CM Punk's long road to the Octagon took yet another detour on Wednesday, when the former WWE champion underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back.
That meant his long-awaited UFC debut, expected to take place this summer, may be pushed back. Again. The surgery will keep Punk – real name: Phil Brooks – on the shelf for four-to-six weeks, and while that may seem like a minor setback, he is already a 37-year-old man with more than a decade of professional wrestling wear-and-tear (which is putting it mildly) on his body. Another setback could end his career before it even begins.
"My back has always bugged me," Punk said prior to the operation. "Figured it was just wrestling shit. Turns out it was. It got bad enough to where I couldn't do anything the week before I went to train with the New Jersey Devils last month. One day I could manage, the next day I couldn't. I've been in agony for almost a month. Chiropractor, acupuncture, massage, cryotherapy...nothing worked."
Does that sound like a guy who's ready to step inside the Octagon? From the moment Punk signed with UFC in December 2014, his first fight has been a topic of much discussion; it was clear from the beginning that his was a unique situation, one that needed to be carefully managed. The UFC knew as much – or so we thought.
In hindsight, the promotion's decision to announce Punk's signing before he spent a day training with an official fight team was a mistake; it created unfair expectations and had his critics (and MMA purists) howling. The move was little more than a publicity stunt, they claimed, and despite Punk's protestations, given the amount of media coverage his signing continues to generate, you can see where those detractors are coming from.
Punk is not the first crossover athlete UFC has signed to fight – he's not even the first pro wrestler – but he's been the most difficult to actually get inside the Octagon. Each delay casts further doubt with the public, though he has pledged to prove those doubters wrong.
But Punk is no Brock Lesnar, who joined the UFC in 2008 and won the Heavyweight Championship in within three fights. In fact, he's not even boxer James Toney, who heckled Dana White for a fight in 2010 because he said a boxer could beat an MMA fighter. Toney's wish was granted and he was humiliated and submitted within four minutes by multi-time UFC champion Randy Couture.
Lesnar not only had a career with WWE prior to his UFC run, he was an athletic anomaly with an extensive amateur wrestling background and a previous pro fight to lean on. Toney had more than 75 pro boxing matches to his credit. Even Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson had MMA (and plenty of street fighting) experience prior to his brief UFC stint. Punk, on the other hand, had minimal applicable skills coming in and was forced to learn how to fight on the fly. That's an extremely difficult thing to do in such a diverse and complex sport, especially at his age.
Punk joined the credible Roufusport Martial Arts Academy in Milwaukee, which houses the likes of former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. His original goal was to debut in January of this year, but a shoulder injury pushed it to the summer. His opponent was finally determined this past weekend, just days before news of his surgery was revealed.
UFC President Dana White discovered a 24-year-old named Mickey Gall on Lookin' for a Fight, a show that searches for young talent. He was signed to the UFC after just one pro bout, and with a win, would be Punk's first foe. On Saturday, Gall dispatched of opponent Mike Jackson in just 45 seconds to punch his ticket.
Punk and Gall came face-to-face with in the center of the Octagon following the fight. Punk said he wanted to compete at UFC 200 on July 9, despite knowing surgery was on the horizon. Whether Punk makes it back for the desired debut date will depend on rehab, as well as avoiding any further hiccups. Gall, who opened as a 3-1 betting favorite for the matchup, wished Punk well while remaining optimistic about the fight's likelihood.
No one expected Punk to fight within months of signing with UFC, but each time he's been trotted out – and subsequently pulled back – frustration has mounted and his critics have been given more ammunition. Signing Punk was meant to capitalize on his cult celebrity, not to mention the prospects of a former pro wrestler stepping inside the Octagon for a real fight. But it's been more than two years since he was active in WWE, and now he's just Phil Brooks, a man fighting his own body.
Can he win that battle? Who knows. Punk recently said his biggest advantage against Gall would be the "mystery" of his ability. That mystery is why we all want to see him fight. The question is: Will his body ever let him?