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What’s up CM Punk’s sleeve? It’s a mystery to all (including himself)

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

CLEVELAND – Standing next to Mickey Gall at the UFC 203 press conference on Thursday, CM Punk had the haggard look of a hard-living uncle posing with a nephew just home from college. He was dressed in a suave plaid blazer, but his eyes were weary with tolls. He was slightly hollowed out and sinewy, aging before our eyes. Still, he seemed happy. He’s been saying all week leading up to the fight that the joy of his life is being able to sleep in his own bed every night, and it’s hard not to believe him. He’s at ease with the things just beyond our consideration. After years on the road with the WWE, the simple pleasures are enough to sustain Phil Brooks.

These days he goes in for just that kind of simplicity.

Still, you’ve got to admit, this thing is odd — Gall and Punk, a young kid from New Jersey who materialized out of complete obscurity and a famous entertainer from another niche stage, somehow meaning everything to each other at a crossroads in Ohio. The fight is intriguing and brimming with an exceptional kind of faux magnitude. We want to know what CM Punk looks like in the literal realm of fighting because CM Punk wants to see what he’ll look like, but what’s really at stake? Punk’s wild weekend can have a happy ending, or a sad one, but the sport will go on one way or another. Gall can show up and do what most expect him to, he can take out Punk in 45 seconds, and he won’t automatically become a household name. In the short run, he’ll be a younger, more promising Seth Petruzelli. He’ll be onto his next fight where better assessments can be made. Maybe the next guy will shake his hand at the weigh-ins, something that Punk wasn't willing to do.

Still, what’s fascinating about the bout is the ledge Punk is walking on, because everyone sees the banana peels lying at his feet. What is mixed martial arts if not embracing a common nightmare of appearing in public in your underwear, in this case under the scrutiny of the world sitting in the shadows just beyond the cage lights? That nightmare is best taken in vicariously, and Punk is just the man to do it. There’s literally no reason to believe he has a shot against Gall. He didn’t come from a true wrestling background, nor did he have a jiu-jitsu upbringing (though he fooled around with Ralek Gracie while still on the pro wrestling circuit). He didn’t box, and he didn’t spend a summer in Thailand working the plum.

Quite simply, he had it in him to try something gonzo after years of contemplation, and it’s that whim that becomes the whole story of UFC 203. What happens when a man, a famous man, wants something bad enough to do it, at 37 years old, while the community around him holds back a collective chuckle at his outlandishness? That question fills in the drama in Cleveland. People rally around a man about to fall on his face, yet the idea that he might not — that he has a say in the matter — is what gives it an air of mystery. Other than a year-and-a-half training under Duke Roufus and company in Milwaukee, Punk has zero real qualifications. He showed nothing of his hand at the open workouts other than a couple of rudimentary grappling techniques. What does he actually bring? His known strengths lie in marketability and fame, things he both naturally embraces and deftly dismisses.

Other than that, it’s really anybody’s guess.

Still, there’s something about the sincerity in which Punk is taking on this challenge that translates. This isn’t Bam Bam Bigelow back in 1996 showing up against Kimo Leopoldo in Japan to snatch a sack of money. This is a guy who doesn’t need money doing some weekend warrior work on the most absurd level possible. He has spent 18 months punching a bag for the chance to humiliate himself, and yet he’s been doing it too so that he won’t. You know it’s not about CM Punk proving something to himself. It’s about CM Punk showing the world that this is the original him, the one that was always under the surface during his pro wrestling days. This is Punk, the edgy low-grade anarchist fellow from Chicago, giving a more authentic version of himself. This is the whole truth, the edit to his biography. This is a man who wants to be known more fully than he was before, even if it’s just by showing up to give it a shot.

It’s a vanity project for sure, and a privileged one (not many people get a UFC platform to try out new identities). But in the fight game, drama can take on many forms. Gall should win the fight, and it might be anticlimactic in the end. Yet Punk is going through with it. He’s in Cleveland to find out.

And that says a lot.