Between bouts at UFC 181, CM Punk, the former WWE wrestler born Phil Brooks, arrived on screen wearing a suit and slicked hair while UFC commentator Joe Rogan asked him why he was about to become a UFC fighter.
I was only vaguely aware of CM Punk—not for anything he did in pro wrestling, which I haven’t watched for fun since I was nine, but because hardcore bands I listen to occasionally dropped his name. Because I wasn’t directly acquainted with his celebrity, I watched with detachment, surprised at how subdued and self-aware he was. He’d left wrestling behind, he said, and now he was going to make a go of fighting for real. Unlike the Brock Lesnars of the world, he would be crossing over without a substantial combat sports background or any physical gifts to help him along. He wasn’t sure where he’d train and he wasn’t sure when he would actually compete, but fighting MMA was bucket list stuff he’d had in mind for a while.
“It’s now or never for me,” Punk told Rogan. “I have a limited window just like all fighters do, and I fully intend to get in there, and I’m here for a fight. I’m here to either get my ass kicked or kick somebody’s ass.”
It felt like we all had to flip a bunch of extra pages on the calendar to get from that night in December 2014 to September 2016, but here we are, days away from CM Punk’s welterweight debut against Mickey Gall at UFC 203, a fight that’s a big deal in some weird, self-evident way, with a shiny veneer of celebrity coating the whole thing. But look underneath, and the fight repackages the average-Joe-trains-for-a-fight premise into a strange question: can a 37-year-old man with virtually no fighting experience step onto MMA’s biggest stage with a year and a half of earnest training at a legit gym and beat an equally matched opponent?
Well, more or less equally matched. Gall, who won the CM Punk sweepstakes by calling him out on the UFC’s small-league scouting show Lookin’ for a Fight, is a 24-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt with a 2-0 pro record and three additional amateur wins, and during his February UFC debut he choked out his opponent in 45 seconds. Punk, meanwhile, has dabbled in BJJ with the Gracies in Torrance and only began training MMA at Roufusport in Milwaukee—home of the Pettis brothers and One FC champion Ben Askren, among others—once he had a UFC contract in hand. His training camp was twice interrupted for surgeries on his shoulder and lower back, the consequences of a body made fragile through a decade and a half in the squared circle.
All of that adversity makes for an easy narrative, like the one carried out in Evolution of Punk, the series documenting Punk’s time at Roufusport. Based on that footage, Punk looks like a long shot to win this Saturday: he’s out of his depth in stand-up and he’s a one-stripe white belt on the ground. But by many accounts, including his own, he’s come a long way since this footage was shot. (You’d also have to be a sucker to think pro fighters carry on as usual when UFC camera crews show up to their gym.) “People expect me to get knocked out. People expect me to get starched in 30 seconds,” Punk told MMA Junkie. “The people who see me work here every day expect me to win.” Much of that ire comes from fighters who’ve grown resentful at an outsider getting so much fanfare without paying any dues. It’s part of the Money Fight phenomenon, where what the audience wants to buy trumps the best fighting the best on a linear path to the title.
And if you watch MMA today, you’re part of a fandom that has already made clear the insanity it’s willing to tolerate and even embrace. The resurgence of Bellator has relied on the millions of cable TV subscribers who tune in for the likes of Kimbo Slice versus Dada 5000 and demonstrate our continued appetite for the unseemly. PRIDE’s freak-show friendly theatrics live on in Rizin Fighting Federation, where Fedor Emelianenko can headline a show by fighting a 1-0 Indian kickboxer. The modern-era UFC doesn’t have an untarnished history either: when 0-0 James Toney fought former two-division champion Randy Couture, plenty of us bought the pay-per-view. All things considered, Punk versus Gall—who have the same dearth of on-paper experience, who fight under athletic commission sanctioning, who fight in the middle of a strong pay-per-view held up by a heavyweight title bout, and who won’t have heavyweights’ freedom of the scale to show up bloated and sucking wind—isn’t something for the viewing audience to get righteous about.
Not caring at all, however, would be a problem. This bout is a naked appeal to emotion and celebrity, and CM Punk knows that one segment of the audience wants to see him get smashed and look terrible, and another wants to see him rise to the occasion. Turning passion and rage into dollars and cents is fight promotion 101. It’s not whether the audience boos or cheers: it’s whether they’re making noise.
Personally, I have almost no interest in this fight. This doesn’t mean I resent CM Punk (or Mickey Gall, for that matter): it’s because the fame of CM Punk means nothing to me, just like fellow WWE star Dave Bautista’s fame meant nothing when he fought MMA four years ago. Ignoring CM Punk’s name, the airtime afforded to Gall in service of making him more than an anonymous face, the promotional build-up, and the pay-per-view production values, a 2-0 pro fighting a 0-0 opponent is barely worth anyone’s attention. Odds are it will be a sloppy affair. Take away the hype holding it all together and this could easily be the ninth bout of some interminable evening on some regional promotion, weighted down with amateurs who scrap for free and whose ticket sales cover the costs of the hall rental and the EMTs.
On those regional cards, you see a lot of first-time fighters compete in front of friends and family for the same reasons that Punk conveyed to Rogan back in December 2014. “…The idea of being able to step inside the Octagon and find out what’s inside myself, and to test myself, is an opportunity I was not able to deny myself,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if I didn’t give this a shot.” The bucket list is reason enough to act on your dreams of fighting, but it’s not enough to get an audience excited about coming along for the ride. For that, you need a name that they recognize.
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