Even if CM Punk leaves UFC 203 with his pride pummeled and blood dripping from his face, he can claim victory. The former WWE world champion will have climbed a mountain he had long been eyeing from afar.
The chances of Punk besting Mickey Gall and succeeding in his UFC debut on Sept. 10 are slim. He may well end up looking like the old, inexperienced outsider he is, but Punk will have chased a dream, leaving a comfortable, familiar setting for potential glory in an alien world.
To butcher a famous quote, it is better to fight and have lost, than never to have fought at all.
And fight Punk will after a long wait between him signing with the UFC and actually stepping into the Octagon. Gall is officially his first MMA opponent as the two are set to collide at UFC 203 in Cleveland.
UFC announced the big news this week:
Punk could have certainly found a less injurious way to spend his post-WWE life. He could write more comics, hang out with his wife or earn a hero's welcome at every wrestling conference he attended.
Instead, Punk has chosen a route rife with uncertainty. He's a 37-year-old rookie with a target on his back. As a "fake" wrestler with zero MMA fights to his name walking into a prime spot with UFC, he has a steady supply of fighters wanting to embarrass him.
Irish welterweight fighter Cathal Pendred is on the long list of men who have mocked Punk:
Punk shut out his doubters and critics, though, and listened to himself. Fighting for the UFC is something he had on his mind for years. It was one of those seemingly distant goals many of us have, only to dismiss in favor of reality.
But Punk couldn't let go of the thought.
He told UFC announcer Joe Rogan when he signed with the UFC in late 2014, "The idea of being able to step in the Octagon and find out what's in myself and test myself was an opportunity that I was not able to deny myself."
So he now stands on the precipice of that test, about to take a plunge he could have easily avoided. Punk would still be a top star for WWE had he not left abruptly soon after Royal Rumble 2014. He could be soaking up adoration from a fanbase that has missed him like crazy.
There would be no danger of getting floored in mere seconds, made to look like a fool.
WWE wasn't an option anymore, though. Punk's passion for pro wrestling had faded.
The former WWE champ explained his departure when he appeared on Colt Cabana's Art of Wrestling podcast (lots of NSFW language) in November 2014. Punk talked about being beat up and tired, about WWE not putting him in the spot he believed he had earned.
"When you just boil it all down, the essence of it, was I was miserable; I was unhappy," Punk said.
The no-holds-barred interview shined a light on how many injuries he dealt with and how he clashed with WWE management. He said he told WWE head Vince McMahon, "You have shackled me, you have creatively stifled me, you have made this a very toxic environment. I no longer want to be here."
Some of his issues stemmed from WWE never putting Punk in the main event of its annual extravaganza that is WrestleMania. It didn't matter that he was WWE champion or putting on classic matches, that spot on the marquee so often went to part-time stars from an older era like The Rock.
That wasn't going to change. WWE had already decided what slot Punk sat on. Names like The Rock, Brock Lesnar and John Cena would always reside above him. He was the indy darling, the perpetual underdog, not the WWE-made Superstar.
With the dream of headlining WrestleMania evading him, Punk chose to chase something else.
And as Miami Herald writer Scott Fishman tweeted, one has to respect him for making that move:
Punk had an item on his list he badly wanted to check off. And he will now get to do that. Had he stuck around with WWE and re-signed once more, he would never have had the opportunity standing before him. Fighting in the UFC would remain an idea—a what-if never to be answered.
In a strange set of circumstances, the Quickens Loans Arena, where he will take on Gall, is the same place he told WWE he was done two years ago, as Ryan Satin of Pro Wrestling Sheet noted.
And ironically, leaving the squared circle may end up being his best chance of headlining a WrestleMania. His absence has left fans pining to see him.
His UFC stint, regardless of how it turns out, will make him a bigger star. Should he ever come back, he would be one of those blasts from the past WWE so often favors at The Show of Shows.
Punk surely won't be thinking about any of that when the cage door opens. His mind will be on taking measured steps up a figurative mountain.