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Here’s What to Make of CM Punk in the UFC

(Future UFC middleweight champion CM Punk. / Photo via Getty)

By Matt Saccaro

When CM Punk signed with the UFC at UFC 181, MMA fans, pundits and every pseudo-journalist in between lost their minds either with glee, bemusement, or disgust.

There’s not necessarily one “right” way to look at the issue of the UFC signing CM Punk (whose real name is Phil Brooks). Is he killing MMA’s credibility? Yes. Is he going to be a big draw and help the UFC out of a rut? Yes.

There’s a lot going on here. Let’s look at CM Punk’s UFC signing in depth…

CM Punk is killing the UFC’s credibility

Oh, undeniably. The argument here is signing CM Punk turns the UFC from legitimate athletic endeavor [Ed's note: LMAO] into celebrity boxing.

Proponents of this theory are, well, kind of accurate. During the Reebok sponsorship press conference last week, the UFC boasted about the Reebok deal bringing them in line with the NFL and other major sports organizations. While the realities of that statement are dubious, it’s clear the UFC wanted viewers to leave with that “fact” as a key takeaway.

But would an NFL team sign CM Punk as a QB just because he might draw ratings and sell tickets? Hell, NFL teams wouldn’t even sign perennial attention-getter Tim Tebow who’s an actual football player. And as Bleacher Report‘s Jonathan Snowden pointed out, even Michael Jordan had to start in the minor leagues when he wanted to play baseball.

The NFL, NBA, or any other big league would never sign a 36-year-old with zero sports background just for attention and a bit of quick cash. These organizations care about legitimacy or at least the illusion of legitimacy. They want to convey class and prestige. They’re athletic contests, not Dancing with the Stars.

By signing CM Punk, the UFC admitted they are an entertainment company first and a sport second. While this has arguably been true since day one, they’ve never gone out of their way to make it so apparent before.

Signing CM Punk does not diminish the UFC’s credibility because they never had any

The response to the above take is that the UFC was never credible, so signing CM Punk is fine. There’s a bit of truth here.

Tell me, when was the UFC a credible sports league that never dabbled (or outright prioritized) entertainment over athleticism? Was it when we had Art Jimmerson fighting with one boxing glove on? Was it when Kimo walked out to the cage bearing a crucifix? Was it when Cabbage fought Tank Abbott? Was it when Kimbo Slice starred in a season of The Ultimate Fighter? Was it when the UFC signed James Toney?

The UFC was never a paragon of athletic virtue. And while the company might be married to sports now, entertainment is a frequent mistress.

This isn’t a modern development. It’s just that now people like complaining about it. Nobody whined when their favorite Pride stars murdered Japanese pro wrestlers. So why get angry about CM Punk?

CM Punk is the savior of the UFC

This is a super-controversial opinion despite loads of data supporting it, but the UFC isn’t doing so well these days. In fact, you could go as far as saying the UFC is doing badly.

Now, I’m sure after reading that a portion of you have jumped down to the comments to write “Y U HATE MMA, CAGEPOTATO!!!11????” If you’re still here though, you’re a reasonable human being who will reach reasonable conclusions upon hearing about the UFC’s business woes. The UFC’s profit dropped 40% this year, and Standard & Poor’s might downgrade Zuffa’s debt for a second time come 2015. PPV numbers are in sharp decline and TV ratings aren’t doing much better.

Signing CM Punk represents a glimmer of hope (or desperation, depending on your viewpoint). Punk will draw PPV buys. Maybe not as many as Brock Lesnar or Georges St-Pierre, but certainly more than the current stock of “big” names on the UFC’s roster.

That can only be a good thing, right? Yes and no. It’s good if the people this publicity stunt attracts ultimately become fans and go on to buy PPVs featuring people other than CM Punk. It’s bad if CM Punk does one or two PPVs, leaves, and brings all the hype and eyeballs along with him. If that happens, the UFC will have humiliated themselves for a little bit of easy money.

Bellator is the new UFC

A white hot take, but perhaps one with an atom of quasi-truth to it (or maybe like a quark of quasi-truth).

Last month, Bellator signed Aaron Pico — an 18-year-old wrestling wunderkind with an amateur boxing background as well. Of course, when you point out anything positive about Bellator people will scream “ORTIZ VS. BONNAR! ORTIZ VS. BONNAR!! ORTIZ VS. BONNAR!!!

And that’s fair. Bellator is engaged in its share of ridiculous pro wrestling chicanery. Yeah, Bellator is adding disgraced UFC has-beens like Stephan Bonnar to its stable of fighters. However, the Pico signing indicates they’re bringing in guys like Bonnar just to add some (fading) name value to a card filled with serious prospects like Pico.

Meanwhile, the UFC signed CM Punk. CM Punk is a “fighter” who is all name and no substance — in other words, the complete opposite of Pico.

Of course, Bellator has their own pro wrestler in Bobby Lashley, but he at least had an athletic background and was more than an MMA fan with time and money to kill, looking to cross something off his bucket list.

CM Punk is the new Brock Lesnar

This comparison fails once you go beyond the fact that they’re both pro wrestlers.

Yeah, they both were WWE champions at one time. That’s it. They don’t have anything else in common, at least athletically speaking. Brock Lesnar was an accomplished amateur wrestler and a tremendous athlete. CM Punk is a 36-year-old BJJ hobbyist with an injury-addled body and zero competitive athletic background. His career arc in the UFC will not mirror Lesnar’s in any way, save for maybe ending with an ass-kicking and jumping ship back to WWE.

This might sound unnecessarily harsh but comparing the two men insults one and falsely inflates another.

Can Punk be the new Lesnar in terms of PPV buys though?

Maybe. Part of Lesnar’s allure is that in addition to being a genetic freak (and a pro wrestler), he actually had skill enough to win a title. Punk does not have that and never will.

So what do we make of CM Punk, UFC Fighter?

CM Punk is a professional wrestler and BJJ weekend warrior who has the spare time and spare change to take an MMA fight. The UFC is happy to broadcast that fight for PPV dollars. This hurts the UFC’s image, but there wasn’t really much of an image to hurt. MMA has always been a circus act masquerading as a real sport, and now we have a real-life pro wrestling carnie to add to MMA’s menagerie of characters. What’s so bad about that?

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