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With Mickey Gall’s victory on Saturday and Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White making it clear that UFC 199 is the target date for his next fight, the MMA debut of Phil Brooks, aka “CM Punk,” is finally coming into focus. No longer the abstract concept it was in late 2014 when Punk’s UFC signing was announced, the particulars are now known and the fight is on the way. Unfortunately for Punk, the closer we get to the fight, the more and more this feels like a really bad idea.
That is of course the sentiment felt by many MMA fans who have no interest in pro wrestling or knowledge of Punk. That’s understandable. Punk doesn’t have the amateur wrestling credentials or raw athleticism that made Brock Lesnar an intriguing MMA prospect. He’s just an MMA fan who wants to live out a dream. It’s a celebrity fight. One’s interest in his UFC debut relates directly to one’s interest in his former pro wrestling career. Those who don’t care about Punk either don’t care if he falls flat on his face or are actively rooting for it.
Those of us who do know Punk’s pro wrestling career well are in an entirely different boat. From the first time I saw Punk at a tiny Philadelphia gym called the Murphy Recreational Center in 2003, it was readily apparent that this was a special talent. Independent pro wrestling, particularly at that point, had a reputation for athletic performers who knew how to have entertaining matches but lacked in personality. That was never the case with Punk, who could command the crowd’s attention instantaneously, even back then, with his microphone work and dynamic personality. He was ready-made for the large arenas he would eventually headline.
At the time, Punk was the bad guy playing up his “straight edge” lifestyle. He simultaneously was able to convey an arrogant belief in his moral superiority, as well as the menace that comes from a zealot’s willingness to do anything in the name of his cause. His greatest strength was never the smooth athleticism of many of his peers. It was the force of his personality. It made him a generational talent and one of the best pro wrestlers I’ve ever seen. It’s also the pro wrestling asset that’s least useful in MMA.
Now mere months away, it’s hard to find reasons for optimism about Punk’s MMA prospects. His opponent looks to have legitimate potential for the sport. Gall trains with high-quality sparring partners and was comfortable competing on the UFC stage, albeit against woeful opposition. He’s 13 years younger than Punk. Worse, those are 13 grueling years of a grinding schedule and continual wear on the body. Bryan Danielson -- the man whose pro wrestling career most closely resembles Punk’s, competing on independent shows and working his way into World Wrestling Entertainment main events -- retired Monday due to serious concussion issues related to that toll. Punk is three years older than Danielson.
Punk’s adaptation to MMA is largely a mystery, but the circumstances of his signing make one wary. Remember this fact: No matter how well or how poorly Punk has done in his training, he was going to get this fight. It was agreed upon before he started his preparation, and at his age, the fight could only be delayed for so long. Unlike fighters who gradually take on tougher challenges when their coaches feel they’re ready, Punk’s destination was preordained from before he started with Duke Roufus.
If Gall destroys him in short order, Punk could be looking at a level of public humiliation rarely before seen in the UFC. MMA fans are notoriously harsh to fighters when they lose. A fighter can dominate for a decade, and when he finally loses, there’s a significant block of people trying to argue he was always overrated and never that good anyway. They would be significantly less kind to a 0-1 former pro wrestler who made his MMA debut on the sport’s biggest stage. Punk is a proud man, and it would be an ignominious chapter in his public life.
It didn’t have to be this way. Punk’s former pro wrestling colleague and “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Dave Bautista also had a dream of taking an MMA fight. However, he elected to compete on a much smaller stage, fighting on a regional show in Providence, Rhode Island. The rewards weren’t as high as competing for the UFC or Strikeforce, but the risk was so much less. It’s gutsy and admirable that Punk took on the challenge, but this could be an honor-for-his-valor-death-for-his-ambition situation.
Another unfortunate limitation of the situation is that Punk can’t fully showcase what made him such a compelling pro wrestler. So much of Punk’s wrestling routine was his tremendous self-confidence. His catch phrases revolved around his own greatness: “straight edge means I’m better than you” and “best in the world.” Punk was such a great talker and storyteller because he had enormous belief in his own ability.
It’s hard for that to translate to MMA when Punk knows he’s nothing resembling the best. Punk has respect for the sport and its fighters. He can’t project the overflowing self-confidence that was his pro wrestling calling card because it was specifically related to his prowess as a wrestler. Thus, when doing interviews for MMA, he has largely underwhelmed. It’s the same reason Michael Jordan didn’t have the same swagger playing baseball that he did playing basketball.
There are many people hoping to take some enjoyment out of Punk’s MMA downfall. I’m not one of them. I have too much respect for Punk’s talent and consider him one of the bright lights during a period when pro wrestling has become more and more farcical. That’s why I’m left with a feeling of dread as Punk’s MMA reckoning quickly approaches. The unimpeachable reality of hand-to-hand combat cares not for noble intention or past reputation. There is no safety net for “CM Punk.”