clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

CM Punk's attempt at MMA differs greatly from other name pro wrestlers who have tried

CM Punk has spent his entire adult life proving critics wrong who felt he could never make it to the top in pro wrestling. Now, he's bucking even longer odds in starting from scratch in MMA, without a high-level background in any combat sport.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
The first time I saw CM Punk wrestle was about a dozen years ago. He and his friend Colt Cabana were independent pro wrestlers out of Chicago, who had gotten a little bit of an underground name, and came to wrestle in Northern California.

He had long hair, bleached blond. He was thin by standards of a major league wrestling star. He wore baggy shorts and a jersey, so you couldn't see his physique. He neither had the look, nor was he any kind of a freak super athlete, the kind of guy you see do things in the ring that blow your mind. He also wasn't  the kind of smooth technical wrestling whiz that stood out. There have been plenty of guys I've seen on those type of stages for the first time and thought, the sky is the limit for this guy. He hardly fit into that category.

It was shortly after that point where Punk started working with Ring of Honor, another underground promotion, but which had some of the best in-ring action found anywhere in the world. Insiders and Hardcore fans knew about it, but it had no television at the time. Some of the best matches in the country were talking place in that ring, and Punk was in some of them. It was a group of guys, almost all considered too small or too thin, or not cosmetically pleasing enough, based on the prevailing notion of what a pro wrestler should look like, to make it in WWE, the world's dominant pro wrestling group.

The point of all this is that from day one, most in pro wrestling thought he had no chance to ever get past the level of being a small promotion star. He went from the bottom steps of the business, driving hundreds of miles for $25 paydays, or less, to getting a few hundred dollars a match, to getting a developmental contract with WWE, which paid very little. On each rung, the book on him was that while he could talk great, he'd never make it as a major league star.

He spoke his mind all the time, in a business that is, as Punk himself calls it, can be bipolar. They want their star performers to walk around like they are somebody, with a swagger, and talk like they are Muhammad Ali in his heyday. But behind the scenes, they want guys who are loyal soldiers, who do as they are told, never complain, and are happy and thankful to be getting a paycheck, whether it's good or its bad. The lack of competition has bred a crew of guys who make for being good soldiers, but lack a lot of the ingredients that made their predecessors more larger than life stars. This creates the strange chemistry where the company gets frustrated that nobody stands out like a star. They want cocky guys, but then want to revel in beating the cockiness out of them.

At one point, while still working in a WWE developmental territory in Louisville, he was on the list of guys to be cut. The mentality was that he was a small promotion hotshot who had no potential on the international stage.

He wasn't cut, and was eventually given a shot on the main roster. Because he looked a certain way, and wrestled a certain way, the book on him was that he was a guy "playing pro wrestler, but wasn't a pro wrestler."

Pro wrestling has always had a weird love/hate relationship with its audience. In a sense, it was ahead of the game because of Internet involvement. They need an audience to survive. But it's a business about control, of both the participants and the crowds. When the audience doesn't go along with what the company thinks is right, they create reasons in meetings to blame the crowd. With Punk, there was always a segment of the audience that really liked him due to his name from smaller companies. So he was a target and a lot of people were smiling and waiting for him to fail.

He didn't. By 2008, he was a genuine top star. Three years later, he nearly walked away. Right before his contract was to expire, he cut the most memorable pro wrestling interview on television of the last five years. He had considered leaving to try MMA, and he knew, at 32 years old, his window of opportunity was closing. But he was the hottest he ever was as a pro wrestler, and signed a three-year contract renewal.

During that period, he became one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling. In 2012, of the full-timers on the WWE roster, he was the second-biggest star, behind John Cena. That role is worth millions of dollars a year. Almost everyone would have been thrilled being in that position, but he was frustrated that Cena was in pay-per-view main events and, unless he was against Cena, he was No. 2. He even complained when movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would show up and be put in the spotlight ahead of him.

There is an irony. His role in UFC, an outsider with a name expected to bring in an audience that usually doesn't buy the pay-per-views or watch the product regularly, is exactly the role Johnson played in wrestling. But there's a major difference. Johnson, before becoming a movie star, had a proven track record in wrestling. And in pro wrestling, the promoters have control to make sure the most marketable talent is always protected in the scripts.

Punk, in the UFC, comes in with no track record past he was a superstar in pro wrestling.

His description of his life is that he was a teenager in Chicago, a big fan of both the UFC and pro wrestling. He wanted to do both. There was a fork in the road, and went to pro wrestling.  But he felt, no matter how big of a success he was in pro wrestling, he would have regrets if he never tried MMA.

"People who know me know how long I've talked about doing this," he said Saturday night. "This isn't so much about the UFC. It's about me, and what I want to show about me. It's something I've thought about for a very long time, and once the opportunity presented itself, I'd have been a fool not to take it."

It probably didn't hurt that he and WWE management had a big blowup in January. He was beat up and banged up. His paycheck was going down after a long run as champion. He walked away, saying he had a concussion. He was later diagnosed with an MRSA staph infection. And then, in what WWE claims was a coincidence, a story he doesn't buy, just hours before his wedding (to April Mendez, a well-known pro wrestler known as A.J. Lee) in June, he got a Federal Express letter saying he was fired. They claimed he breached his contract, that he was entitled to no royalties, and that for one year, he couldn't wrestle--or do MMA--anywhere in the world. It became very easy for him to hate his employer.

He had money. He was leaving. And if he didn't try MMA now, he probably never would.

He fought back and got a vicious lawyer. WWE caved quickly on the non-compete, and settled on Oct. 26. As quickly as he could, he met with Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta in Chicago about coming to UFC. Negotiations slowed in the hands of lawyers, but he said he signed his deal about a week ago.

The initial comparison that many tried to make was with Brock Lesnar, a guy who was a big star in pro wrestling and then went into UFC, and ended up being a gigantic drawing card and had a run as heavyweight champion.
But really, this is the opposite. Lesnar was a freak athlete, who had a combination of speed, strength, size and an NCAA championship's pedigree. When he was in pro wrestling, people always speculated how he'd do in MMA.

When he was in college, he flirted with the idea of MMA and probably would have been dominant in that era, but there was no money to be made. His choice was to make a few thousand dollars, at best, for a fight, or take a $250,000 a year guaranteed contract to do pro wrestling, which quickly turned into seven figures since Lesnar had the look the wrestling Gods coveted. As a farm boy from South Dakota who had no money, it was an easy decision for Lesnar. Later, when economics changed and he could make money fighting, he tried it out.

Lots of pro wrestlers who had various levels of success in MMA, from Sylvester Terkay, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba to Bobby Lashley to one-and-dones like Bam Bam Bigelow, brought with them strong amateur wrestling backgrounds. Others, like the late Sean O'Haire, brought reputations into MMA as street fighters, which ended up meaning nothing against trained professionals. The number of pro wrestlers who have done MMA is well over 100, but not one has had any meaningful success who didn't have a background in competitive wrestling before pro wrestling.

Even Dave Bautista, who was a wrestling star on the level of Punk, who did one MMA fight at 43 years old, but in a smaller promotion, did some wrestling and bouncing before doing an MMA training camp and fight in 2012 as a bucket list kind of thing. Bautista's situation was similar, he was on top in wrestling making seven figures, but burned out, but he left more to be an actor who wanted to dabble in MMA. For Punk, he wants to make MMA a career.
Punk is different from all the aforementioned names. He was never considered the toughest guy in pro wrestling. He was never a star high school or college wrestler. There are no stories of Punk like the old-time street fighter wrestlers he grew up admiring, the amateur champions, the guys with legitimate submission training, or who guys who used to clean out bars if people would call them fake.

In wrestling, about the only fighting story Punk is known for was about a decade ago. As the story goes, it was outside a Waffle House in Nashville, where he got into it with Teddy Hart, the nephew of Bret Hart, who had trained in boxing. By most accounts, he didn't fare very well in that one.

He's a guy who has made a lot of money, lives a relatively frugal lifestyle, wasn't happy with life as a pro wrestler and decided it was now or never to chase his other dream.

"It was actually a really easy decision to make," he said. "Time will tell how wise a decision it was. I finally feel there's something I can put 100 percent of myself into and I'll get 100 percent back, not 30 percent back."

And he's well known enough that UFC felt it was the right business move to sign him. If they didn't, Bellator would have done so in a heartbeat. They are banking on the idea his name value is strong enough that a lot of people who aren't regular UFC viewers will be interested to see if he can fight. They are not signing him for the reasons Bellator signed Aaron Pico a few weeks ago, because there's some unknown guy with incredible skills who they think can do something in the Olympics and come into MMA and be a world beater.

Nobody knows if Punk can fight. Realistically, given his age and injuries from a career of pro wrestling, and lack of completive background in any combat sport, the odds are greatly against him. This is a Kimbo Slice play, but UFC isn't going to make Elite XC Kimbo Slice mistake. They aren't going to build the company around him. He'll likely be what Herschel Walker was in Strikeforce. He'll be an attraction on the main card. Of course, Walker was one of the greatest athletes of the last century, but he was also 47 when he tried MMA. Ironically, Punk will probably have more eyes and more talk on him than Walker had for his debut, which says something about the visibility of pro wrestlers.

But Punk is a guy who always had the odds against him, and has spent a dozen years proving people wrong. This could be where his detractors finally get the last laugh. But those detractors have also been proven wrong every step of the way.

"I would have started somewhere if Dana and Lorenzo told me to pound the sand," he said. "It's not about UFC. It's not about money. I enjoy being paid. This is about the journey of the first fight and showing what's inside of me."
This is not going to be a Lesnar situation where he walks into UFC and faces a former heavyweight champion. Punk isn't debuting against Michael Bisping, as much as Bisping, as much as the dueling promos back-and-forth would take on a life of its own. White has said he'll start against a guy of his same experience level, which means a fighter with few if any fights. In other words, the Walker blueprint.

Is this good for the sport? It is, and it isn't. It is, because it will bring attention to UFC and garner curiosity. It isn't, because if the idea that UFC is the major league and you have to earn your way in, well, he walked in, sight unseen, and didn't have the background whether in amateur wrestling, kickboxing or Jiu Jitsu, to justify it.

This isn't B.J. Penn, who was a Jiu Jitsu prodigy when he was signed with zero fights. It isn't Lesnar. It's not even Matt Mitrione, who was a very good college football player who managed to land a spot on The Ultimate Fighter reality show and got in that way.

But boxing survived the recent Mickey Rourke travesty. MMA had zero damage from Walker or Bautista fighting. The Kimbo thing was a unique part of MMA's history, but did it hurt it's growth? Well, it did hurt a company based on a series of flukes, but MMA came out just fine from it.

It's a sport, and a business. His fight will be real. And time will tell if it'll do business.

The Punk signing in some ways overshadowed UFC's strongest card, on paper, in several months. So let's look at how Fortunes changed for five of Saturday's stars.

ROBBIE LAWLER - The young kid from the Pat Miletich camp who debuted in UFC before his 20th birthday, as of two years ago looked like one of those guys who came into the sport with a lot of hype who never lived up to his promise. He made a name as an exciting fighter, and even was Elite XC middleweight champion on CBS. But he had lost three of his last four fights in Strikeforce when he was brought into the UFC. Most figured, in his UFC return, that he was a recognizable name for Josh Koscheck to beat as Koscheck tried to get another title shot.

Koscheck was never the same after the beating Lawler put on him.

On Saturday, Lawler (25-10, 1 no contest) pulled out rounds four and five, both of which he was losing until the last minute, to take a split decision against Johny Hendricks. This wasn't the fight of the year like the two had in March, but it was a fight that was close enough that the outcome hung in the balance with almost every twist and turn.
There are two choices for what is next. Choice No. 1 is a third fight with Hendricks (16-3), after two close decisions. Choice No. 2 is Rory MacDoanld (18-2), who Lawler beat via split decision on Nov. 16, 2013, but has looked great in winning three straight this year.

There is no clear-cut choice. I'd favor MacDonald, just because it's a different match-up to promote for the title. But there is neither a sports nor business reason where one choice is significantly above the other. I don't sense a clamoring for a third Hendricks fight to be so strong to go right to it. But Lawler and Hendricks have fought ten rounds, and realistically, are even with five rounds apiece in two close fights, so a rematch is completely justified.

ANTHONY PETTIS - For the first round, it appeared Gilbert Melendez had the game plan of smothering Pettis where he could win rounds and take the lightweight title.

And then in a blink of an eye, a 25-minute strategy was over. Melendez was rocked momentarily, and Pettis (18-2) locked on a guillotine. There were a lot of different ways this fight could have ended, but Melendez tapping out, something he had never doing in 26 fights over the past dozen years, seemed like just about the least likely.
It showed just how gifted Pettis really is, since he's more known for his kickboxing based offensive attacks but also has eight submission wins, including tapping out Benson Henderson, another fighter who at times appeared to be almost immune to submissions.

A year ago, the lightweight division appeared to be log jammed with title contenders. But things changed. Melendez lost here. Josh Thomson lost to Henderson and Bobby Green. Green lost to Edson Barboza. Henderson lost to Rafael dos Anjos. Dos Anjos lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Donald Cerrone beat Barboza and Eddie Alvarez, but lost to dos Anjos and lost quickly two years ago to Pettis.

With everyone knocking each other off, Nurmagomedov (22-0) looks to be the obvious next opponent.

Nurmagomedov has been able to out grapple everyone he's been put against, so from a style standpoint, he does have the chops to do what Clay Guida did in handing Pettis his last loss more than three years ago.

The other intriguing potential opponent is Barboza (15-2), just because Barboza has the kind of quick reflexes and striking power that Pettis has. Barboza's weakness is durability, as Cerrone and Jamie Varner showed in beating him. But he's the one guy near the top who looks to be able to compete with Pettis at the champion's strengths and make for an exciting match, even though Pettis would be heavily favored to prevail.

JOHNY HENDRICKS - One could make a strong case that Hendricks beat himself as opposed to Lawler beating him. Hendricks was getting the better of the stand-up in the fourth round, but it was staying in position and failing a takedown in the fourth that allowed Lawler to win the round in the closing seconds. That ended up being the difference in the fight. Not only that, but Hendricks employed the same strategy in round five, which led to Lawler pulling that round out late.

Of course from a Hendricks standpoint, he needs to push hard for a rematch. We've seen that the squeaky wheel gets the grease when it comes to coin flip UFC title decisions.

If not, the next destination should be Hector Lombard (34-4-1) or Tyron Woodley (14-3). A Lombard fight sounds great on paper, but Lombard first has to get past Josh Burkman on Jan. 3. Woodley has to get past Kelvin Gastelum (10-0) on Jan. 31. They have a back story since Hendricks beat Woodley for the Big-12 championship in wrestling in 2005, which Woodley has never forgotten. And if Gastelum gets past Woodley, as impressive as the former TUF star has looked, that could also be a consideration.

TRAVIS BROWNE - Browne (17-2-1) finished Brendan Schaub in a grudge match on Saturday and seemed frustrated at being ranked No. 3. But there's no way at this point he could be ahead of Fabricio Werdum, who beat him, or Junior Dos Santos, whose only UFC losses have been to champion Cain Velasquez.

His destination looks easy. Dos Santos (16-3) is facing Stipe Miocic (12-1) in the main event on FOX on Dec. 13 in Phoenix. Browne should face the winner. If he can win that one, he should be the clear-cut next contender for the Velasquez vs. Werdum winner.

URIJAH FABER - Faber (32-7), continued his streak of having never lost a non-title match in an 11-year career. But this was not without controversy.

An accidental eye poke blinded Francisco Rivera (10-4, 1 no contest), who ate several shots and was then choked out at 1:34 of the second round. Faber, one of the most popular fighters in the company, was booed when the replay showed what happened.

The foul was accidental, but it directly led to the finish. In my opinion, that when the television monitors clearly show that it was a foul that led to the finish, the match should have been ruled a no contest, but that's not the way it works in this sport.

It's too much to ask someone to think on their feet in a weird situation, and Faber was probably thrilled to have gotten a submission in what was clearly looking like a tough fight. But the perfect thing for him to have done when he saw the replay was to say that he doesn't want to accept the win under those circumstances, apologize to Rivera, and ask to do it again.

A rematch in this case is the fair thing to do. Plus, the only really big fight for Faber right now would be against Dominick Cruz, and Cruz still has a title shot at T.J. Dillashaw first. Should Cruz lose, the Faber fight is a natural. Should Cruz win, that becomes a sticky situation because the Faber fight would still garner the most interest, but Faber realistically needs a few wins in a row before there's even talk of another title shot.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting