As the collective MMA world loses its mind over Saturday’s announcement at UFC 181 that Phil “CM Punk” Brooks would be joining the company, there has been heavy emotion on both ends of the spectrum.
On one side, you have a group who understands the business aspect of the former WWE champ’s signing. Just to put it in perspective: Brooks, with his signing, makes him the second-most relevant MMA personality on social media, with only Dana White eclipsing his reach (2.3 million vs. 2.9 million, respectively on Twitter)
“Does that mean Justin Beiber should get a UFC contract, too?!”
Slow down, slow down. No, it just means that people know who he is — and a very specific group of people at that.
On the other side of this heated discussion is a group searching for answers, and demanding an explanation. They want to know why their beloved sport is being held hostage by a “poser” with an obvious death wish.
Well, rest easy, friends – we’ll get to that particular discussion momentarily.
As most know, Brooks has a solid grasp of jiu-jitsu after spending years training with Rener Gracie, of the world famous Gracie clan. He has also studied Kempo and Muay Thai on and off over the years. Certainly that doesn’t qualify the 36-year-old for a title shot, but it does give some credence to the change in profession when you take into account his undeniable star power.
And Phil Brooks’ star power is, without question, massive.
For the last decade, John Cena had ruled over sports entertainment. He was World Wrestling Entertainment’s millennial version of Hulk Hogan. His merchandise could be seen flooding the floors of every arena across the world. He was the golden boy, the cash cow, and the biggest moneymaker since Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Then came CM Punk.
He started in pro wrestling innocently enough. The “Second City Saint” made his name on the rough and tough indie circuit during the early-2000’s. Often using a “savior” persona or preaching the values of his “Straight Edge” lifestyle (Brooks practices a non-alcoholic, drug-free lifestyle), he would go on to become so popular that he was allowed to retain his name and likeness throughout his tenure and departure from the WWE – a rarity in the business of professional wrestling.
Building his reputation on being a tireless worker (once famously wrestling with a cracked skull), he was beloved as the charismatic anti-hero who would always tell it like it is. Grizzled wrestling legends like Harley Race and Mick Foley endorsed the Chicago-born brawler, as he transcended the business and spoke to fans, seemingly as one himself. He often voiced frustrations and preached the tenants of respect and honor, coming off as a true man’s man.
Outside the ring, Brooks was not afraid to speak his mind, either. He famously launched a memorable verbal assault at controversial R&B superstar Chris Brown, giving his fans even more reason to revere him.
Before leaving the WWE in January 2014, Brooks would be the only man to out-sell John Cena in merchandise (albeit for a short period), effectively solidifying himself as a top draw in the business and remaining one of the most beloved, fan-favorite’s of any generation. In fact, the WWE allowed Brooks to hold its championship for a modern day record of 434 days. Eventually he would drop the belt to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at 2013’s Royal Rumble, proving to everyone his value within the company, as he danced with one of the most recognizable figures in Sports Entertainment history.
The WWE knew they had a star on their hands. But the “Chicago Made” Punk wanted something more. So he left the place that he has called home for the better part of a decade, in search of a new challenge.
Before we get too far into the history of CM Punk, let’s examine the modern day history of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. Remember when The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 set the MMA world on fire? Remember when Forrest Griffin fought Stephan Bonnar, and Chuck Liddell was over-hand-righting fools into oblivion? Remember Randy Couture getting carried around Lake Meade in a recliner? Remember when Andrei Arlovski was heavyweight champion of the UFC and he had those cool, little fangs?
Man, those were the days.
Fans often like to forget that those days wouldn’t have been possible if the millions of fans who tuned into Monday Night Raw didn’t stick around immediately after to check out the reality TV fight show from the fledgling UFC. WWE President Vince McMahon and Spike TV, allowed that to happen. WWE was a behemoth in the entertainment business – still is – and he surely had input on what programming would follow his. McMahon ignored the UFC as potential competition, and instead, symbiotically embraced the promotion, allowing it to follow his flagship show. TUF 1 piggybacked off the throngs of 18-34 demos that were planted in front of their TVs for Monday Night Raw on those cold winter nights in early 2005.
Shortly after the TUF-boom, a man by the name of Brock Lesnar lead the company into heights once thought unreachable. From 2008 to 2010, pay-per-views would regularly hit the coveted one-million-buy-rate mark when Lesnar headlined. To this very day, fighters still talk about being on his cards and how much bank they made. Lesnar, of course, was a former WWE champion who many thought had no business being in the UFC. He would end up winning the heavyweight title from now UFC Hall-of-Famer Randy Couture at UFC 91 in November 2008.
Is Phil Brooks, Brock Lesnar? Of course not. But, Brooks isn’t being groomed for titles, either. In fact, I don’t suspect that anyone thinks he will ever so much as whiff a flake of UFC gold – Brooks included. As he has repeatedly said, he is here to test himself.
“But Punk is going to be taking up spots on cards where other, more deserving fighters could be showcased!”
UFC 137 featured everyone’s favorite MMA bad boy Nick Diaz fighting bona fide legend and fan-favorite BJ Penn: 280,000 PPV buys. Also appearing on the card were, Donald Cerrone, Dennis Siver and Roy “Big Country” Nelson.
UFC 150 featured a championship rematch between future Hall-of-Famer Frankie Edgar and (at the time) divisional kingpin Benson Henderson: 190,000 PPV buys. Also on the card: Donald Cerrone (again), Jake Shields, Dennis Bermudez and Nik Lentz.
UFC 161 featured former light heavyweight champion and TUF 2 winner “Suga” Rashad Evans taking on Dan Henderson in a battle of two of the greatest fighters that storied division has ever seen: 140,000 PPV buys. Also appearing on at UFC 161: Stipe Miocic, Roy Nelson (again) and Tyron Woodley.
UFC 163 featured a showcase main event of the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet and the longest reigning UFC champion, Jose Aldo, meeting Asian superstar Chan Sung-Jung: 180,000 PPV Buys. Featured on the card: Phil Davis, Lyoto Machida, Ian McCall and John Lineker.
Finally, UFC 177, an injury plagued card no doubt, but a card that featured a showcase for Team Alpha Male standout TJ Dillashaw. The newly minted 135-pound champ was coming off one of the greatest upsets in company history after defeating Renan Barao just months prior. It was a lackluster card overall, but it was a UFC card with UFC fighters: 125,000 PPV buys.
The total: 915,000 views.
In the four instances where Brock Lesnar fought for a UFC championship, each one surpassed one millions buys.
UFC prospects and legitimate stars were littered throughout UFC 137, UFC 150, UFC 161, UFC 163 and UFC 177, yet even with these five events combined, they couldn’t equal the views of one Brock Lesnar title fight. And whether people want to admit it or not, a good portion of those fans ended up sticking around, at least for a little while.
Am I saying that Phil Brooks is going to sell one million pay-per-views? No. But I will say, without a hint of hesitation, that Brooks’ debut will eclipse each one of those events. Not only will a Brooks’ fight potentially bring in fans from his pro wrestling days, but it will also bring in all of you MMA fans, as well. Because the UFC is going to flood CM Punk fight cards with top-tier talent, much in the same way that Brock Lesnar served as a tool to introduce Georges St-Pierre to the masses (think UFC 87, UFC 100).
So, if you love MMA, and you want people to love your favorite fighter right along with you, then marrying pro wrestling and MMA should be at the top of your list. And signing CM Punk should be looked at as a godsend, more than a detriment to legitimacy.
Speaking of legitimacy…
“How dare the UFC sign an inexperienced, ‘fake’ wrestler! It takes away from the legitimacy of our sport!”
Remember the “good old days” of PRIDE? When fixed fights were rumored to not only be commonplace, but a regular way of doing business. Duffle bags filled with dirty Japanese Yakuza cash stained the reputation of the once iconic promotion, as some fighters (allegedly) built entire legacies off of dishonorable competition.
Yet, everyone wants to forget about that and re-live glory days past of axe murderers and cuddly Russians.
How about the rampant performance-enhancing drug use in the sport we all love? Numerous champions, challengers and hopefuls have tested positive for steroids, HGH and other substances. Heck, up until this year it was completely legal to dope up in the state of Nevada (and others) with TRT exemptions. The area was gray, and the rules were constantly being manipulated and abused.
Remember Chael Sonnen? He once fought the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, Jon Jones, for the light heavyweight title – arguably the most prestigious title in all of MMA history – after coming off of a loss and having not competed in that particular division in over seven years. Nick Diaz was given a title shot against GSP coming off of a loss as well. Miesha Tate got a title fight against Ronda Rousey coming off of a loss. And up until a few months ago, the UFC was willing to give movie star and former fighter Gina Carano a shot at Rousey, despite being away from the sport for half a decade. And, was also – say it with me – coming off of a loss.
Questioning the “legitimacy” of this sport in relation to the Phil Brooks signing is absolutely absurd. Legitimacy went out the window a long time ago; this is sports entertainment. And I’m pretty sure that has been made perfectly clear to just about everyone by now. When the most watched fight in the history of the business is between a YouTube sensation/street-fighter and a haggard journeyman vet, then I don’t understand how anyone’s bubble of legitimacy bursts, here, in 2014.
Where art thou, Kimbo Slice?
MMA and pro wrestling have been running side-by-side for decades. They’re bonded to one another more than most probably realize. But a man like Phil Brooks knows his history. He also knows what it takes to excel at a thankless profession. Pro wrestlers often grind their whole lives to retire broke, beaten and forgotten – not an uncommon story for many fighters. That’s why he’s approaching this endeavor with such respect — something he elaborated on at the UFC 181 post-fight press conference, just hours after being introduced as a newly-inked UFC fighter.
So, if TUF 1 was pushed by Monday Night Raw, and the MMA gold rush was carried by Lesnar, then why can’t Punk be the one to spark a revitalization to a fledgling North American market?
With Standard & Poor’s estimating a 40-percent profit decline for the UFC in 2014, they need to do something. Couple that with the apparent drop in fan interest (only one PPV this year has eclipsed 500,000 buys — UFC 175: Weidman vs. Machida) and the inability to build new stars at a suitable pace, well, Phil Brooks just might be exactly what the UFC needs.
“What, he just gets to come into the UFC with no prior experience and is allowed to compete?!”
I think I will cede to the man himself in this situation, because I don’t believe I can say it any better:
“I just think that’s where Dana and Lorenzo come in and say: ‘The big business is your first fight,’ so, win lose or draw, if I had fought somewhere else, maybe a little bit of the luster would’ve been knocked off,” – Phil “CM Punk” Brooks post-UFC 181.
As previously mentioned, this is the entertainment business. CM Punk is a valuable entity right now – even if it’s just the “unknown” factor at play. If a man like Phil Brooks were allowed to perform somewhere else, his fan-base, along with his 2.3 million Twitter followers and any casual fans along the way, would eagerly follow.
And don’t tell me casual fans don’t matter.
We live in a world where Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar just pulled 2.2 million eyeballs while going head-to-head against a numbered UFC pay-per-view in Mexico City (a massive new market that the company has been waiting years to break into). It’s simple, really: With competition being so heavy, and other players showing real teeth for the first time in years, the UFC wouldn’t –dare I say, couldn’t — let CM Punk fight anywhere else.
He’s a generational star, littered with tattoos and a healthy distaste for authority. Much more inclined to be found at a Rancid concert than a frat party, Brooks has managed to sustain his fiercely loyal fan base for the majority of his decade-plus career in the spotlight. If he can bring that to the UFC, then maybe your favorite fighter will finally be able to carry a PPV on his or her own someday.
And let’s kill the legitimacy talk, shall we? I think we can all agree that there are much bigger issues facing this sport than whether or not an untested 36-year-old “fake wrestler” can fight or not. We’ll find that out soon enough. And don’t worry, Brooks won’t be going in there against anyone in the Top 10, (or even the Top 20, for that matter). Instead, look for the newcomer to face an aging legend with declining skills (Phil Baroni, anyone?) or an extremely green TUF’er with charisma.
As CM Punk, Phil Brooks would ask his fans to believe in him. Even if they rejected his attempts, he would insist that he was their savior. He would insist that you must believe in CM Punk, and at the very least, respect CM Punk. Anything he earned, it was through hard work and in-ring tenacity, adopting the adage: “Luck is for losers.”
Now, as a newly minted UFC fighter, he will surely test that rhetoric fist-to-face. He will bring new eyes to the sport. He will be used to showcase the deserving champions and contenders of today’s UFC — something the company has struggled with at times.
He’s not cutting promos. He’s not saying he’ll be a champion. He’s simply saying that he’s a man; a man who isn’t getting any younger. And a man who wants to test himself in a place where he can draw the most attention to a sport he has professed his love, respect and adoration for over the years. (Punk would regularly appear on WWE television with MMA-themed apparel, also adopting an MMA-centric skill-set to his in-ring performances in the process. He even imitated PRIDE FC legend Wanderlei Silva’s famous “wrist roll” before matches).
In this new adventure, Phil Brooks is not claiming to be MMA’s savior. But that won’t stop this writer from enjoying watching him try. And to be perfectly honest, it shouldn’t stop you, either.
Life is short; embrace the chaos – because Phil “CM Punk” Brooks is about to.
For real this time.