Fights happened at UFC 181. Titles were defended. Blood spilled. But all that went down in a very large shadow—deposed WWE wrestling kingpin CM Punk is coming, per an announcement during the pay-per-view Saturday night, to the UFC Octagon.
Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, left the WWE on bad terms in January. He's been the subject of whispers ever since, rumors of his eventual signing with the UFC swirling around for months before the company finally pulled the trigger Saturday.
Brooks, who will compete as either a middleweight or a welterweight, appeared on the UFC 181 broadcast to discuss his multi-fight deal with announcer Joe Rogan.
“I have a background in kempo, and I’ve been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for a long time," Brooks said. "This is my new career, 100 percent I'm going to go full steam ahead, all systems go after today, and it's going to be fun.
"I have nothing but respect for everybody here at the UFC, everybody who steps in the Octagon to fight. And when it's all said and done, when I'm finished, everybody's going to have to respect me because I have come here to fight."
It was a move that shocked the combat-sports world, me included. To be honest I never gave a potential Punk signing much thought. It simply seemed too far-fetched to warrant much brain power. Sure, Punk was a noted MMA fan who trains with Rener Gracie. And, yes, he's expressed some interest in giving MMA a try.
But in the UFC? The Super Bowl of mixed martial arts?
It just didn't seem feasible. After all, this is a man with no history of athletic success, no track record in martial arts competition and a laundry list of injuries that made continuing his career as a wrestling showman untenable.
Giving fighting a shot is Punk's choice. Putting him in the Octagon, where ostensibly the best cage fighters in the world compete, is White's. And it's nothing more than a sideshow, the kind of hucksterism the UFC was supposedly escaping when it ran towards respectability and away from its early reputation as human cockfighting.
This is a publicity stunt and a naked cash grab. The UFC is eschewing sport for spectacle, walking the opposite path it followed to grow the "sport" to this point. But there's no underestimating the levels Dana White and company will sink to in the name of American capitalism.
The UFC is struggling in the American market. Television numbers are down. Pay-per-view numbers are reportedly at the lowest levels since the dawn of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. It's, no doubt, pretty scary to ponder the future these days. They've bet it all, everything White and his partners have built over more than a decade, on successful foreign expansion.
And that's a bet that will be slow paying off—if it does at all. In the meantime, with its top stars either in decline like Anderson Silva, pondering a movie career like Ronda Rousey or in an extended public spat with the promotion over drug testing and other issues like George St-Pierre, the UFC is desperate for something to click with their fans.
Enter CM Punk.
The UFC has seen the potential power of a professional wrestler at the box office before. When former (and current) WWE champion Brock Lesnar signed with the company in 2008, it lit a fire that burned hot and fast. The promotion broke box-office records behind Lesnar, riding his success to unthinkable heights.
It's tempting to compare the two men because of their WWE backgrounds. But Lesnar was an athletic marvel, a former NCAA champion wrestler who once tried out for the Minnesota Vikings on a whim and impressed even NFL scouts with his raw ability.
Comparing Punk to Lesnar rings hollow. At best it's naive. At worst it's manipulative and dishonest. Punk has no athletic credentials. He never even played sports in high school. And, while he's had some training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he's never competed at a high level in that art either. He's a complete unknown.
If he wants to fight—fine. But putting him in the hallowed UFC Octagon, once meant only for the best of the best, turns a sport into a carnival show, especially if he's fighting in a high-profile bout. Is this athletics? Or is it celebrity fantasy camp?
Even worse, from a moral standpoint, is Punk's age and history of injuries. The 36-year-old entertainer, though not a sportsman, did travel the world with the WWE, sacrificing his health and well-being in thousands of televised wrestling collisions and slams.
They took their toll. In a revealing podcast interview, Punk said not only had he torn his meniscus, PCL, MCL and injured his ACL, he also had serious troubles with his elbow. Worse still, he had suffered more than a dozen concussions in his career, and it was affecting him nightly (transcribed by Cageside Seats):
I worked Luke Harper in a match and I got hit with something and it f------g rung my bell and I got a concussion. But we were leaving for Europe the next day. So Doc was leaning on me going 'do you want me to... do you have a concussion or can you go to Europe' kind of thing. And I was just like 'you f-----g... you pigs.
I'll go to Europe. Whatever.' That's on me. That's my fault. I probably shouldn't have.
After the European tour, the whole European tour, I'm dry heaving after every match. I mean, luckily I was in tags.
It was me and Daniel Bryan vs. The Wyatts and they were awesome, and they were fun -- the parts I remember -- but I'm on all fours after every match and I'm either puking for real or I'm just dry heaving because I don't have anything in my stomach. I have no appetite. I don't know what is up and what is down. I can't sleep. I can't f-----g train. It's like a bus, a hotel, a cold building.
This doesn't sound like a man who needs to be competing in a brutal sport like mixed martial arts. This sounds like a man who should be taking measures to protect his brain for what will hopefully be a long and productive life.
It will ultimately be an athletic commission's job to decide whether Punk is fit to fight. Of course athletic commissions let Muhammad Ali fight into the 1980s, long after it was clear he was doing himself irreparable harm. If there's money to be made with CM Punk, the UFC will find a way to get him in the cage.
Will CM Punk make the UFC money? In the short term, I have no doubt. While he wasn't a great box-office PPV attraction for WWE, no one was giving up on him, which is how they ended up creating the WWE Network, he is a significant star to an audience of several million wrestling fans.
People will watch CM Punk, at least once or twice. The question, then, is whether his signing will further degrade MMA's standing in the broader sports mainstream.
No other sport would even consider signing a celebrity to compete at the highest level or try to pass one off as an equal to their hardworking professionals. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest athlete of his era, was forced to give baseball a try in the minor leagues, not for the Chicago White Sox.
Jordan, famously, failed. So, too, will this. The UFC will cash in on Punk at the cost of their hard-earned credibility.