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The Reality of CM Punk’s UFC Debut

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CM Punk stepped out of his wrestling boots, and Phil Brooks stepped into the octagon last weekend in front of a rowdy crowd in Cleveland, OH for his debut in mixed martial arts. Punk, who walked out of the WWE in January of 2014, announced his signing with the UFC in November of that year before he embarked on a two year journey toward the cage last Saturday. The new career path wasn’t without setbacks, as Punk suffered a knee injury during training and also required back surgery to repair a herniated disc that was hampering his progress at the Roufusport gym in Milwaukee. Fully committed to the MMA process, Punk moved to Milwaukee during his preparation for UFC 203 and had the chance to train with several UFC fighters, including the Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.

MMA purists scoffed at the notion that a pro wrestler with no experience in competitive sports was offered a contract to fight in the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, the UFC is as much of a business as it is a sport, and it was a smart business move to sign CM Punk. The hype, including a series titled, “The Evolution of Punk” that chronicled his journey, generated a buzz and one of the major selling points of the pay-per-view.

However, there was a very reality-based aspect to this whole scenario.

Mickey Gall, an upstart from the north-east regional circuit, was discovered on Dana White’s “Looking for a Fight” YouTube series and deemed a possible opponent for Punk, considering the 24-year-old had a total of four bouts (three amateur contests) on his resume. With just one professional win, Gall was invited to fight fellow rookie Mike Jackson earlier this year to determine the competitor that would get the spotlight as Punk’s first opponent. Gall, who is a brown belt in ju jit su and has competed in martial arts since his youth, choked out his opposition in 45 seconds to secure his spot on a pay-per-view card.

As “Cult of Personality” blared throughout the arena, Phil Brooks walked to the octagon with a look of determination on his face. There’s no doubt that the former WWE champion is a charismatic and driven athlete. He thrilled audiences around the globe and clawed his way up from the dirt-stained canvases of the independent scene to the bright lights of Wrestlemania to do it. Admire him or despise him, CM Punk earned the notoriety that provided him the chance to pursue the goal to compete as an ultimate fighter. Even his biggest critics will tell you that CM Punk is determined to achieve success.

But, there’s also the reality of this situation.

When the cage door closed and the referee called for the action to begin, Brooks was taken down almost immediately and didn’t get back to his feet before the end of the bout. With the exception of a few short punches that did no damage, Brooks had virtually no offense and Mickey Gall displayed a mix of striking and ground skills for the duration of the fight. After a flurry of hooks to the head, Mickey Gall used a rear-naked choke to get the victory. CM Punk tapped out and two years of preparation was summed up in 2 minutes and 14 seconds.

That was the reality of UFC 203.

At 37, Phil Brooks was at a disadvantage in almost every aspect of the contest. His age, inexperience, injuries from pro wrestling, injuries from MMA training, and the level of competition of the Ultimate Fighting Championship all worked against him. As I wrote previously, this wasn’t another Brock Lesnar scenario, as he had the legitimate background as NCAA national champion so the transition to mixed martial arts wasn’t that much of a stretch. Despite the name value of CM Punk, Phil Brooks was a novice that started training two years ago and without any amateur bouts to truly gauge his skills, there was realistically no reason to expect a different result than what took place.

Reality hit CM Punk in the face and so did Mickey Gall.

As is usually the case on social media, there were two divided opinions on Punk’s venture in the cage, either he deserves all the credit in the world for trying or he was a joke that got embarrassed. It’s probably a little of both because while it takes confidence to purse combat sports, there also had to be some arrogance that allowed CM Punk to think that he could hop over the usual steps world champions took on their path to the UFC, and start his career at the highest level.

It’s somewhat ironic that one of Punk’s biggest gripes during his time in the WWE was that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was allowed to jump to the top of the card whenever he wanted to return to the ring because of his success in Hollywood, but somehow it didn’t matter that he basically did the same thing to the MMA genre. At the very least, The Rock was a major draw in pro wrestling before he left the business to become an actor, and when he returned, he set PPV records so it’s tough to argue that he shouldn’t be the main event of the show. Does Punk deserve credit for taking a chance? Absolutely, but it’s not as though he delivered some heroic performance that justifies significant praise, he was a novice that got beat up in an environment where he probably didn’t belong. There are hundreds of NFL prospects that pursue their dreams, aren’t skilled enough, and get released before getting the chance to play a season, but that doesn’t mean they deserve major credit.

CM Punk deserves credit for trying, just as much credit as any other amateur athlete that attempts to make a name for themselves.

Keep in mind, Phil Brooks will be compensated major money for his appearance, and you can bet that thousands of other amateur fighters would sign the same deal to fight a competitor above their experience level for that type of money. Granted, was it all about the money for Punk? No, he’s very financially secure, but to say that the amount of cash he was paid wasn’t a factor at all would be misguided. If money wasn’t a factor at all, CM Punk could’ve actually fought as an amateur and possibly worked his way up to the UFC. Again, it takes courage to fight on the big stage, but also an arrogance or at least an overconfidence to assume you can start a career at the major league level of any sport.

Longtime UFC commentator, Joe Rogan summed up the UFC 203 experiment perfectly when he said, “I admire CM Punk for taking the chance, I really do. It was brave, it was courageous, but it was delusional.”

The bottom line is, CM Punk had no experience in mixed martial arts and the results of UFC 203 reflected that. That being said, it took tenacity to sign a contract for combat sports and Punk did what he wanted to do, get a fight as a mixed martial artist. His name value allowed for him to get an opportunity in the UFC, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He was offered the deal and he accepted it. That being said, it didn’t take a heroic effort to get pummeled for two minutes and as mentioned, there are many other amateurs that would sign for the same deal for the same cash. Post-fight, Punk indicated that he wants to continue fighting, while Dana White said that it probably shouldn’t occur in the UFC, so it’s undecided where he fights next.

If Punk returns to combat sports, it’s possible he could fight on a smaller show that the UFC features on their digital streaming service, as it’s doubtful that Dana White leaves potential money on the table for Punk’s MMA career. CM Punk got the chance to fight and he made a lot of money to do it so in some respects, his venture was successful.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

@jimlamotta

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