It felt equal parts strange and obligatory, when the MMA world suffered a momentary conniption fit at the news that Chael Sonnen will have current WWE champion CM Punk escort him to the cage later this month during the UFC’s second live network television broadcast.
Strange, because on the surface it’s such a non-story: Minor celebrity walks attention-seeking MMA fighter to the Octagon for high-profile bout. Big deal. Makes sense.
After all, Punk (real name: Phil Brooks) is a noted MMA enthusiast and Sonnen’s Jan. 28 title eliminator against Mark Munoz will go down in the WWE star’s hometown of Chicago, where he enjoys enormous popularity. If involving Brooks in such a shoestring way brings a few more eyeballs to the UFC’s next show on Fox and by extension to Sonnen, then it’s pretty easy to see why both fight company and fighter would want him there.
However, the uproar the news caused among some fans also seemed totally fitting -- and, honestly, a little tired at this point -- since hating professional wrestling remains one of the American MMA community’s favorite pastimes.
In truth, this kind of celebrity intrusion is actually commonplace in our sport and Brooks’ part in Sonnen’s entrance would be a complete nonissue, were he anything other than a pro wrestler.
Nobody cared when actor Kevin James cornered Jason Miller during his bout at the TUF 14 finale in December. Few even blink anymore when a 39-year-old Shaquille O’Neal routinely implies he wants to fight in the Octagon. One of MMA’s most beloved and most respected analysts is a stand-up comedian and former sitcom actor, yet many fans have come to take Joe Rogan’s word as gospel.
But professional wrestling’s current “it” performer plans to walk from the locker room with an MMA fighter? My, how typically controversial.
If the well-documented online consensus is anything to go on, most MMA fans either despise pro wrestling’s “fakeness” or care so little about “sports entertainment” that they feel compelled to remind the rest of us about it every single time the topic comes up. As everyone knows, the best way to prove you don’t care about something is to take the time to type out a message about it and then hit “Post” in order to share that indifference with the world.
Exactly why some MMA fans harbor such disdain for pro wrestling, and why they delight so much in shouting it to the world is another matter entirely. Certainly, there is a fair amount of crossover between the two fan bases. A good chunk of current MMA fans were likely once pro wrestling fans and perhaps now they’re embarrassed about it -- though I’m not sure why.
Additionally, many fans keep MMA close to their hearts and have come to feel protective of it after years of defending it against mainstream ignorance. Those people would now be loath to see MMA lumped in with anything the larger population considers “fake.” On the other hand, it’s been so long since pro wrestling held itself up as anything resembling unscripted competition that it’s hard to see how the two would ever be confused, or how wrestling could be any kind of impediment to MMA’s growing popularity. Certainly the biggest threats to MMA's continued march toward acceptance come from within, not from WWE.
In any case, none of that fully explains the intensity of the dislike, which at this point occasionally borders on neurosis. It's weird, it’s ugly and most everybody would probably be better off if we could all agree that the world is big enough for both real fighting and the scripted variety.
By now we should know that the sky will not fall if the occasional pro wrestler like Brock Lesnar, Bobby Lashley or Dave Bautista tries his hand at MMA. Nor will the world come to a screeching halt if a professional wrestler wants to lead an MMA fighter to the cage later this month.
So long as Brooks stays on the outside of the chain link, his presence will likely do more good than harm.