Now, in the wake of Sunday's Royal Rumble event, former WWE Champion CM Punk has decided he's going to take a walk, as well, and like St-Pierre, it's not when he will return, but if.
Now, no doubt, these are two different forms of sports entertainment, but there are definitely some strange parallels between the two cases.
St. Pierre held the UFC welterweight championship from April 2008 through December 2013, a magnificent run. In the scripted world of professional wrestling, CM Punk was the WWE Champion for 434 days, spanning from November 2011 through January 2013, the longest reigning WWE Champion since Hulk Hogan held the title for a little more than four years from 1984-88.
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Outside of that, both suffered from a pattern of disrespect from their promoters. St-Pierre's issues with the UFC are well-documented (the embarrassing Dana White hit-job in the wake of UFC 167, the lack of support for enhanced drug testing being the biggest), while Punk has continually been given the shaft by WWE, whether it be for his size (remember the "skinny fat ass" line?), his attitude (he cared too much), or whatever other notions they had about him. The fact is, while Punk held the title for those 434 days, he rarely main evented pay-per-views. Of the 13 total PPVs he appeared on in that span (he missed one due to injury), he main evented just five. Two of them came when John Cena was not on the card, two were against Cena, and one was against The Rock in The Rock's highly-anticipated title match.
During that time, while Punk was having fantastic matches with the likes of Chris Jericho and Daniel Bryan, Cena was headlining pay-per-views against the likes of Kane, John Laurinatis and The Big Show. That's a clear pattern of either no-confidence, disrespect, or both, depending on your perspective. It's clear, CM Punk deserved better. Then he basically got shuffled to the mid-card, being forced to work with the likes of Curtis Axel, Ryback and Kane, which wasn't exactly going to light anybody's world on fire, all while the golden boy Randy Orton bored crowds to death from coast to coast.
Punk's contract is up in July, the end of a three-year deal he signed around the time of his infamous "pipe bomb" promo in June 2011. After that, he'll be a free man.
Although the comparisons between CM Punk and St-Pierre are bountiful, they stop when it comes to business. St-Pierre was a true difference maker for the UFC. His pay-per-views regularly did more than 700,000 buys and, with the right opponent (hi Nick Diaz!), topped out near 1 million buys. For WWE, CM Punk has never been a big pay-per-view draw, but the big difference between WWE and the UFC is the UFC's main stream of revenue comes from pay-per-view sales. The WWE has so many more revenue streams that WWE that losing one good drawing card isn't going to kill business.
Yes, CM Punk sold a lot of merchandise and was a part in drawing decent numbers with the right opponent, but each St-Pierre fight was an attraction, a must-watch. The WWE machine will roll on with or without Punk. The UFC's ability to draw more than a small handful, if that many, of 600,000-plus buy shows in 2014 took a gigantic hit with St-Pierre's hiatus. I'd be shocked if the Johny Hendricks-Robbie Lawler welterweight title fight does 350,000 buys. It's a great fight, but St-Pierre they are not. And with WWE moving its pay-per-views to the new WWE Network effective with WrestleMania XXX, "drawing money" means less in professional wrestling right now than at any point in its history. But if you draw money in the UFC, you're a legend.
So what's next for Punk? I'd be completely shocked if he entered MMA. He talked with Ariel Helwani about the possibility last week, but I would be very surprised. A self-proclaimed "white belt for life," although he declines belt promotions, Punk would just have too much ground to make up, and at his age, considering his nagging injury history, it's probably not in the cards.
Not only does he have all that going against him, he does not have that one skill that can get him through. As much as people bagged on Brock Lesnar, he won (and defended) the UFC heavyweight championship basically on the back of strength and wrestling. Bobby Lashley entered MMA from pro wrestling and has found some success because of his amateur wrestling background. CM Punk does not have that skill, nor is he anywhere near as good of a natural athlete as those two. Yes, he's trained some standup and regularly practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and has an affiliation with the Gracie family, but unless either of those skills is other-worldly (and they're almost certainly not), an MMA career on the big stage would be a failure, even if he were to start on The Ultimate Fighter.
Here's a quick interesting conspiracy theory: We all know the WWE TV rights deal is up. Would Fox Sports 1 want to broker a deal with WWE where they get WWE shows, and WWE and UFC work to cross-promote CM Punk as a contestant on The Ultimate Fighter? Total long shot here, obviously, but just throwing it out there.
I'd say a UFC appearance is unlikely, so the question is: Would CM Punk want to compete at a lower-level? I'm sure there are plenty of promoters out there who are salivating. Dave Bautista, who recently returned to WWE, fought on an MMA show in October 2012. Like Punk, he doesn't have that one dominant skill. It showed. He won, but his striking defense was, in a word, lacking.
I asked a regional promoter if they would have interest in CM Punk fighting in their organization. He told me he always has interest in fighters that have backgrounds where they could possibly draw more attention to the promotion and their television outlet. But price might be an issue.
"Many in our industry that have recognizable names (many are ex-UFC fighters) do not translate into increased box office sales or a network so eager in possible increase in viewership they are eager to participate in the purse," he said. "With that being said the fighter would have to have reasonable expectations for (us) to be interested."
Another interesting possibility would be going to the Viacom partnership of Bellator MMA and TNA Wrestling. Although it would be interesting to see how this would shake out, I'm going to put the chances of this happening at almost zero. Not only is TNA a sinking ship, but Punk would likely burn his "welcome back anytime" pass with WWE if he went there. It just wouldn't be worth it. Plus, Bellator would not be the place to go for a one-off fight.
If CM Punk were to have an MMA fight, I think a lot of fans would be interested, especially if it came shortly after his WWE contract expired. Strike while the iron is hot, you know. But if one thing is clear, money is not an issue for him. He just up and left WWE right as it was entering its most lucrative season. So if CM Punk ever does MMA, it's going to be because he wants to and feels ready to. Don't bank on it.
Here's Punk talking to MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani last week about the UFC and possibly leaving the WWE: