CM Punk, Legitimate Tough Guys and Predatory Matchmaking
Vince McMahon loves a tough guy. Always has, always will. There are two ways to win Vinny Mac over and advance your career in the WWE: one is to be a legitimately gifted scrapper or at least have a reputation as one, the other is to be enormous. Examples of big men being pushed beyond all reason in the WWE are numerous—the Great Khali could barely walk in his 'prime' but was allowed a clean victory over The Undertaker at one point in hopes of building him as a terrifying ring presence. And of course the WWE's major attraction today is Brock Lesnar—a man who is both ridiculous in proportion and one of the best heavyweight fighters on the planet on any given day.
Much has been written linking this love of tough men to McMahon's abandonment issues and picking of fights as a young man. But being a 'tough guy' and actually being able to fight are very different things. Perhaps the greatest example of this in professional wrestling can be seen in the WWF's now infamous Brawl For All, a tough man contest in which wrestlers from the WWF's roster fought a boxing match with points awarded for takedowns. This was intended to put over the famously tough “Dr. Death”, Steve Williams. Unfortunately it backfired as Williams went out to Bart Gunn, everyone involved was injured and embittered for a time afterwards, and the one competent fighter in the tournament, Dan Severn, withdrew after the first round due to the daft rules.
Dr. Death's push towards a shot at Steve Austin's title was over as soon as it started, but unlike most failed pushes his culminated with a brutal knockout.
While the list of 'tough guys' who have run the ropes underneath the bright lights of the WWE is as long as your arm, CM Punk is not on it. No one has ever thought of Punk as anything more than a great performer. The Ohio commission has waived the normal five amateur fights necessary to receive a professional license in their state for Punk, observing that his background is similar to Brock Lesnar's, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is not an accomplished amateur wrestler like Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin or Kurt Angle. This isn't even an accomplished young athlete like Roman Reigns or one of the many professional wrestlers who have come in after failing to follow through on a football career. And yet this weekend CM Punk, now Phil Brooks, is poised to make his mixed martial arts debut on the biggest stage in the world with just a year of serious training.
Now what Brooks is doing is extremely admirable. He is being dumped on by fans and pundits alike all across the MMA sphere and he still plans to go ahead with it. There are thousands of people gleefully wringing their hands in anticipation of Brooks getting starched in humiliating fashion. But then Brooks wanted to try this and unlike Bam Bam Bigelow, Shawn O'Haire and Batista, Brooks was offered a barge full of money to fight in the UFC. We would all take the money that Brooks has been offered, but let us consider what the UFC is doing here.
The most notorious fight in MMA history at this point should be Dada 5000 versus Kimbo Slice. An abortion of a bout between two out of shape old men. Except one had spent the last decade being paid silly money to train full time and the other came straight off the couch and when trying to fight his way out of a paper bag would be outpaced by the bag. Guess which one almost died in the cage. Now Bellator, in signing that, doubled down on the irresponsibility by deliberately fighting in regions whose commissions are laughing stocks, allowing Kimbo Slice to juice himself up to the gills before the fight and only receive a 90 day suspension long after almost killing Dada 5000 in the cage. (It is also worth noting that Bellator ignored this suspension and scheduled Slice to fight again in another country within that time, but his premature death due to heart failure cut that story short). But here's the question: how is that fight different to this?
Stay classy, Scott Coker.
Certainly Punk's opponent, Mickey Gall, has less fights than Slice did. But the danger is that he is clearly already a better fighter. He's far from great but you can readily study his two professional fights and his grappling match with the excellent Gordan Ryan and know that he has some degree of talent and ability. What's more, as nonsensical as it is, Dada 5000 could hide behind his 'street record'. Thankfully fictitious street fight records are rarely a part of this sport at the highest levels anymore but Mr. 5000 also had a pair of professional MMA fights. Granted, the referee had obviously been told to help him out whenever possible—what kind of referee stands a fight up from mount, after all—but that's two more fights than CM Punk.
The UFC's reality series following Brooks has actually been quite enjoyable and his growth over the year of serious training has been marked. But what we're all really scanning it for is the sparring footage. We could talk about that ludicrous uppercut, and how he stands still and drops his hands whenever he squares up to throw his right, and how that will probably get his head turned around against Gall, but that is beating a dead horse.
Though this kind of chasing with the chin high and the hands low still occurs in heavyweight title fights.
Brooks looks just as likely to be taken down and dominated on the mat. Add a technical disadvantage and a limited time training to the first time fight nerves, the unfamiliar exercise of cutting weight, and Brooks' age and it is a really pessimistic picture. But once again: why is the UFC doing this?
Money. Easy, easy money. You know that. And if you really feel offended by it, don't tune in! This fight likely isn't worth any portion of $60 so why bother? No one should have watched the insulting match ups between Randy Couture and James Toney, or Ronda Rousey and Bethe Correia, but they did. Partly because there were other fights on those cards but mainly because whether we want to believe it or not, people like a squash match. It is that sadistic part of the brain that would watch Mike Tyson crush nobodies in under a round just to see them fall, not even to admire Tyson's ability itself. The UFC is selling a spectacle after all, and with the loss of the always competitively minded Joe Silva irrelevant stuff like this might start to appear more on UFC cards. Like performance enhancing drugs, trash talk that crosses the line, and the inevitable deaths which haven't caught up to the big leagues of MMA yet you just have to accept that they are part of the game. It's down to you to work out how you feel about them.
The strangest part of this whole debacle is the number of fans keen to see Brooks starched brutally because he accepted a huge payday. One of the easy truths about fight promotion is that if you throw enough money at someone you can convince them to get in the ring even if you know deep down that something horrible might happen to them. Hell, they might even start to believe their skills are what makes them worth that money. The UFC is playing a risky game with this CM Punk lark and as a lover of this sport I can only hope he can keep himself safe, and that any degree of pay-per-view success that this match has doesn't mark the start of a slide into downright ridiculous matchmaking on the regular.
On the plus side, it seems as though CM Punk is unlikely to just lay down for the money as James Toney so famously did.
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