“I lost, and it sucks, and it was lopsided, and it’s upsetting.”
CM Punk is at his post-fight press conference at UFC 203. He isn’t mincing words. He is, however, showing emotion. Real, serious, eye-watering, throat-clenching emotion. I’ve watched him on TV for nearly a decade; I’ve seen him win and lose championships in professional wrestling. It’s the first time I’ve really, truly seen my hero wounded, where I know he is hurting on the inside. It is a strange feeling.
I was one of the 18,785 people who witnessed Punk’s MMA debut live inside the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. It was also his UFC debut, but by all accounts, it shouldn’t have been — but when opportunity knocks, you open the door. A lot of UFC fans were upset at Punk for taking a spot on the main card. I am not a UFC fan. I am a CM Punk fan. I know little about modern UFC. I’ve only ever seen a few PPV cards; my first was UFC 158 in 2013, where Georges St-Pierre beat Nick Diaz by decision. The people I watched it with were Diaz fans and wouldn’t stop complaining about how boring the fight was. They were right: It was boring.
Still, with UFC making its first appearance in my own backyard, and with two Cleveland natives on the card, and with probably my favorite pro wrestler of all time making his debut, I shelled out the money to be there live and in the flesh. And I’ll be honest: It was boring.
I wasn’t alone, though; multiple bouts on the main card that night were riddled with boos. Here you had two fighters inside of a cage, encircling each other, looking for the right moment to strike, but thousands of people were booing en masse because the pace wasn’t fast enough, or the strikes didn’t look violent enough. It legitimately felt like attending a battle inside the Roman Coliseum or something.
I’ve been to plenty of pro wrestling events in my day, and I honestly can’t think of any time the crowd actively booed both participants for the match not living up to their expected level of bloodthirst. But I could understand it to an extent: These people paid hundreds of dollars to see someone’s face get caved in, and they weren’t getting their money’s worth. What I was surprised by was that, at the end of the crowd-displeasing fights in question (Faber/Rivera and Werdum/Browne), the audience continued to boo. The sheer lack of respect on display for these fighters was honestly a bit shocking.
There were plenty of CM Punk fans in the crowd (the official, UFC-branded CM Punk shirt on sale that night was a fast seller despite its $30 price tag — I had to visit four separate merch stalls to find one in my size, as the stock was picked over quickly), but not only that, there were plenty of pro wrestling fans in general. Guy in an nWo shirt? Check. Guy in a Macho Man shirt? Check. Luke Harper — the actual pro wrestler, not a shirt with his name on it — standing in line buying beer? Check. But I still worried that CM Punk would be showered with boos just for showing up. Maybe he was in other spots in the arena, but not where I was sitting. And when the familiar opening of “Cult of Personality” hit, plenty of people jumped out of their seats, myself included. I heard the men behind me snicker and yell, “Go back to WWE!” I don’t know if they were talking to Punk or to me. It didn’t matter. My hero was about to enter the lion’s den. I was going to cheer for him.
I knew he was going to lose. But I had been wrong before. I drove out to Chicago in July 2011 to see what was being billed as CM Punk’s final WWE match, at Money in the Bank against John Cena for the WWE Championship. Punk’s contract was up, and tradition dictates you always leave the company on your back. My friends and I knew he was going to lose — but what if he won? The possibility alone was enough to make us buy tickets, get a hotel and drive six hours to find out. And as it turns out, we were wrong — and we had never been happier about being wrong. But pro wrestling, at its best, is designed to give you emotional payoffs and unexpected moments of catharsis. That’s what Money in the Bank was — it wasn’t real. UFC 203 was real.
Two minutes and 14 seconds into the first round, CM Punk tapped out to a rear naked choke. It wasn’t a flashy tapout with flailing arms that played to the cheap seats, like what pro wrestlers are trained to do. It was a simple tapping of his right hand against the mat, indicating to the ref that, yes, he had enough punishment and no, he could not take anymore. I was sad, but I also was not surprised. Punk had spoken previously that just getting to the octagon was a victory for him, and I agreed. His journey toward the cage the past two years has been littered with surgeries and lawsuits, setting him back physically and mentally (and financially, too). But he never showed cracks in the facade. In fact, one could say he was working everybody leading up to the fight — he claimed he wouldn’t make weight, he wore an ill-fitting suit to a pre-fight press conference to make him look emaciated, he purposely chose to eschew shaking Mickey Gall’s hand at the ceremonial weigh-in, choosing instead to stare him down.
Gall, to his credit, was not flustered. “You’re an actor; you’re acting,” Gall told Punk that afternoon. He wasn’t wrong, of course; a big part of CM Punk’s appeal in pro wrestling was his acting ability. He was always golden on the mic, and his facial expressions alone could easily elevate a match. He was purposely trying to get into Gall’s head leading up to their contest, possibly because he knew it was the best tool in his arsenal. But just like his right hand, it didn’t land. Nothing did. Punk was defeated, and humbled.
Leaving the arena that night, the crowd was electric from Stipe Miocic’s successful title defense. Perhaps that removed any residual animosity the true UFC fans had toward the pro wrestling fans who invaded their space that night, as walk-of-shame fan heckling was at a minimum. Or perhaps UFC fans felt like their irrational feelings toward Punk’s inclusion were validated after seeing him get choked out by Gall. Whatever it was, the atmosphere was more jovial than mocking. Cleveland was a city of champions once again. Just not for CM Punk.