Step into enough CrossFit boxes and you might eventually stumble upon a jarring sight: A life-size mural of a muscular clown, mostly bald but with side poofs of red hair, often in a yellow tank top and black shorts, on his knees next to a barbell, clutching his chest, and letting loose a projectile torrent of green vomit. This is Pukie the Clown, a rare sight in modern boxes, yet still well known in some circles as CrossFit’s (unofficial) mascot.
He is puking because that sometimes happens during exercise for any number of reasons. Say, when one works out on a full stomach, pushes one’s self while dehydrated, or overtaxes their body so much that they don’t get enough oxygen, build up lactate waste in their system, and get nauseated from it.
Somehow, Pukie is not CrossFit’s only clown icon. You probably won’t see him on any murals, but poke around CrossFit Twitter or forums long enough and you'll find a similar joker, only with blue hair. He stands in front of a dropped dumbbell, tongue hanging out and frazzled, one hand on a dialysis machine hooked into his arm, which is covered in incisions. A kidney and a rope of intestines dangle from his back into a pool of his blood. This is Uncle Rhabdo, named after the condition from which he is suffering, rhabdomyolysis, in which extreme workouts cause one’s muscle cells to explode and leech into the bloodstream.
While “rhabdo” can be benign if one immediately rests, hydrates, and seeks treatment, it does cause pain, swelling, and fatigue, to name a few symptoms. And it can, if exacerbated or left untreated, require harsh interventions, like cuts to relieve swelling, or cause permanent nerve, muscle, or kidney damage.
These clowns, often encountered by non-initiates without context or commentary, have sparked or fed controversy about CrossFit culture. Some observers see them as cautionary figures, warning CrossFitters not to go overboard, or risk ending up like them. Many critics see them as glorifying pushing beyond your body’s limits, while trivializing the consequences of doing so. They often draw a line between Uncle Rhabdo and CrossFitters who treat rhabdo like a joke. Even CrossFitters disagree on how to read the clowns; some box owners join outsider critics in condemning them as dangerous and distance themselves from boxes that still display them.
This debate thrives in large part because so few people know anything of the clowns’ origins, what their creators intended for them. Since CrossFit has expanded rapidly over the last few years, even most ostensible insiders lack such historical context. So to get a degree of closure on this debate—and just to understand why CrossFit is so associated with two extremely disconcerting clowns—Tonic decided to dive into the roots of Pukie and Rhabdo.
We tried initially to reach out to CrossFit, Inc., the central body behind the world’s 13,000-plus independent CrossFit affiliates, to see if they or their founder, Greg Glassman, could tell us anything about the clowns’ origins. In the past, the organization has acknowledged that Rhabdo, at least, is an official CrossFit design, intended to raise awareness about and help people avoid the condition he’s named after. However, they have not shed much official light on when, why, or how they decided to raise awareness about rhabdo using a cartoon clown. Similar questions remain about Pukie as well. But CrossFit, Inc. did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Still, we were able to speak to a number of early CrossFitters, who watched the culture develop and who knew Glassman. We were also able to consult histories, and a historian, of early CrossFit. They could not pin down the origins of Pukie or Rhabdo with absolute certainty. They did, though, offer a number of revealing insights on the figures’ early days and intended meanings.
Pukie, consensus holds, emerged first. He showed up on CrossFit.com, which went live in 2001, featuring daily workouts and the occasional image, in its early days. One account from a 2013 profile of the rise of CrossFit maintains that Glassman personally came up with the clown when a CrossFitter helping him launch the website (perhaps pre-2001) asked if he had a logo in mind. He reportedly recalled that another CrossFitter had described the regimen as “agony coupled with laughter” and decided to play with that concept in the form of “Uncle Pukie.”
Robb Wolf, who co-founded the first CrossFit affiliate in 2002 (before falling out with CrossFit HQ in 2009), agrees that Glassman came up with the clown. He adds that he’s pretty sure a member of Glassman’s family “commissioned someone to” design the clown. “I’m pretty sure,” he says, “it was someone in the original Santa Cruz gym,” the space Glassman moved into around 2000, after years of slowly developing and teaching CrossFit in corners of other venues. According to J.C. Herz, author of the CrossFit history Learning to Breathe Fire, this story scans, as Glassman took a strong role in defining CrossFit culture, often around his own dark humor.
Early CrossFit regimens, Herz adds, were more extreme than most of what newbies experience today. Greg Amundsen, a prominent CrossFitter who joined the Santa Cruz box in 2001, recalls that they often used the phrase “mess you up” in the early 2000s to describe their workouts. It was standard for people starting out, or breaking through to a new plateau, to feel miserable. Many, Herz says, could get so invested in pushing themselves so far so quickly that they’d vomit.
For Glassman, Herz says, “the things that make you miserable also define you in your ability to laugh about them.” So Pukie likely emerged not just as a quick joke about agony and laughter, but as a way of recognizing an experience of common suffering, building a unifying image upon it, and getting people to laugh at that suffering like Glassman did rather than let it dissuade or scare them. It worked, perhaps in large part because the initial crew Glassman worked with was heavily composed of cops, first responders, and others who tended to share his, as Wolf puts it, thick skin and dark humor. Eventually, Wolf says, Pukie became “like a tribal rallying point.”
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Pukie may have taken a while to catch on, though. Amundsen, who had assumed Pukie was a grassroots idea that had slowly bubbled up amongst early members, doesn’t recall noticing him on the website until 2004. Around the same time, he says, a “Pukie Bucket” appeared in the Santa Cruz gym. But by 2005, when the New York Times ran a profile on CrossFit, it was reportedly common for members to say they’d “met Pukie” when they’d vomited during a workout.
Herz notes there was never overt pressure to push one’s self to vomit. “Meeting Pukie” was not a prerequisite to joining CrossFit culture; Amundsen insists coaches took pains to help folks avoid it. But it was, at times, like a rite of passage, proof you’d met and pushed past your limits.
It seems as if 2005 is also the year Uncle Rhabdo appeared. Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to agree that he emerged as the art commissioned for a piece Glassman wrote for the CrossFit Journal that October, “CrossFit Induced Rhabdo.” This article, CrossFitters stress, came out because Glassman and others had started to realize their workouts could cause rhabdo, a condition that was only then becoming better known. CrossFitters also stress that rhabdo is common in other intensive regimens.
They believe Glassman and company were being uniquely responsible, trying to raise awareness as they became aware themselves and help people recognize and avoid the condition. And they feel somewhat aggrieved that critics used this article and stories of CrossFit-induced rhabdo to argue that the program was uniquely risky and cavalier. “It’s like, ‘oh, these people are bragging about how dangerous’” what they do is, says Tom Brose, a CrossFit affiliate who got involved just before the rhabdo article came out. “Not at all. We’re warning people about how dangerous it is and teaching them how to do it safely.”
Uncle Rhabdo, they all agree, was not meant to trivialize the condition. He was meant to be, as Wolf puts it, an “abrasive, somewhat funny take on the fact that” CrossFit was good for you, but could be taken too far, dangerously so. The figure fit with CrossFit’s tough and dark-humored culture at the time. If someone got rhabdo, Wolf adds, the CrossFit team would take care of them, “but instead of mothering them, they’d say, ‘well, you got a dose from Uncle Rhabdo.’”
No one is sure why Glassman apparently used a clown so similar to Pukie as the template for Rhabdo. Brose insists that the two figures are all but opposed to each other. While Pukie was a light figure, treated almost jovially at times, Rhabdo, he stresses, was always seen in the early days of CrossFit as a darker force. One you could laugh at, but not laugh off. One to avoid.
Rhabdo was never a huge CrossFit figure, though, everyone I spoke to agreed. He featured in some educational materials, Wolf says, but little more than that. Even Pukie, while known, was hardly the ubiquitous mascot some critics make him out to be. A few gyms printed Pukie t-shirts in the mid-2000s. But they rarely showed up at CrossFit events, and are very rare today. “The idea out there is that these things were always just in your face,” Brose says. “But they weren’t a very prevalent part of CrossFit culture at any time, really. They were a very fringe aspect.”
They were also not, into the mid-2000s, controversial figures because CrossFit was still a small and largely like-minded community. “It was super cohesive,” Herz says. “That’s what everyone who was doing it back then misses about it now.” In this tight culture, most people likely shared a common view of these figures, consistent with how Glassman intended them to be seen.
Pukie and Rhabdo have not been relevant for, or even visible to, most CrossFitters for years, as well. Herz notes that over the past decade, and especially since 2010 or 2011, CrossFit began to expand far past its initial hardcore athletic, black-humored client base. Wolf notes that some of the expanding base of affiliates and clients were put off by images like Pukie and Rhabdo, so they moved away from them.
“Pukie the clown really fits into that elite, athletic tribe in a way that it doesn’t into this broader, larger movement that CrossFit has become,” Herz says. Sure, you can still find some remnants of Pukie, like a Reebok “Pukie Collage” shirt. (Reebok and CrossFit partnered in 2010.) But this shirt bares no real visual similarity to the original Pukie. Functionally, says Herz, “the end of Pukie was maybe 2012. Certainly then or even before.”
“That imagery just doesn’t come up anymore,” Amundsen adds. In his box, he sees many eager people sign up and buy all the CrossFit gear they can. None of it features Pukie or Rhabdo.
The only place Pukie can hold on in the new world of CrossFit, argues Herz, is in old school gyms holding on to an old-school identity. You could have an “OG who had been doing CrossFit in the early aughts and had a Pukie poster in his gym,” Herz says. “I wouldn’t doubt that.” However the proportion of these boxes, she estimates, has been declining since around 2010.
Just because Pukie and Rhabdo are largely irrelevant to modern CrossFit, artifacts of a rougher early phase of the program’s history, that doesn’t mean they’re dead, of course. They exist in those old-school gyms and the collective memory of the internet for nascent CrossFitters and CrossFit critics alike to encounter and interpret outside of the cohesive cultural filter earlier practitioners had.
That may explain why there are so many accounts today of people using Pukie and Rhabdo as badges of honor or trivializing humor, and why people on Twitter speak about the clowns in such varied tones. These figures were, by most accounts, far from problematic when they were born into a tight, cohesive culture, to which they spoke clearly and reasonably. Now all but mothballed and rolling around, they can take on new lives—and often far more confusing ones, at that.
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