When Brock Lesnar entered the Octagon in February 2008, fight fans may not have been sure how the former WWE champion would perform, but most of them were pretty sure he at the very least belonged in the cage. As a former NCAA wrestling champion who already had an MMA victory under his belt, Lesnar had the credentials and the potential to makes some waves in the sport. The fact that he was built like a house of bricks and looked every the bit the part of a monstrous cage fighter only helped his cause, and even though Lesnar was stepping into the cage against a former UFC heavyweight champion in his promotional debut, it didn’t feel like a complete mismatch. In fact, Lesnar was even the betting favorite by the time the fight took place.
Lesnar may have ended up losing that night, tapping out to a Frank Mir kneebar after dominating the opening minute of the bout, but the raw athleticism and power that were on display from the “Beast Incarnate” were obviously devastating and all it took was 90 seconds in a losing effort for Lesnar to prove himself as a viable fighter and a legitimate superstar for the UFC.
Eight years later, a second former WWE champion is set to make his UFC debut. However, unlike in the Lesnar scenario, fight fans are coming in completely blind.
Phil “CM Punk” Brooks announced his intention to fight in the Octagon almost two years ago. The UFC has given us everything from a mini documentary series to online clips of sparring sessions and coaches and training partners telling everyone how ready the fighter formerly known as the “Straight Edge Superstar” is for this bout. Yet, there’s still absolutely no way to predict what’s going to happen when Punk gets in the cage.
MMA as a whole is an unpredictable sport. Fight fans are completely shocked every few months, and whether it’s Holly Holm kicking Ronda Rousey’s head into the second row or Nate Diaz choking out Conor McGregor and coming dangerously close to derailing the Irishman’s hype train, these things happen in MMA. The difference is, even though the outcome came as a shock in those bouts, we at least knew that if the fight was going to end up as an upset that those were the likely results. Holm kicks people in the head. Diaz chokes people out and flips them the bird afterwards. That’s what those fighters do.
When it comes to Punk this weekend, everyone that hasn’t been training at Roufusport in Milwaukee is either guessing or relying on hearsay to predict what Punk is going to bring to the table. We’ve heard about Punk’s prowess in jiu-jitsu for years, but Punk was still just a white belt when he started training MMA full-time. He may have used a “striking based attack” while competing in the WWE, but his actual striking training at that point was rudimentary at best.
Punk, unlike Lesnar before him, doesn’t have any grappling credentials or even the pure physical tools and athleticism that made Lesnar such a force from the moment he showed up in the MMA world. The contrast between the two is almost laughable. Lesnar looks like he dines on horse meat. He was a national championship athlete in college who eventually dominated the WWE and the UFC all while making a quick stop to try out for (and reportedly almost make) an NFL team. Meanwhile, Punk looks like… Well, he’s basically just a regular guy heading into his 40s with a shit ton of tattoos. He certainly has proved his athletic abilities over the years with his work in the pro-wrestling ring, but he’s far from a natural athlete. His pro-wrestling coach stated that Punk had “lead in his ass” when talking about Punk’s athletic capabilities in a WWE documentary a few years ago.
Since there’s no real way to figure out what to expect from Punk in the cage, it’s difficult to gauge what his future in the sport is going to look like. Will the former WWE champ match Lesnar’s accomplishments and earn himself a shot at UFC gold? Probably not. Punk is 37 years old with a ton of miles and punishment on his body due to 15 years in the pro-wrestling world. This upcoming fight with Mickey Gall had to be canceled twice due to injuries to the “Voice of the Voiceless,” and it’s going to be a struggle for a body that’s been beaten up for so long to deal with the rigors of the daily grind that is MMA training.
Furthermore, Punk may have multiple fights on his contract, but there’s really no telling how he’ll feel once he actually steps into the cage and experiences an actual UFC bout for the first time. Win or lose, Punk may end up getting the taste of adrenaline and become more motivated than ever, or he could take this one fight and decide it was an experience and move on. It’s doubtful that even he knows at this point.
The best-case scenario for Punk and the UFC would be a successful debut on Saturday and a quick turnaround to his next fight. However, even if Punk is able to earn a few quick wins, it’s hard to see him becoming more than just an attraction for the UFC to throw on a card to get some extra pay-per-view buys. That’s far from a bad thing, as it gets the UFC a bunch of attention that the company likely wouldn’t be getting if it wasn’t for Punk’s presence and it allows Punk to pursue something he’s obviously very passionate about and get paid a little in the process.
While most fighters say that you shouldn’t be in the sport unless your goal is to become champion, winning gold probably isn’t high on Punk’s list of priorities at the moment. And it shouldn’t be anyway. Maybe if the former WWE champ wins a few fights in a row, then things will change and he’ll start to get a little hunger for gold. For now, though, it would be safe to assume Punk’s one and only goal is to prove that he can do this, both to the world and to himself.
Most fans probably believe that if Punk goes out and suffers a loss this weekend, then it will be the last we see of the “Straight Edge Superstar.” Conventional wisdom would suggest those fans are probably right. However, those who know Punk’s pro-wrestling past know his work ethic and drive are two of the things that set him apart from his peers. It wouldn’t shock most of those fans if Punk got himself knocked out and decided to dust himself off and go for it again.
Punk is almost certainly never going to become a UFC champion, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer the sport. Win or lose this weekend, he’s going to do some solid business for the UFC. Whether that business becomes a recurring thing or ends up being a one-and-done deal remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that this is the most anticipated debut the UFC has had since that other pro wrestler decided to step into the Octagon. That in itself means the promotion has already won. Now it’s time for Punk to try to do the same.