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With Phil Brooks’ Octagon debut now complete, the question turns to what comes next for the former pro wrestling star. The biggest factor influencing the future of “CM Punk” is whether Ultimate Fighting Championship elects to give him another fight. UFC President Dana White has already suggested in an interview with The Fight Network’s John Pollock that Punk might be better off fighting elsewhere. However, the decision will surely be debated among the UFC’s new ownership group, particularly as pay-per-view revenues start to come in for a UFC 203 card that was largely promoted around Punk. The decision ought to be an easy one: The UFC should cut Punk after his one and only bout in the promotion.
There are many delighting over Punk’s fate in his UFC debut. Punk has made enemies in wrestling circles for his outspoken personality and in MMA circles for his hubris in taking a UFC fight with no experience. There is no such delight here. Punk gets respect for being a transcendent talent in his original field and for having the courage to put it all on the line in a new field at age 37 with little likelihood of success. Punk’s UFC future should be decided not by sentimentality nor by spite; it’s simply the sensible course of action.
Some have criticized Punk’s place in the Ultimate Fighting Championship on the grounds that it watered down what it means to fight in the UFC. This argument would have made more sense a decade ago when UFC events were sporadic and filled from top to bottom with elite fighters. It’s not nearly such a big deal now. The volume of shows, additional weight classes and geographical expansion has meant there are a lot of fighters competing in the UFC who aren’t very good. If Jessica Rakoczy can fight in the UFC with a 1-4 official record at age 38, just to take one example, it’s not doing a huge amount of harm to allow Punk to have a UFC fight.
With that said, giving Punk another fight after his submission loss to Mickey Gall on Saturday in Cleveland would provide a certain level of farce. There was no reason to expect Punk to be able to fight at the UFC level, and that was definitively proven the first time out. To give Punk a fair second opponent, the UFC would have to dig pretty low. It wouldn’t be a good look for a promotion that has always emphasized high level competition more than its competitors.
There’s also the matter of what the upside would be for the UFC. Even if UFC 203 was a big success on pay-per-view, and it seems less than likely that was the case based on the pre-show buzz, it will be hard to get large numbers of people to pay to see Punk again. The play would almost certainly be to put Punk on Fox. That would draw ratings, for sure, but it wouldn’t make much money for the UFC to help offset Punk’s high-dollar contract.
If there isn’t a lot of money to be made from Punk and having him fight again in the UFC would send a bad message to fans and fighters alike, what exactly would be the rationale for retaining him? The common refrain from some has been that the UFC wouldn’t want to let Punk go to Bellator MMA. This line of thinking suggests the UFC might give Punk another fight in order to keep him away from its top competitor.
Far from being something to dread, the UFC ought to be encouraged by the prospect of Punk going to Bellator. Under Scott Coker, Bellator has focused heavily on freak show fights involving old or unskilled individuals who really shouldn’t be fighting. While those individual fights have done well in the ratings, they have led to consistent declines for Bellator’s other shows. It’s the same mistake K-1 and EliteXC made in the past: If you focus too heavily on freak shows, you educate your fan base that there’s nothing special or important about being the best fighter in your promotion. The freak shows remain your top attractions while the foundation of your company slowly dissolves, forcing you to turn back to the freak shows in what turns into a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
If Bellator decides to sign and heavily promote Punk, that’s great news for the UFC. Punk will draw big ratings, just like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice. Meanwhile, fans will be taught yet again that real fighters like Ben Henderson, Rory MacDonald, Michael Chandler and Andrey Koreshkov are nowhere near as important as better-known non-fighters and Bellator’s ratings for its shows built around the undermined higher-level fighters will continue to struggle. Punk is more Trojan horse than building block for Bellator.
Punk got to live his dream and compete in the UFC. It’s now time to return to reality. The UFC should end the experiment and return to its normal course of business.