CM Punk finally gets his chance to silence the doubters at Saturday's UFC 203.
Criticism and skepticism have dogged the former WWE wrestler since he inked a multifight deal with the UFC back in December 2014, but the time for talk is nearly over.
Along the way, the UFC has tried to give Punk something resembling the superstar treatment, backing his high-profile signing with a televised documentary miniseries as well as numerous personal and media appearances. The efforts have only amplified suspicions that Punk's foray into unscripted combat might go badly for him.
With just a few days left before the fight, Gall is a 4-1 favorite, according to Odds Shark, and that has the 24-year-old New Jersey native feeling confident.
"[Punk] has a two-year-old [fight] vocabulary; I have an eight-year-old vocabulary," Gall told ESPN.com's Phil Murphy this week. "I'm going to leave him tongue-tied and twisted. He can't hang with my stuff. I will dominantly and violently take him out."
Is Gall blowing smoke or speaking the truth?
Bleacher Report MMA Lead Writers Chad Dundas and Jonathan Snowden break down Punk's UFC debut, debate whether he should even be here and attempt to answer the only question that matters: Can this guy fight?
Chad: Just a few years ago, if someone asked me how I'd feel about a nearly 38-year-old man with no competitive athletic background getting fast-tracked into a pay-per-view fight in the UFC, I would've said it stunk to high heaven. Well, first I would've laughed at the question. But then I would've said it was a lousy idea.
Leading up to Punk's Octagon debut, however, I find myself unperturbed.
For starters, the notion that the UFC is reserved solely for the best MMA fighters fizzled a long time ago. As soon as the company ballooned its live-event schedule to 40-plus fight cards per year and ran its roster to more than 500 athletes, any view of the Octagon as an elite proving ground disappeared.
The UFC has always trafficked in oddities. It has long given people like Kimbo Slice, Sean Gannon and James Toney a platform. Now, in a world where we're asked to accept neophytes like Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant as UFC-level stars, I know Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven character, William Munny, had it right all along: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
The UFC sees Punk as an attraction who can make it extra money. I guarantee any debate about bringing him into the fold started and stopped with that.
From a personal standpoint, he's a somewhat dislikable character. But I think he threw himself into the sport for mostly the same reasons as anyone else. I believe he wants to test himself as a fighter, and I can't blame him for using his quasi-celebrity to do it in the most highly visible, lucrative way possible.
Is there part of that task that is ego-driven and rapacious? Of course. This is the fight game, after all. Nobody is here for purely altruistic reasons. But I don't see CM Punk's motives as any more or less objectionable than those of your average UFC fighter.
He's just a lot less qualified—and we found out years ago that qualifications will always come in second to a person's ability to drive sales.
Jonathan: Not to "well, actually" you here, Chad, but that's not an appropriate characterization of the UFC's traditional promotional posture. It's been so cognizant of the sport's freak-show roots and uncanny resemblance to bar fighting that it's almost always leaned toward the respectable, responsible matchmaking that defined the Joe Silva era.
Slice is the perfect example. The UFC let him slip through its fingers, and he landed in the hands of a rival, scoring record television ratings and becoming one of the sport's most beloved figures. It was only after he ran up a 3-1 record on national television that the UFC would take a chance on him—and even then, he had to prove himself on The Ultimate Fighter.
Plenty of celebrities and washed-up former athletes, from Jose Canseco to Herschel Walker to Shaquille O'Neal, have heard the Octagon calling their name, and the UFC has always declined, likely for the same reasons you don't see Brad Pitt taking a snap under center for the New England Patriots—indulging them makes a mockery of professional athletics.
That, at least, was the case when the UFC was thriving.
The promotion let CM Punk cosplay as a pro fighter because when he first approached the MMA world with the idea of a documentary and a professional fight in 2014, the UFC was struggling to find its next big thing.
Georges St-Pierre, the longtime pay-per-view king, had departed the promotion with his title belt firmly around his waist. His contemporary, Anderson Silva, had lost twice in a row to Chris Weidman, the second time by way of a brutal leg break.
With those stars absent and no logical replacements in sight, the UFC limped to its worst year at the box office since 2007. For a sport that prided itself on being the "fastest-growing" in the world, this was no doubt a bitter blow.
Ronda Rousey was only just coming into her own, still seen as a supporting player to top stars like Silva. Conor McGregor's brilliant ascent had yet to truly begin. While it may feel like he's been with us forever, as 2014 ended, McGregor hadn't headlined a televised UFC event. There was a hint of desperation in the air, making Punk the right man at the right time.
Just months later, with McGregor and Rousey solidifying the UFC's presence both on pay-per-view and in the tabloids, Punk was already a vestige of the UFC that never quite emerged.
There will be no CM Punk era, but there will be a CM Punk match. And based on the training footage that has emerged, it won't be pretty. While we might disagree on whether it's appropriate for Punk to compete in the "Super Bowl of Mixed Martial Arts," we might agree on the answer to another question: Will Punk be the worst fighter featured on a pay-per-view main card in modern MMA history?
Chad: He'll be the least experienced.
In the history of the modern UFC, we've never seen a man of Punk's advanced age show up on a stage like this with no competitive athletic resume. The only people I can halfway compare him to are former TUF contestants Amir Sadollah and Matt Mitrione, both of whom appeared on the reality show before making their pro debuts.
But even that feels like an insult to those fighters. Sadollah fought as an amateur and had four TUF fights before he made his official Octagon debut. Mitrione also had amateur bouts and a pair of scraps on TUF. Not to mention, Mitrione spent his entire life playing football at a high level.
Comparatively speaking, Punk comes in as a complete novice—and that's one of the things that does bother me, Jonathan. While I don't begrudge the man his chance to fight in the UFC and understand the economic stressors that made his signing possible, Punk's debut won't be much to look at, let alone pay for.
Like you, I've seen a lot of MMA fights. I've been to independent MMA shows in the parking lots of heavy-machinery rental businesses, on community college campuses and behind small-town saloons. In the process, I've seen numerous people enter the cage for the first time.
And you know what?
They were almost all terrible fights.
Maybe Punk is some kind of prodigy. Maybe he's the one guy in 1,000 who can roll into Duke Roufus' Milwaukee gym and emerge a couple of years later as something approaching a finished product. Honestly, though, the training footage we've seen doesn't make it look like that.
Assuming his bout against Gall is on the level, Punk can't win it. Beyond that, the fight itself won't be worth watching. Even people who tune in hoping to see Punk lose will be disappointed at the amateurish display we'll get.
I don't like saying that, but that's the reality of taking a middle-aged celebrity with no previous fight experience and putting him on a PPV.
How about you, Jonathan? Do you have high hopes of an entertaining display? Even if it's a comedic one?
Jonathan: I'm no stranger to awful MMA fights. Heck, I once spent an evening under a tin roof in a building normally used for livestock auctions to watch a quadruple amputee try his hand at cage fighting. I sat backstage as they attempted to tape a glove onto his arm before giving up and letting him go sans protection.
I have seen things.
My fondest hope is that this turns out to be something delightful, like Slice and Dada 5000 making a mockery of the sport during their Bellator fight in Houston earlier this year. My darkest fear is it will turn into something much worse, like the latter half of that same Slice vs. Dada fight where lives were at risk for our entertainment.
That may sound like hyperbole, but Punk is not even your average 37-year-old. He's a 37-year-old with the wear and tear that makes it hard for many professional wrestling veterans to function without either pain or copious painkillers. He's had bum knees, a herniated disc and reoccurring issues with concussions. It's part of what drove him out of his previous profession and what makes this one such a dubious endeavor.
If CM Punk walks out of the arena in Cleveland with his faculties intact and under his own power, he can consider it a good night. More likely, he gets knocked into next week by a younger man better suited for the fight game. In that scenario, everyone not named CM Punk has a good laugh at the pro wrestler who thought he was the real deal and moves on with their lives.
But what happens if he wins or is intent on doing it again? Is there a future for either Punk or the UFC in a C-list celebrity on his last 15 minutes of fame continuing to compete in bouts with regional-level fighters?
What is the point of all this?
If it's making some money and having a few laughs at the absurdity of it all, I'm a Camus man and pleased to be a part. But it strikes me that it makes the UFC look desperate and sad to import pro wrestling's leftovers and makes Punk look like a hypocrite for sliding onto the top of the UFC card without paying his dues, something he had major issues with in the world of pro wrestling.
I guess I'm just wondering who benefits? Because an awful fight that makes this endeavor look silly and depressing seems bad for everyone. I'm hopeful that, instead, Punk takes this seriously, while everyone else has a laugh at his earnest expense. If he walks away with some much-needed humility, perhaps it will have all been worth it.