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!”
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