By any standard, it wasn’t the Saturday night most of us would wish for ourselves. Phil Brooks, better known by his moniker CM Punk when he was a superstar with the pro-wrestling behemoth WWE, made his mixed martial arts debut with the UFC at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena on the weekend.
As a fight debut it was a disaster: competing as Punk, Brooks was never in the contest against Mickey Gall. The 24-year-old Gall manhandled him, beat and bloodied him mercilessly and then two and a half minutes after the bell rang, forced him to tap out to a choke. Brooks didn’t manage a single significant strike.
It was a disaster that nearly everyone had called in advance. Brooks was 37 (he will be 38 next month) when he got into the octagon – an age when strength begins to fade and reflexes slow. While he had been training for two years, ever since he called time on his pro wrestling career, he had no background in any martial art. His debut was delayed owing to an injured shoulder and surgeries to treat a herniated disc in his back.
Gall was just 24, in the prime of his career, training and fighting for over half his life. Undoubtedly, there was some gloating. Brooks had become a villain of sorts inside UFC circles while fans and fellow fighters had questioned his motives. Here was a man who had ‘pretend’ fought for a living taking up a brutal new sport with no prior experience. News reports of the beating – you can’t really call it a contest – got their laughs in as well — “CM Punk’d” was a particularly noteworthy one.
But while there was no doubt of his defeat, there was certainly no disgrace for Brooks. This bout wasn’t about putting a check in a prizefighter’s wins and losses column. This should rather be viewed as an inspirational example for anyone unhappy with where they are in life and unsure if it’s too late to rewrite their story.
Brooks walked away from a seven figure (in dollars, mind you) contract with the WWE – incidentally, at the same venue where he made his UFC debut. It wasn’t about him leaving one pro-wrestling body for another and then perhaps returning for a massive payday. No, he was looking to change his life forever.
In a column for The Player’s Tribune a few weeks ago, Punk wrote about why he did what he did despite knowing the challenges he faced: “I had to learn everything else from scratch — which excited me. So ultimately, I decided to put aside what I was good at in order to pursue what I wanted to be great at.”
Brooks might not have reached where he wanted but he sure tried. “It was a hell of a mountain to try to climb, and I didn’t get to the summit today, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. I will be back, believe it or not. This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It’s the second-best night of my life, besides marrying my wife,” he said, ringside, after his match even as he visibly choked back tears.
Brooks decided to chase his dream. Too many are ready to bash, but refuse to risk anything approaching what Brooks did. This wasn’t the fairytale ending or even the start he would have wanted from the new chapter in his life, but stepping into the ring was victory in itself for Brooks. “Believe in yourself. Sometimes the outcome isn’t what you desire it to be, but the true failure in life is not trying at all. I know it sounds preachy and kind of weird coming from a guy who just got beat up, but f— it, this is the time of my life,” he would say bloodied but unbowed.