At UFC 181, the UFC announced they had signed Phil “CM Punk” Brooks to a fight contract. Not only has Brook never fought MMA – zero pro fights, zero amateur fights, he has limited martial arts training. It’s not outrageous to suggest that the books would list Brook as an underdog against anyone currently on the UFC roster at either middleweight or welterweight (the weight classes Brooks has floated as potential landing spots). This has led to a heavy amount of takes chiding the UFC for diminishing its sporting integrity. For example, here’s Jeremy Botter for Bleacher Report:
“The only issue I have with all of this relates to how the UFC presents itself. Officials can never again tell us, with a straight face, that the UFC is reserved for the best of the best. They can’t tell us that Askren needs to face better competition before he deserves a shot in the UFC.”
The UFC under Zuffa is a company who brought Royce Gracie – who hadn’t won a meaningful fight in over a decade – in to fight welterweight champion Matt Hughes. The UFC signed Brock Lesnar with a 1-0 record, matched him up with a former heavyweight champion, and then gave him a title shot against Randy Couture with a 2-1 pro record despite Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira walking around with an interim belt. The UFC would later use Couture to prove that an aging, formerly elite mixed martial artist beats an aging, formerly elite boxer when they paid James Toney $500,000 to step into the Octagon.
But that’s not all! Two years ago, Vitor Belfort found himself in a title fight against Jon Jones despite having fought his previous six bouts under the light heavyweight limit. Jones’ next defense came against Chael Sonnen, who was fresh off his second straight loss to Anderson Silva and who hadn’t fought at 205 pounds in eight years. Matt Serra and Travis Lutter earned title shots for winning a comeback version of The Ultimate Fighter. Ben Askren is fighting for an Asian-based organization because of the personal whims of UFC brass.
So, the UFC’s never been shy about utilizing a bit of promotional gamesmanship, and Punk is another example. Is is the lowest example? That depends on how the UFC wants to promote him. The UFC should avoid giving him a credible fighter and propping it up as a legitimate match up. They should also avoid marketing Punk as some sort of contender or potential contender. Either of these scenarios moves the Punk deal straight into farce territory.
The sensible thing to do is promote Punk honestly. He’s a 36-year-old dude who wants to pursue his passion for MMA. He just so happens to be famous enough to make this pursuit a viable move for a major organization. But there’s a story there, and good storytelling – as we’ve seen in the latest promo for UFC 182 – is good promotion.
But if the UFC is trying to legitimize itself as a major sports organization – a major factor in pursuing the company’s deal with Reebok – shouldn’t they be avoiding these sorts of shenanigans altogether? Surely, this behavior isn’t kosher for the likes of the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL.
Let’s ignore the long list of publicity stunts in baseball, MLB opening its seasons overseas, the NFL playing games in London, NFL teams playing hot potato with Tim Tebow, and the NHL playing an ever-increasing amount of games outdoors. Whether or not these sports engage in publicity stunts is immaterial to the fact that the UFC is a fight promotion. And the UFC will always be a fight promotion no matter how much they market themselves as a high-level sports league.
Ultimately, the UFC being a fight promotion means that putting on the biggest, most legitimate fights in MMA and promoting fun, “freak show” events do not have to be mutually exclusive. It’s the same blueprint that Pride followed during their reign as MMA’s promotional leaders, after all.