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Punk Out

Former WWE star CM Punk’s UFC career is over. Whether or not UFC learned its lesson is anybody’s guess.

USA Today/Ringer illustration

Saturday night was the end of an era in the UFC, the last time we’d see CM Punk unlace his boots and try to do another man literal harm in the octagon. It didn’t go his way, and it wasn’t what you might call a merciful end. In fact, it really couldn’t have gone worse for anybody involved. Mike Jackson battered Punk for three straight rounds, but even though he won decisively, he drew ire for not finishing the old pro wrestler when he had the chance. He played with his food, even when Dana White’s thumb turned down from his gladiatorial perch at cageside.

If it was an abomination, it was at least a predictable abomination. The UFC president said afterward that he regretted not putting the bout on the Fight Pass prelims, as if the idea of pitting two 0–1 fighters against each other on a major pay-per-view main card had seemed like a genuinely good idea at one point. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it was a craven one. White was never going to slot CM Punk’s second fight in the UFC on the free portion of the card — in his hometown of Chicago, no less — because what was the point of having CM Punk on the roster if not to exploit a few extra dollars from the customer? If not to sell us on morbid curiosity? Dana was gaslighting a little bit there, given the benefit of hindsight. He joined the chorus of boos, but he knew damn well what he was doing all along. Nobility in the fight game is as much of a put-on as is pro wrestling.

Of all the UFC’s experiments over the years, the signing of CM Punk will stand out as a backfire. The lasting image of him in the UFC will be of his face looking like a pomegranate that had been dropped from eight stories, shrugging his shoulders like he gave it the old college try. To his credit, he did. He spent three and a half years training with kickboxing coach Duke Roufus in Milwaukee, cramming to learn all the disciplines in mixed martial arts at once. It was a tough ask for a famous millionaire just looking to try something new, especially when everybody already expected him to fail miserably. It didn’t help that he was 36 years old when he got started, with only some weekend jiu-jitsu training on his résumé.

Still, in those three and a half years we watched Punk lose twice in the premier organization in MMA. The first time, against Mickey Gall at UFC 203 in Cleveland in 2016, it was an embarrassing rout. Punk came in aggressive and ended up getting taken down (very easily) and submitted a couple of minutes later (very, very easily). This time he got pieced up while standing, and thwarted at every turn when he tried to take the kickboxer Jackson down. The ex-WWE star couldn’t do anything against Jackson, other than take the barrage of strikes being thrown at him. Showing somebody get firsthand experience with fighting on the biggest stage — while looking completely overmatched in the process — is televised futility. At one point, Jackson even tickled Punk — this is not a joke — until the referee told him to knock that shit off.

MMA: UFC 225-Punk vs Jackson Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

That was always the danger in bringing in a novelty like Punk, who offered the UFC a big name from the counterfeit world of wins and losses. The optimistic premise was that he could be like Brock Lesnar, the other WWE star who came over, won the heavyweight title, and took the UFC by storm. But Lesnar had collegiate wrestling in his scaffolding, and Punk did not. Instead, he played out more like former boxer James Toney, who talked his way into a fight with Randy Couture at UFC 118 and promptly got his ass handed to him. White was taking a calculated risk based on associative data — Lesnar sold PPV buys because of his WWE rep as much as because of his record.

The UFC is forever tempted by stars in pursuit of second careers, because in prizefighting intrigue will always trump merit. Why else is the promotion giving beleaguered football castoff Greg Hardy a chance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender series, after he was shunned from the NFL after assaulting his girlfriend? (Charges against Hardy were dismissed on appeal when the woman who had said that he beat her didn’t appear at the trial.) Because mainstream media recognizes the name. “Second chances” is a euphemism for eyeballs, baby. If the UFC has been smart, it’s because it has learned how to “sneak” the baser story lines through by running two sets of news at the same time. When Hardy was announced as a contender on Dana’s show, so was Nick Newell, the fan favorite and congenital amputee who has been vying for a chance to fight in the UFC since he debuted as an MMA fighter in 2009. One feel-good story to offset the feel-bad story.

A similar thing happened when the UFC announced that CM Punk had signed a contract. That was at UFC 181 in December 2014, the event when Anthony Pettis defended his lightweight title against Gilbert Melendez in Las Vegas. That weekend became a celebration of sorts because Pettis ended up on a Wheaties box holding his belt, a landmark moment of legitimacy for the UFC. They introduced Punk at the press conference after Pettis’s victory, and it was as if Dana was playing with house money. There was a strong “why not” vibe going on. As in, why not give the avid MMA fan and Rener Gracie student Punk a chance? If it brought a whole new set of eyes to a laudable sport, why not?

The news was met with a certain amount of snickers and sneers, but it was all sidebar to Pettis’s big breakout moment as a star. One piece of news offset the other. Then the various sweepstakes began. Coaches openly campaigned to have Punk train at their gyms; fighters openly campaigned to fight him first; other fighters offered their services to get him up to speed in training. People gravitate toward a moneymaker like bugs to the light. It was exactly the kind of slow-building hysteria that the UFC covets, because the UFC knows it all leads to the flagpole. That moment of truth that brings in the rubberneckers.

Punk stayed close to home and trained with Roufus in Wisconsin. He carried celebrity intrigue with him the whole way, but never quite factored on the competitive scale that drives the UFC. But had his first draw been Mike Jackson — an MMA photojournalist with kickboxing experience — perhaps we could have been spared the extraneous second fight. Jackson would have made it clear that no amount of repetitions in the gym were going to translate to a better result the next time through. Gall ran through him so thoroughly at UFC 203 that the idea was that if they gave Punk somebody with equal experience, he might stand a chance — or in the least, last a little longer. Basically an amateur fight with money attached.

That ended up being Jackson, who big-brothered Punk on Saturday night in a way that drew the wrath of the UFC boss himself. White swore he’d never do business with the “complete idiot” Jackson again, not after making a mockery of his cage. But the mockery was White’s doing. Jackson was there only because Punk was, and Punk was there only because of dollar signs. You don’t put a regular man in there against a fighter — even an extraordinarily famous regular man — and expect it to look good.

The CM Punk era came to a sad end in Chicago, in the form of an almost unwatchable fight. The fact White blamed Jackson for it — rather than himself — is a cue that history is doomed to repeat itself.