Elite XC Missed Its Big Chance

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 11, 2008
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For those unfamiliar with the sport of mixed martial arts, its first foray into primetime network coverage produced an easy-to-understand educational package that hinted at the sport’s strengths, but was mostly bogged down by the hurdles it has yet to clear.

No matter how much promoters want to pump the sport as the next big thing to nip at the heels of established American athletic competition, Elite XC and CBS recognized that MMA remains mostly an unknown oddity to the general populous, with few marketable stars. Faced with the choice of highlighting either a talented, yet basically unknown fighter or someone short on experience but long on name recognition and charisma, it didn’t take long for the powers that be to determine who would lead the fight for mainstream America.

Had the night ended with middleweight champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler and challenger Scott Smith, the network’s gutsy move into attracting younger viewers would have paid off with the best contest of the night and the possibility of a title changing hands. Advertisers, however, would have been less pleased. Though the fight gained viewers each half hour during the telecast, ratings jumped nearly 50 percent when the attention turned to YouTube legend Kimbo Slice.

Fighting tomato-ear James “The Colossus” Thompson - who was ahead on every card before the fight was stopped at the most opportune time - the star’s lack of experience was readily apparent. So much so that the pro-Kimbo crowd booed the headliner as he tried to explain himself during the post-fight interview - which he cut short because of conditioning so poor he could not even carry on a conversation some five to 10 minutes after the fight had ended.

The choice of Kimbo’s opponent did nothing to lure new fans. Thompson is little better than his first two hand-picked opponents (a fat Tank Abbot and even fatter Ray Mercer), who were nothing more than one-minute punching bags to practice his haymakers on. Thompson, the former Pride fighter - think a Toughman contest but with less personality - came into the fight with seven losses in his previous nine fights. Unable to wound his opponent with slow punches, Thompson tried to take Slice off his feet by leading with his face. He eventually succeeded, only to have the ring announcers gush over Kimbo’s DDT-style take down and how “Kimbo Slice made his name in the streets but right now he’s fighting a veteran mixed martial artist.” Such hype ignored the fact that neither fighter brought anything worthwhile to the match, and that Thompson had even lost to King Kong Bundy lookalike Butterbean.

Neither fighter deserved a starring role. Anyone tuning in for practiced ground skills, thrown combinations and even the most rudimentary footwork that enables a fighter to stay away from slow-moving punishment was surely disappointed. But quality fighting was not what this night was about. May 31 was about selling tickets and putting on a spectacle, and Elite XC and CBS did just that. They had their title fight, they had their circus act and they preceded both with a couple of Muay Thai fighters who just happened to be female, attractive and far better fighters than the headliners.

Brett “The Grim” Roberts, who won an undercard bout to improve his record to 7-0, spoke for established fans when he called the Slice/Thompson fight “garbage” and said Kimbo’s performance was “unacceptable for the fans.”

Boxing, the only martial mainstay in the U.S. for 150 years, lies waiting helpless as it continues to be watered down by 17 weight divisions separated by as little as three pounds and enough governing bodies to make the most ardent fan confused about title holders.

MMA is dealing with many of the same problems. Talent is so spread out among the dozens of organizations promoting the sport that it is extremely difficult to produce a card that is not loaded with second-tier fighters and “legends” with .500 records.

The alphabet soup of organizations will continue to retard the development of the sport until the more successful are either able to buy out the competition, as UFC did with Pride Fighting Championship, or economic disadvantage thins the herd. Diversity and choice are great in a democracy but lousy when it comes to professional sports.

The institution of a universal ranking system would be a big move forward and would give fans a way to reference fighters. Most important, promoters must retire near staged events like the Slice/Thompson fight and banish WWE-style hysteria that list Yves Edwards’ fighting style as “thugjistsu.”

Handled correctly, MMAcould supplant boxing, but it’s not going to happen with gimmick.

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