I hate to be the one to break the news to everyone, but there’s never going to be another Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar was, to put it mildly, a freak. Getting to the top of the WWE is nearly impossible, and the same goes for becoming a UFC champion. Completing both of those goals within a 10-year period the way that Lesnar did is honestly one of the more remarkable sports achievements in the last decade. Lesnar was the perfect athlete to accomplish such a thing, and he came around at exactly the right time for both companies. Expecting someone to match those achievements is ridiculous and completely unfair to the fighter in question. But from here on out, any professional wrestler that decides to test their luck inside the Octagon is going to be showered immediately with comparisons to Lesnar. If the rumor mill is to be trusted, it looks like the next man to receive that treatment could be former WWE champion (and Lesnar’s fellow Paul Heyman guy) CM Punk.
Phil Brooks, more commonly known as CM Punk, left the WWE this past January due to a number of conflicts with the company. The longer he’s remained outside of the squared circle, the more the chatter surrounding Punk and a potential MMA career continues to grow louder. Now, following a controversial interview Punk recently did for The Art of Wrestling podcast over Thanksgiving that made it clear that the controversial superstar wants nothing to do with his former employers at the moment, the chatter has increased significantly. The UFC and Bellator are suddenly being listed as potential landing spots for the former WWE champion.
The idea of Punk inside the cage isn’t as ridiculous as one might think. The “Straight Edge Superstar” has been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for years, most recently under world-renowned trainer Rener Gracie. He has also trained in Muay Thai for some time. Even his in-ring style while working in the WWE was more MMA-based than the styles of any of his counterparts, with an arsenal that included a number of submissions on the ground and techniques like head kicks and flying knees on the feet. While there’s no comparison between fighting in a cage and choreographed entertainment in a wrestling ring, the fact that he’s familiar enough with these techniques that he was willing to do some variation of them in front of millions of people on television every week is encouraging, at the least to fans hoping to see him inside the cage.
Of course, for every wrestling fan that would love to see Punk inside the cage, there are an equal amount of MMA purists that don’t even like to see Punk cageside, let alone actually inside the cage. Unlike Lesnar, who carried legitimate NCAA wrestling credentials with him when he entered the Octagon, Punk has committed his entire life to pro wrestling since high school and really has no athletic background to speak of outside of his time in the pro-wrestling world. Gracie can talk up Punk’s skills on the mat all he wants, but fight fans will remain skeptical unless they are given proof that the Chicago native can actually hold his own on the mat against a legitimate pro fighter.
To make things even more difficult for Punk, Lesnar became a star in a heavyweight division where his massive size and wrestling skills made him one of the scariest fighters in the history of the weight class. Punk would likely end up competing at 185 pounds—the deeper middleweight division—without any of the advantages Lesnar was afforded when he entered the UFC.
Unless Punk has been hiding the fact that he has world-class Muay Thai skills and a guard to rival B.J. Penn, he’s not going to crack the UFC rankings, especially when entering the sport as a 35-year-old. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t hold any value if the UFC decides to give him a shot. Punk is one of the biggest names in the professional-wrestling world, and even after a full year of sitting on the sidelines and boycotting the ring, he’s still one of the most talked-about superstars in the WWE world. The amount of eyes Punk would draw to a pay-per-view event or Fox broadcast could be enough to set damn near record numbers for the UFC, and it wouldn’t matter if Punk won a 15-minute war or was knocked out in 15 seconds.
Even after a year away from the spotlight, Punk would be far and away the most popular fighter on the UFC roster from the instant he joined and would draw a good number of new eyes to the UFC product.
The question for the UFC is whether or not the positives in signing Punk outweigh the negatives. On one hand, signing someone with Punk’s star power is a guaranteed payday for the company if they promote it properly. If Punk can actually string a few wins together, he’ll quickly become the most valuable fighter in the world. On the other hand, if Punk walks out to the Octagon and performs like James Toney, the former boxer who was heavily promoted and then quickly dispatched in his UFC 118 fight against Randy Couture, the promotion runs the risk of being accused of prioritizing freak-show fights over bouts that actually matter.
The decision to sign Punk is anything but easy. There isn’t much the UFC can do in order to try to confirm that the former WWE champion is ready to compete in MMA in the first place. The best-case scenario for UFC President Dana White and company would be for Punk to first make his way to a smaller promotion like the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and earn a win or two to prove he’s legit. However, Punk, when he was interviewed by Ariel Helwani earlier this year, made it pretty clear that he didn’t see the point in a star of his magnitude fighting anywhere but at the highest level in MMA. It’s not hard to see Punk’s reasoning, as it does seem a bit silly for an athlete with literally millions of fans to be forced to prove himself in front of a crowd of less than 10,000 people. Still, it’s a tough break for the UFC, which would likely feel much better about making a decision one way or another if it were able to see Punk compete at least once before signing him.
The idea of Punk competing inside the Octagon is still a rumor at best right now, but on the off chance that it does happen, the only thing the UFC needs to worry about is whether Punk can at least be competitive against a fighter who has earned their spot in the UFC. No one would expect Punk to be the second coming of Lesnar, or even to stick around for more than a fight or two, but if he gets cleared to step inside of the world famous Octagon, he will be expected to hold his own against whomever ends up standing across the cage. If he’s willing to fight and the UFC believes he won’t embarrass himself inside the Octagon, there’s no reason not to give the guy a shot. Worst-case scenario, Punk brings a ton of eyes to the sport for one night and the UFC has to deal with a bit of criticism if he underperforms. At best, Punk gets on a roll and becomes the biggest UFC star since—you guessed it—Lesnar. It’s still a hell of a gamble, but it’s one that seems like it would be worth it if both sides are interested.