UFC 203 is now one for the record books. On that fateful evening at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the MMA universe saw Stipe Miocic successfully defend his UFC heavyweight championship for the first time; scoring a first round knockout over Alistair Overeem in front of his hometown fans; as well as a dominant performance by Jessica Andrande (who is quickly establishing herself as a very real threat to Joanna Jedrzejczyk) and a rematch between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne that can best be defined as unique.
However, with all the highs and lows, shenanigans and standout (or not so standout) performances put forth in “The House LeBron Built,” the bout most being discussed post-mortum is the same that was generating the most buzz heading in, as former World Wrestling Entertainment World Heavyweight Champion and well known name Phil “CM Punk” Brooks made his much talked about and anticipated debut, facing Mickey Gall (2-0).
While many tuned in to the bout, some with baited breath thinking that Punk MIGHT have a shot to prove the naysayers wrong, the fight went almost to a tee as people expected. Within seconds, Gall had Punk on his back after scoring a takedown that looked (with due respect to Punk) almost effortless. From there, it was “Good Night Irene” for the former WWE champion, as Gall proceeded to spend the duration of the fight pounding away on Punk, who had no defense for Gall’s offensive output, before finally sinking in a fight ending rear naked choke 2:14 into the fight.
Suffice to say, criticism has poured down on Punk in droves. While not fully critical of his performance, no words may have been more telling than that of Dana White, who said if Punk wants to continue fighting, his next fight “probably shouldn’t be in the UFC.” Another notable voice, UFC commentator Joe Rogan, was a little more expansive in his thoughts shortly following the conclusion of the fights. In his post event recap, Rogan stated he admired Punk for taking a swing for the fences, however followed this by using the term “delusional” to define Punk’s UFC aspirations, compared his fight to why you don’t see brown belts compete with white belts in jiu-jitsu tournaments, stated what we saw was “unfair” and advised him to fight as an amateur if he wishes to continue in the sport.
While the words of Rogan are certainly not off course, nothing he said isn’t what has been repeated over and over since December 2014, when the Punk signing was first announced. Many questioned and heavily criticized the signing, expressing belief that Punk’s place wasn’t in the Octagon, but instead in a local promotion working his way up the ranks, in hopes of perhaps eventually getting his crack in “the big leagues.”
Let me be straight forward here. I respect CM Punk. I respect the fact that he took a stab at his dream of fighting for the UFC. I respect the fact that he made the sacrifices that needed to be made, including daily trips from Chicago to Milwaukee (which on paper looks close, but only is so for those who have never drove in Chicago traffic) and the time he put forth with a top notch camp (Roufussport). I respect him battling through injuries, which included ones so severe he needed back surgery to repair it, and not throwing in the towel. He also won a big battle that is hardly easy by making weight for his fight. For these, despite what people online and other journalists say, he DOES deserve credit and respect. That isn’t the guy wanting a consolation prize or a participation trophy. It’s him EARNING the respect for DOING it when so many wouldn’t and giving his best to step in the often unforgiving confines of the Octagon and the spotlight. However with that said, the CM Punk fight proves yet another valuable lesson. The days of the UFC barely having enough warm bodies to put forth a quality event died a LONG time ago. The sport has evolved to such levels (thanks to the efforts of many to raise mainstream awareness) that even the fighters that are just getting their feet wet in what they could be capable of are levels higher than the commoner; the one just getting started. While Gall is still very much a pup in the grand scheme of things in Mixed Martial Arts, he’s also one who has over a decade of training, a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a blue belt in Muay Thai. This isn’t someone who just rolled out of bed and decided to go to the fights, only to find himself thrust into the action. As for Rogan’s comments about fighting in the amateur ranks, unfortunately once you’ve danced in the professional ranks, there is no going back. Where Punk goes from here is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he takes another stab at MMA elsewhere. Perhaps he decides he has had enough and rides off into the sunset. Regardless of his next step, for anyone to say he wasn’t ready for the UFC and should have taken the path most traveled in MMA is both pointing out the obvious and publicly admonishing someone for NOT taking said path, even though that path was avoided by little fault of his own.
Reality is this. CM Punk being thrown right into the fire in his maiden MMA journey is akin to a kid who is just learning the basic nuances of baseball being put into live action at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. While Mickey Gall may not yet be a Cy Young Award caliber pitcher (for comparisons sake), he also has the years of playing time under his belt to have earned his shot in the bigs. Whether he becomes the next Stephen Strasburg or David Price is to be determined. However, at UFC 203 in Cleveland, Gall showed he was had more than enough baseball acumen to strike CM Punk out in three straight pitches.
All this poses my ultimate question. Is CM Punk really deserving of the adverse criticism he is getting? The only thing he was guilty of is saying yes to both the opportunity of a lifetime for him, and a big time payday with major mainstream exposure. Not one of us would have said no to an offer like this, regardless of how ready we may or may not have been. If anything, Punk showed what should already be known: the UFC isn’t for the every man. The athletes who fight inside the Octagon are some of the best in the world and if you aren’t up to snuff, regardless of your background, your stay will be an abbreviated one. There is a reason why so many have come and gone over the last 20+ years; some never to be heard from in the sport again after their UFC careers went south. It takes a special talent to fight in that cage and/or many years of training to reach that point. While Punk may eventually prove he COULD have been there, once he was thrust in to the spotlight, there is no turning back and we may never know what could have been. What we do know is that his time of training wasn’t nearly enough for him to be ready for the shark infested waters of the UFC, and it showed. However criticizing the man for taking the big opportunity presented to him is akin to putting a kid in a room full of pens, no toys and no entertainment, then blaming him for writing on the wall.