EliteXC pushes him as the biggest MMA star on the planet. UFC [through President Dana White] slams him as the wrong direction for the sport. Fighters like Chuck Liddell have voiced displeasure with such a green fighter getting primetime placement ahead of others who’ve paid their dues.
And America will have a chance to vote yeah or nay on the one-man phenomena when he headlines EliteXC’s Saturday night card on CBS.
In today’s viral world, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson went from unknown to superstar in a matter of months. In the MMA world, it has led to a huge debate as to his legitimacy and the direction that the sport is taking.
“To have CBS doing it with Kimbo, that’s what I tried to stay away from,” Dana White said. “This guy was fighting in your backyard three months ago. I think it sucks.”
But there are dissenters everywhere, even within White’s ranks in the UFC.
UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn is among those who disagree with the Kimbo backlash.
“I’m a streetfighter and I love streetfighters,” Penn said. “It’s great to have other leagues. UFC can’t have everyone. There’s thousands of fighters out there and they need a chance to make a living. Me, I’m a Kimbo Slice fan. I like fighting. I see where Dana is coming from and I respect his opinion, but I like streetfighting.”
Sure, Penn’s sentiment isn’t the politically correct thing to say, but those “streetfights” are between two consenting adults, which is why police never bothered to do anything about Kimbo’s previous backyard brawls. In fact, it was a policeman, Boston cop Sean Gannon, who ended Kimbo’s unbeaten Youtube run before he went legit. (It should be noted that White later signed Gannon to fight in the UFC; he fought once and lost.)
In the eyes of many pros, those contests alone make Slice worthy of the title “fighter.”
“As far as Kimbo Slice, the guy is pretty much a real fighter,” said EliteXC fighter Phil Baroni, who will face Joe Villasenor on Saturday. “Why? Because he didn't know he was going to be a big success, MMA guy or be fighting on CBS. He likes beating people up. That's just what it is. Big dogs get in the yard and see who's bigger. Fight in the cage. Let's not make it more than it is. It's a fight in the cage.”
But there is a difference between being a “fighter” and being a mixed martial artist, and it’s easy to confuse where he came from with where he’s going. By all accounts, Kimbo has been all-business in advancing his MMA career under ex-UFC heavyweight champ Bas Rutten.
So far, he has been in the cage with Bo Cantrell and Tank Abbott, two men who both have losing career records. Thompson is the first fighter he will face with a winning mark; he’s 14-8, but has lost six of his last eight. Such a career arc is not unusual for a man with limited pro experience; it is not, however, usual for a main-event, big show fighter.
Sean Sherk fought in the main-event of UFC 84, a lightweight title loss against Penn. It was his 36th pro fight, and only the second time he’s been in the main event for a major organization.
“To be honest with you, I’m not crazy about the idea [of Slice main-eventing],” said Sherk. “If you want to main event, you should have credentials to follow. If you’re a fan tuning into CBS to watch MMA for the first time and catch this streetfighter guy on TV, it’s going to give us a bad name.”
On the other hand, few could blame EliteXC and CBS for trying to cash in on Kimbo’s sudden fame. With his menacing stare, bushy beard and powerful frame, he certainly looks the part of a punishing MMA star, perhaps even more so than Chuck Liddell. Millions have seen him fight on Youtube, and he has a genuine charisma about him.
There is precedent for such a quick rise, and you don’t have to go back far to find it. Earlier this year, UFC saw the debut of Brock Lesnar, whose previous fame had come as a pro wrestler with WWE. Like Kimbo, Lesnar, who had one pro fight under his belt, was the focus of advertising for the event on which he was fighting. Unlike Kimbo, his match was not the featured main event, and he also had a decorated athletic background as a previous NCAA wrestling champion.
Still, largely on the strength of Lesnar’s name, the event did a reported 600,000 buys. Industry insiders suggest that Lesnar’s name value added up to 200,000 extra buys at a $44.95 price tag, or over $9 million in revenue. CBS hopes to see the same kind of effect in ratings points. Of course, there is no way to predict how internet fame will translate to broadcast rating; Kimbo's move is virtually unprecedented.
The difference between Lesnar and Slice, according to some fighters, is that in Lesnar’s UFC debut, he fought Frank Mir, a former heavyweight champ who represented a real threat with his jiu-jitsu background, a natural counter to Lesnar’s wrestling style. Sure enough, Mir defeated Lesnar with a kneebar submission. While Thompson is no slouch, his standup style plays into Kimbo’s strength: striking.
On the same night Kimbo takes on Thompson, there will be an EliteXC middleweight title fight. In nearly every boxing and MMA event, title fights go on last as the headline attractions (even Lesnar took a back seat to a heavyweight title match between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Tim Sylvia). But not this time. Kimbo and Thompson will close the show while title-match participants Scott Smith and Robbie Lawler will throw down in the co-main event slot.
But even those fighters don’t feel particularly slighted.
“I would much rather fight for a title and fight the second-to-last fight than be the main event and not have Kimbo on the card,” says Smith. “The fact that he's on the card is going to have millions of more people tune in. So, if people tune in to watch him, they're going to watch me and that's great for me. So, I'm honored to be on the card with Kimbo.”
But even looking beyond May 31, questions will persist. Just in the last few days, Shaw has mentioned these possibilities for Kimbo:
All of which leads back to the central question around Kimbo: Is he a carnival act, or a legitimate mixed martial artist?
But there is another question: Does it really matter? After all, he became famous before he ever fought in a sanctioned match. Shaw mentions Kimbo in the same breath as Tyson in regards to the hype that surrounds him, which may be hyperbole as well as a bit presumptuous before we find out how many people actually watch him fight in two weeks.
So is Kimbo Slice the best thing to happen to the sport? Or is he the worst? That is for each individual to decide. But for a sport that is still begging for mainstream love, he is the rarest and most valuable commodity of all: a lightning rod for attention.
Video: MMA from NBC Sports
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