In today’s age of instantaneous information updates via social media, there are very few breaking news items announced on television that really shock me. So when Mike Goldberg told me to stay tuned after UFC 181’s first main-card fight for an announcement that I would not want to miss, I figured the UFC was either going to rehash its recently signed apparel deal with Reebok or talk about an upcoming title fight or stadium date it had just booked. Again, at this point in the digital age (I feel like I’m aging myself just by calling it that), all of the big news gets leaked to social media first, so I didn’t really have much initial interest in whatever was going to be announced.
And then I saw Joe Rogan being joined not by Goldberg, not by UFC President Dana White nor any other member of the UFC brass, but by former professional wrestler and well-known MMA enthusiast Phil Brooks, better known to his fans as CM Punk. At that point, I remembered some of the (frankly, very outlandish-sounding) rumors I’d read on social media over the previous weeks and immediately said, aloud, “No fucking way…no fucking way!!” because I knew what was about to come next. Sure enough, Brooks and Rogan stood together to reveal that the former WWE superstar had signed a contract with the world’s premier MMA promotion, and that Brooks would compete in the Octagon sometime in 2015.
Reaction to the UFC’s surprise announcement was mixed. Some criticized the promotion for inking an agreement with a guy who had never before competed in combat sports, particularly while some world-class fighters still remain outside the organization. Others welcomed Brooks’s entry into mixed martial arts, giving him respect for actually putting forth the needed effort to compete against a fighter who has not only been training for much longer but for sure won’t want to get beaten in a real fight by a former “fake” wrestler. Regardless of how one feels about the newly formed partnership, Brooks fighting in the UFC is going to happen, so let’s talk about a few realities of this situation and how the promotion can most effectively capitalize on the move.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Brooks, despite being one tough SOB, is entering the world’s best MMA organization on the wrong side of 35 having never before competed in the sport and after close to two decades of running his body basically to the red line by virtue of the grueling pro-wrestling road schedule. Pretty much regardless of who faces Brooks in his forthcoming debut, the betting odds are going to be heavily in that yet-unnamed man’s favor. I’m not saying that Brooks has no chance of winning in his first UFC bout, but its pretty unlikely. So right away we’re talking about putting significant promotional efforts behind a guy who might never actually win a fight in the UFC, let alone come close to actually contending. This is not a criticism of the promotion’s decision to sign Brooks, but simply an honest assessment of the situation.
Here’s the flipside, though: While some of even the most attentive MMA fans might not know who Brooks is, everyone who likes professional wrestling knows who CM Punk is. For those who don’t know, he was unquestionably one of the WWE’s top draws for years preceding his exit from so-called sports entertainment, to the point that his likeness joins that of company standard-bearer John Cena on the WWE’s officially licensed kids’ birthday party decorations sold at big-box stores around the country. He’s not just some guy who happened to wrestle for WWE; CM Punk was a true pro-wrestling superstar. Brooks has also parlayed his fame to other ventures in the entertainment industry. He’s appeared on a number of nerd-media icon Chris Hardwick’s programs, done the rounds at a few conventions of similar flavor and recently began a side gig as a writer for Marvel Comics. He’s not a true Hollywood A-Lister, but millions of people who would not ordinarily pay attention to MMA are familiar with Brooks, and that’s exactly what the UFC is banking on.
After what has been a decidedly down year for the UFC in terms of its pay-per-view revenue, the company clearly sees Brooks as a way to promote its product to a potentially friendly but still uncaptured audience via the inclusion of his familiar and famous face. It’s unlikely, after all, that the UFC will experience any sort of significant increase in fans through any other means than the incorporation or development of a crossover star. With its broadcast schedule about as fan-friendly as you can get (look at this Saturday’s UFC on Fox card, for example), the company has done its part to make its product widely available for fans without requiring them to pay $55 for each event, so it’s pretty much maxed out its potential for additional organic growth. What it needs, then, is a large group of people who haven’t really watched a UFC event before to be drawn in by the presence of a spectacle. In this context, Brooks’s signing makes all the sense in the world.
The goal here is obviously for the UFC to a.) draw the largest possible pay-per-view audience for Brooks’s debut, and b.) retain at least a small portion of any first-time viewers tuning in specifically for Brooks’s fight for future pay-per-view purchases. With that in mind, there’s really only one way to go: The UFC needs to build its biggest show ever around Brooks.
I’m talking about pulling out all of the stops here. The only logical headliner for a card of the magnitude the UFC is surely hoping for is current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. If he wins his UFC 182 headliner against Daniel Cormier, put Jones against the winner of Alexander Gustafsson/Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. If he loses to Cormier in a few weeks, even better, because then the UFC can do a Jones/Cormier rematch as the headliner. The co-main event should also be a title fight, perhaps featuring lightweight king Anthony Pettis against Khabib Nurmagomedov or featherweight titlist Jose Aldo taking on Frankie Edgar. As long as we’re dreaming, the presence of Anderson Silva on this hypothetical card would only add to its overall intrigue, regardless of his opposition, and if the UFC could round this out with a fight featuring a guaranteed action-bringer like Matt Brown, Donald Cerrone or even someone like Todd Duffee, it would pretty much be a dream card. Using this strategy, then, the UFC would capture a large, new audience through the presence of Brooks and then likely have some of that audience see the sort of amazing fights the UFC can offer and decide to tune in for the next card as well. Come for CM Punk, stay for some of the best fighters in the world.
Whether Brooks is successful in the UFC or not, the one thing that really matters is that a lot of people — even those with only a passing interest in MMA or pro wrestling — will happily fork over their money to watch the former pro wrestler fight. The UFC knows this, and probably also realizes that Brooks’s realistic shelf-life in professional MMA is probably pretty short, so simply having Brooks serve as the co-main event feature behind an interesting enough title fight would be a waste. In order to maximize Brooks’s potentially massive/short-lived value to the UFC, the UFC needs to include him as part of a card that all fans — whether of MMA, CM Punk or both — will remember for a long time.
What does the UFC really have to lose here? In Brooks, the UFC has a famous figure who will not only bring some new eyes to the company’s product, but by virtue of his reputed straightedge lifestyle also poses zero risk to embarrass UFC executives by, say, testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Despite his gruff, tattooed exterior, Brooks is what analysts would refer to as a “high-character guy.” He might not come to the cage wearing the trappings of mainstream religion, but Brooks has never really been in any legal trouble in his professional career and has by and large gone completely against the stereotype of professional wrestlers established during the industry’s drug-fueled heyday a few decades ago. He’s a married guy who likes to read comics. Experienced in the cage or not, his participation in a UFC event poses absolutely zero risk to the company.
One of the reasons people like professional wrestling is that anything can happen at any time, and the relative shock that came in the immediate aftermath of the UFC’s announcement Saturday night hearkened back to other surprising debuts inside the squared circle. Pretty much the only way the UFC could have made this any better would have been to trot out Joe Rogan into the middle of the Octagon, have him make a vague allusion to the UFC having signed a new fighter, and then have Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” (Brooks’s WWE walkout music) play over the sound system before revealing Brooks as the new signee. The move got the company the attention it wanted, and now all it needs to do is make the absolute most it can of that attention.
If the UFC plays it just right, this surprise signing could be exactly the shot in the arm that the UFC badly needs if it plans to continue its growth.