What Led to CM Punk's WWE Success Gave Rise to His UFC 203 Failure

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 10: CM Punk reacts to his loss to Mickey Gall during the UFC 203 event at Quicken Loans Arena on September 10, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

CM Punk's strengths forsook him at UFC 203 as the former WWE champion flailed away with the wrong weapons. 

He had spent his entire pro wrestling career proving people wrong. Doubt drove him. His stubbornness allowed him to trek up the WWE mountain despite his limitations. 

When he tried to make that same journey as a UFC fighter, with his confidence shutting out the cacophony of disbelief around him, a new result awaited him.

Mickey Gall hammered him at the Sept. 10 pay-per-view in as one-sided an MMA fight as you will see. The New Jersey welterweight smothered Punk with strikes before choking him out two minutes and 14 seconds into the first round.

A battered Punk—his eyes red, his ear swollen—spoke with UFC announcer Joe Rogan after the fight (NSFW language).

He said, "If there's any kid out there that's told by a parent or a coach or a teacher, somebody that they look up to, somebody that's supposed to push them and believe in them. And they're told 'no.' Don't listen to them. Believe in yourself."

UFC @ufc

"You go BIG or you go home" - @CMPunk #UFC203 https://t.co/H4LEnkXwmI

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That's been Punk's mantra for years. He was that kid. He was the one being told he couldn't do it.

A lot of the skepticism thrown his way throughout the years came because Punk was always miles away from being the prototypical pro wrestler.

He never had "the look." Not sculpted, not especially intimidating, never larger than life, Punk looked more like the front man of a punk band than a WWE Superstar.

That didn't preventing him from eventually storming onto WWE's top tier, though.

The long road to that success began with Punk first creating buzz on the backyard wrestling scene. In the late '90s, the Chicago-area Lunatic Wrestling Federation found itself attracting the biggest crowds it had ever seen with Punk on the card.

A ramshackle amateur promotion hit a high in 1998 at a show called Bloodbath.

In an interview with Gregory Pratt of the Chicago Tribune, LWF promoter Larry Statkus said of the event: "You look out there and there's like 1,000 people. I was just blown away by what we had done because we had literally started in the backyard."

Punk was front and center in the LWF's underdog story—a tale his own career would parallel. 

Wrestling in armories and warehouses, Punk moved on to wrestling's indy circuit, starring for Ring of Honor and Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South.

Motivated, determined and brimming with moxie, Punk thrived at each spot. He became both promotions' top champion and an underground sensation.

That wasn't enough for him. He wanted to step onto the biggest stage the squared circle has to offer—WWE.

Of his move to the sports entertainment giant, Punk told Mike Mooneyham of the Post and Courier: "I had done everything that I could possibly do there (Ring of Honor), and I needed more challenges. I like to be challenged on a daily basis. I wanted to see if I could make it here in WWE."

WWE hadn't seen anything like him before. 

He preached about the straight-edge lifestyle, swearing off drugs and alcohol and using that to irritate fans. He was a thin, tattooed loudmouth who mixed in muay thai with standard pro wrestling offense.

In a business where muscle-bound powerhouses such as Triple H or John Cena are the norm, Punk didn't seem to belong. So, even though WWE signed him to a developmental deal in 2005, his chances of success were minimal.

The WWE machine was against him.

Punk's friend, former onscreen manager and longtime advocate Paul Heyman recalled the situation during a Q&A during one of his An Evening with Paul Heyman events (NSFW language): "They did not want CM Punk to be a star. They did not want CM Punk in WWE.

"They did not like him. They did not like his look. They did not like his size. They did not like that he was straight edge."

In the face of that opposition, Punk marched on. He managed to expand his fanbase slowly and to win over the WWE audience.

Punk went from a midcarder used to elevate bigger names to holding the WWE Championship for 435 days, longer than anyone since Hulk Hogan in the mid-1980s. He went from being one of the extras in Cena's entrance at WrestleMania 22 to battling future Hall of Famer Undertaker at WWE's marquee event seven years later.

He was well aware of the uphill nature of that climb. 

In the 2012 documentary Best in the World, Punk said: "I'm a guy, for all intents and purposes, never should have even made it to the WWE. I've had roadblock after roadblock after roadblock thrown in my way. But not only did I get through those roadblocks, I did it while flipping off the people who put up those roadblocks."

When MMA fighters scoffed at the idea of him in the UFC, he cut his way through doubt just as he did during his WWE tenure. When the general expectation was for Punk to fail, he brushed off the idea. 

He wasn't going to let reality get in the way of dreams. He's not the type of man to back down.

Heyman explained to Richard Deitsch on the SI Media Podcast, "He's uncompromising in his own beliefs and he's uncompromising in his own values and he's uncompromising in pursuing his own desires."

When MMA experts pointed out he was too old to begin a career in cagefighting or noted that he lacked a sports background, he likely reacted the same way he did when folks told him he was too small or too unconventional to headline for WWE.

He tuned it out.

Punk called himself The Best in the World in WWE. The moniker wasn't just hyperbole in his mind.

He has always had a robust supply of confidence.

As seen in the book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson, Punk said, "From bell to bell, I don't think there's anyone in the world who can touch me at what I do."

That attitude helped him build a Hall of Fame-worthy wrestling career. It also blinded him to the fact he would be outclassed by any opponent UFC threw at him. 

The same self-assurance he showed during his wrestling career stayed with him. Punk told TMZ Sports before his fight with Gall, "I'm gonna win."

And whereas Punk was able to outperform his physical ability on the WWE stage, his athletic limitations left him unable to compete against Gall inside the Octagon. 

In WWE, Punk was a below-average athlete who was thriving in a world of acrobats and physical freaks.

He was never especially fast or strong. He can't leap the way the high-flying Neville can. He's not an awe-inspiring specimen the way that former WWE world champ Roman Reigns is.

Despite not being as naturally gifted as his peers, though, Punk consistently produced excellence in the ring. Others might impress more at an NFL-style combine, but when it came to compelling between the ropes, few did it better than Punk.

CM Punk takes on Randy Orton at WrestleMania.
CM Punk takes on Randy Orton at WrestleMania.Paul Abell/Associated Press

He got to the point in his career where he produced at least one masterpiece per year.

Punk vs. Cena at Money in the Bank 2011. Punk vs. Daniel Bryan at Over the Limit 2012. Punk vs. Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2013. Punk vs. Undertaker at WrestleMania 29.

Time and again, he stole the show.

His drive and grit were responsible for much of that. The same goes for that giant chip that he always carried on his shoulder. His confidence in the face of criticism helped him accomplish what he did for WWE.

But in crossing over to the UFC, those skills compelled him to venture into a league above him.   

Mickey Gall in control of CM Punk.
Mickey Gall in control of CM Punk.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

His guts weren't enough to close the gap between him and Gall. His swagger couldn't combat his lack of experience. His ability to ignore the doubters only led him to not listen to reason.

Punk wasn't ready to fight professionally. He isn't an UFC fighter; he's a martial artist in training.

No one could have convinced him of that, however. It would have been just another scenario of someone telling him he couldn't do something, inspiring him in the process.


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