Going into UFC 181 this past Saturday night, there were storylines and high drama galore embedded in the matchmaking. The main event saw a welterweight title rematch between champion Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler, a hard-hitting former journeyman on his second, implausible stint with the UFC. The co-main featured newly healthy lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, perhaps one of the greatest natural talents in the sport, against Gilbert Melendez. Further down on the card, we wondered if Brendan Schaub would finally have high-school algebra completely knocked out of his skull by Travis Browne, and if fringe-contender middleweight Josh Samman could psychologically recover for his first fight back after the death of his girlfriend.
It wasn’t quite Shakespearean, but it was dramatic: Lawler edged Hendricks via split decision to become one of the most improbable UFC champions of the modern era; Pettis made good on his hype, becoming the first man to stop Melendez inside the distance; Travis Browne demolished Brendan Schaub, creating legitimate worry for the latter’s longevity and well-being; Samman scored perhaps the KO of the year, head-kicking Eddie Gordon into the new year.
It was the best card the UFC had put on all year, not just in terms of fight quality, but also in terms of human interest, which must have been particularly refreshing for Zuffa brass, as the organization had struggled to create and market compelling champions following Georges St-Pierre’s retirement, Anderson Silva’s defeats at the hands of Chris Weidman, and perpetual injuries to Pettis and heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
So it’s ironic that the biggest story coming out of that event is, let’s be honest, a blatant publicity grab: the signing of former Ring of Honor, ECW and WWE champion CM Punk. Punk, real name Philip Brooks, has a background in kempo karate — a trait that he shares with former light-heavyweight kingpin Chuck Liddell — and currently trains Brazilian jiu-jitsu with members of the Gracie family. So there’s that.
He also, however, lacks any real fighting or combat sport experience, and is very much on the wrong side of 30 (36, to be exact), a natural disadvantage that would be difficult to overcome for any seasoned fighter, let alone a neophyte. Comparisons already abound to former signee Brock Lesnar, but they’re not really valid; Lesnar had been a world-class collegiate wrestler, and was an athletic freak to boot, a near-300 pound man who could move like a welterweight.
Reaction has been, predictably, mixed. The notion of it being an outright publicity stunt is not up for debate, but the nature of the coming ripple effect is. Some say it will marginalize the UFC into even more of a niche sport than it already is, hurting its mainstream prospects (even as the organization signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Reebok to provide official UFC uniforms; more on that, maybe, later); others argue that it will in fact do the opposite, boosting viewership when the company needs it most.
The truth is somewhere in between, and I’m not interested in expounding upon it. The deal is done, and all we can do now is wait and see how the numbers play out. Fight fans would be wasting their time debating either that or, like I said, the UFC’s motivations behind the move in the first place. For fans, the debate here is going to be all about how we interpret it, how we choose to process and make sense of it. The UFC’s motto, after all, is “As real as it gets.” Does it hold up?
I grew up on professional wrestling. In Georgia, WCW was the boy-king of the industry, monumentally successful for a short window before things went horribly, hilariously wrong. But I loved any and all. I rented old PPVs on VHS tapes from a rinky-dink little video store in Adel, Georgia; I watched the Saturday Night WCW programming, and got legitimately pissed off whenever title matches were left unresolved on basic cable. Later on, I absorbed grainy ECW footage, was seduced by the WWE “Attitude Era” and even watched the Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalo Champions**t Wrestling videos which, in all honesty, were intentionally, legitimately hilarious.
Because of that, I think I’m a little more liable to accept CM Punk in the UFC. Professional wrestling is a striking blend of the fake — obviously scripted storylines and predetermined outcomes — and the real, i.e. actual injuries and the personal sacrifices that come with being on the road over 300 days a year. And in fact, mixed martial arts and professional wrestling are irrevocably intertwined, sharing lineage with American catch-wrestling, Japanese hard-style wrestling, pankration, and more. The UFC has spent the last 10 years trying desperately, with some success, to legitimize itself in the eyes of the mainstream. The present tact is a new one, but not a disingenuous one; rather, it embraces spectacle.
Look, the same could be said of all sports. How many of us would watch the NFL, MLB or NBA if it were just a broadcast of the game? No announcers, no commentary, no halftime, no celebrity fans… just the sport, no frills. None of us would; my wife and I record and watch professional triathlons on obscure sports channels, and they would be excruciatingly unwatchable without commentary and a little bit of pageantry.
The reactions and fallout from the announcement reveal two disparate, but irrevocable truths about ourselves. One, that we are naturally inclined to compartmentalize in the interest of comprehension, of understanding. And, two, that we, and the truth, are much more complicated than that.
On top of that, we cannot help but resist reconciling the two. We are simple, confounding creatures.