If this were some alternate universe in which NFL teams were struggling to sell tickets and one of them got the idea to sign a pro wrestling champion as a stunt and wound up cutting a third-string tackle to make room on the roster, maybe the outrage would make sense.
But in the case of ex-WWE champion CM Punk and the UFC, such is not the case.
No fighter has lost a job because the UFC signed Punk, whose birth name is Phil Brooks, to a promotional agreement.
His presence on the roster isn’t making a mockery of the sport. By the time he finally steps into the cage to make his mixed martial arts debut, be it at UFC 199, as UFC president Dana White suggested, or at UFC 200, as Punk hopes is the case, he’ll have trained at one of the sport’s best camps for more than 18 months.
He’ll have spent time sparring with the likes of former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and One FC welterweight champion Ben Askren, among others. His plan isn’t to take one fight, land a big payday and head off to do something else.
He’s so serious about becoming a real fighter that he’s signed a multi-fight deal and is always among the last to leave Roufusport in Milwaukee each night.
His signing will mean two extra fighters got jobs in the UFC, which gives them an opportunity to be seen and perhaps become a star in their own right. Because of his ability to promote, other fighters will benefit by getting a bigger cut of the pay-per-view pie.
Yet, there remains a loud chorus of fans and media sanctimoniously whining about his presence in the UFC, as if he’s somehow going to destroy all that is good about this sport.
This is cage fighting, people. He hasn’t been appointed Secretary of State.
There has been a backlash, and it will only get louder as his first fight nears. Though Punk knows what to expect, he laughs it off.
Taunts from social media are the last thing to ruin his night. Now, if his beloved Blackhawks were to blow a two-goal, third-period lead and lose a playoff game, that might cause him some sincere angst.
But if some random Twitter user from New Jersey tweets him, “Your a loser. Your going to get killed in UFC,” he’d laugh it off and perhaps use the tweet as fodder for a new episode of his YouTube series, “Grammar Slam,” where he chides fans for their poor use of the language.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with the UFC or fighting in general,” Punk said. “It’s just human nature. It’s the society we live in. Look, there’s only one thing people love more than their heroes, and that’s stomping them into the ground.
“I could talk to you about why, psychologically, people want to do that. I think it’s because they’re jealous, they’re scared, they’re afraid about whatever is going on in their lives. … But the way I deal with it is simple: Whatever other people think of me is none of my business.”
He signed with the UFC on Dec. 6, 2014, as a 36-year-old beaten and battered from 300 days a year on the road in the WWE and after a very public breakup.
He first thought of retiring as a professional wrestler and trying to compete as an MMA fighter in 2010. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – that is the same year former boxing champion James Toney signed with the UFC and fought ex-champion Randy Couture.
“I love the sport, and I have for a long time,” he said. “I’d stay up late and watch the Pride New Year’s Eve shows. I watch all the UFC pay-per-views. I’m a fan. I love this stuff. Literally, I looked at it and I said, ‘That’s something I want to do.’ ”
He’s very different, though, from another WWE wrestler turned MMA fighter: Brock Lesnar. When Lesnar turned to MMA in 2008, he had a lengthy background as a storied amateur wrestler. He was an NCAA champion at the University of Minnesota and had skills that translated easily to MMA.
Punk, though, has no résumé to present. He trained in jiu-jitsu under Rener Gracie for several years, but there is nothing in his past that would suggest he’ll be a success as a fighter.
When White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta approached him with the idea in 2014, though, he loved it despite what a long shot it seemed to be.
“Part of my reason for most of the decisions I make in life is I don’t want to have regrets,” he said. “I talked to Dave Bautista [an ex-WWE wrestler who has one pro MMA fight] and he’s a great guy to talk to about this kind of stuff because he did the same thing. He said, ‘You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to chase your dream. You’re going to wake up one day and realize that you were presented an opportunity and you could have done it, but didn’t.’ So it’s a big reason.”
He trained in the spring for a while at EXOS Athlete Performance in Phoenix, alongside UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and other pro athletes, learning how to better prepare himself and maximize performance.
He’s also part of a group of UFC fighters who will work with the New Jersey Devils as part of a cross-training program the UFC has launched.
Whether Punk turns out to be good as a fighter or not, he’s not taking it lightly.
“I feed off training with the guy, because he doesn’t have to be doing this,” Pettis said. “He’s doing it by choice. He’s getting ready for the biggest test of his life, but he comes to the gym every day with a smile on his face ready to work. We have all levels of guys in this gym. You have guys like myself who have been doing it for a long time. You have young kids who are barely ready to turn pro, and he’s right there with all of us.
“He’s a part of the group and he is as hard a worker as there is. He wants this. He wants to do it and he’s taking it very seriously. This is no joke to him, and he’s training for it the way any of us would be training for one of our fights.”
When he debuts, he’s likely to fight Mickey Gall. Gall was signed by the UFC after he scored a knockout win in his pro debut with White cageside. White was filming his new web series, “Dana White: Looking for a Fight,” and Gall showed off for him.
After his win, Gall ran to White and called out Punk. White accommodated him and signed a 0-0 fighter named Michael Jackson to face Gall at UFC 196 on Feb. 6.
If Gall wins, he’ll get the shot at Punk. Punk gave Gall credit for the bravado to do what he did.
“I like it. I definitely like it,” he said. “He’s a feasible opponent. And everybody should call me out. I’m like a bizarre lottery ticket. He didn’t really trash talk. I know he’s going to, but he seems like a nice kid.”
Punk’s moment of reckoning is drawing ever closer, and those who train with him speak of his improvement. Duke Roufus, his coach, has had nothing but good things to say about his work and his acclimation.
Punk described his progress as peaks and valleys.
“I get in my own head and at the end of the day, I’m my biggest critic and I’m my worst enemy, too,” he said. “I can be hard on myself and I can get down on myself. But then I’ve had those days where I’ll catch someone in a submission or get a takedown or maybe I stuff a takedown and I can see I’m improving.
“My confidence grows and I feel on top of the world on those days. There are good days and bad days. I’m never going to be a finished product, so to speak. I’m always going to be learning. But when it’s time for me to fight, I’m going to fight and I’m going to take the knowledge I’ve gained and use the training I’ve had and do the best I can to win that fight on that night.”
This is not, he swears, a publicity stunt.
“Believe me, I have done more interviews in my life than any man should ever have to do,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t like talking about it. I’m doing this because I want to fight, because I love the sport and I want to see where I can go with it. Talking can get tedious, but I understand its importance and that we have to promote the fights.
“But I’m 100 percent serious about this. I wouldn’t devote this much of my life and have gone through all of this for a little bit of publicity. I can get publicity a lot more easily than I can by training to fight. I’m fighting because I love to fight and compete. When you get right down to it, that’s what this is all about.”
He’s not ruining the sport or taking someone’s job. He’s not making a mockery of it. He may turn out to be nowhere near good enough and will get pounded so badly in his debut that the UFC pulls the plug after one bout.
Or, it may turn out he has some aptitude for it and can make a little run. That remains to be seen.
Punk, though, isn’t worried about the many critics, those with good grammar and those without.
“The people who don’t like the UFC and want to see it fail are always going to find the negatives,” he said. “You hear them. They say, ‘Oh, they didn’t do this,’ or ‘They’re not doing this right.’ The people who like it are going to buy the pay-per-view, and I want to respect them and the other fighters and this sport by being as prepared as I can. But there’s always going to be people who don’t like it or who have a problem with it.
“There are people who don’t like their neighbors and they stare out their window trying to see every bad thing their neighbors are or aren’t doing. But listen, we’re not worried about the criticism that’s levied. We’re not the Catholic church. We’re not a bunch of pious individuals. This is the fight game. Two men or two women are locked inside a cage and we fight until they tell us to stop. I’m going to fight, and I’m not going to go crazy trying to defend my reasoning.”