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Summer of Punk? UFC 203 PPV tests drawing power of CM Punk

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The success -- or failure -- of a mixed martial arts (MMA) pay-per-view (PPV) event, like this Saturday night's UFC 203 extravaganza, is generally measured by the same criteria.

If a bunch of fans buy the show, you win. If they don't, you lose.

That's how this industry determines its stars. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight champion Conor McGregor is a star because, in layman's terms, he could sell toilet paper to a man with no ass. Reigning flyweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson, winner of 10 straight, is not.

Fight fans hate tiny people.

That said, being a star has nothing to do with talent. "Mighty Mouse" is probably the best fighter on the planet, or perhaps a very close second, and makes some of the top flyweights in the world look ordinary. "Notorious," skilled in his own right, sold the shit out of UFC 202, despite coming off a submission loss to Nate Diaz.

If you can sell, you'll never be out of work.

That's how a guy like Phil Brooks, popularized by his pro wrestling moniker of "CM Punk," is able to score real estate on the UFC 203 PPV main card, slotted for the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, on Sat., Sept. 10, 2016.

Even if the iron is no longer hot.

The promotion will tell you its fans will tune in because the story of an aging wrestler (soon to be 38) making his professional fighting debut is the modern-age tale of the little engine who could. Against all odds, this unlikely hero will blah, blah, blabbity-blah.

Not surprisingly, the pre-fight promos (like this one) left out the part about UFC counting on curious pro wrestling fans, still loyal to the character forged under the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) banner, to tune in for a glimpse of their former champion.

But in order for them to shell out 60 clams for CM Punk the UFC fighter, they had to be willing to do the same for CM Punk the pro wrestler.

Did they?

That's hard to say. Despite a successful run from 2008-14, where he captured multiple WWE titles, Punk only headlined about a dozen PPV events, none of which were WrestleMania, the biggest show in the industry and the high-water mark for any professional wrestler.

WWE averages 12 PPV shows each year.

We do know that WWE was recently content to make him champion for a staggering 434 days, splattering him across television screens to keep the ratings steady for its flagship program, Monday Night RAW. Outside of that, there simply isn't enough data, in regards to what fans were willing to pay, to accurately predict his drawing power for UFC 203.

How much does curiosity cost in the online age? When real-time results are just a illegal stream click away?

As talented as he was, as much as he understood the world of pro wrestling, Punk was never able to achieve the same success (or leeway) as some of his predecessors, like Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock. Maybe he wasn't big enough, or flashy enough, or flexible enough backstage to get that coveted PPV spot.

Maybe he just didn't have the "it" factor like this wrestler-turned-fighter.

With that in mind, even moderate success for UFC 203 may be traced back to Punk's MMA debut. The two fights that follow his -- against regional whiz kid Mickey Gall -- are Fabricio Werdum vs. Travis Browne and Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem.

The former is a rematch from a fight that wasn't close the first time around, while the latter is a solid championship contest between talented fighters with good -- but not great -- fan appeal. That could work in Punk's favor if he's able to steal the show with a "Performance of the Night" or "Fight of the Night," something he was able to do quite regularly in WWE.

His matches were scripted, but his execution was not.

That's not unlike this weekend's Octagon debut. The story has already been written, we just don't know the ending (yet). A big win at UFC 203, followed by one or two into 2017, and he may get a FOX -headlined card or, in words I can't believe I'm typing, a UFC PPV main event.

Can CM Punk move the needle? We'll find out soon enough.

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