It was pretty surreal to see CM Punk sitting at a UFC press conference. UFC 181 was a fantastic card with two title fights, neither of which disappointed, yet all the buzz was about CM Punk. Did Punk’s presence take away from Robbie Lawler’s incredible come from behind Welterweight championship victory? Probably. Does it delegitimize the sport that someone with a 0-0 record receives a multi-fight deal while others that have invested so much time and energy are still waiting for their shot? It certainly does. But (last annoying question, we promise) will we all tune in when he makes his debut? ABSOLUTELY! The move will have its detractors, but the stir his mere presence has created speaks volumes. At the end of the day, the UFC is a business and they will do what will attract the most eyes to their product.
Now that Punk has signed on the dotted line, people are wondering if he can actually fight and who he will fight? His opponent for his debut will unquestionably be hand-picked. It will not be a top contender and it certainly will not be a wrestler that can hold him down and smother him. Ideally his opponent will be someone that is passed their prime, but can still spark interest (or move the needle, as Dana White likes to say).
Before people angrily pound their key board and yell: “BUT BROCK LESNAR WAS CHAMPION AFTER THREE FIGHTS.” Yes, that is correct, but Punk is a completely different case. Lesnar was a NCAA Division 1 wrestler, a national champion that went 106-5 in four years of college. Freestyle wrestling is arguably the most important base in MMA. Look at Daniel Cormier, he left the wrestling mat and, within two years, he won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, and is now slated to fight Jon Jones for the Light Heavyweight championship.
Let’s examine CM Punk’s top 12 potential opponents!
12 Cung Le
Cung Le is currently whining about how the UFC has been treating him and wants out of his contract. He claims that the UFC didn't have his back during the recent steroid scandal, where it turns out he was "innocent." If he could score a bout with Punk, it could be enough of a reason for him to stick around for another fight. Le also meets the criteria mentioned above, as he is well known around the world, but is way passed his prime at 42 years old.
Stylistically, it would also be a very intriguing fight because Le boasts a black belt in Sanshou, while Punk has a background in Kempo karate. In Layman's terms, Sanshou is Chinese Kickboxing. We're all quite familiar with Le's wild kicks that come from seemingly impossible angles. Kempo karate emphasizes fast hand movement and strikes in a row, rather than one heavy blow. Styles make fights and this one would be cool to watch.
11 Damian Maia
Along with the Kenpo background that Punk claims to have, he's also trained in Jiu-Jitsu under Rener Gracie. The level of Punk's Jiu-Jitsu is currently unknown. The most accurate way to judge someone's skill in Jiu-Jitsu is to simply look at what colour belt they're wearing. When asked by Ariel Helwani what color belt he was currently sporting, he claimed that even if he was a black belt, he wouldn't wear it because he's not that type of guy (classic renegade CM Punk at his finest).
One way to find out where he stands at Jiu-Jitsu is to match him up against Damian Maia, one of the best practitioners in the sport. If Punk is thrown to the lions and can hang in there on the ground against Maia, it would be an indicator that his Jiu-Jitsu is strong. If they hit the floor and he looks like James Toney...well at least we'll know, one way or the other.
10 Rich Franklin
Rich "Ace" Franklin has stated that he wants to fight at least one more time. What better way to go out than with a novelty fight? This one would be a win-win no matter how you slice it. If Punk goes in there and gets slaughtered, it's acceptable because he lost to a former champion. If he pulls off a victory, it just sets the table for an even bigger fight for his next outing and demonstrates that he is a legitimate fighter.
The UFC also owes Franklin a fight that will attract many eyes, but won't leave him in the hospital. He is one banged up fighter, as even in his victories he manages to get hurt (arm completely broken in his TKO victory vs. Chuck Liddell while blocking a kick). He's a pioneer of the sport that has never turned down a fight. It would be a nice way to go out.
9 Yoshihiro Akiyama
Since PRIDE's demise, Japan has been starved for Mixed Martial Arts. Japan has some savage (yet respectful, you can hear a pin drop during the fights) MMA fans and has been somewhat of an untapped market recently. Despite his dismal record in recent years, Akiyama is still considered one of Japan's biggest stars. A fight between these two would obviously draw a lot of North American eyes, but it would also cross over to the Japanese market. While Akiyama would probably go into the fight as the favorite, it would be a good opportunity for Punk to showcase his skills and not get absolutely skunked in the first round. Some would even say it's a winnable fight considering Akiyama is passed his prime and is 1-4 since 2010.
8 Patrick Cote
CM Punk has generally been welcomed with open arms by the fans, UFC brass, and, a bit surprisingly, by fellow fighters. Logic would dictate that he would be a fan favorite going into his first fight. But Punk has also been known to play a really good heel (for you non-wrestling fans, heel=bad guy). Some would argue that he had more success in the WWE as a heel than he did as a face (face=good guy).
The UFC could go the complete opposite direction and make Punk a heel for his first fight. Picture this...over 22 000 people in the Bell Centre in Montreal with a few too many Molson's in them, angrily jeering Punk as he makes his way to the octagon. Of course, Cult of Personality would be blaring in the background and Punk would be egging the fans on. Quebecers have been known to support the locals, regardless of who they are fighting. Stylistically, this would be another awesome fight, as Cote loves to stand in the pocket and throw hands. It would test Punk's mettle, and would set an incredible environment for the fans. The UFC is going to Montreal in March of 2015, so it might be a little early, but we can still mark it down as a possibility.
7 Thiago Alves
The one time #1 contender is on the downslope and is now slated to get fight Jordan Mein at UFC 183, where he won't be favored by any means. After this fight, Alves would be an ideal opponent for Punk. He had an impeccable winning streak early on in his career, but since then he's been marred by losses and injuries. Regardless, he always brings an exciting brand of fighting into the octagon and there would be no "lay and pray" tactics, as Alves is always pushing forward, ready to throw bombs.
To say that Alves is on the downslope of his career would be an understatement. He's only won 3 out of 7 fights, including his defeat to Georges St. Pierre in 2009. Alves has also displayed deficiencies on the ground throughout his career. A prime example of this was his bout against Martin Kampmann. He had the fight firmly in control and was out kick boxing the kick boxer, but ultimately decided to shoot for a take down late in the 3rd to cement the round...he was immediately submitted with a guillotine that even Stevie Wonder saw coming. If Punk could get the fight to the ground, who knows?
6 Dan Hardy
Hardy is another former #1 contender with diminished skills, and he knows it. He's not officially retired but he hasn't fought since September of 2012, and hasn't really expressed any interest in it... unless he's calling out the retired Matt Hughes. Hardy is clearly interested in a pay day without taking too much damage, and a bout with Punk could be just what the doctor ordered.
This matchup makes sense for a variety of reasons. For one, it's potentially a winnable fight for Punk. Throughout his career, Hardy has shown a complete disregard for wrestling and is completely lost when the fight hits the mat. One thing that Hardy is good at is promoting a fight. He's extremely clever and quick witted, as is Punk. They're both great talkers and would sell the heck out of this fight. Hearing these two throw verbal jabs at each other would be more fun than the fight.
5 John Alessio
Well, we've put an emphasis on winnable fight and what's more winnable than a fight with a guy who's never won a fight in the UFC? That's right, 0-5. Alessio is a Canadian journeyman who has fought just about everywhere. He's had moderate success in other promotions, but any time he gets the call from the big show, it's a flop.
First off, he should be banned from sporting the nickname "The Natural," as that's just wrong. Secondly, this would be a great fight to break Punk in and it makes for a pretty interesting storyline. The wily veteran who has invested his life into MMA but can't seem to catch a break against a WWE veteran who basically strolled into Zuffa headquarters and said "I'm fighting."
4 Matt Serra
Serra has confirmed that he considers himself retired, but leaves the door open a slight crack in case something comes out of nowhere and excites him. Two years ago, the prospect of a bout with former lightweight champ Sean Sherk got his mojo going but the fight never came to fruition. Recently, he and nemesis Matt Hughes were verbally sparring on twitter and expressed interest in a rematch, but it was shot down by Dana White, claiming there was no need for it (hard to argue with that assessment).
How about a fight with CM Punk? If a tilt with CM Punk doesn't get him to lay off the pasta, then nothing will. This would also setup a wonderfully hostile crowd should the fight take place in Punk's home town of Chicago. Serra is a proud New Yorker and isn't shy about it.
3 Jason David Frank (The Green Power Ranger)
Wait, who?! Yes, the green power ranger has officially called out CM Punk. Before everyone thinks this is a joke (even though it kind of is), it isn't that far fetched as you'd think. While Frank spent a lot of time in a green jump suit yelling: "IT'S MORPHIN' TIME," he's actually a 7th degree black belt and has a background in MMA. He's 1-0 in pro fights, and is 3-0 as an amateur.
Frank is currently 41 and doesn't have a ton of octagon time under his belt. It wouldn't be such a terrible idea to match him up against Punk, considering that the UFC will likely want to ease him into it. Sure, there is a partial freak show aspect to it. But bringing in an 0-0 professional wrestler with no experience is already circus-like. They're already knee deep, why not go all the way and make it a complete freak show?
2 Phil Baroni
The Green Ranger's gentlemanly call out probably won't cut it, unless you're George St. Pierre, as being polite gets you nowhere in MMA. Phil Baroni knows how it's done as he posted this: "I'll bust you up, Call Coker, move da f***ing needle. Wa Wa 3H was mean to me. Vince owes me. Wa Wa.. Your gonna love MMA and @DanaWhite it's so fair ova here. Ryback hurt you? I'll break your f***cking Neck #whineyb*tch." Them fightin' words!
Baroni is kind of a side show at this point, but he's very well known and still generates a ton of interest when he fights. Fans love when there's trash talk going into a fight and whether Baroni's words were genuine or just to generate hype, it still makes things interesting. It's painful to say this because there's a certain respect you have to give anyone who has the "cojones" to step in the octagon, but Baroni is terrible at this point, he's won two out of his last 10 fights and has looked awful. Punk could come out on top in this one. It would also tap into the New York vs. Chicago rivalry.
1 Renzo Gracie
There's not many people that will do "live tweeting" as they apprehend a mugger. That's Renzo Gracie for you in a nutshell, as he's a real character. Even though Gracie is passed his prime, fighting is engrained in him. Even at 47 years old, if the UFC would let him fight, he'd be all in. A bout with CM Punk would be intriguing for a multitude of reasons.
As everyone knows, the Gracies are the most storied family in MMA. They are the flagholders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an art that revolutionized the sport. But there has been a minor riff in the family as of late. Renzo has criticized Rener's (Punk's coach) methodology of teaching Jiu-Jitsu. Rener is an advocate of distance training, using the internet. He claims that distance training is sometimes more effective than traditional. On a sidenote, I have to give this one to Renzo, as Matt Serra once famously said: "you're like an expert swimmer that never got in the pool." But we digress.
It has the making of a very cool storyline. What better way to defend your coach's teaching methods than to beat the guy who's criticizing them? How mind blowing would it be to see a 0-0 professional wrestler beat a Gracie, or even submit one?! Ok, we're getting ahead of ourselves. But it would be awesome to see.