On Thursday morning, it was announced that Tim Tebow, the polarizing quarterback who hasn’t touched a football in any way that matters since 2012, signed with the New York Mets to play minor league baseball. Based on the early reviews of the move, it appears Tebow is no less polarizing as a baseball player.

In an unusual parallel, across the sporting landscape in a dark corner where fringe meets niche, a similar story unfolds on Saturday night: Pro wrestler CM Punk will make his professional MMA debut when he fights Mickey Gall at UFC 203, with no meaningful qualifications beyond fame and fandom of the sport.

The case of Tebow is one of a freak athlete and genuine cultural phenomenon looking to find a place deep in the minor leagues and work his way up. The online hate and hot takes he generates are much more about him as a guy—the bible thumping, the swagger, the passion of those who love him—than the athlete.

Physically speaking, he’s undeniable. A bear of a man with fast-twitch fibers to burn, toughness and leadership qualities, no one would ever suggest he’s not an athlete. They may not be sure he’s a baseball player, but he’s raw and toolsy, and if he was 10 years younger, he’d probably be taken in the earlier rounds of the MLB draft. He’s everything a scout looks at and salivates over.

The case of Punk, real name Phil Brooks, is grossly different.

Punk is 38 years old, battered and broken from years as a professional wrestler, and he’s not fooling anyone about being past his athletic prime. He’s almost entirely guts at this point, willing himself through two years of preparation just to see if he can win a fistfight at the highest level. Some people love him and others hate him, but it’s hard not to respect him.

But with all of that considered, people generally seem more open to Tebow as a baseball player than to Punk as a mixed martial artist. One can’t help but wonder why that’s the case.

If it’s not the athletic merits of the two, perhaps it’s the road each is travelling in their respective new careers.

Tebow, if he’s ever going to make it to The Show, will do so by proving he can hit at the minor league level and also adopting a position and fielding it adequately. Punk is already at the top of the game, essentially walking out of some hard training sessions in a Milwaukee gym and into the shark tank of the toughest division in the toughest sport in the world.

It’s not hard to see how some might ruffle at that.

If not the roads travelled, maybe it’s the level of respect each would have gotten in their prior athletic pursuits.

Tebow made his bones in America’s game, continually winning The Big Game at every level he played, often in the face of long odds and numerous doubters. Again, not everyone loves him, but no one would ever deny his athletic prowess and the legitimate decoration it’s garnered him.

Punk was, comparatively, a phony in the eyes of many. A fake. People see pro wrestlers and believe that a predetermined outcome cheapens the athletic feats of those performing. They ignore the nightly physical toll of the game, to say nothing of the baseline strength and agility it takes to perform at the highest levels.

Still, if one were committed to that comparison, you could see how they might make the argument.

And if it’s neither of those things? Well maybe it’s just the fans themselves.

Baseball is a game that’s so deep and so challenging that a team giving up a minor league roster spot to try out a celebrity vanity project is almost irrelevant—especially in September, especially for a team in the hunt for a Wild Card spot like the Mets are. Fans just can’t commit the energy to caring about who’s reporting to the Arizona Fall League, and outside of a guy who might be losing a roster spot to Tebow, the limited grumbling about the signing reflects as much.

MMA is newer; it’s more aggressively defended by those who love it. Most who do are still raw from notable public figures denying its merits, politicians muddying the waters of its legitimacy and mainstream media treating it as a sideshow. It was relegated to internet chat rooms long before it was a billion-dollar industry, and fans often still treat it as such. That an outsider like Punk could walk into the top promotion and call his shots is almost personally offensive to some of those fans who’ve been around since the dark ages.

Regardless of the stance a person is taking, though, in the face of all of this, the stories themselves are not grossly different from one another: A guy with a degree of athletic fame in another walk of life is looking for a fresh start in a new endeavor.

The rest of it, including how people react and why, isn’t that important. If the athletes themselves are happy and someone is willing to pay them for it, the differences in cultures surrounding the two sports and the backlash generated within those cultures should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.


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