In January 2010, former Triple Champion boxer James Toney made the decision to try his hand in mixed martial arts at the best promotion in the sport, the UFC. Known for his success in three major divisions, his shoulder roll, and counters, Toney trained for eight months to fight Hall of Famer Randy Couture at UFC 118.
It went as well as one could expect. He got the stuffing beat out of him before a past-his-prime Couture submitted him with an arm-triangle choke. Needless to say, Toney’s career ended the same night it started. The fight also further cemented MMA’s reputation is being a sport that required serious discipline like one would need for football, basketball,a and boxing. If you weren’t sufficiently prepared in your striking, grappling, and ground game, you weren’t going to last very long in mixed-martial arts. Shoulder rolls and right hooks aren’t good enough against submission artists and Muay Thai savants.
Six years later, and after almost two years since the initial announcement, former WWE superstar CM Punk (Phil Brooks) is going to fight in the Octagon this Saturday for UFC 203. Since January 2014, pundits have talked for tens of thousands of hours and wrote millions of words analyzing Punk’s decision.
If it hasn’t been neutral reporting, most of the coverage has been critical of the star and the promotion for this decision. Many see it as a cynical ploy by UFC President Dana White to grab cash by exploiting Punk’s superstar status to drive up pay-per-view buys (a la Brock Lesnar). Many also have ridiculed the decision to grant Punk the opportunity at the expense of other younger and more deserving MMA talent. After all, most fighters start off at other smaller and local promotions before being earning the opportunity to fight at the UFC.
Well, the critics are largely correct, even if they’re somewhat fanatical in their judgement of Punk. Prior to training with Duke Roofus, Punk had virtually no experience in martial arts. Unlike James Toney, Brooks had never boxed or even trained in boxing. He has also never done Brazilian Jujitsu, freestyle/Greco-Roman wrestling, or thrown a single Muay Thai kick. Unlike Brock Lesnar, Punk was not some super athletic freak with an extensive background and honors in amateur wrestling. As far as reports indicate, he’s just a hard worker who has made some progress in improving his ground game and striking.
His opponent is a brash 24-year-old from New Jersey named Mickey Gall, who’s won two fights via submission within the first round. He’s a fighter who’s dedicated over a decade to improving his craft, spending seven years as a Brazilian Jujitsu student and instructor. As such, Vegas is making Gall the 5-1 favorite against the 37-year-old CM Punk, who has only been training for less than two years.
But this fight is on the undercard for the main event, Alistair Overeem vs Stipe Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title. It’s not the most important nor are these two established veterans. There are no titles on the line and Urijah Faber and Jimmie Rivera, two respected veterans of the sport, go on before Gall and Punk.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the Gall-Punk fight, despite the controversy, could be more important in establishing a better future for the UFC than the Toney-Couture fight.
Let’s understand the fighters and what they bring to mixed martial arts.
CM Punk is a former superstar wrestler who enjoyed much success in the WWE. Yes, it’s fake. But his in-ring ability, skills on a microphone, and overall character helped elevate him to levels of popularity he would not enjoy if he were just a jobber. Yet, he’s 37 years old, about to be 38 in October, and has had two surgeries in the two years he’s been training. His career window is limited to make any sort of impact in the welterweight division.
Conversely, his opponent Mickey Gall is 24 years old with another decade or so in front of him. As we’ve seen with Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, confidence coupled with extraordinary skill, makes for a star or a superstar. While I would not go so far to say that Mickey will end up being at a similar status to McGregor, his youth, experience as a BJJ practitioner, and overall determination can prime him into being a potential contender within the division – provided that he gain more experience against veteran fighters. Like they’re doing with Sage Northcutt, a 20-year-old Karate savant with a body straight out of a comic book and a smile from a toothpaste commercial, the promotion should develop ravenous young talent to expand its growing brand.
When we take everything we know about the two into consideration, the best possible outcome to this match would be a decisive victory for Mickey Gall. Gall beating Punk would provide the fighter with better name recognition to other audiences. He could establish that he’s a “true pro” who easily destroys “joes” like Punk. After all, Punk winning this fight wouldn’t do much given his injury history, his limited window, and already present star power. The underdog narrative of Punk beating Gall won’t service the sport much beyond being a temporary feel good story for some and an annoyance to others. Win or lose, Punk is still likely going to be viewed as nothing more than a novelty act not dissimilar to James Toney.
Unlike what others have suggested, it’s not do or die for the sport. Rather, it’s a matter of the UFC developing and throwing its weight behind a potential young star for a decade as opposed to attempting to give an older star a push for a year or so before eventually fading into MMA irrelevancy.