#PunkWeek: The 'pipe bomb' set the table for CM Punk's UFC debut

Tonight, 21 months removed from announcing that he had signed a multi-fight deal, CM Punk will make his mixed martial arts debut against welterweight Mickey Gall at UFC 203.

Despite not having a single professional fight on his record, and despite being a +375 underdog as of Saturday afternoon, Punk is the uncontested star of the show. Not the relatively unknown Gall, not heavyweight contenders Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, and Travis Browne, and not even UFC heavyweight champion and hometown hero Stipe Miocic.

The success of UFC 203 lives and dies on the drawing power not of an established, “real” fighter, but of CM Punk, former professional wrestler.

If the show pulls a strong buyrate, it can be said with a great degree of certainty that Punk is the root cause. Whether this would be due to his ability to draw buys from professional wrestling fans, or from MMA fans delighting in the possibility of seeing someone they perceive as undeserving of his spot brought crashing back down to Earth, is less quantifiable. Punk would be the singular draw all the same.

Why UFC opted to make Punk the focus of the show over a main event championship fight is one matter. Most likely, it is an effort to maximize its investment and simultaneously capitalize on the well-documented captivation potential of the freakshow fight in the hopes of popping a bigger number from a show that would otherwise have little mainstream appeal.

Punk’s potency as an attraction people would potentially pay to see goes back to June 27, 2011, in Las Vegas, NV, at the end of an otherwise unremarkable Raw in a segment that became the stuff of legend in just five minutes time.

It goes back to a man at his most frustrated, his most creatively stifled, being handed a live microphone and told to speak his mind in front of an audience of millions. And that microphone in tow, he strode confidently to the top of the ramp, sat down cross-legged and facing the ring, unloaded five years worth of frustration, and made himself a superstar.

“The only thing that’s real is me…”

“John Cena, while you lay there, hopefully as uncomfortable as you possibly can be, I want you to listen to me. I want you to digest this, because before I leave in three weeks with your WWE Championship, I have a lot of things I want to get off my chest.”

With these words, Punk began the scathing promo that not only likely contributed to prolonging his WWE career by another two-plus years, but was also directly responsible for propelling him into the mainstream consciousness. Five years later, with Punk the primary focus of UFC 203, it is still paying dividends.  

The “pipe bomb” promo was an excoriation, even in the medical sense of the word. For as much as the promo seemed aimed at catching the interest of fans fascinated by the goings on behind-the-scenes, each successive sentence peeled back another layer of skin, opening up wounds within Punk that seemingly had never healed and baring them to the world.

He hit upon the animosity he felt for “most people in the back” and upon the enmity he felt had been unfairly aimed in his direction because “Paul Heyman saw something in me that nobody else wanted to admit (was there).” He openly rattled off the names of wrestlers and personalities who were at the time personae non gratae, ghosted completely from WWE programming: Heyman, Brock Lesnar, Hulk Hogan.

He expressed disdain at the thought of the WrestleMania main event spot being given to The Rock, who at that point hadn’t wrestled a match in eight years but was in the midst of his ascent to the top of the list of Hollywood’s most in-demand stars. He insinuated that he would win the WWE championship and defend it in a rival promotion like New Japan Pro Wrestling or Ring of Honor, stopping to shout out Colt Cabana, who had been released from his contract with the WWE 28 months prior.

The most salacious components of the promo involved Vince McMahon from intimating that he fills the heads of the company’s talent with false hopes of grasping imaginary brass rings to the suggestion that he would have been a wealthier man had he not based business decisions on the opinions of “glad-handing, nonsensical, d*chebag yes-men like John Laurinaitis.”

By far the promo’s most scandalous line, and the one that made the perception of whether Punk was shooting or working all the hazier: “I’d like to think that maybe this company will be better after Vince McMahon’s dead, but the fact is it’s going to get taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family.”

Punk’s mic was cut, and the camera cut to black. The audience was left in the dark, too, wondering if what they had seen was part of the entertainment. For all of the uncertainty about the line between fiction and reality, one thing was sure: it made for compelling, buzzworthy television.

And generate buzz it did.

The promo not only received considerable mainstream attention, but it reinvigorated a tired audience and called out to fans who had stepped away from the product. Suddenly, WWE seemed to be a product brimming with interesting possibility. And in a universe of scripted words and thinly-drawn, synthetic characters, Punk stood out in that moment as its singular authentic entity.

Two weeks after the pipe bomb promo, Punk sat down with a microphone once again — this time in the center of the ring — and asked the world: “Do I have everybody’s attention now?” The answer, undoubtedly, was yes. Punk had set himself apart from the pack, and he knew it.

“The wheel’s gonna keep turning.”

The promise of that promo was ultimately never realized; the failings of the WWE version of the “Summer of Punk” are well-documented, those missteps the result of what could be reasonably described as a potent cocktail of selfishness, apprehension, and stupidity.

Given the promo, the five-star match between Cena and Punk at Money in the Bank, and the immediate aftermath of that match, the potential existed for Punk vs. WWE to become one of the all-time great feuds. That it did not is not only an incredible disappointment, but it was likely also a significant contribution to the mounting frustrations that ultimately led to Punk’s exit from the company and wrestling in January 2014.

Punk’s WWE career ended in such a way that people cannot help but ponder the various what-ifs and what-could-have-beens, one of which being whether he would be on the precipice of debuting in the Octagon today if he had been given a WrestleMania main event or more time off to recuperate from injuries or made more of the focal point of the product in the immediate aftermath of that infamous promo.

Punk told Ariel Helwani on Wednesday that his MMA dream began well before he left WWE, so it is not impossible that he would have taken a similar path even had things gone in direction he found to be more agreeable.

There may have even been the scant possibility that Punk would have made the leap several years earlier had he not resigned after his contract expired in 2011. Certainly, he seems more focused on living in the present and less so in the past, which can only work to his advantage on Saturday and moving forward beyond it.

One thing is certain: his debut in the UFC would not be the focal point of a pay-per-view had CM Punk not cut that promo in Las Vegas a little more than five years ago. Five minutes and a microphone was all it took for the man to make himself a featured attraction, and win or lose, Saturday could prove to be the true fulfillment of that pipe bomb’s promise.

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