CM Punk- WWE Champion, WrestleMania performer, a man who has sold out Madison Square Garden. At UFC 203, he'll officially add “UFC Fighter” to his resume.
Punk's journey to the UFC hasn't been an easy one, although it has admittedly been easier for him than many others. After leaving the WWE in January, and his subsequent release later in the year, Punk began negotiations with the UFC that fall. At UFC 181 in December 2014, Punk and the UFC announced that he'd signed a multi-fight contract with the company.
"I have a limited window like all fighters do, and I'm here for a fight. This is my new career, 100%," Punk told Joe Rogan in the interview announcing the signing. “I have respect for everyone who fights in the UFC, and by the time I'm done, they'll respect me.”
The decision was met with polarizing responses from fighters, media and fans. Many criticized the UFC and Punk for jumping line and not earning his spot, while many praised the idea, citing his likely box office success.
In the months that followed, Punk narrowed his selection of fight camps down to Roufusport MMA Academy, the then-home of Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, Ben Askren and other big names. The location was a prime reason, considering that it was only 90 minutes away from Punk's home in Chicago. Punk began training at Roufusport in late January 2015, and later relocated to Milwaukee to make travel easier.
Roufus and Punk would state on many occasions that they would prefer Punk wait a year before he took his first UFC fight. He participated in scrimmage fights in both March and May of 2015, but since then, the camp has been tight-lipped about his training. There were also unfounded and false rumors that Punk had participated in 15 scrimmage fights, losing 14 of them.
Either way, Punk made an impression on Roufus early. Punk also made an impression on UFC fighter Tyron Woodley, who will compete for the UFC Welterweight title later this year.
"He's bridging the gap the best way he knows how. For anybody who has been out of martial arts and not in the arena for that long, he's doing exactly what he should do to make up that gap. He's doing private lessons, 12 to 14 of them a week. He's in there working, and when he gets his fight announced, I can help him as much as I can to get ready for it," Woodley told Inside MMA in February 2015.
2015 came and went, and Punk had no opponent. He was still valuable to the UFC, drawing huge numbers for his Q&A's that he would hold prior or following event weigh-ins. Many speculated that the CM Punk – UFC relationship would devolve into a public relations position, something both sides vehemently denied.
Punk's relationship with the WWE continues to be nonexistent. He ended an interview with Complex Magazine for asking too many WWE – related questions, and later told ESPN's Russillo and Kanell that he'd not wrestle again with the WWE.
“I don't think so. But it is one of those "never say never" things,” He said. “I like to cover all my bases, just so some internet dweeb is going to be like, 'you said you'd never wrestle again!' But WWE? No. Absolutely not. But you never know, I could pop up here and there. Let me explain that to you even better... it's not going to even be televised, it's going to be me in a ninja f--king outfit wrestling one of my buddies and nobody's ever going to know. It's going to be very 'Monty Python' so to speak."
Punk's MMA training was a far cry from his WWE days, and not only for obvious reasons. Punk, who was once billed at 225 pounds during his WWE run (likely exaggerated), immediately lost weight, and announced that he'd be competing at 170 pounds for his first UFC fight.
2016 has been the year where everything has started to come together, although it hasn't been without hiccups. UFC President Dana White's Lookin' For A Fight show was created, and highlighted White and former UFC Champion Matt Serra scouting talent nationwide. One of the talents they watched was Mickey Gall, a debuting pro fighter, whom called out CM Punk following his bout. It caught Dana White's eye.
Gall was given a fight at UFC Fight Night: Hendricks vs. Thompson against Mike Jackson, and won in quick, impressive fashion. The victory sealed his date with CM Punk, and impressed the UFC President White.
It's all about being the right guy in the right place at the right time," White said on UFC Fight Pass. "We're traveling around to all these shows. We're seeing a lot of interesting people that we normally wouldn't see if we weren't doing this. And Mickey Gall had it that night. Mickey Gall had it that night. Everybody has been calling out CM Punk, but that's the kid that I liked."
CM Punk faced off with Gall in the cage and exchanged a handshake. Afterwards, FOX cameras got his impressions of Gall.
"To me, Mickey Gall is a means to an end. He's humble, he's respectful, and he's smart. he called me out when he knew he had Dana (White's) ear. He knew what he had to do, he said my name, so he did the right thing. Honestly, I'm looking forward to meeting him, he seems like a nice kid," said Punk.
Not so fast. Mickey Gall was a means to an end, but that end wouldn't come as quickly as many expected. Shortly before the face-off with Gall, Punk was told he'd require back surgery.
"I felt like sh*t about it. I wanted to tell everybody, but it was also a case of let's just see where this goes and see what happens. I got the MRI Friday night and I was literally diagnosed Saturday, right before I walked out to watch Mickey and Michael Jackson fight,” Punk told Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour (credit to MMA Fighting for the transcript).
For Punk, the injuries dated back to his pro wrestling days, to the tune of two herniated disks. Punk said passing up on the surgery wasn't an option.
"It was certainly a bitter pill to swallow, but there is a flip side to the coin that I was trying to focus on," Punk said. "That, holy sh*t, I have a herniated disk and I have had this herniated disk. Who knows how long I've had it? I was relieved to get properly diagnosed and it was exciting almost to go, okay, we can take care of this, and then when I come back I'll be 100-percent. Because there's always little things.”
Fast forward to Summer 2016, and the fight is on. CM Punk announced on UFC Unfiltered that he'll take on Mickey Gall at UFC 203 in Cleveland on September 10.
“Body weight, height, reach, everything like [that], I think we're almost identical. Experience goes to him. He's fought in The Octagon and other places and I haven't. He's a nice guy. I talked to him very briefly at his debut and I felt bad about that setback and he [has] been kind of sitting on the sidelines, but here we are now. I think he's a tough kid, but also his fights have been pretty short. You don't really get to see all of his skills,” Punk said.
However, there was a concern that Punk's injury would lead to him never fighting, which would please his detractors.
"The worry of that definitely crept into my head, but I tried to stay positive and I don't think you can kind of dwell on the negative,” he said. “I mean, the back surgery thing is a bum out. Anytime you have a surgery and you're an athlete, it fucking sucks. And then, there are the months of rehab where I couldn't do anything." Punk added, "but I never thought that it was over. I never thought that I wasn't going to make it to a fight. I never thought I wasn't going to fight. I tried to stay positive."
Punk's journey was chronicled in a Fox Sports 1 documentary Evolution of Punk. Punk's inexperience was evident, as he was shown struggling in sparring sessions, before the final episode displayed a much more in-shape Punk emerging victorious. The now reclusive Punk has been forced to return to a world of constant media attention. UFC Embedded, UFC previews, UFC countdown, media days, press conferences. His opponent Mickey Gall has used the opportunity to poke fun at Punk's pro wrestling background, as he was filmed performing WWE-esque techniques at his gym.
Punk opens as a major underdog to Gall, with all major sportsbooks offering him at at least +250, all the way up to +350. He's giving up experience (Gall has four fights as an amateur and pro), and faces someone who is approaching his athletic prime, where Punk is likely facing his athletic decline. Will Punk be able to silence his critics, or will he reinforce all of the negativity thrown his way? We'll find out September 10 at UFC 203 from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.