LAS VEGAS­—You don’t think CM Punk is a tough guy? Well, consider that the Straight Edge stalwart had the audacity to decline his shot of liquor bought for 17 wrestlers after an independent show by former world champion and noted tough guy Harley Race.

Punk went one better and purchased 17 shots of milk for the group. And when Race stared at him, downed the unaccustomed beverage and pounded the glass on the table. Punk knew he he’d gone from a backyard wrestler in Chicago to an accepted part of the wrestling family.

“If Harley Race accepted the punk rock kid from Chicago,” he said, “I was going to be OK. Everything else has been gravy since then.”

Punk received the Iron Mike Mazurki Award at the concluding CAC banquet, held August 30 at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. It is the club’s highest honor, recognizing remarkable accomplishment in and out of the ring.

In a joyous 45-minute speech, unscripted because he would have it no other way, Punk praised the wrestlers who had helped him achieve the highest marks in his career as an undersized world champion credited with revolutionizing the sport.

“When people tell me they don’t like me or that the internet is mad at me, I just chuckle because Roddy Piper liked me. Dusty Rhodes liked me. I had the respect and the backing of Harley Race before I went to the WWE. That means more than all the money in the world because these legends put their stamp on me before anybody knew who I was. It gave me the confidence and it gave me the ability to succeed in a place where I didn’t think I’d ever fit in.”

Punk told an audience of about 400 how he knew he did not fit the mold of a conventional wrestler, a tattooed street kid wrestling in basketball shorts and Dr. Martens boots. But he said he felt he had to stay true to himself — he actually envisioned a long career in Japan — believing that someone eventually would notice.

And they did, he said, crediting his career to the likes of John “JBL” Layfield, the 2022 Iron Mike winner; Eddie Guerrero; Raven; Tracy Smothers; his wife A.J. Mendez; Mickie James; and a host of others including longtime friend Ace Steel, who introduced him. “He has never changed,” Steel said. “No matter what anybody says about him, he hasn’t because he doesn’t put up with shit.”

One other Race story — Punk’s first purchase from the wrestling game was a 2001 Monte Carlo, which Race decorated with vomit after a night of heavy drinking. Race, his shirt soaked with the afterbrew, had the decency to apologize, Punk said, though he still at the recollection of King Harley then hugging him.

Damian 666 was the Lucha Libre award winner. The luchador gave an emotional speech remembering his wife, who died of COVID-related illness three years ago. Through interpreter Rey Mysterio Jr., his presenter, Damian said he feels like part of the CAC family and thanked fans “for taking all of his bullshit over the years.” And Rey blamed Damian 666’s influence for his son Dominik’s skill as a villain, as Damian is Dom-Dom’s godfather.

CM Punk jumps into the photo for Women's Wrestling honoree Mickie James and her presenter Serena Deeb at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Photo by Scott Romer

CM Punk jumps into the photo for Women’s Wrestling honoree Mickie James and her presenter Serena Deeb at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Photo by Scott Romer

The women’s wrestling award went to former WWE champion Mickie James, who came up through the Ohio Valley Wrestling ranks with Punk. Her presenter, Serena Deeb, went to OVW as an 18-year-old and was captivated by her fellow Virginian. “I want to wrestle just like her,” Deeb recalled saying.

She picked a good one as James was at the top of the federation’s women’s division as it started to boom. James also struck a family note in her speech, saying the relationships and friendships she has made in wrestling “carry for a lifetime.”

There was no Frankie the Parrot on the shoulder of Koko B. Ware as he accepted the men’s wrestling award, but in a strongly spiritual speech, the Birdman said he feels the presence of the Almighty on his shoulder every day. Noting his presence at WrestleMania 3, Ware said, “The little boy from Tennessee got to the biggest stage in the world … and God made it happen.” Jimmy Hart, who was with Ware from the start as a manager in Memphis, called him “a lucky break for me” as part of his First Family wrestling stable.

If there was a long-distance trophy, Koji Miyamoto was a guaranteed winner. He flew from Japan to Las Vegas to receive the James C. Melby Historian Award, named for the dean of wrestling researchers. Miyamoto has spent a lifetime pulling together the rich history of wrestling in Japan, authoring two dozen books in the process, with upcoming works on Antonion Inoki.

Presenter Dan Westbrook, a celebrated wrestling photographer, noted Miyamoto has been instrumental in organizing wrestling historians from around the world in addition to his prolific output. ‘He is one of the most trustworthy and dependable individuals I know,” Westbrook said.

Miyamoto called the award “the biggest honor of my life” and praised the way historians work together to help each other succeed, much as he saw CAC President Brian Blair selflessly helped push other wrestlers during his tours of Japan.

Kevin Jefferies has been third man in the ring for everything from small independent matches in rural western Canada to big-stage world title fights with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Adam Pearce. His 46 years in the game earned him the Charlie Smith Referee Award. “We can appreciate a good ref, especially those of us who have been saddled with a shitty ref,” said Vance Nevada (Vern May), in presenting Jefferies.

An appreciative Jefferies recalled the lessons he learned from Roy McClarity and Don Leo Jonathan, and how he had tried to pass that knowledge down the line. “Your dream can come true,” he said. “Just keep working at it. Encourage, never discourage.”

CAC Executive Vice President reminded the gathering of the club’s central mission — to help wrestlers in need. The association’s benevolent fund provided nearly $61,000 in assistance in the last year in line with its charge as the “Ring of Friendship.”

TOP PHOTO: CM Punk at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Photo by Brad McFarlin