From WWE Champion To UFC Underdog: CM Punk’s Unbelievable Journey

At UFC 203, CM Punk made his long-awaited debut as a professional MMA fighter, possibly one of the most controversial to ever step inside the cage. Punk’s pro career has been one of incredible ups and downs, from his highly successful but ridiculously tumultuous life as a pro wrestler, to his highly publicized and often criticized attempt to embark on a UFC career at such an advanced age. Punk has made a habit out of saying what he thinks and doing what he wants, and it has all led him to a highly publicized debut fight which most people were correct in saying that he couldn’t win. But then, Punk has been fighting against nearly impossible odds for his entire life. After all, it was only a few years ago where he had managed to work his way up, against all odds, to become the biggest star in professional wrestling. And that’s where our look at the journey of CM Punk, a man who went from the top of the wrestling business to a struggling MMA rookie, begins.

Struggling From The Start

CM Punk probably should have never made it to WWE in the first place. He was too small, too “indie”, and he often rubbed people the wrong way. However, he also had an incredible mind for the business, and was taken under the win of the legendary promoter Paul Heyman, who was in charge of WWE’s developmental system at the time, and who taught Punk about how wrestling worked from the backstage side, while Punk honed his craft in the ring. It was Heyman who enabled Punk’s rise to WWE, bringing him in as a hot prospect for the revived ECW brand, and protecting him as much as possible from the machinations of backstage politics. Thanks to the head start, Punk hung around even after Heyman was removed from power, carving himself out a niche in the midcard and slowly building a fanbase, but never seeming to ascend to the real heights of the main event. Even though he earned a pair of runs as World Heavyweight Champion, Punk was still seen as an afterthought by those in power, a solid worker who was never going to be a top guy. But in 2011, CM Punk took a live microphone on Raw and cut a blistering promo against the company he worked for, and things would never be the same for him ever again.

http://windows8osx.deviantart.com/art/CM-Punk-ECW-06-Debut-302429696 Source: windows8osx.deviantart.com

Best In The World?

Yes, there was a point in WWE’s history where CM Punk could probably have legitimately laid claim to being the biggest star in the company, a title that had belonged to John Cena for the better part of a decade. By playing into fan frustration with the current state of wrestling, cutting a fantastic “pipe bomb” promo (which was scripted, but crossed the line so effectively that many believed it to be real), and having the Match of the Year with Cena at Money in the Bank, where he won the WWE Championship on his “last day” with the company, CM Punk turned himself into the hottest wrestler on the planet. The brash and vocal Punk was something different from what fans had seen for years, and they latched onto it, hard. Upon his ascension to the top of the mountain, Punk’s “Best in the World” shirt became the biggest merchandise mover in WWE by far, toppling Cena from the top spot for the first time in forever. Then, at a rematch with Cena at SummerSlam, Punk once again defeated the “Face That Runs The Place” to cement himself as the top guy in WWE. Well, for about thirty seconds, anyway.

http://www.eyesonthering.com/2015/06/retrospective-roundtable-cm-punks.html Source: eyesonthering.com

It All Falls Apart

Literally seconds after Punk’s victory at SummerSlam, he was forcibly shoved aside by the combination of a returning Kevin Nash, a semi-retired wrestler whom nobody had particularly asked to see, and an impromptu match with Alberto Del Rio, who cashed in his Money in the Bank contract for an immediate title shot, costing Punk the WWE Title. To make matters worse, John Cena was given the next PPV title match against Del Rio, while Punk was set up to feud with Nash, until it was revealed that Nash was not medically cleared to compete. That feud ended without Punk ever getting revenge on the man who had wronged him, and while he would regain the WWE Title from Del Rio a few months later, he would never fully recapture the magic of what became known as the Summer of Punk. He would hold the WWE Title for 434 straight days, a modern day record, but was only in the main event of two PPVs when his opponent was not John Cena: a throwaway Triple Threat at the December show, and a Royal Rumble main event against The Rock, where he lost the title.

http://www.cagesideseats.com/wwe/2014/7/6/5873641/cm-punk-wwe-contract-future-pro-wrestling Source: CageSideSeats.com

He’s Outta Here!

Punk’s career had plateaued, as he followed up a pair of losses to The Rock with a decent but uninspired WrestleMania match with The Undertaker, which (of course) he lost. Following that, Punk disappeared from TV to rest some nagging injuries, returning to a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Chicago. But rather than move back into the main event, Punk was sidetracked by a feud with his manager and friend Paul Heyman, losing to Heyman’s other meal ticket, Brock Lesnar, at SummerSlam, then moving into a decidedly midcard feud with new “Heyman Guys” Ryback and Curtis Axel, leading to a string of bad and forgettable matches. Late in the year, it seemed like patience might pay off, as Punk began subtly feuding with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, also known as “The Authority”, who controlled WWE. As punishment, Punk was forced to enter the annual Royal Rumble match at #1, and to his credit, lasted most of the match before getting screwed out of a potential victory. But the next day, without any warning at all, Punk was gone.

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1940411-wwe-news-cm-punk-pulled-from-all-wwe-live-dates-going-forward Source: Bleacherreport.com

Burning The Bridge

Eventually, news leaked out about the reasons behind Punk’s sudden disappearance (and subsequent whitewashing of his history from WWE), much of it from a shoot interview Punk did with his friend, Colt Cabana. During that interview, Punk revealed that he hadn’t been pleased with his position in WWE for a long time, and turned down a potential WrestleMania match with Triple H (which eventually went to Daniel Bryan) not because he didn’t want to work with him, but because Punk wanted a match in the main event of WrestleMania, the one thing he’d been denied in his career, even during his year-plus reign as WWE Champion (Punk’s only chance while he held the title was overshadowed by the first Cena-Rock match). Basically, Punk was upset with the creative direction of WWE, had more than enough money to live comfortably, and just plain tired of wrestling after a lengthy career (Punk had always told people he would retire by 35, but nobody had believed him). He also had a few less-than-kind words to say about WWE’s medical staff, including a claim that they misdiagnosed a staph infection that could have killed him, which led to a lawsuit from WWE’s chief physician that is still ongoing.

http://www.voicesofwrestling.com/2014/10/06/cm-punk-was-backstage-at-a-wrestling-show-this-weekend-thats-the-entire-story/ Source: voicesofwrestling.com

An Unexpected Announcement

For his part, other than that infamous interview, Punk stayed largely out of the public eye after leaving WWE, marrying his girlfriend (then-WWE Divas Champion AJ Lee, who subsequently retired from WWE as well), regularly attending Chicago-area sporting events, and generally enjoying life after retirement. And while wrestling fans would occasionally attempt to disrupt WWE shows with chants for the departed Punk, he made it clear repeatedly that he had absolutely no interest in ever returning to WWE, even as the company seemed content to pretend that he never existed. But in 2014, Punk made one of the most shocking announcements of his career: he had signed a multi-fight deal with MMA promotion UFC, and intended to have his first fight as soon as possible. Nearly everyone, including Punk’s most loyal fans, thought this was a nearly impossible goal for the (at the time) 35-year-old Punk, who had never fought in MMA before. However, Punk was adamant that this was more than a publicity stunt, it was the fulfillment of a dream he’d had for years.

http://www.foxsports.com/ufc/story/cm-punk-was-willing-to-do-the-ultimate-fighter-to-join-the-ufc-121814 Source: foxsports.com

Bumps In The Road

And so Punk began training, and while it was apparent that the desire was there, it also quickly became clear that Punk’s long career in pro wrestling had seriously worn down his body, making an already tough road to the octagon even harder. Punk was already behind the 8-ball thanks to attempting to get into an incredibly grueling form of competition very late in his prime years, and it seemed like in many ways, his body was sending him warning signs that he may have made a grievous error. First, Punk, who had been on track to have his first fight in late 2015, suffered a shoulder injury in training that pushed back his expected debut several months. Then, just after recovering from that, he was diagnosed with a severe herniation in his back and shelved for a second time due to having a much-needed surgical procedure to correct the issue. After nearly two years of delays, all thoughts of Punk managing to honor his multi-fight contract went out the window in the eyes of many people, and the question became if the former pro wrestler would even manage to have a single fight before age and injuries forced him to give up.

http://www.mmafighting.com/2015/10/19/9571381/cm-punk-says-he-dodged-a-bullet-with-shoulder-injury Source: MMAFighting.com

Finding An Opponent

In the meantime, there was the question of who Punk would face for his first (and possibly only) UFC fight. Any established name was out of the question, as the more experienced fighters likely would easily decimate the debuting Punk. However, Punk’s first fight was to be a heavily-promoted affair expected to sell tickets and PPV buys, so UFC could not simply put him in the octagon with a complete unknown rookie or broken-down veteran looking for a last payday. To that end, the search for Punk’s opponent was turned into a web-based pseudo-reality show, as UFC President Dana White searched for the right man for the job. Eventually, Punk’s opponent was determined to be Mickey Gall, a young welterweight with a 1-0 record at the time he was put forward as a potential opponent (Gall would go to 2-0 in an undercard fight for UFC that was promoted as a showcase match to set him up as Punk’s challenger). Despite his relative inexperience, many still felt that Gall was a favorite against Punk, with almost no one giving Punk more than a “puncher’s chance” in what could be both his debut and his final UFC match.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1f9WMgE-EVk Source: YouTube.com

The Hype Train

For their part, UFC has promoted Punk’s debut as much as humanly possible. Punk has been all over the media selling his fight, and UFC produced a documentary on his training to become a UFC fighter, which aired in several parts on Fox Sports One, as well as UFC’s website, and attempted to humanize a man who has called a lot of unkind things in both his wrestling and brief MMA careers. In that documentary, even Punk freely admits that he is taking a massive risk trying to break into MMA at his age, and accepts the fact that he may not only lose, but get absolutely destroyed in the process. The documentary, along with the ceaseless promotion that goes along with every major UFC fight, helped raise expectations for this fight to a fever pitch among both wrestling and MMA fans, with some hoping to see Punk’s underdog story have a happy ending, and others hoping to see the brash former wrestler humiliated on a massive stage. It’s safe to say that even though it was not the main event of UFC 203, Punk’s debut against Gall was the most anticipated match on the card.

http://www.w3livenews.com/News/Keyword/Ultimate%20Fighting%20Championship Source: w3livenews.com

A New Beginning, Or The Beginning Of The End?

Headed into UFC 203, Punk was at a crossroads in his athletic career. Win, and the possibility for more fights, and a relatively successful MMA career, would have presented themselves. But after losing convincingly to the relatively inexperienced Gall, what is left for one of the most outspoken men in professional sports? With UFC clearly not willing to be the organization that promotes a potential second fight for Punk, could there be more matches with a different promotion? Perhaps just a quiet retirement, slipping back into relative obscurity, out of the public eye forever? Or is there a potential spot at the commentary desk waiting for Punk, an area where he definitely has the necessary skills to succeed? And more importantly for wrestling fans, can the fences between Punk and WWE ever be mended? Will Punk ever get the recognition he deserves, the opportunity for guest appearances, the acknowledgment of his accomplishments, even the well-deserved WWE Hall of Fame induction, from a company where he was, at one point, the absolute Best in the World? Only the future will provide the answers to these and other questions about CM Punk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeo-Ew6vN44 Source: YouTube.com
Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle is an avid wrestling and film fan. He's been writing about WWE, movies, and video games for Goliath since 2015.