CM Punk remembers making the call.
It was early September two years ago, still only a matter of hours after his UFC debut. He was on his way from Cleveland, where he'd been unceremoniously defeated by Mickey Gall in just two minutes and 14 seconds, to his hometown of Chicago. His wife, April, was in the passenger seat, and his dog, Larry, was asleep in the back.
For many, the fight had confirmed what they assumed since the star of WWE fame announced two years earlier he would compete in the UFC despite having no experience in nonstaged professional fighting: that it was a sideshow, a shameless cash grab.
That's not what it was for Punk, though.
Which is why, while still nursing his fresh wounds on that six-hour drive, he was already on the phone with UFC President Dana White.
Punk had already decided not to let this tear him down. That he would keep going. He was already thinking about the next fight.
He told White that he wasn't done, that he wanted to get back into the Octagon, that he'd understand if his boss cut him from the UFC roster after his abysmal showing, but that "even if I'm not fighting for the UFC, I'm still fighting."
He chose those words carefully. It wasn't a threat, just determination. Even if it meant being relegated to another organization, he intended to continue on his new path.
He had something to prove to himself, and he had to try again.
But did anyone else want to see him try?
Phil Brooks, the man behind the Punk persona, is not like the rest of us.
Even in a sport like professional cage fighting, which inherently attracts a certain kind of demented human, he stands apart. He is a man of strict beliefs and complex character.
The most public example of this is probably his adherence to a straight-edge lifestyle. Punk has not taken drugs or had a drop of alcohol in decades. It's a choice he exploited to great effect during his previous career. He became one of the most hated men in wrestling by adopting a smarmy visage and telling crowds around the world that he was better than you.
Most of us will do things at times because we are trying to prove to others we can accomplish what they say we cannot. That's not a part of Punk's psyche. He does not care one bit what anyone thinks of him.
The easiest thing in the world would have been to walk away after the Gall loss and to return to the squared circle. To this day, wrestling audiences across the world break into spontaneous "C.M. Punk" chants during live events, as if trying to will him back to the place where he first connected with a fervent, devoted fanbase. Despite the acrimonious way his relationship with the WWE and the powers that be ended, there's no question Vince McMahon would bring him back if the opportunity arose.
But for Punk, who will fight Mike Jackson on Saturday at UFC 225 in Chicago, it was never a consideration.
"It's easy to quit. It's easy to not get something that you want and just say, Well, that didn't work out, and move on to the next thing," he tells B/R. "For me, I don't really think there is a next thing. I love training. I get to go to the gym every day. I don't have to punch a clock."
Jim Ross, who worked closely with Punk during their years together in WWE, says he isn't surprised by the way Punk is proceeding.
"I didn't think he would quit. He's very intense. Very focused," Ross says. "When he decides he's going to do something, it's hard to get him off the idea. He's no-nonsense. He likes confrontation and will put his cards on the table. And he wants you to do the same thing.
"When I dealt with him, I would just cut to the chase. He liked that. He's just a real basic, no-bulls--t kind of guy."
It's hardly a surprise, then, that a sport like cage fighting would attract a man like Punk. Fighting, at its core, is a sport where human beings attempt to prove their superiority over another, to impose their will, to bend and break their opponent.
"There's a winner, and there's a loser. I just think you can't hide. You can't make excuses," Punk says. "On fight night, you show up. And the question becomes: Did you or did you not do the work that is going to prepare you for what is about to occur? And I just think that's a beautiful thing."
Punk did the work to prepare for Gall. He drove there from Chicago to train with Duke Roufus at the Roufusport gym in Milwaukee at least five days a week, participating in the gym's general training sessions and taking private lessons with Roufus and the other specialized coaches on staff. His training partners unanimously say that he's the hardest-working fighter in the gym, and that there's no questioning his desire.
And yet two years of training weren't enough. Punk shot across the ring when the bell rang, stumbling his way through awkward strikes directly into a fight-ending takedown and submission. His inexperience was glaring, but what did anyone expect?
Kenny Florian, a former fighter and current analyst for Fox Sports, says he thinks it takes a minimum of four years for someone to acquire the tools to be a professional fighter. "And that doesn't mean they're ready for the UFC after four years. It just means they have the basic tools for a professional fight."
And after such a public spectacle, what would drive a man to return to that grind? Why would he willingly choose to subject himself to that kind of mental and physical torture, especially at 39 years old and especially when he could easily go back to his old life and make huge gobs of money?
Punk didn't care what the world thought of him, but why did he feel such a need to prove to himself that he was better than what he showed against Gall?
"Probably a broken childhood," he says with a laugh.
When Punk told White he wanted another chance in the UFC, White was hesitant. The UFC president chose his words carefully in public when asked about giving Punk another shot, but it was clear he didn't feel good about the idea. But White also knew what Punk was telling him was true—what Roufus and others in Punk's inner circle also knew: He was going to fight again, even if it took place outside the UFC.
The UFC had a balancing act to perform. It needed to maintain credibility as a sport, but the promotion's new ownership, WME-IMG, also needed to make massive payments on the deal it signed when it purchased the company in July 2016, which meant it needed stars. Though Punk had been tarnished by his first foray into the fight game, he was still a star who could draw the eyeballs of pro wrestling fans.
To hardcore MMA fans, Punk's stardom didn't matter one iota. They just didn't want the legitimacy of their sport harmed by another fake pro wrestler.
"I remember watching UFC events back in the early days, and the fighters had Condom Depot on their asses," Ross says. "So don't talk to me about the precious sanctity of your sport. Both of these things are about putting asses in seats."
White eventually relented and booked Punk against Jackson, who is also 0-1 and has also lost to Gall. Punk believes Jackson was the logical choice for his first opponent all along; they have the same record, they're similar in experience, and they both excel at selling fights.
True to his nature, Punk has been obsessed with spending time in the gym. He says there is no comparison between the fighter he was two years ago and the fighter he is now. His skills are more refined. He has more tools. But most importantly, he's more cerebral.
"I think the best fighters are the smart guys. They do what they are good at. They're smart about what they do," Punk says. "And that's exactly what Mickey did. The CM Punk of today, I would have done the same thing Mickey did."
Over the past week, Punk has been sitting in a Chicago courtroom as a defamation lawsuit brought against him and longtime best friend Colt Cabana by WWE doctor Chris Amann played out.
Amann sued Punk and Cabana for $4 million plus damages over comments Punk made on Cabana's podcast after leaving WWE. Late last week, the full recording of the podcast was played as evidence; Punk had to sit in the courtroom and listen as a version of himself from two years ago slashed angrily at the world he'd found himself in.
For two hours, he listened intently. He no longer recognized the voice he heard.
"I didn't like the guy I was listening to," he says. "It was almost like I was trying to convince people that I wasn't bitter. And I for sure was bitter.
"I had to work through it. And now I'm on the other side. Listening to my own voice on that podcast, is like, Eesh. OK. We get it. Get over yourself."
He understands why the voice sounded the way it did; he was sick and believed he was not receiving the medical treatment he needed. He never wavered in his account of those final days in WWE, not even when he could have avoided Amann's lawsuit simply by apologizing and saying he was wrong.
But that's not him. When he believes he's right, he'll stick to his guns even if it means he's making life a lot harder for himself.
Which is why nobody should be surprised he's going back into the Octagon. The thing that made him stick to his guns against Amann when things could have been a whole lot easier? It's the same thing that made him decide that fighting was an option in the first place, and it's the same thing that brought him back to this point when anyone else in his position would have taken the easy way out.
Except he's never taken the easy way out. He won't take the easy way out Saturday, either. Win or lose, he's going into the cage to prove something to himself.
Why was Punk driving from Cleveland to Chicago that day back in September 2016? Why not fly? Because he had nothing on his agenda that required his attention, and, well, because that dog sitting in the back seat, Larry, is difficult to manage.
That's how Punk puts it. But he doesn't sound stressed over it. In fact, he speaks like a man who is, for the first time in perhaps his entire adult life, at ease not just with himself, but also with his situation, his surroundings.
Not long before that drive, he was traveling five or six days a week for WWE, battling a staph infection, eating bad food and ketchup packets in motels across the world while growing increasingly bitter over the direction he was heading in.
Now, he and April take turns cooking each other breakfast every day. He is able to go to the store and buy his own groceries rather than having to rely on old food from under a truck-stop heat lamp for sustenance. He's a regular at Cubs games, which is a dream come true for one of the baseball team's most diehard fans. He is able to actually have a dog, which was a thing he never got to experience while working the highways in pro wrestling.
And best of all, he gets to go home to his downtown Chicago apartment and sleep in his own bed when he wants.
"I have a home base," he says. "I know that sounds strange to people, but it's something I never had. There's a lot more consistency. I could never get bored with it."
And why did he make that call that day?
Because even if no one else wanted to see him try, he did.