Critics of mixed martial arts often miss the nobility in the individual quest. During action, there are no teammates to rely on, no called timeouts to stall an opponent’s surging momentum. It is you, a foe and a continuous spotlight, the last two both conspiring against you. In that arena, everything is heightened. Failures are sometimes magnified past the glory of victories. It takes real courage to ever try the sport in the first place.
The criticism of the UFC’s CM Punk experiment rarely makes this acknowledgement, but even if you do not believe Punk deserves the opportunity to fight in the sport’s premier promotion—and really, who does?—he has already proven himself to be UFC-level when it comes to valor. After all, last time out, eyed by millions of skeptical spectators and amid a chorus of denigration, Punk got smoked. Absolutely wrecked. Mickey Gall immediately took him down, mounted him, pounded him and choked him out. It was as one-sided a fight as anything seen since Indiana Jones blasted a swordsman in Cairo.
For Punk, it was worst-fears-realized kind of stuff. At the time, he was one month shy of his 38th birthday, and few would have blamed him if he chalked the whole thing up to a failed experiment, only to slink back to the pro wrestling world. Yet nearly two years later, here he is again, back at it and putting himself on the firing line and against the odds.
While courage is often something we take for granted in our fighters, it’s worth remembering that just two years ago, Punk wasn’t a fighter at all. He was a multi-millionaire looking to scratch a competitive itch. There are easier ways to do that than stepping into a cage against someone that means you harm. Some wealthy people do it by trading cryptocurrency or bass fishing or playing pickleball. Yet Punk wanted to do it not the hard way, but the hardest possible way. It didn’t matter that all of us knew what was going to happen, and that that eventuality proved to be true. He still needed to find out for himself, and even if he didn’t like what he discovered the first time around, he has remained steadfast in his quest. That kind of persistence is worthy of admiration, however reluctant it may be.
As Punk makes his final preparations to face Mike Jackson at UFC 225, we can all use a reminder that his personal quest is completely separate from the UFC’s decision to promote it. A high-level MMA fight, this is not. The participants—a combined 0-2 as pros—would best fit as a featured fight on a regional promotion. It was only Punk’s celebrity that affords him this platform, but it serves as both blessing and curse.
On one hand, he will help draw a larger audience than a standard UFC show, and share in the profits. On the other, the feeling that he skirted MMA’s hard-knock development system leads to resentment against him by that very audience.
Still, you have to wonder how many people he’s won over with his second foray to the cage. Somehow, the willingness to try again after a spectacular failure is a more profound pursuit than the original venture into the unknown. Back then, it was a guess, a shot in the dark with no true understanding of the consequences. But now, he knows. He understands the feeling of an opponent letting loose on you, with no realistic way of escape, let alone victory. He has felt the helplessness of that situation, and the emptiness of defeat. And still, at the risk of further humiliation, he has come back to try once more.
It’s easy to say that yes, so have many others before him. This is true, but also true is that his is truly a singular case, if only because no one has jumped into this sport with no combat sports background and the comfort of money.
Of course, even that was at stake over the last few days. Earlier this week, Punk had to deal with the stress of a multi-million dollar lawsuit, which added to his fight training and a weight cut, sounds like a miserable way to spend the final hours before a major life event.
Punk won the lawsuit, and it may or may not prove to be the best part of his week. That’s to be decided the hard way. When it comes to unforgiving audiences, a jury is no match for what Punk is about to experience on Saturday. Most of the crowd isn’t waiting for all of the objective evidence; they have already decided on who he is and what he represents. Most of them are wrong though. We can embrace his personal pursuit while panning the promotion’s pandering. When it comes to the individual, he’s earned his MMA stripes.