All The Crooked Edges: Why Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks Debut Had Us Marked From The Start
This weekend, Phil 'CM Punk' Brooks makes his UFC debut. Check that, he makes his MMA debut. To even consider that they are one and the same is maddening. But nonetheless, like Santa Claus on December 24, like death, like taxes, it's coming.
You have likely heard the story by now. Brooks wrestled under his stage name CM Punk and was a major star in the WWE. He wasn't a company man, either, letting loose with real, edgy material such as the Pipe Bomb promo. Brooks held their title for longer than anyone.
What any of that matters when stepping into a cage is a moot point. Because it strikes at a deeper issue at work. The mere fact that when you hear or read that resume, you've been marked. Something inside you stirs, it tries to legitimize it. Like any of it matters in the world of MMA.
When Phil Brooks makes the long walk on Saturday evening at UFC 203, we're all going to realize we've been punked.
The Straight Doubt
Brooks is facing backlash from many corners, and as much as his supporters may want to discount those voices, they have merit. Even so, he's faced considerable criticism. To recap:
- He’s taking a job from someone else.
- Ok, maybe not someone's job - the UFC would give a job to someone else, regardless - but Brooks has unjustifiably taken a spot on the roster from a meritocracy standpoint.
- It makes a mockery of the sport.
- Who does he think he is that he can ask for an opportunity like this?
- This isn't fake fighting, it's real fighting.
It's hard to argue with a lot of these points, but there are underlying issues here. Namely, that the UFC appears to have not hesitated to sign Brooks, that Punk himself claims its a serious career endeavor, and that somehow all of these things are still selling to the fan base.
By all accounts, CM Punk seems like a chill dude. You’d wanna have a beer with him, have a conversation. He’s bright, perceptive, and opinionated. That’s why this hurts.
The Straight Money
Love them or hate them, the UFC has done masterful business of the last number of years. Their booking has gradually improved – deftly traversing the bumpy 2014 saturation schedule and the 2015 injury debacle.
Leave no doubt then that the UFC is fully aware of what it is doing with Brooks. This is a win-win. The UFC is going to maximize every ounce of hype for every PPV buy they can. They are in the enviable position of spinning this however they want. Brooks career is a total tank? Hey, this sport is tough and our athletes are the best in the world (ignore that we happened to be the ones to show this to you over and over again, see. James Toney). Brooks career shows a hint of promise? He’s earned our respect by stepping into the toughest sport in the world. Brooks career includes a couple wins against decent competition? Market, rinse, and repeat.
This has all the signs of a lamb being led to the slaughter, calmly reassured on its walk by the shepherd. Except, this lamb isn’t clueless. We know he is a smart guy. So no matter how much he talks about ‘doubters’ and ‘critics’ he knows better than anyone the perception that his foray into MMA, his business with the UFC, is a money grab.
Punk’s contract with the UFC isn’t known but it’s safe to assume it’s in the five figures and includes some PPV buys. We know he’s going to be well compensated for whatever the hell happens to him. Brooks has essentially admitted as much himself, using his looming paycheque to dis Gall in pre-fight interviews. Which can only lead us to speculate as to just how much of this career move is about the money versus about the sport.
A strong hint that this isn’t about sport is his status in the wrestling business. The fact is, the market for his services is deep, Ring of Honor, TNA, New Japan Wrestling – they would all kill for his signature. But that list is missing the highest-paying employer, the WWE, whom he has burnt all his bridges to. Would Brooks be willing to take a big paycut to go somewhere with fewer eyeballs on it in the public sphere? Doubtful. He’s an entertainer. He goes where he can get paid and be seen – this builds towards whatever his next venture is.
For an MMA comparable, imagine if Georges St. Pierre had retired after the Hendricks fight but promptly told Dana White to shove it, the Fertitta’s to shove it, and even threw Dana White’s family into the mix. Where would he go? Who could truly afford him? Where would he even want to go?
Brooks’ age, injury history, and infancy in the sport mean the odds are stacked considerably against him. Brooks has to be aware of this better than anyone. While he claimed to Joe Rogan during in his initial interview at UFC 184 that this is a career choice, it feels more like a couple years worth of attractive income. Brooks is biding his time, cashing the biggest paycheque he can until he can graduate to the pro wrestling nostalgia celebration circuit.
Or he’s taking this very, very seriously. In which case…
The Straight Fight
We've all got that friend. The guy who watches a game of hockey and says, 'I coulda made it. I could skate a shift out there.' The delusion is so near the surface it literally hurts to hear them say it. Because you know the truth: if they were going to make it or do it, they would have.
Brooks UFC foray is a tragedy. Brooks represents himself as a role model, the kid who worked hard and made it to the top. Except, for those cynics out there, his UFC foray will dispel any notion that all it takes is hard work. Very few endeavors take only hard work.
There needs to be talent or a pedigree. There needs to be experience. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell will tell you success isn’t based purely on smarts or skill – over and above a certain level of skill, a person can be successful. In Brooks’ case, he’s on the lower end of that spectrum. He’s just above competent.
While those factors don’t work in his favor they do in his opponents’. Gall is over a decade younger yet far more experienced. By all indications, he is the superior athlete. Furthermore, he is healthier. While the focus of this bout has been almost entirely on Brooks, Gall is quietly representing the guys who truly sacrifice for the sport, who had no other options and weren’t’ seeking the biggest paycheque they could find. By all indications, he wants this more.
Brooks talked about having a positive mental attitude. Visualization and confidence in one’s abilities. This is the same kind of thought process that has generated so much publicity for Conor McGregor, the sense of manifest destiny. In Brooks’ case, though, he comes from an industry in which visualizing the outcome is irrelevant. The outcome is predetermined. Sure, Brooks could work very hard in the gym and train to have better technique than anyone in the business but the use of mental visualization is all but moot. There was no chaos factor to worry about. Brooks only had to focus on those spots he knew would come and executing them well. That’s different than throwing a punch with one coming back at you, thoughtless to your own personal objectives.
If you studied The Making of Punk like it was the Zapruder film, you can’t come away too hopeful for Brooks’ chances. While it was a brilliant promotion of what turning chicken shit into chicken salad looks like, it never really gathered the lettuce, croutons, or, you know, chicken. The footage of him ‘sparring’ made most MMA experts laugh all over the web.
The Straight Truth
We’re the mark. As usual.
The UFC is brilliant at identifying these key business moments and exploiting them. Somehow, this move with any other pro wrestler - Brock Lesnar notwithstanding - would feel more than just insulting, but fraudulent.
Yet here we stand, days away from a man who is literally the definition of an MMA amateur getting his shot on the main card of a UFC event. A man who only has won this opportunity because he puts butts in the seats to watch him do performance fighting. This is no different than paying to watch The Rock's stunt double go pro in MMA. Yet we're excited.
We'll tune in. We know all of this and we will still tune in. We'll buy the PPV. We'll sit down to watch the savagery or the inspiration (luck). Because if there is anything a pro wrestler can teach us, it's that we are always the mark.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.