At UFC 203, the MMA world will not only see the UFC debut, but the MMA debut, of former professional wrestler Phil “C.M. Punk” Brooks. When World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) employed him, Punk was one of the biggest stars of the past decade. Punk’s attitude, character edge, and in-ring skills made him extremely influential in modern professional wrestling, even after his departure in January 2014. Later that year, Punk announced his next career move: Mixed Martial Arts.
Punk has been set to compete in his first MMA fight ever since, but a slew of injuries and setbacks have prevented the fight from happening until now. Punk claims he is prepared to step into the Octagon and make a statement against Mickey Gall. With his hotly anticipated debut just over the horizon, many are questioning just how ready Punk is. Reports have come out about his skills (or lack thereof) in the cage, and how his first weight cut has been excruciating.
A cloud of doubt has hovered over Punk’s MMA career since it was first announced, with casual fans and highly notarized MMA pundits alike curious how Punk will perform in the Octagon. Several questions surround the fight, and nothing will be known until the referee says, “Bring it on.” However, looking into Punk’s past in professional wrestling offers a unique insight into his natural abilities, and how his past success may translate into the results of his MMA debut.
Before evaluating Punk’s specific journey from the ring to the cage, it is beneficial to explore the men who walked the same path. Punk is not unique in his decision; he is the latest in a long line of professional wrestlers who have made the brave transition into MMA. By that sentiment alone, several MMA fans would roll their eyes, claiming, “They’re going to get their butt kicked” (Punk has been no exception.)
However, just because someone is making the transition from professional wrestling to MMA does not automatically mean doom and destruction. In fact, there have been several fighters who walked into the MMA cage from the professional wrestling ring and have had a great deal of success. A perfect example of this is former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar walked away from professional wrestling in March 2004, and after attempting to compete in the NFL, started training for MMA. After winning his first professional MMA fight in Dynamite!! USA, Brock Lesnar immediately jumped up to the UFC and started fighting world-class fighters. Despite numerous ups and downs in his UFC career, Lesnar will always be known for his dominant reign as UFC Heavyweight Champion, and for being one of the most fascinatingly athletic heavyweights in MMA history.
Another example of a professional wrestler becoming an MMA fighter is former WWE superstar Bobby Lashley. Much like Lesnar, Lashley left the WWE in 2008 after a wave of injuries kept him on the sidelines for an extended period of time. After his WWE run came to an end, Lashley still kept his professional wrestling career intact by wrestling for TNA Wrestling. However, Lashley also started training for an MMA career.
Lashley made his MMA debut in December 2008, and nearly eight years later, Lashley has garnered an impressive 14-2 record and now fights with Bellator MMA. Granted, Lashley has yet to fight the best in the heavyweight division, so it is up in the air as to whether or not he can compete on the elite level. Yet, a 14-2 record in MMA is nothing to scoff at, and Lashley has proven himself to be a solid, durable fighter who just-so-happened to have been a professional wrestler in the past.
Are these two examples indicative of possible success in MMA for Punk? Unfortunately for Punk, they are not, because both Lesnar and Lashley have something Punk doe not: a base. In this case, Lesnar and Lashley both participated in collegiate wrestling at the championship level, and Lashley in particular was training for the Olympics before a knee injury took him out of the running. The point being: both of these men had incredible bases for success in MMA that they could build upon. Punk does not have a solid base. Punk did not dedicate years of his life to a particular discipline, and because of that, he could wind up on the lower end of the spectrum of professional wrestlers joining MMA (along with Dave Bautista, Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow, and Nathan Jones). Yet, despite a lack of base, Punk still has attributes going in his favor for an MMA career.
The first attribute Punk has going for him into his MMA debut is experience in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ); he has said as much in a podcast hosted by his longtime friend Colt Cabana titled “The Art of Wrestling” (episode 226).
The extent of Punk’s experience in BJJ is unknown, so he could only be at a white belt level. Would he need to be higher than the white belt level to compete against Mickey Gall? Perhaps not, as Mickey Gall is only 2-0 in his professional MMA career and still has plenty of lessons to learn in his own right. Then again, Gall still has much more training experience than Punk, so maybe his BJJ pedigree is higher than Punk’s. The point being: Punk has dabbled in BJJ in the past prior to training MMA full-time; to what extent is unknown, but any experience could have only done him good going into his MMA career.
Another attribute Punk brings into his MMA career is sheer toughness and durability. The old mantra that “wrestling is fake” is true to an extent, but the physical torment these performers put themselves through on a nightly basis is grueling. For years, Punk was one of the hardest workers in WWE, putting himself through dangerous matches with dangerous performers in order to put on a show for the fans. Punk even wrestled with a full-blown staph infection for three months before getting it treated.
Punk is an extremely tough man, who can assuredly take great amount of punishment. There is absolutely a difference between diving off the top rope of a wrestling ring and getting punched in the face. Yet, Punk’s ability to withstand punishment is definitely a positive, and it will pay off for him in the cage.
Thirdly, Punk has undeniable determination on his side. Punk’s willingness to do anything to prove himself as the best was well-documented throughout his professional wrestling career. Punk would constantly find himself in undesirable positions as a performer (such as the aforementioned dangerous matches), but he would always persevere and put on excellent performances for the fans and executives. Punk’s work ethic was and is incredibly strong, and it has shown in the lead up to his MMA debut. When it was announced Punk had signed with the UFC, Punk said:
“This is my new career. 100 percent. I’m going to go full steam ahead; all systems go … I have nothing but respect for everybody here in the UFC… When it’s all said and done, when I’m finished, everybody’s gonna have to respect me.”
Punk has no intentions of making MMA a side thought in his life; he is fully committed to the art and craft of MMA. Will his determination pay off for him in his MMA career? Only time will tell.
Finally, the last attribute that Punk will take with him into MMA is his intelligence. Punk is a well-spoken, well-informed competitor, and likely would not have pursued MMA if he did not think he could be successful. Punk has remained open about his strengths and weaknesses going into his MMA debut, even admitting to a bad weight cut just days before his debut. “It’s terrible,” he said. “I’m above 200 pounds right now and it’s not going good.”
Despite the odds being against him, Punk has remained optimistic about his abilities in the cage. “I’m ready,” he said. “I feel ready. I’m prepared. Being here every day for like five hours a day has made me feel that way.”
Punk’s positivity and honesty should certainly be praised, as many fighters in his position could crumble under the pressure and want to back out. Does Punk feel that way underneath it all? It is possible, but he has not shown any signs of slowing down. Punk took a calculated risk in becoming an MMA fighter. It was a completely unnecessary decision, but one he believes will work out. Punk’s intelligence has never been in question, and if he believes he can be successful, then fans should take heart in knowing that he is confident and ready to surprise the MMA world.
Above anything else he could possibly carry into his MMA career, the one thing Punk has that could guarantee longevity in MMA is his star power. When he wrestled in WWE, Punk was one of the most popular pro wrestlers of all time. At a point, Punk was considered the pinnacle of what a professional wrestler should be: terrific in-ring skills and an unmatched charisma.
Punk was able to dazzle crowds with his realism, both in the ring and on the microphone. Punk brought a sense of gravity and weight to professional wrestling that few ever did. For these reasons and more, the WWE Universe was completely in Punk’s corner every step of the way. Punk was something special in professional wrestling; he truly meant something to the fans. In other words, Punk was (and still is) a star. So, what does this mean for his career in the UFC?
Punk’s superstar status will lend itself to a longer career in the UFC than most others would receive. The reason for this is extremely simple: dollar signs. The UFC is the pinnacle of MMA in the world. The UFC is the top dog, and they are extremely passionate about keeping it that way. UFC President Dana White boasts about having the best fighters in the world, and he is absolutely right.
Regardless of the dissenting opinion, MMA is a legitimate sport, and the UFC has the best MMA has to offer. However, just because they are the most legitimate MMA organization in the world does not mean they are above greed. Time after time, the UFC has proven that they will sacrifice their legitimacy for the sake of what sells. There are obvious examples of this, including the signings of Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slice (which are, admittedly, two extremely different situations), but one stands out more than all others: Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen.
Back in 2013, middleweight contender Chael Sonnen was coming off his second loss to Anderson Silva, but still craved the spotlight. Using his amazing talking skills, Sonnen managed to get a title fight against UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones. In this instance, the UFC ignored the legitimacy of their rankings system and plugged Sonnen into the fight, even though it had been several years since Sonnen had fought at Light Heavyweight. In other words, the UFC opted for the fight that would generate buzz, and thus generate money. This was neither the first nor the last time they would do this.
The point is: C.M. Punk is a worldwide star, and professional wrestling fans will tune into UFC 203 to see how he does. The same thing happened with Brock Lesnar: when he debuted at UFC 81, the pay-per-view buyrate was through the roof simply because it was Brock Lesnar and people wanted to see how he would do. Lesnar went on to become one of the biggest PPV draws in UFC history.
Punk has marketability, and regardless of whether or not he loses, fans will continue to tune in and watch his fights, which means more money in the pocket of Dana White. Perhaps Punk will hang up the gloves after one fight; we just do not know. Yet, as long as people are interested and are willing to shell out the money, Dana White will keep bringing Punk back for more.
Will all these facts and theories in mind, the question still remains: Can Punk do it? Can Punk prove the doubters wrong and compete on the grandest stage in MMA? Personally, I believe not. The odds were against Punk from the very start, and considering he has received surgeries in the middle of only two years of professional training, any advantages he had before have depleted as well.
Mickey Gall looked stellar in his UFC debut, and he appears determined to end Punk’s MMA career before it begins. As a C.M. Punk fan, I genuinely hope I’m wrong. I hope Punk can go out there, rise to the challenge and give a terrific performance against Mickey Gall. It would be one of the greatest stories in the history of the Octagon, and one that would elate professional wrestling fans who want Punk to succeed. Unfortunately, given how little training he has received and how good his opponent looks, it looks as though Punk will be in for a rude awakening to his MMA career.
There is only one way to find out, and that is to watch UFC 203. Punk has everybody’s attention now, so let’s see if he can keep it.
(Chris Moore is a new MMATorch contributor who will write a weekly in-depth Top Ten List on a particular subject in the Specialists section of MMATorch. He has been passionate about MMA since 2009.)