On Tuesday morning, as defense attorney Laura McNally of the firm Loeb & Loeb made her closing argument in Amann v. Brooks & Colton, a defamation lawsuit in Illinois’ Cook County Court, she asked the jury a question few people on earth could be prepared to answer. “What,” McNally asked, “is your reputation worth to the ‘Mike Litoris’-es of the world?”
The question summed up a weeklong defamation trial that opposing counsel had boiled down to the question of whether or not McNally’s client, the pro wrestler turned UFC fighter CM Punk (real name Phil Brooks), had measured an infected cyst with fruit or sporting goods. By closing arguments, Punk’s co-defendant, the independent wrestler and podcaster Colt Cabana (real name Scott Colton) was seemingly there for no reason at all. Plaintiff’s attorneys barely bothering to try to establish how Cabana would or could have defamed Dr. Chris Amann, WWE’s ringside physician. (Full disclosure: I have worked with Cabana on unrelated wrestling history podcasts, the last of which was released eight months ago, for Howl/Stitcher Premium, which paid both of us directly.)
When the jury found in favor of the defense later on Tuesday, it seemingly put an end to what had become a years-long ordeal. Back in January of 2014, a tired, injured, and ill Punk walked out on WWE the night after a Royal Rumble pay-per-view event in which he sustained a concussion. Whether Punk intended to quit or just take a break is up for debate; Punk, for his part, insists that it was the latter. At the time, Punk’s departure was quickly enshrouded in mystery. Formerly a prolific Twitter user who treated his account more like a personal one than a professional brand-builder, Punk’s social media presence went completely dark. People in wrestling outside of Punk’s direct social circle stopped hearing from him.
There were rumors, of course, and vague reports of a blow-up with WWE on that last night. But not much more was known until a few months later, when one of Punk’s non-wrestling friends penned an article—about fans stalking Punk, no less—that described him as “recently retired.” As always, it was all fairly hard to parse, but it sure looked like Punk was declaring himself retired through a third party and basically asking fans to leave him alone. This only added to the intrigue, as did his upcoming wedding to A.J. Lee (real name April Mendez), who was still on the active WWE roster.
It all stayed more or less this vague until July 14, when Punk’s profile was moved to the “Alumni” section of WWE.com, something that’s become a reliable indicator of a wrestler who has quietly retired. He tweeted a thank you to the fans a day later. Punk’s contract was believed to be due to expire two days after the tweet, as standard WWE contracts run for three years and his previous renewal was very public, centering around the Money in the Bank pay-per-view on July 17, 2011. This all suggested that this was the end, and when Punk went out in public to host an award show, he pledged on the red carpet that he was done with wrestling. That lasted until he was announced as being included in the WWE 2K15 video game a month later. Punk’s lawyers reportedly sent WWE a 22-page letter after that announcement, but clearly at some point some deal was made, because the game came out with CM Punk in it. That was the last time CM Punk was associated with wrestling in public until Thanksgiving.
Colt Cabana was Punk’s best friend, and had been dating back to the two of them breaking into wrestling together at the Steel Domain Wrestling Academy in Chicago. When the pair started getting some buzz across the larger independent wrestling scene, Cabana—who was the better athlete, and had a bigger frame and a better aptitude for comedy and WWE-style “entertainment wrestling”—was initially considered the better overall prospect. Punk was generally considered the better talker in more traditional pro wrestling terms, but he was also on the skinny side, kind of clumsy, and had a famously off-putting attitude. They were both promising prospects, but neither would have the wrestling career anyone foresaw.
They both got their shots with WWE, but Cabana was badly misused off the bat, and used mostly as glorified enhancement talent. Punk had better timing and made it onto TV in a position that allowed him to claw his way to the top. When Cabana was cut from his WWE contract, he quickly turned it into a positive and became a key indie star; he also started a popular podcast, The Art of Wrestling, where he interviewed his friends. It was the first wrestler-driven podcast of note—more or less a wrestling version of Marc Maron’s WTF—and Punk was the second guest. When it came time for Punk to tell the story of what happened between him and WWE, there was just one place for him to tell it. And boy, did he ever….on a podcast sponsored by WWE 2K15.
Over the course of two increasingly emotional hours—if you don’t have time to listen, you can skim a transcript—an agitated CM Punk poured his heart out about his issues with WWE. And I mean all of his issues, many of which were quickly forgotten. The most notable stories, though, ended up at the center of the lawsuit that concluded on Tuesday.
Those were about Punk’s many issues with the medical treatment in WWE. Specifically, he expressed frustration over the misdiagnosis of a staph infection and having to wrestle while freshly concussed. Punk was also advocating for a wrestlers’ union and disputing their classification by WWE as independent contractors, but all that was largely overshadowed because the medical issues—and Punk’s being fired on his wedding day—made for such potent headlines. It was Punk’s comments on his medical treatment that led Dr. Chris Amann, WWE’s most visible ringside physician, to sue Punk and Cabana in January 2015.
Amann is only mentioned once, when Punk mentions that Amann relayed a message to Punk’s surgeon about the status of his elbow injury; he’s incorrectly identified as “Dr. Raman” in the Cageside Seats transcript linked earlier in this article. But the only one of Punk’s story to occur on-camera was the one that centered around the concussion Punk suffered in his last match, and that match included Amann as the visible “Doc,” which meant that everything Punk said about WWE medical staff wound up being associated with Amann. Most commonly, fans would make jokes about Z-Paks—the five dose version of the antibiotic Zithromax, which doesn’t treat staph—being overprescribed, which is something Punk referenced in the podcast.
Many of those comments were aimed directly at Amann’s Twitter account. Some of those were joking, some more serious; the one alluded to in Punk’s lawyer’s closing argument was one of the latter. While his display name is just “mikey” now, the account of user @the8thwonderOTW was branded as “Mike Litoris” when he told Amann that “you should be fired , poor excuse for a doctor, could of [sic] killed punk.” When Amann testified last week, bad tweets and fan signs at WWE events were cited as the only harm he had suffered. Earlier in the case, he claimed that the podcast led to a sharp increase in his malpractice insurance premiums and deductible, but that argument was dropped long before the trial.
On the facts, though, this case was a little more interesting than Amann’s Twitter-related complaints would have it seem. This is why this went to trial. These will still look picayune to some, but there was enough in the podcast for Amann’s lawyer to cast doubt on a number of statements. There was, for instance, Punk saying that he was diagnosed as having MRSA by his then-fiancee’s WWE doctor; it turns out that the person in question was a physician assistant and that there was no MRSA diagnosis, though his excuse note said “possible staph.” There were differing descriptions from various parties regarding the size of the resulting lump, which led to Amann’s attorney’s courtroom parsing the difference between different pieces of fruit.
There were even disputes as to whether the lump ever existed—WWE produced Punk’s medical records, which made no mention of it, but A.J., Cabana, the physician assistant, and Punk’s massage therapist all testified to seeing it. Amann also disputed Punk’s account of their conversation about the concussion at Royal Rumble 2014; Punk said Amann asked, “What do you want me to do?” But given that neither had a microphone, the conversation was not broadcast over production headsets and there’s no recording of it.
Over the course of the trial, which was covered most completely by WrestleZone.com and Fightful.com—you can see this Reddit post for a day by day index—Amann appeared to shoot himself in the foot. During his early testimony, WWE medical records were proven to be incomplete because Amann admitted that he didn’t document all the antibiotics that he gave to Punk. As the other testimony went on, a convincing narrative emerged: Punk may have engaged in some puffery in telling the story, but as a layman recovering from a few concussions and a bad infection, he was still broadly telling his truth and likely just confused about a few aspects. Cabana clearly had no idea that any of this might not have happened exactly as stated on the podcast, and Amann’s lawyers didn’t bother establishing that. This did not stop them from stating, in their closing arguments, that not just Punk but also Cabana had knowingly lied.
It was clear early on that this gambit wasn’t working. Jurors kept falling asleep, and laughed when “Mike Litoris” was mentioned. When they came back quickly with a verdict on Tuesday, it was no surprise that they found in favor of Punk and Cabana. Barring an appeal—and it’s not clear what Amann could even try to appeal—this case is over. That means Amann won’t be getting the near $8 million he was asking for, a figure that represented $1 for each view of the show, times two. The defense won’t be getting legal fees from him, either, as Illinois doesn’t allow for it in defamation cases.
There is still an elephant in the room, though. On the day after the lawsuit was filed, WWE promptly released a statement backing Amann and directing interested parties to a slow motion video of Punk’s rear end from his last match; the promotion asserted that the video proved that the infected lump Punk talked about never existed. That Punk had said on the podcast that “the waistband of my tights was like right on it so I was constantly aware of it” was immaterial, it seemed. Later in 2015, when Punk filed his answer and affirmative defenses to the complaint, Punk’s lawyers wrote that he “is informed and believes that Plaintiff collaborated, coordinated, and conspired with WWE in bad faith to prepare, bring, and pursue this lawsuit in retaliation against Brooks and Colton for the embarrassment that the Podcast caused the WWE through and as a result of Brooks’ candid and truthful discussion of various of his experiences as a WWE wrestler.”
It was also suggested that WWE coordinated the release of its statement with Amann after the company’s “supposed investigation” of the allegations on the podcast. A year later, Punk echoed the sentiment while doing media for his first UFC fight, as well. That defense was struck from the case by the judge and not mentioned at trial. When reached for comment about both the verdict and past allegations of collaboration, a WWE spokesperson said that such requests should go to Amann’s attorneys. They declined comment to reporters at the courthouse on Tuesday.
So, is there even a lesson here? Cabana learned one, he said, and he shared it with interviewers from both Fightful and WrestleZone after the verdict was read. His takeaway is this: if you’re a podcaster and/or reporter, you should really get liability insurance.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.