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It was over 21 months ago, UFC 181 to be exact -- the same night Robbie Lawler took the UFC welterweight championship from Johny Hendricks in a rematch of their 2014 “Fight of the Year” nine months prior -- that the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced it had signed former World Wrestling Entertainment star “CM Punk” Phil Brooks. In that moment, reactions in the mixed martial arts sphere ranged from eye rolls to moderate curiosity. On the one hand, Brooks was a banged-up former pro-wrestler well on the wrong side of 35 years old, with no chance of ever doing anything relevant in the Octagon. On the other hand, there's always a bit of morbid intrigue when any wrassler decides to try his hand at real fighting.
That was December 2014. Zuffa didn't schedule Brooks' debut right off the bat, instead giving him more time to train at Roufusport in Milwaukee and get comfortable. Then came the multiple postponements as the shopworn Punk dealt with shoulder and recurring back injuries. While the UFC bought time by hyping its “Dana White Lookin' For a Fight” series, having the UFC boss pluck 1-0 Mickey Gall out of Philadelphia's Dead Serious MMA after his pro debut, then giving him a rote showcase fight against Mike Jackson in the UFC this past February to firm up his status as “the guy who will fight CM Punk one day.” It was like strange nesting dolls, embedding a miniature reality show within a larger, more lunatic reality show.
The hope was for Brooks to fight Gall at UFC 199 this past June, but Brooks' back surgery pushed his debut date back even a bit further. In early February, right around the time Gall dominated Jackson and Brooks went under the knife, now-UFC middleweight champ Michael Bisping went on SiriusXM Radio and claimed that at Roufusport, Brooks had fought 16 smoker-style bouts in the gym and lost 15 of them. At this point, the public narrative around Brooks' Octagon ambitions changed almost instantly. With just one classic flap of Michael Bisping's lips, CM Punk's MMA odyssey went from a drab and pointless reality show to a surreal drama.
Before Bisping decided to put Brooks on blast, most MMA folks copped a “I'll believe it when I see it” attitude. Brooks turns 38 in October, had been beset by injuries and was a complete novice with no practical combat training that would give him a leg up in MMA; the “CM Punk has been undefeated in the UFC for X days” meme seemed to grow and flourish as a result of the doubts he'd ever actually fight despite it being a constant source of hype and conversation. But all of a sudden, Brooks actually had a real opponent waiting in the wings and Bisping's rumor mongering introduced two new things to ponder: one, CM Punk does seem deathly serious about actually getting into the Octagon and two, he might actually be terrible.
The cauldron has been on a rolling boil since then, producing noxious fumes. Just a few months ago, there was still massive doubt for many Brooks would ever have his UFC debut, but now, the MMA world en masse views Saturday's UFC 203 card in Cleveland as a funeral march for CM Punk. If there was uncertainty and/or curiosity before, the atmosphere now seems mostly composed of schadenfreude. “The Evolution of Punk” series that the UFC produced to promote Brooks' UFC 203 debut offered more Brooks training footage, which only seemed to heighten and intensify the idea that he's an undertrained hobbyist in for a rude awakening, a mark who has played himself and now awaits his just desserts.
Meanwhile, any support from the pro-wrestling company has atrophied and inverted: since his MMA journey began, the wrestling crowd has steadily grown tired of Brooks' persona and this deterioration reached a head recently when longtime CM Punk friend and fellow pro-wrestler Colt Cabana showed up backstage at a WWE Raw taping, taking pictures with various company personalities for social media. Brooks is currently the defendant in a defamation suit filed by the WWE's Dr. Chris Amman in February 2015, stemming from comments Brooks made on Cabana's “The Art of Wrestling” podcast. Brooks was, by all reports, furious with his former friend; he severed all ties with the popular Cabana, crystallizing the wrasslin' community's animus toward him and drawing a contingent of folks who used to root for CM Punk into the cabal that wants to see him humiliated by Gall.
Even if you exclude Japanese pro-wrestlers carrying out the Antonio Inoki and Akira Maeda-type cultural tradition of trying to prove they're legitimate tough guys, there's still plenty of notable examples of western pro-wrestlers giving MMA a try, with varying degrees of success. That said, the circumstances surrounding CM Punk's MMA kick at the can are more pernicious than just about any that his contemporaries have faced.
Yes, there have been pro-wrestlers in legit fights no one expected them to win, most notably New Japan Pro-Wrestling's Yuji Nagata getting his ass handed to him by Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Fedor Emelianenko. Sure, there have been sadder, more transparent cash grabs, like when nearly 44-year-old Steve Williams took a fight with K-1 stalwart Alexey Ignashov to get money for his throat cancer treatment. In all reality, CM Punk is not going to get beat worse than say, Kimo Leopoldo bashing “Bam Bam” Scott Bigelow's face into raw hamburger years ago, only for Bigelow to laughably claim it was a work in subsequent years to save face. But, this is not the proto era of MMA, or the kakutogi boom in Japan; in 2016's UFC product, Brooks' only real option is to win or be turned into a meme and cautionary tales for years to come, even if he gets paid handsomely in the process.
If he can handle potential humiliation in the face of that payday, good on him; after all, real or worked, Brooks is a carnival performer. But, given his age and the already apparent wear and tear on his body, if MMA success and glory was the real end game for CM Punk, he would've been better off following Dave Bautista's lead, and using his name to sell tickets and get a quality purse while not turning his cagefighting dream into a psychodrama. If he'd done that, he'd never be matched up with a kid like Gall, he'd probably win and he could go off to write another Drax the Destroyer comic book.
But, one thing that most pro-wrestlers who have tried their hand at MMA have had in their back pocket, is that they're enormous men. As the Josh Barnett-Andrei Arlovski headliner last weekend in Hamburg, Germany reminded us, heavyweight talent dies hard in this sport and there's a reason the average age of a top 10 heavyweight is approximately 54 years old. A guy like Bobby Lashley has requisite athleticism, a real wrestling background and heavyweight size? Despite Lashley not being an MMA natural in the slightest, he's been able to get paid and put together a 14-2 pro MMA record, albeit against mostly lame opposition. Even though the UFC rationally overstepped in order to produce a Dana White vanity vehicle by installing a talent like Gall as Punk's MMA competition, it never would've happened if he was twice his size. He would've gotten some free-swinging meaty body and probably cruised to a perfunctory win.
But, Brooks is an alleged welterweight. This week, he all-but-admitted to MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani he was struggling with his first cut to 170 pounds, never having done a test cut. Nearly every possible realm of prefight existence has turned against CM Punk at this point in time. Maybe Brooks turns out to be a Clay Guida-type, who underachieves in the gym and somehow finds the magic on fight night. Maybe he lands the greatest thrown strike of his natural born life and can laugh in the faces of the MMA and pro-wrestling populaces together. But, the outlook is grim and he made it this way: CM Punk chose to be Phil Brooks and now every deck conceivable is stacked against his success, in a spectacle that has been hyped for nearly two years.
This is what Phil Brooks chose and on when the cage doors closes Saturday night, only he can save himself.