This weekend CM Punk will attempt to make the huge leap from WWE superstar to UFC fighter without stumbling into the brutal realms of humiliation that are only accessible through MMA.
Having spent the last 16 years as a professional sports entertainment actor/wrestler, Punk (real name Phillip Brooks) will be making his professional MMA debut at the UFC 203 card, headlined by a heavyweight title fight between Alistair Overeem and Stipe Miocic, in Ohio on Saturday night.
Punk has been handed the opportunity based purely on his own popularity, which is part of the reason he still wishes to be called CM Punk while competing. Although one of the biggest stars the WWE has produced in recent years, Punk is hardly one of the more domineering characters that has left fans wondering how he would do a in real fight, in the way Brock Lesnar did.
Yet, something gave him the urge to want to try and compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Thus, nearly two years after announcing he had signed a multi-fight contract with the UFC, today Punk will finally take to the cage for the first time.
“What Punk is doing arguably makes him the bravest man in sports today.”
The move is car crash TV at its finest, or perhaps worst. Take away the celebrity aspect of seeing one of the WWE’s most popular characters step into the world of professional combat and the intrigue lays in watching a man doing something that is simply very, very dangerous.
There is no hidden, long-time honed talent behind the decision, nor is there any obvious physical gifts that Punk possesses that could lead anyone to think he will be a natural at the highest level of combat sports. Nor is there any clear financial incentive or fame boosting opportunity for Punk here. The move is purely about him taking up a challenge he always wanted to try out.
This is not like when Michael Jordan tried out baseball or Dwayne Chambers tried rugby. It is unlike any of the times celebrities/sportsmen have tried out a new career. Punk has gone from nowhere to the highest level of martial-arts in the world, without doing anything in between. And the repercussions for doing this could be devastating.
As such, what Punk is doing arguably makes him the bravest man in sports today.
This may seem like an outlandish statement, especially whilst the Paralympics is going on (although some would say it is patronising to call those athletes “brave” – but that’s an article for another day). However, when Punk’s move is compared to others in a similar position who made the same choice, it becomes apparent just how courageous it is for Punk to be stepping into the famed UFC octagon on Saturday night.
“Brock Lesnar – who actually lost on his UFC debut – entered MMA as one of the most decorated collegiate wrestlers in American history. Punk has no such background.”
Firstly, there is actor Jason David Frank, mostly – or perhaps solely – known for his role in Power Rangers, the popular children’s TV series. He also went from pretending to fight on TV to attempting to do it for real in a cage. When he did it though, the level that the Green Power Ranger fought at was a lot lower than the UFC. In fact, if the UFC is the Champions League of MMA, Frank fought in the bottom end of the Championship on his debut. He also did it having already been inducted into the World Karate Union, alongside none other than Chuck Norris. Frank had one professional fight in 2010, won impressively, and hasn’t fought since.
Then there is Brock Lesnar, who did actually make the jump from the WWE into UFC and look like he belonged there, for a while at least. Once again though, Lesnar made his debut at a level significantly lower than the UFC, fighting on a K-1 Heroes card, taking on an opponent with a losing record. After winning in the first round by spectacular ground-and-pound knockout, Lesnar was signed to the UFC where he ended up winning the heavyweight title, in between getting submitted, knocked-out and failing a few drugs tests, with one of these failures coming as recently as July at UFC 200. Overall though, Lesnar’s MMA career was a huge success for someone who only had a few years of training, compared to those he was competing against who had spent a lifetime working towards UFC level.
For those that see this as a precursor to what a WWE star can achieve in the UFC, note that Brock Lesnar – who actually lost on his UFC debut – entered MMA as one of the most decorated collegiate wrestlers in American history. Punk has no such background. Also, Lesnar is a 6’3 man-mountain with a level of brute, explosive strength that very few people on earth can match. Similarly, this is why other big men with comparable size and strength took to the sport of MMA too; namely Bobby Lashley, Dave Bautista and Bob Sapp. Punk visibly does not have the kind of obvious raw strength of these men, which made them dangerous in at least some respects for any opposition.
Then there is the likes of Herschel Walker and James Toney, both of whom made their MMA debuts at a high level, comparable to what Punk is doing.
NFL American football legend Walker had two bouts in 2010/11 with Strikeforce (an organisation which was deemed second only to the UFC at one point) at the age of 48 and 49 within a one year period, winning both by referee’s stoppage. Walker’s success was only surprising due to his age, as his physical gifts as an athlete were always recognised, whilst it was also known he had been training in martial-arts throughout his life, gaining a black-belt in taekwondo.
James Toney came into the UFC on the tail-end of a boxing career which saw him widely recognised as one of the best of his generation. Having been very vocal for years about his belief he could beat any MMA fighter in any kind of fight, he was given the chance to prove it in 2010 at 42 years old. Pitched against the blue-collar hero and MMA legend Randy Couture who was 47 himself at the time, Toney was quickly choked out before a rapturous crowd and has not fought in MMA since.
“One look at his opponent tells us it is far from a novelty fight.”
Looking at this unorthodox selection of those that made unexpected jumps into the world of MMA, it is clear Punk lacks both the obvious physical gifts and the martial-arts experience that saw the aforementioned athletes given a chance to compete in MMA. His martial-arts background goes no further than some karate and kickboxing lessons as a teenager. His participation in MMA is purely based on a passion to compete.
This is not to say he is going into this competition under-prepared or unskilled. Four years ago Punk started jiu-jitsu training and he has now spent approximately two years training under one of the best coaches, alongside some of MMA’s very best fighters at the Duke Roufus MMA Academy, led by Mr Roufus himself.
However, the long delay from the moment of signing (December 2014) to making his debut also says a lot more about how far away he was from UFC standards when he signed, although now his trainer is completely confident in Punk’s chances to succeed. Overall though, it is fair to say Punk is at best a low-level novice in the sport of MMA, about to make his debut on the biggest platform available in the entire sport.
Many of the MMA’s most respected voices have spoken of their distaste in regards to the Punk situation, in a manner never previously seen, even when amateur street brawler Kimbo Slice got his UFC opportunity. The likes of UFC commentator Joe Rogan and former heavyweight champion Frank Mir have called his participation in the UFC “ridiculous” and “a novelty” respectively.
The funny thing about such proclamations is that this would make more sense if it was just a novelty fight. But one look at his opponent tells us it is far from a novelty.
British sports fans will recall cricketer Andrew Flintoff having a single professional boxing fight in 2012 after his cricket career ended. He nearly got knocked out in it, barely surviving to scrape a points win from a low-level journeyman. This was a novelty fight, with the aim being only to gently test Flintoff, in a manner not too dangerous for him.
Punk has not been given such a pass on his debut. To compound his issues, he is taking on a good young prospect. Mickey Gall is 2-0, 14 years younger than 37-year-old Punk and desperate to make the most out of an opportunity to give his career a super-boost. A spectacular finish to the fight from Gall will see it go viral around the world and his name become one of the most mentioned in MMA in the world. The motivation for Gall to win is huge.
Punk is seriously up against it and nigh on mad for taking such a chance. Nevertheless, the old saying that “volunteers make the best soldiers” should be remembered in thinking about this bout.
What this means is that Punk’s desire in taking up this challenge must account for something. We may not know if Punk will stand and strike or try to grapple opponents, and we definitely do not know if he is good at either. What we do know though, is that Punk wants to test himself. His desire to do this cannot be questioned. Most in his position would by now be looking to crack Hollywood. Punk is looking to crack some heads.
To what extent Punk feels he can be competitive remains to be seen, partly because no one knows how good he will be, including himself. This means we don’t know how long we will be seeing him compete either.
Brock Lesnar was clear about wanting to only fight the best and after the losses and serious injuries mounted, he retired, save for the random UFC 200 comeback which ended in a failed drug test. Herschel Walker always said he just wanted to experience MMA and never wanted to pursue a run for a title, which he could have done considering the star power his name brings. How many fights Punk has and what he intends to achieve is as of yet unclear, even to himself probably. So it can be safely assumed, a lot will depend on his showing tonight.
From the UFC’s perspective, the signing of Punk was done to rake up pay-per-view figures. The UFC pursued him as a signing as soon as he said was considering taking up MMA. It is a business decision that could lead to the sport itself being degraded should Punk lose emphatically. But in this industry, money talks, and the new owners of the company – WME-IMG having just bought the UFC of the Fertitta brothers for $4billion – will only care about the numbers.
“The debut of CM Punk will definitely be remembered, but memorable for what reason remains to be seen. “
In essence, Punk’s debut is just about an American celebrity risking his health and his dignity to take up something that was always a dream of his to do. With the whole journey being captured on film too, the situation is wholesomely American.
MMA – or more specifically the UFC – has allowed for many a memorable event, featuring many a great star. The debut of CM Punk will definitely be remembered in this category, but memorable for what reason remains to be seen.
Post event, should the memes begin cascading through social media timelines, the decision to allow Chicago native Phillip Brooks to fight in the UFC may look utterly stupid. However, there is a thin line between bravery and stupidity. For now, whilst we still can, we should admire Punk for treading so heavily between the two, no matter which side of the line he falls into come the end of the night.
CM Punk’s debut can be watched live on BT Sport from 1am (UK time) on Sunday night.