This weekend at UFC 203, former WWE superstar CM Punk is set to make his professional mixed martial arts debut in the Octagon against Mickey Gall. Gall has been training combat sports since he was a teen and has several wins under his belt. Aside from attending Brazilian jiu jitsu classes sporadically, Punk is relying on the past two years of intense training at Team Roufusport to carry him through the fight.
Jumping right into the deep end against a much more experienced opponent is a tall order for anyone, and Punk will be doing it in front of millions who are tuning in specifically to see if he’ll succeed or fail. What are his chances looking like? He’s not the first person to test his relatively raw skills in the cage. Let’s take a look at ten other celebrities who dared to strap on the four ounce gloves and how they did.
Bam Bam Bigelow
The late Bam Bam Bigelow is no stranger to the generation of WWE fans that grew up watching VHS rentals from the local video store. At 400 pounds with a head covered in red flame tattoos, he looked like a legitimate bad ass. But after 1993, anyone hoping to survive in the cage needed to understand Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If you didn’t, you were going to have a very bad time. To make matters worse, the Japanese promoters booked Bigelow against Kimo Leopoldo, an experienced veteran famous for being the first to put a dent in Royce Gracie’s aura of invincibility.
Kimo didn’t even throw a single punch before lunging for a single leg takedown, taking Bam Bam to the mat with ease. From there he spent the next three minutes in mount raining down punches on the pro wrestler. Bigelow could do nothing but flail his arms as shot after bare knuckle shot bounced off his skull. It’s not an easy beatdown to watch, and it goes on for way longer than it should have before Kimo switched to his jiu jitsu and choked Bigelow out. On the plus side, Bam Bam took home a $100,000 check for his troubles, so that’s nice.
We doubt Steve Williams, known in the pro wrestling biz as Dr. Death, made anywhere near as much as Bam Bam when he faced kickboxer Alexey Ignashov at a K-1 MMA event in Japan. Ignashov was already an ISKA World Heavyweight Champion and multiple K-1 Grand Prix champion, and he took Williams apart with ruthless efficiency in 21 seconds. All those brutal knees and kicks Steve took before faceplanting make Bam Bam’s ordeal under Kimo look like a luxurious Swedish massage in comparison.
It’s fights like this that make so many fans scream internally whenever someone without enough experience gets matched up against a proper professional fighter. There’s no way this fight should have been allowed to happen. Unfortunately for Dr. Death, there’s no independent athletic commission in Japan looking out for fighter safety and making sure opponents are evenly matched.
Years after the Dr. Death debacle, K-1 recruited another celebrity to try out MMA: Johnnie Morton, a 12 year NFL veteran who was a wide receiver for the Lions, Chiefs, and 49ers. The fight promotion dangled a $100,000 purse in front of Morton to convince him to fight, and once he accepted, he didn’t have a whole lot of time to get ready. “I wish I had more time to prepare,” he said leading up to his bout. “I have only been [formally training MMA] for two months, but I try to learn at an accelerated rate.”
At least Morton wasn’t dropped in with a champion like Steve Williams was. His opponent ended up being Japanese TV show host Bernard Ackah, another celebrity dipping their toe in the MMA waters. Unfortunately for Morton, Ackah had enough of a chin to survive their wild back and forth exchanges and ended up catching Johnnie right on the button, dropping the NFL player like a sack of potatoes. Morton was out cold for several minutes and had to be stretchered out in a neck brace. To add insult to injury, the California Athletic Commission ended up taking his entire purse after he refused to provide a post-fight urine sample for drug testing.
Making sure you get paid is important. For James Toney, it was possibly the only thing he cared about during his one and done stint into the UFC. The 45-year-old former multi-division boxing champ was way past his prime, but he could still talk some mad trash about the sport of MMA — enough that it convinced UFC president Dana White to let Toney see what a few minutes in a cage with Randy Couture was really like. Couture made quick work of Toney, using an ankle pick move taught in high school wrestling class to put the overweight boxer on his back. He ended up choking Toney out in under two minutes, and UFC fans had a good chuckle at how easy MMA triumphed over boxing. Then we learned that James Toney made $500,000 off the fight, so I guess he ended up getting the last laugh on that one.
You better believe Japanese fight promotion DREAM showed Jose Canseco the money when they got him to take part in a so-called ‘Super Hulk Tournament’ filled with all sorts of freakshow opponents. The first round saw Jose matched up against 7’2 kickboxer Hong Man Choi, but unfortunately the fight was a complete bust. After making his way to the ring with a baseball bat in one hand and his girlfriend in the other, Canseco dropped to the canvas and tapped out after one punch from Choi, later claiming he blew his knee out while throwing a kick. The whole thing was basically a waste of time for everyone except Jose Canseco, who got to walk away from the sport unharmed, and with a fat paycheck.
There’s a possibility we could see Canseco in the cage again some day. A few years back, he unsuccessfully tried to stir up interest in an MMA fight against fellow baseball player and steroids enthusiast Alex ‘A-Rod’ Rodriguez. “I can’t stand that guy, I’d rather kick his ass,” he said. “He’s a liar, he hit on my wife, he lied to the media, he lied to the media about me — the only thing I would do for him is beat his ass in an MMA ring. So that’s an open challenge to Alex: Get your ass in there, meet me in the ring so I can inflict some torture on you. I’m dead serious about this.”
Considering A-Rod will do almost anything for the right amount of money, I’m slightly concerned this may actually come together some day.
Dave Batista’s lone mixed martial arts fight in 2012 doesn’t get mentioned much, and on paper it looks like it went pretty well for the former WWE superstar: Batista won via TKO four minutes into the first round. But the results don’t tell the whole story. Batista’s opponent was a journeyman named Vince Lucero who had a 22-23 record, and only two wins in his last 15 fights. He showed up to the fight out of shape with his gut hanging over his fight shorts, but that didn’t stop him from lighting Batista up with strikes for the first few minutes of the fight.
Batista seemed to freeze with his hands down, leaving his head open for an endless stream of punches. It wasn’t looking good for the pro wrestler, but Lucero ended up gassing out and switching to the clinch. That seemed to jog Batista’s training memory and took his opponent down, unleashing a series of questionably legal blows to the back of Lucero’s head until the ref finally stopped the fight.
Fan and media reaction to the fight was swift and brutal. Bleacher Report’s headline after the fight read “Former WWE Star Dave ‘Batista’ Bautista Embarrasses Himself, Sport in MMA Debut” and criticized the muscular wrestler for nearly losing to “an opponent who looked like his only championship glory came in a hot dog eating contest.” Even though he got no love from the MMA community, Batista went on to encourage CM Punk to chase his UFC dreams as well.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to do it.'” Punk recalled. “You’ve got to chase your dream. You’re going to wake up one day and realize that you were presented an opportunity and you could have done it, but didn’t.’ So it’s a big reason.”
Not all of these stories end with losses or embarrassment. There have been a few successes amongst the wreckage. College Football Hall of Famer and ludicrously fit 48-year-old Herschel Walker signed a deal to start his MMA career with Strikeforce, and president Scott Coker went outside the promotion to find opponents raw enough for Herschel to stand a chance against. The Heisman Trophy winner physically overpowered both his opponents on the ground, but didn’t always seem to know what to do after getting them there. With more fights, he could have developed into a legit Strikeforce competitor, but we’ll never know for sure because the UFC ended up buying Strikeforce and releasing Herschel from his contract.
At 54, Walker is still talking about taking one or two more fights. And with his pal Scott Coker now running Bellator, that option is open to him again if he’s being serious.
Crossing over from boxing to MMA or vice versa is just a generally bad idea for whoever ends up on the outside of their element. But WBO heavyweight boxing champ Ray Mercer managed to pull it off perfectly, knocking out former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia with a single punch in 9 seconds flat. Sylvia’s mistake was standing in front of the notoriously heavy handed Mercer for 8 seconds too many. With MMA gloves holding not even half the padding found in boxing gloves, Tim might have taken the hardest punch Mercer ever threw in his fighting career.
If there’s one pro wrestler who’s done things smart in his transition to MMA, it’s Bobby Lashley. His first four fights were on smaller cards outside of the mainstream spotlight, so by the time he signed with Strikeforce, he was starting to look pretty competent. After the UFC bought Strikeforce, Lashley left and bounced around the minors for a while, getting paid quite well to beat up fighters with questionable records. The opponents have finally started getting better now that he’s fighting for Bellator, but Lashley keeps on winning with ease, making the whole crossover thing look easy. Lashley never left pro wrestling either, and is currently the TNA World Heavyweight Champion.
So there you have it: a broad spectrum of results from celebrities trying to make it in the mixed martial arts world. Not everyone who stepped into the cage got horribly outclassed when facing an authentic pro MMA fighter … but most of them did. Those who did succeed often got more than a little help in the matchmaking department.
CM Punk isn’t getting too much of that. His opponent Mickey Gall is young, in shape, and more experienced, holding a 3-0 amateur and 2-0 pro record. Mickey also won his first UFC fight 45 seconds into the first round, albeit to a 0-0 fighter brought into the UFC specifically to fight Gall. No one knows how he’ll fare against stiffer competition, or if Punk qualifies as that. So many unknowns, but all shall be revealed when Punk and Gall finally fight on Saturday night at UFC 203.