CLEVELAND -- CM Punk lost Saturday night at UFC 203, but Phil Brooks walked out of the Quicken Loans Arena as the real winner.
Brooks' MMA debut, which came nearly two years after he announced he had signed with the UFC on Dec. 6, 2014, ended with a rear-naked chokehold at 2:14 of the first round at the hands of 24-year-old Mickey Gall, who is now 3-0 in his young MMA career.
The result, however, was nothing more than a footnote to what should be viewed as an inspirational example for anyone unhappy with where they are in life and unsure if it's too late to rewrite their story.
Brooks, who has fought under the name CM Punk since he broke into professional wrestling in the 1990s, will turn 38 next month. No one gave him much of a chance to win his first MMA fight, which didn't take place in some nondescript gymnasium as many debuts do, but in front of a sellout crowd of around 20,000 fans on a UFC pay-per-view he co-headlined.
The mere fact Brooks was able to step into the Octagon was enough to call his two-year journey to this point a success. He admitted as much after arriving in Cleveland earlier this week for the fight.
"There are a lot of victories here," Brooks said. "Just doing this, I won... Just stepping foot in the Octagon, that's a victory."
Of course, not everyone will agree. Those who labeled Brooks' foray into MMA as "misguided" and viewed the UFC's promotion of him as "undeserved" will point to the expected result as confirmation of their steadfast opinion, but they're missing the point. Brooks' journey was more than just about a check mark in the win-loss column -- it's about taking control of your life, regardless of how old you are, and doing what makes you happy.
"I don't put any stock into starting earlier or starting later," Brooks said. "To me it's never too late to start anything you want to do, and if you think so I'm sorry your dreams are so small."
Brooks couldn't contain his smile as he walked to the Octagon on Saturday night while Living Colour's "Cult of Personality," the song that became synonymous with CM Punk the wrestler, played over the arena sound system. It was a smile we hadn't seen from him in years. Quicken Loans Arena erupted as if LeBron James hit a game-winning basket as soon as his song started to play. It was the moment his fans had been waiting for since CM Punk walked away from the WWE for good in the same arena almost three years ago.
As soon as the fight started, however, Gall put Brooks on his back, and it was over two minutes later when he was forced to tap. But the loss didn't erase Brooks' smile. If anything, the loss made him want to get back into the gym and train for his next fight.
"In life you go big or you go home," Brooks said as he stood in the Octagon after his first fight. "I just like to take challenges. It was a hell of a mountain to try to climb, and I didn't get to the summit today, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give up. It doesn't mean I'm going to stop. I will be back, believe it or not. This is the most fun I've ever had in my life. It's the second-best night of my life, besides marrying my wife."
The sellout crowd didn't get to see Brooks on his feet for long or throw any punches while he was on his back, effectively sucking the life out of the building, but hearing him talk after the fight gave them an opportunity to give him a standing ovation on his way out of the Octagon.
"I know there are a lot of doubters, but life's about falling down and getting up. It doesn't matter how many times you get knocked down, it's about getting back up. So if there's any kid out there that's told by parent or a coach or a teacher or somebody they look up to that's supposed to push them and believe in them and they're told, 'no,' don't listen to them. Believe in yourself. Sometimes the outcome isn't what you desire it to be, but the true failure in life is not trying at all. I know it sounds preachy and kind of weird coming from a guy who just got beat up, but f--- it, this is the time of my life."
Brooks would have liked to have made his debut earlier, but a shoulder injury and a herniated disk in his back which required surgery pushed his first match all the way to UFC 203 in Cleveland, and to the same arena where he walked into WWE chairman Vince McMahon's office on Jan. 24, 2014, and told him he was done with professional wrestling for good. He walked out of the Quicken Loans Arena, got in his car and drove about five hours on Interstate 90 west to his home in Chicago and never looked back.
"I think I jokingly might have said I'm cursed in this building, but I actually truly believe one of the best things that ever happened to me, happened in this building," Brooks said. "It was a breaking point on both sides and something that needed to happen, and it needed to happen dramatically. Things happen for a reason, and I'm here now. There's a little bit of a thought of how poetic that is."
Brooks married April Jeanette Mendez, better known to wrestling fans as AJ Lee, on June 13, 2014. April followed in her husband's footsteps and left the WWE last year, and they live in Chicago with their dog, Larry. The fact that the couple is able to lead a normal life now, while Brooks follows his dream of being a UFC fighter, is one of the biggest reasons Brooks has no regrets about his decision, regardless of what his record in the Octagon ends up being.
"Traveling sucks, and I just got burnt out on it," he said. "No matter how frustrated, beat up or bad a day I had in the gym, I would always go home, see my wife, see my dog and sleep in my own bed and take a shower in my own shower ... I get to sleep in my bed every night. No matter how hard training was, I get to go home and kiss my wife. That's a luxury in my world. I never used to get to do that."
While Brooks didn't officially sign with the UFC until December, he knew he wanted to transition into mixed martial arts after leaving the WWE. This wasn't about him leaving one pro-wrestling promotion for another or leaving the WWE and returning in a year or two for a big pay day. He was looking to change his life forever.
"I knew this was going to happen," Brooks said. "My wife and I are the same in every respect. We've kind of visualized our lives unfolding, and aside from a few twists and turns, it happened exactly how we always thought. Did I know it was going to be in Cleveland? Did I know it was going to be in the UFC? No, maybe, maybe not, but I knew I was going to fight."
Saturday's result doesn't mean Brooks is going to fade away and quit what he has just started. The journey to finally get to the Octagon has been too hard and too fun for him to give it all up now that he has started the next chapter of his life.
"I'm happy. That's all that matters to me," Brooks said. "I'm in this for the long haul for sure."