on to more traditional concerns. Things such as: Just how in the hell is he going to fare in the cutthroat world of the UFC?

Duke Roufus, who owns Roufusport and has champions Anthony Pettis (UFC) and Ben Askren (One FC) in his stable, thinks Brooks will do just fine. In fact, the more he hears people pooh-poohing the 36-year old Brooks’ chances of making a successful transition from ring choreography to the very literal realm of fighting in the UFC, the more it revs him up to prove some people wrong.

"I am excited to work with him," he told MMA Fighting. "There are a bunch naysayers out there. I love it. I’d been saying for years in the WEC that Anthony Pettis was going to be something special. Well look at him now. He just submitted two guys [Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez] that hadn’t been submitted before.

"I’m just that type of person, I believe in positive mental attitude. You work hard and dedicate yourself and magic things happen."

After it was announced that he had signed a contract with the UFC on Dec. 6 -- in spite of a virgin-pure 0-0 fight record -- Brooks mentioned in a post-UFC 181 press conference that he was exploring every gym, with a preference to stay close to his native Chicago. Roufus’s gym is only 80 miles from Chicago.

And it was in Chicago that Roufus met Brooks, somewhat serendipitously, back in January 2013, when his star pupil Pettis was fighting on a FOX card.

"Yeah, it was when Anthony was fighting Donald Cerrone," he says. "I met him the Thursday before the fight, and we hit it off right away. I know that he’s made his intentions to me that he’d been wanting to do this for a while. But we’d been in contact for a while that he’s been wanting to do it. Everything came together, so it’s going to happen."

Roufus says he didn’t lobby to have Brooks join his team, like other gyms (such as American Top Team in Florida). And therefore he doesn’t feel like a sweepstakes winner so much as he does a guy who is pretty serious about molding some clay. Brooks and Roufus have maintained their relationship over the last couple of years, which makes it a good fit.

"It was a mutual coming together," he says. "I’m sure everybody in the sport would love to work with him. He’s my friend first, and that’s what I enjoy about him. I like to be friendly and close with the fighters I work with because it makes it a lot easier. Everyone knows his wrestling persona; I know the real Phil. That’s why I’m excited to work with him.

As a coach, Roufus has churned out plenty of successful fighters to go along with Pettis and Askren, from Erik Koch to his "jiu-jitsu wizard" Marcin Held. Yet as a professional kickboxer, Roufus wasn’t as gifted as he was diligent. For that reason he feels like he’s just the right guy to coach somebody like Brooks.

"Honestly, for me, from a personal standpoint? I have an older brother who is an incredible force in the sport of kickboxing," he says, referring to his Rick "The Jet" Roufus. "He was not just a natural athlete, but a natural fighter. Me? I was an overachiever, and that’s what’s helped me coach. I’m going to connect and find a way for Phil to be successful. That’s what I bring to the table.

"And I’m really excited about the challenge, honestly. There are so many naysayers, but I enjoy that."

For examples of guys who attained their goals through the fight game’s old stand-by of work ethic and dedication, he points to none other than Pettis himself.

"Look at Anthony," he says. "He’s not a natural, he’s a hard, hard worker. A lot of people think Anthony’s just a pretty boy, the Taekwondo kid. Honestly, he’s one of the hardest working people at our academy.

"And one thing I have heard about Phil and his personality is, I know he’s a hard worker. Anything’s possible when you have confidence and you have a great work ethic and a great attitude."

Roufus says that Brooks will "get cracking" at Roufusport beginning on Monday.

Though he doesn’t have any professional fights under his belt, Brooks does have an polished professional aura from his pro-wrestling days, as well as a couple of years worth of cram jiu-jitsu lessons under Rener Gracie in California. Though he only coached him in pockets, Rener refers to Brooks as a "sponge" from his time on the mats with him.

That’s another trait that Roufus has picked up, and believes Brooks’ ability to learn and retain information will serve him well.

"For sure -- I think what limits people in the beginning of their training is that they don’t have enough time to train, honestly," he says. "That’s what made Anthony Pettis special. His brother [Sergio] let him take the backseat in their martial arts school, so Anthony could live at the academy when he started. Anthony used to take two classes in the morning and two classes in the evening when he first started training with me. That’s why he’s so darn good. So yeah, he’s a sponge, not unlike Phil. But you know what? If you don’t use a sponge you can’t clean up your kitchen, right?

"What made Phil successful in the WWE is going to make him do well in this as well. Wrestling is not an easy gig. They do 300 dates a year. Especially when you’re not a star. It’s not the stuff that people do when they’re a star that makes them special; it’s what they do when they’re not a star, the stuff you find out about them. Phil became a star and had to do those things, but he worked really hard on the indie circuit on his way up through the WWE ranks."

Now Roufus is in the unique position to help Brooks up through the MMA ranks. It’s a challenge that his team welcomes, even with all the scrutiny that comes with it. When asked to take a stab at estimating when Brooks would be ready to step in the Octagon, he says it’s wait and see.

"Hopefully by fall, but I can’t really say," he says. "I mean, it could be less or it could be more. The one thing that him and Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] talk about, they want him to be the real deal. I’m going to be committed to help him reach his goals."