There weren't many positives to glean from CM Punk's long-awaited mixed martial arts debut. The former WWE superstar, whose real name is Phil Brooks, suffered a lopsided defeat via first-round submission at the hands of Mickey Gall at UFC 203, failing to land a single significant strike over the course of the two-minute fight and prompting many veteran fighters within the game to revel in Punk's unfortunate night.
But not all of the reception to UFC 203's special attraction was negative. Several UFC veterans lauded Punk for his willingness to jump headfirst into a dangerous place like the UFC Octagon, knowing full well the hazards of the sport. And former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed Lawal, who also has dabbled in pro wrestling with a past gig in TNA, believes that the 37-year-old Punk proved that he belonged in MMA simply because of the way he handled adversity once the going got tough against a jiu-jitsu brown belt like Gall.
"My silver lining is, [Punk is] a fighter. Here's why I say this. Any normal man would've tapped when he's getting beat up like that, and would've quit," Lawal said Monday on The MMA Hour.
"Man, he didn't quit. He was getting pummeled, he got put in every bad position, he was flattened out getting hit. And you know what? He kept on trying. There are people, there are vets, there's some champions out there who'll tap to strikes. But you know what, he kept he fighting and got submitted. So I can give him that. He went out there to win. He tried. That's all you can ask. Next time he'll do better."
Punk trained for nearly two years at the Roufusport gym in preparation for his UFC debut, although some of that time was spent with Punk sidelined by lingering back and shoulder injuries.
It ultimately ended up mattering little, as Punk found himself in survival mode within the opening seconds of the fight as Gall took the former professional wrestler to the canvas and methodically worked to secure the fight-ending choke. Still, Lawal doesn't fault the rookie for his mistakes.
"Here's the thing, man, he's new to the sport," Lawal said. "He jumped in head first and I could tell he felt good. The crowd didn't get to him, but when he got in the cage, his nerves got to him, because when the fight started, instead of settling down and moving around a little bit, he shuffled forward in kill mode -- not using his tools, because he was in a good camp. Duke Roufus knows his thing, he knows his stuff, so I'm pretty sure he was like, ‘when you go out there, feint, use your jab, set something up,' but CM Punk was in kill mode and just forgot, just didn't implement the gameplan. It takes practice, it takes time.
"He's been training for two years with Duke Roufus, putting in work. I text him here and there to check up on him, see how he's doing and see if he's feeling good, and man, he was serious about it. You could see his body change. He was pumped up. A lesser man would've just found a way to not take the fight, or found a way to pull out, but he didn't. He stepped up to the plate and took a swing."
While the end result of UFC 203 may not have been what Punk was hoping for, the ancillary factors surrounding the event appear to have been a big success. The pay-per-view is expected to have performed better than the last few events headlined by a UFC heavyweight title fight, and much of that success at the box office rests on Punk's shoulders.
"In hindsight, yeah, he's worth that," Lawal said. "You know why? Because if he would've fought sooner, the hype would've been even bigger.
"People are intrigued, people are tuning in to watch. So they can complain about him not being worth $500,000, but all those people complaining probably watched the fight. ... I'd bring him back. He wants to fight. I think that it's great when a guy like that puts in time and effort and puts it all on the line. People will say that, oh, he shouldn't be in the UFC. But the UFC signed him, so you know what, give him a chance. Let him fight out his contract. This is a dream for him, just like when Herschel Walker fought. Herschel Walker wanted to fight, they gave him a chance, he did it."
At this point, it is unclear what the UFC and Punk intend to do regarding Punk's status moving forward. Punk reiterated numerous times in the lead-up to UFC 203 that he wanted to fight in MMA more than once. He echoed those sentiments after his loss, and while UFC president Dana White was much more noncommittal about staging a sequel for Punk in the Octagon, Lawal hopes that Punk continues on with his martial arts journey -- perhaps in Bellator, depending on how the cards fall.
"I think he'll fight again," Lawal said. "I think he wants to. I don't know if the UFC will allow it, because I don't really know what the UFC is doing. I don't really keep up with them. I just keep up with fighters who I'm cool with in the UFC, but I hope he gets a chance to fight again. If he doesn't, hey, come on over to Bellator, dog. We'll get you a fight over here too. ... We'll book him up."