CM Punk will make that walk to the Octagon for the second time Saturday in his hometown of Chicago.
Before UFC 225 at United Center, MMA Fighting caught up with Punk’s coach Duke Roufus of Roufusport in Milwaukee, one of the top head coaches in mixed martial arts, to discuss everything from Punk’s improvements, the strategy against Mike Jackson, Punk being in court all last week and nerves going into his debut two years ago.
(This interview was edited for brevity.)
Marc Raimondi: Are you glad that you’re finally going to stop hearing, ‘CM Punk doesn’t deserve to be on the main card?’ How sick are you of all this? Joe Rogan has brought it up and other people.
Duke Roufus: It doesn’t bother me at all. My dad was a fight promoter, so I understand the reality. If you don’t have people that drive revenue, none of us have jobs. There’s no press, there’s no UFC staff, there’s no Bellator staff. Our lives are in the balance of guys like Punk, honestly. And Conor [McGregor] and [Georges St-Pierre]. I’ve been in the UFC regularly since ’05 now and I’ve seen everyone prosper because of the big-name guys.
I understand the fighters have pride and they want to be on the main card. Everybody wants to be in a main sport, but at the end of the day it’s the golden rule — he holds the gold makes all the rules. I try not to get caught up in the other things that go on in the sport, except the things that I have control over. The only things we have control over as coaches helping the athletes is our preparation. I focus solely on that part of my job.
MR: Speaking of preparation, Mike Jackson is a guy who is a bit of an unknown quantity. He has some experience in kickboxing and in boxing. He’s only 0-1 in MMA, in the UFC. Is the focus just on getting Punk as good as he can be, or is there an element of, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do against this particular guy?’
DR: Both. Because Mike has had some time since his fight to improve, as well. If you paint a picture — especially to a newer athlete — of this is the way it’s gonna be and we go in there and [then it could be], ‘Hey, he didn’t fight the way you told me he would, Coach — what’s going on?’ We’ve gotta be prepared for the most underestimated things. It’s been a whole preparation, because there is so little on Mike.
We see it often, fighters who are strikes who take it to the mat and vice versa. Anything happens in MMA. The chaos is what makes it fun.
MR: How much better is CM Punk now compared to how he was a couple of years ago at UFC 203?
DR: Incredibly. The first fight, I’m not gonna lie, we all rolled the dice. It was like this crazy science project. I haven’t been that nervous before a fight before, honestly. And we’re really good friends. Ariel Helwani and myself and Chael Sonnen in Chicago in January 2013, we all sat together with Punk and watched Ben Askren beat Karl Amoussou when Thursday night Bellator was on. We hit it off very well from that point. We became friends. I personally care for the guy very much. He’s a solid individual. It was nerve-wracking.
That being said, I don’t have those nerves coming into this one, because we had a session [Sunday] with coach [Scott Cushman] and with coach [Daniel] Wanderley with Punk and everything just seemed just all together. Not that he was struggling, but he just peaked out. It’s like he understand the sixth sense of fighting. It took him a while to get that. That’s the thing. Everyone knows the Xs and Os of this stuff and we teach you the Xs and Os, the theories. But there’s instinct. And the instinct if there — the reactions, the seeing things before they happen. Having that sixth sense and he had it. I’m very happy about that. Sometimes fighters never get that.
MR: You’ve seen pretty much there is to see in combat sports. You’ve been a champion, you’ve coached champions. You’ve also coached guys at the lowest level, on the amateur level. This is a situation where it’s like you have a celebrity come in — in some ways — and you have to build that person from scratch. But it’s not like someone else from scratch. There are expectations, there are bright lights. What has this experience been like for you?
DR: It’s taught me a lot about myself. It’s made me a better coach, a better mentor. To be shot into the cannon of public opinion, to deal with all the setbacks along the way. We have to do a lot of simulation of scenarios. I’m actually using that with some of our other older athletes, too, to reinvigorate their fire. Because sometimes some of these guys have been in the Octagon for so long, it becomes normal. Fighting and normal should never be in the same sentence — it’s not normal. You want to keep your, excuse the term, Spidey Sense always tingling. You’ve gotta have that buzz, that fire.
Some exercises and some training we’ve done to help Punk deal with the buzz of the Octagon we’re also doing to help guys reinvigorate their fight careers and get that buzz back. Almost kid-like, if you will.
It’s always been a positive experience. It’s been amazing. I can’t say enough about how many people who come up to me who were wrestling fans or CM Punk fans who support our sport now. One, and then two just how many general people in the public that Punk has touched their eye or their heart. He is almost a Rudy or a Rocky type of guy, truly. So many people commend him for, after taking a beating in the first fight it takes a lot of guts to get back in there. The admiration that people have for him is just amazing. Win, lose or draw, it’s going to go down as one of the more interesting, legendary stories in the fight game.
MR: Last week, there was a unique occurrence where CM Punk is in a court room all week. He’s being sued by the WWE doctor for defamation (Editor’s note: He won the case Tuesday.). I’m sure most of the hard training is over, but how does that affect him mentally going into this week’s fight?
DR: That’s why I put it all together [Sunday]. Sometimes when these fighters are alone and away from us, two things happen. They either neglect all the details and training they did and they just shelve it and they don’t process it. Punk, that’s all he thought about. Some of the details that we’ve been working on for two years all culminated in our workout [Sunday].
You can’t write this stuff, it’s crazy. Him just working on the little details by himself because he’s dealing with this court case ended up being the biggest blessing in disguise. And the other thing, I think it’s actually lit an extra fire under his ass and put some grit in him. Not that he doesn’t have the grit, but I think this is some extra motivation coming into the fight Saturday. The stress of being in the court room around lawyers, I think he’s gonna want to put it on someone this weekend.
MR: Could it affect his weight cut at all?
DR: One thing we did because he was an older guy for the sport is he doesn’t cut a lot of weight. A lot of the fighters I’m working with, I’ve really jumped in and taken control of the situation. I’m trying to train them more like we did in striking. I’m not into big weight cutting. I’m just not a big fan of it, because the game is changing. Especially a few years back, you’d be the bigger guy and wrestle and lay on people, use your size. You’re seeing less wrestling than ever, less jiu-jitsu than ever. Basically, you’ve gotta be in shape to fight either three, five-minute rounds or five five-minute rounds of striking. So you’ve gotta change the way you prepare the athletes.
You can’t lose that much weight and expect a great performance in the striking. That’s something I’ve really gotten ahead of. Sergio Pettis (who fights Joseph Benavidez at UFC 225) is within 10 pounds of his weight already.
With Punk, we didn’t want to take him down that rabbit hole of thinking, how am I gonna perform with a weight cut, let alone how am I gonna fight and beat this guy? There’s already too much for him to think about that he’s in the UFC in his second pro fight, now let’s go down the rabbit hole of a crazy weight cut? No, not even. I think you do quite well when you have energy.
MR: Has CM Punk indicated to you what the future holds after this fight? Some people have speculated that if he loses, he won’t be back in the UFC. I know he has said he still wants to continue his MMA journey, even if it’s not in the UFC.
DR: He’s gonna continue. He’s got too much vested in this. He truly loves the martial arts lifestyle. He’s very into the culture of this. When he was coming up as a wrestler, he wrestled in Japan, in the Japanese professional wrestling culture is very martial-arts based. A lot of things that I did when I trained in the K-1 dojo in Thailand are a lot of the same things he did in Japanese wrestling. That’s kind of our connection in the gym. He mops the mat every day. There’s a term in wrestling in Japan, it’s called the ‘young boys.’ Those are the young guys.
When I stayed my first of many times in Thailand, I had to mop, I had to sweep the gym. I had to do dishes, laundry with the young fighters if I was gonna be accepted as part of the camp. That’s something that he’s done very well. He mops the mat every day when he trains. It’s impressive to see a guy with his success keep that humility and grounding.