By Martin Springall
What runs through any professional fighter’s mind in the weeks approaching a fight is fairly ubiquitous among those bold enough to pursue the endeavour in the first place. There’s the discipline to adhere to training and diet plans, the chase to make weight, hoping to avert injury at all costs while attempting to enter the fight as coach-groomed and crisp as possible, fiscal concerns and other elemental burdens of battle. But for Phil Brooks (known professionally as CM Punk for close to two decades), it is all of the above, and then some.
The dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan stolidly bears the weight of years of expectations, derision, acrimony, desire and, ultimately, a dream linked to the outcome of his long-awaited MMA debut on Sept. 10 - a combat sports coming-out party at 37 years old, with the money and the miles logged from his eminent past as a sports entertainer (that’s “professional wrestler” for those unfamiliar with Punk’s former employer, the WWE).
As the now-185-pound Brooks commits to a daily commute to Roufusport MMA Academy in Milwaukee (one of the premier camps in the United States), he maintains a consistently self-aware mien, his drive tempered with realistic expectations of his fight against relative MMA upstart Mickey Gall.
“I don’t feel pressure. At all. I need to prepare as much as I possibly can, and if I don’t prepare enough, I know an ass-kicking’s waiting for me. I’m not really feeling any pressure. I’m not really worried about any of the hype.”
It is difficult to argue what his detractors have been trumpeting since Brooks signed with UFC in December 2014 - the fact that he, minus his wrestling name brand value and notoriety, is purely a hobbyist set to walk onto the grandest stage that mixed martial arts has to offer at UFC 203. He has never had a professional fight; an 0–0, approaching-middle-aged rookie gifted (from many observer’s perspectives) the opportunity to pursue a sport that millions of young men and women work toward every day.
For their part, UFC and the man who brokered the deal to bring Punk into the fold, Dana White, publicly present the arrangement as one driven by box office cachet that comes attached to Brooks’, er, Punk’s name. White is dismissive at some of the polarizing feedback the signing has garnered. Per MMAWeekly.com:
“Some people love it, some people hate it. The people who are opposed to it and bitching about it, I get it. Every fight that we do isn’t going to be everybody’s thing, but there will be people who want to watch him and those that don’t.”
The irony surely isn’t lost on Brooks that his UFC debut is taking place at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, where he last stepped foot 957 days before his scheduled MMA debut. It was the night when he famously walked off the job at WWE, but not before taking square aim at top WWE management with invective born of months of pent-up resentment.
Brooks currently is mired in legal proceedings levied against him by Dr. Chris Amann, WWE’s Senior Ringside Physician, which revolves around Brooks publicly accusing Amann of an alleged misdiagnosis of a serious staph infection in the months prior to Brooks’ departure from the company. To suggest that his exit from WWE, with which he spent over eight years, was acrimonious would be an understatement.
CM Punk left WWE on Monday, January 27, 2014 following months of strain with company brass.
But the issues that Brooks the wrestler were dealing with were myriad, and ones that many of his most ardent WWE supporters identify with in their own places of employment: Burnout. A perceived lack of respect and appreciation. Insufficient upward mobility. Not enough time off. And in Brooks’ case, a general decline of the passion for a business that he once cherished, his career taking root in the backyard wrestling scene of suburban Chicago in the late 1990s.
Despite the fact that he is the longest reigning WWE champion of the modern era, Brooks still never quite held the mantle as “the man” in the most prominent company in wrestling, a grievance famously brought to light during the company-approved promo he cut on live television in June 2011. There were fundamental truths in every word.
He’s now a sizable underdog heading into his first MMA bout against the eager young Gall, who is 13 years Brooks’ junior. Gall’s own fledgling career has been indelibly linked to Brooks since inking the deal for the fight earlier this year. Only one of Gall’s wins from his current 2–0 pro record came under the UFC banner; his first victory coming on the independent cage fighting circuit. Prior to that, he had emerged victorious in two fights as an amateur. Not a huge track record, but hardly a tomato can, Gall isn’t daunted by the fan following that will accompany his opponent to Cleveland. Again, from MMAFighting.com:
“Yeah, I don’t want to be the CM Punk guy. The only reason I said his name [in November 2015] was to get my foot in the door. I think I’ll take him out in the first round. I’ll be ready to go five. I’m training for him as if he’s the champ, the baddest guy in the world.”
At their somewhat muted encounter inside the Octagon back in May, the two exchanged stilted pleasantries, a facade that critics suggest belies the reality that Punk shouldn’t even be in the cage in the first place. Beyond not having a fight to his name, even had he begun competing in his early twenties, he would now be entering the twilight of his career. Instead, he’s accrued years of physical abuse from life in pro wrestling’s squared circle, as well as the rigorous travel demands that come with that job. In addition, Punk’s maiden fight has been postponed several times, as he’s weathered both a shoulder injury and surgery for a herniated disc in his back within the last 10 months.
Whatever the result on Sept. 10, one fact remains certain: Brooks is determined to live and die by his own sword, one that bucks popular convention as to how a fighting career should develop. By all accounts, the one-time darling of independent professional wrestling circles never was supposed to make it to network television in the first place, relegated to the purgatory of WWE’s then-developmental system, Ohio Valley Wrestling. Once in, against all odds, he proceeded to pave the way for the current generation of performers in a changing climate that seems to have abandoned the decades-old prototype of the huge bodybuilder in favor of a leaner, cleaner (if you buy into the legitimacy of their Talent Wellness Program), more athletic talent roster.
Although he hasn’t sworn off a superficial return to professional wrestling once he’s scratched his combat sports itch, Brooks is doggedly devoted to seeing through his new venture, win or lose, against Gall.
“I know people think this is a publicity stunt, I’m never going to set foot in the Octagon,” Brooks said, according to The Mirror. “I look forward to proving them wrong, but to me, it’s not super far-fetched to be like, ‘You know what? What if I put three or four wins together? Who’s to say I don’t get a title shot’?”
If Brooks ends up doing what a lot of pundits predict he will, tapping early to the submission-based Gall, that may not matter to him in the grand scheme of things. For a nonconformist who always has done things the unconventional way, just getting to perform on this stage alone may be the fulfillment of a dream - one that wouldn’t have been possible had he not decided to hit the reset button nearly two years ago. That personal victory may stand as a bigger win than the Octagon could ever provide him.