Without a doubt, the hottest topics in my years of covering MMA has been professional wrestlers jumping from WWE to the UFC. The masses love a freak show fight
Fans and media alike have compared CM Punk's defection to the UFC to Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley, Kimbo Slice, Herschel Walker and James Toney, but this situation is unique. Punk doesn't have a decorated wrestling or boxing background like Lesnar, Lashley and Toney. Walker was a once in a lifetime athlete. Punk is a professional wrestler with no considerable athletic background and huge injuries.
Punk appearing in the UFC against another inexperienced fighter could be likened to Michael Jordan jumping straight to double-A baseball in 1994. Jordan didn't belong there and didn't have the skill set, but because of who he was, he was there. The UFC is the premiere fight league, just as major league baseball is. While MLB have their own minor league system, the UFC doesn't, and in a world were some competitors on The Ultimate Fighter: China have never sparred before, having a 0-0 fighter that's going to bring eyeballs to the sport isn't going to hurt. The UFC has 550 fighters on their current roster, and nowhere near the majority are considered elite.
It's also been suggested that CM Punk go through the Ultimate Fighter. Both Matt Mitrione and Matt Riddle went through the reality series as 0-0 fighters and went on to have successful UFC careers. They also weren't international superstars. The Ultimate Fighter format will be changing next season, and will instead focus on camps, eliminating this possibility from the equation.
The UFC may have also learned their lesson from Kimbo Slice on The Ultimate Fighter. The aging street fighter was an internet superstar with a few pro fights to his credit. Slice was given a slot on the series and proceeded to pop the biggest TV rating in MMA history. He also was dominated in short fashion, and never garnered the same attention.
CM Punk doesn't have a background. None. He spoke of training in Kempo previously, but the majority of that will be out the window as he refines his MMA technique. He claims his base will be in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which hasn't worked out well for elite talent in the UFC of late relying on that discipline. Fortunately for him, he's not facing elite talent and he already has camps such as American Kickboxing Academy lining up to take him in.
Money will be made, and pay-per-view revenues will go up. With UFC profits down 40% in 2014, that point is paramount for the company. 45 events a year without the talent or emotional investment to back up that schedule has driven many fans away, lapsed fans the brand hopes to get back.
It will happen. Make no mistake, wrestling fans will buy CM Punk's fight on pay-per-view. Maybe not as many that bought Lesnar's-- he set UFC PPV records-- but Punk has a much larger fan base than Lesnar ever did in WWE, and had a much longer run. Punk also has the benefit of having more people that despise him than Lesnar ever did, which may be even a more important factor towards his financial success with the company. Either way, fans are curious to have their questions answered in a physical manner.
Many forget that Brock Lesnar wasn't a pay-per-view draw during his WWE run. Numbers plummeted during his 2002-2004 reign of terror, with the WrestleMania that he headlined being among the worst selling of all-time. Stardom is measured in different ways in 2014, and Punk's ridiculous merchandise sales may be a more fair indication.
Punk is a more savvy businessman than anyone gave him credit for. His tell-all podcasts aired on Thanksgiving, and the following Thursday. Steve Austin's podcast with Vince McMahon was right in the middle. Punk released new merchandise during that point, and announced his UFC deal shortly after. Interest in Punk is arguably at its highest level ever.
Let's not kid ourselves. 36 is ancient for MMA. I'm in my 20's and have injuries that prevent me from training MMA on a semi-regular basis, but I'm still able to work the occasional pro wrestling match, seminar or training session. In a pro wrestling match, you're working with someone. If you're hurt, you can limit motion and work around things in order to hide that injury. In MMA, you're working against someone. Unpredictable motions are the norm, and injuries can't be protected in the same manner.
I never went through the rigors of a WWE schedule or an UFC level training camp, Punk on the other hand has cracked his skull, had a three month staph infection, a dozen concussions, hip and knee surgery. That's not very promising. Will CM Punk make it through a fight camp? Dave Batista did, and he was several years older. What he's doing after the injuries and the miles on his body is really hard to comprehend.
An interesting conundrum is that Punk doesn't even stand to be the biggest beneficiary of this deal, Brock Lesnar does. Lesnar's contract is rumored to expire in April, and the UFC and have already expressing interest in signing the PPV juggernaut and current WWE World Heavyweight Champion. With the WWE cannibalizing it's own PPV business, many have speculated whether Lesnar's contract is financially responsible for the company.
Bellator MMA will play a large role in these negotiations as well. The company managed 100,000 buys in their first PPV this year, and experienced personal bests in TV ratings in a bit of a freak show fight of their own last month pitting aging stars Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar against each other. President Scott Coker signed both Bobby Lashley and Herschel Walker to his Strikeforce brand in the past, and he has Viacom and Spike TV's vote of confidence. If Punk fails in the UFC and is cut (the latter of which is unlikely) or Lesnar becomes available, they'll be major players. There are a ton of variables that affect all three major promotions.
CM Punk isn't degrading the sport of MMA. It's hovered between sport and spectacle for years, and this move could be one that pushes it back to the heights in which it has grasped at since starting their descent in 2011. If CM Punk brings more eyes to the likes of Chris Weidman, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones, Anthony Pettis, where's the harm?
Most of the fighters get it-- the smart ones at least. UFC fighter Jessamyn Duke told us "I can't wait for his first fight. No matter what happens, he will be able to say he did it. And not many ppl can do that. He really respects fighters and trains hard. He will sell more tickets than anyone, Ever. Why shouldn't he get a chance?" UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler seems to share those sentiments, as he's publicly invited Punk to join his camp.
The UFC repeatedly rejected overtures from Shaquille O'Neal for fights. Shaq is a much bigger star and a much better athlete than Punk ever has been. With the married, yet sometimes estranged worlds of MMA and professional wrestling, the UFC sees CM Punk as a safe hop instead of a risky leap.
The UFC sees something special in having Punk around, and hope that eventually we'll see it too.