There were a lot of opinions about CM Punk’s UFC debut on Saturday. If you hated it, I have no problem with that. If you blamed the CM Punk or the UFC for hosting it, you are flat wrong, and I will prove it. If you have a problem with how much he got paid for it, you are also flat wrong and need a basic lesson in economics and free markets.
He lost, of course, lost badly and in exactly the fashion and degree which anyone familiar with MMA expected. That wasn’t surprising in the least; we knew or were fairly certain that would happen. Mickey Gall may be a relative neophyte, but he’s a 24-year old athletic specimen, a really good grappler, and he managed to knock down a guy with pro boxing experience, this blog’s own Mike Jackson, in his debut. Anyone who has been in a mixed martial arts gym for any length of time knows there are a dozen pros or even amateurs who will never sniff a UFC shot, but who would starch a guy like Punk, with his 18 months of training, with the same ease as Gall. I can name a dozen local fighters who would, including (probably) the aforementioned Mike Jackson. Moreover, Mickey Gall is a legitimate prospect. He may not be truly UFC ready yet, but he would probably have made it there eventually.
So, none of that was surprising. We didn’t learn anything new. What we learned, and all that really matters in the end, is that people cared enough to watch him fight. I got my first clue it transcended a normal UFC card when I saw a couple of my friends, who don’t normally buy UFC events, talking about it on social media. A buddy of mine texted me saying he was buying it just to watch Punk get his ass kicked. I thought, well then, this will probably do half a million buys. As it turns out, that my last minute guestimate was probably low.
I promised to prove two propositions, that the UFC and CM Punk are not to blame for his fight, and that he was, if anything, underpaid. Let’s talk about the second one first.
A normal UFC heavyweight title fight moves about 300,000 units, give or take 50,000. Marc Raimondi of MMA Fighting is predicting, based on Google search numbers, that the event sold between 600-750,000 PPV buys. That’s a huge number, and almost certainly due to one CM Punk. It means the Punk effect was enough to sell an additional 400,000 units, which is approximately $24 million gross profit (about half of which goes to the cable companies, so about $12 million) and a lot of exposure to an audience the UFC doesn’t normally reach. Punk made a flat half million plus PPV points, which is typically $2-3 per PPV buy. That means his total payout is somewhere around $2 million. The UFC made an additional $12 million off his fight after the PPV split, meaning CM Punk got only 17-25% or so of what he made for the company. Relative to his value, CM Punk is just as grossly underpaid as any of the other fighters on the roster. Want to complain about fighter pay? Be my guest, but don’t say CM Punk shouldn’t be getting paid more than lesser-known but vastly more skilled Fighter X. They all should be getting paid more, but many don’t understand how the world works in that regard.
See, skill in the cage is not the same thing as value. Fighters think they ought to be making money based on their skill, but that’s not how the structure of MMA or any combat sport works. You get paid based on how much you bring in for the promotion. That means a fighter’s worth is determined by the market. In other words, we, the people, the market, determine what a fight, and in turn, a fighter, is worth. Not individually, of course, but collectively- the more of us want to see someone’s fight, the more that fight is worth.
The first criticism, of course, is that such a guy shouldn’t be fighting in the UFC. The argument goes something like, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is where the best fight the best and CM Punk is not even close to the vicinity of being the best, therefore he ought not to be fighting in the UFC. I can understand that argument, but it is fundamentally flawed because of the first premise, that the UFC is where the best fight the best. This is not and never has been true. Ben Askren is the go-to example for one of the best who does not fight in the world’s premier MMA organization, but others that come to mind are Jake Shields, Yushin Okami, and Jon Fitch, who were basically cut for being boring, despite being top ten fighters at the time they were let go from the promotion. Conversely, Tito Ortiz won one fight in nine before the UFC finally cut him- and then rivals Bellator snapped him up, because we the people still wanted to see him fight for some reason, so he still had worth.
You want absolute, deductive proof that the UFC is not to blame for signing CM Punk? Here it is: the UFC is a business. Businesses exist to make as much money as possible. CM Punk made the UFC a lot of money. Therefore, they were right to sign him and book his fight. Except where it violates ethics and safety, they are justified in doing what makes them the most money. This fight did not violate any ethical or safety concerns. Punk took his training as seriously as he could, training hard at a major gym for the better part of two years. I understand the outrage over the fight itself, but that’s the fault of everyone who didn’t know better, or wanted to see that beatdown, not the fault of anyone else. It’s easy to throw darts when you aren’t the party that stands to make millions of dollars.
Whenever you have a Pay-Per-View model, the incentive is to do what sells the most units on a given night. Fighting is very different from other sports in this aspect. The UFC is not the NFL or the NBA. There is not a built-in incentive for skill. Team sports do have built-in incentives for this. Their wins and losses, dependent on the skill of their players and with the structure of a league, affect their ability to make money and sell tickets and merchandise. Their money still comes from people wanting to watch, but they make their money largely through TV deals, not Pay-Per-View sales. The incentive is to win, and that fuels an arms race to sign the most skilled talent. Fighting is not and has never been solely about that. It plays a role, but making money in fighting is largely about individual personalities capturing the public imagination.
CM Punk did that, and that is the only credentials needed to say he “deserved” anything. There were no negative outcomes here. He got a young prospect into the UFC, Mickey Gall, who would have otherwise been fighting for smaller pay for smaller promotions. Sure, the fight itself wasn’t anything special, but it wasn’t as though it was the only fight on the card. It wasn’t even the main event. His fight got more eyes on the rest of the fighters, including the fantastic main event featuring Cleveland’s native Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. A WWE crowd use to a spectacle got exposed to one of the most bizarre cards in the fight game. You can argue that the world shouldn’t work this way, but the only party you can blame is the people themselves.