With the dust finally settled on former WWE superstar Phillip ‘CM Punk’ Brooks’ long overdue UFC debut at Saturday’s UFC 203 from Cleveland, the results played out just how most seasoned MMA fans and media members predicted it to.
Punk was thoroughly handled by inexperienced 2-0 prospect Mickey Gall, who took him down following a wild early rush before softening him up with a brutal barrage of ground shots that opened a clear path for the inevitable rear-naked choke win in just two minutes and 14 seconds. That was probably to be expected; but what followed could have a much more lasting impact upon the sport of MMA, even if it should have been expected as well.
What happened was the Ohio Athletic Commission (OAC) released the fight purse numbers for UFC 203, and not surprisingly, the list showed that Punk took home an absolutely massive payday of $500,000 base salary for a man who never had a single MMA fight to his name. No, he didn’t take home the biggest purse, as that distinction went to heavyweight title challenger Alistair Overeem and his $800,000 disclosed purse for his thrilling knockout loss to champion Stipe Miocic, who also took home more than Punk with $600,000.
Many experienced MMA fighters immediately took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with Punk’s payday after seemingly having paid far from the dues they had sweat and bled for, and overall, the payday and the subsequent backlash was more or less a microcosm of the growing anti-establishment sentiment brewing about fighter pay and overall treatment in the UFC. In an era where name value essentially trumps actual rankings and skill, those who can drive up pay-per-view (PPV) numbers are absolutely paid more than those who win against top-ranked opponents but fail to draw big numbers.
Punk was certainly able to drive up sales based on his name value alone, as Forbes estimated that his place on UFC 203’s main card added millions of dollars in revenue to the card. In that sense, he earned every dollar of his $500,000 disclosed purse, and probably the rumored pay-per-view points he’ll receive based on sheer numbers alone.
He’s unique in that he was an inexperienced fighter coming from a totally different game of pro wrestling, but he undoubtedly brought a new fanbase with him, at least for that one night (Dana White has said we won’t see Punk in the UFC again).
However, the ‘money fight’ concept has proven to be a go-to one for the UFC this year, where they eschewed a single defense of the featherweight title for Conor McGregor in favor of having him match up with Nate Diaz a second time, and the box office results were potentially record-setting. It will happen again when aging legend Dan Henderson, who sits at No. 13 in the 185-pound ranks and hasn’t won back-to-back bouts in years, faces unlikely champion Michael Bisping in a sort of revenge bout at October 8’s UFC 204 from Manchester.
Like it or not, the formula has been bringing cash in for the UFC on regular basis, and in no small amounts.
There’s already been a growing numbers of fighters lashing out against their contracts in the months after the UFC’s momentous $4 billion sale to talent agency WME-IMG in the days after UFC 200, and Punk’s substantial payday for what many deem an embarrassing effort obviously only served to fuel that fire. The argument that fighters must build their own brand to become top-level pay-per-views draws in their own right is an obvious one, yet Punk earned the big payday they are all seeking without having to do any of that.
Punk deserves respect for having the proverbial guts to set foot into the Octagon; that much is no doubt true. But the fact also remains there was no way to not pay him the amount he had negotiated without alienating fighters who haven’t made as much in their entire careers as Punk did for getting trounced in less than half a round. The backlash was inevitable.
While it could be a case of sour grapes from an increasingly disenfranchised roster, the reality of it is that, coupled with the recent sale and Reebok sponsorships limitations, Punk’s payday has and will continue to galvanize a fighter base that’s only now finding out what they’re truly worth.
Do they have work to do to promote themselves? Yes, without a doubt. Yet that’s going to be hard to accomplish without at least some of the UFC’s promotional machine behind them. The only thing mid-ranked fighters, or event top-ranked competitors who aren’t household names, can do to get that is win a several consecutive fights spectacularly, and that involves a heavy amount of risk on their part.
True, that’s their job, but it’s a wholly unforgiving, brutal one that has no guarantee whatsoever of success, pay, or health after their insanely short window at or near the top is over. It’s simply time for fighters to be paid what they’re worth and treated fairly for putting their bodies on the line day in and day out for the sake of mere entertainment. Luke Rockhold and TJ Dillashaw have been speaking out for change lately, and it’s time for more UFC athletes to follow suit.
The issue of fighter pay has never been more at the forefront of MMA’s hottest topics, so it’s strange that a scenario like that involving Punk arose right when talk of a fighter’s union has been swirling more fervently than ever. Baseball super agent Jeff Borris recently founded a fighter’s association to hopefully create that union and introduce the Muhammad Ali Act into MMA, and while many have cried that he’s simply looking to cash in on an opportunity involving fighters, that’s just what the UFC has been doing for years. With most fighters focusing on themselves and their camps, the fact that they have failed to band together and unionize is a big part of why they are constantly complaining about their pay.
So at the end of the day, it’s time for the UFC to make some overarching changes for their fighters – the writing is on the wall, and it could easily be argued that it has been for years now. Fighters just haven’t noticed it as much until they compared their paycheck to the UFC sale that they helped create by risking their long-term health.
CM Punk’s massive payday only further brought that into question, and the UFC’s current roster of athletes fully has the right to be mad.
What they do about it, however, is now on them.