Two years of training came down to just two minutes and fourteen seconds.
That’s the exact amount of time that former WWE Champion CM Punk lasted inside the Octagon at UFC 203 against Mickey Gall. After a takedown, Gall landed some shots and tapped out Punk with a rear naked choke. UFC commentator Joe Rogan used words like “mauled” and “horrific” help describe the bout. It definitely wasn’t pretty. The physical beating ended quickly, but the verbal one in the court of public opinion continues.
CM Punk was one of WWE’s biggest stars over the past few years. He carried the WWE Championship for a record 434 days – the longest run in 25 years. Despite the money, fan support, fame and lengthy title run given him by WWE, Punk wasn’t happy any longer and decided it was time to walk away. Oddly enough, the arena that Punk debuted as an MMA fighter in – Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH – was the very same place where Punk advised Vince McMahon and Paul “Triple H” Levesque that he was done with pro wrestling because he had lost his passion for it.
Punk did something that few are willing to do, and that is to step outside of the comfortable and take a risk. He risked his reputation to take on something that put him at a strong disadvantage. He had never been tested in a real MMA fight. He was rumored to only have had casual training (up until the past two years) in martial arts. His opponent was 13 years younger than him and more experienced at the fight game, yet he still got in the Octagon and fought. This is something that I have a tremendous amount of respect for.
But like anyone else, Punk has his detractors and there are many. Just look all over social media to find them. The jokes, the GIFs, and the jabs are there for all to see. Even WWE appeared to take a crack at him on Raw this past Monday. But in this writer’s opinion, none of it is warranted, because Punk is a man who has gotten to live his dream.
His critics barked that Punk didn’t earn his spot. Certainly Punk’s name value helped bring him to UFC, but does it matter? Maybe to the mixed martial arts purist it does, but UFC hasn’t been about martial arts for a while now. It very much is a business, and in a business move UFC offered CM Punk an opportunity to do something that he wanted to do and paid him very well for it. Punk himself admitted that he wanted to initially venture into MMA at the lowest level in the post-fight presser, but added that “this opportunity got presented to myself, and I would have been a fool to say no.” According to reports, UFC would have been foolish to say no as well, because initial buyrate estimates were up because of Punk being on the card.
The critics, MMA media, and other fighters called Punk’s multi-fight deal in UFC nothing more than a publicity stunt. When injuries and delays of his debut happened, many laughed and said that Punk would never even set foot in the Octagon.
But this is Phil Brooks, the young man who dreamed of ascending to the top of professional wrestling by working in underground backyard promotions at 19 years of age. This is the man who said in a 2009 interview that he joined a wrestling school that “kept beating (him) up, expecting (him) to not come back,” but persisted. He was considered “too small” for top level success in WWE, but ascended to the World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship. Though WWE is scripted entertainment, it is still considered a major accomplishment to have the company to choose to put a top title on a talent.
None of us had any idea how Punk would fare in UFC, and many had their doubts he would ever actually fight. I was not one of those who doubted. I really felt that he was going to fight at some point, and he has now. Following his time with the Roufusport camp, you could tell he was serious about this and took the training seriously. He didn’t use the injuries as a reason to quit – he did what was needed (including surgery) to heal, then went back to training.
In the post-fight press conference, a disappointed, battered, and stitched up CM Punk admitted that “being out there under the lights was the most fun I’ve ever had.” He called that night the second best day of his life, bested only by his marriage to former WWE women’s wrestler AJ Lee. He was gracious, humble, and respectful as he fielded the questions from the media. But he added a statement that leaves me feeling confident that Punk won’t be crawling back to Vince McMahon any time soon after Saturday’s fight:
“I just want to thank everybody for supporting me, [and] even the people who didn’t support me,” he said. “You tuned in to watch me get beat up, you got what you wanted. It’s not about how many times you get beat up, it’s about how many times you come back from it. I’m looking forward to coming back. This was fun.”
Two years or so ago, CM Punk took a risk to chase a dream. On a September Saturday night in Cleveland he may have lost a fight but he scored a victory by accomplishing that dream. For that this writer gives respect, not ridicule, and I hope more follow suit.