Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kimbo Slice Loses, MMA Wins

Kevin Ferguson, as Kimbo Slice, became an internet street-fighting sensation. The Elite XC elevated him to a mixed martial arts (MMA) headliner. Last night, Kimbo was scheduled to fight MMA legend Ken Shamrock on CBS but, because of an injury to Shamrock, instead fought last minute replacement Seth Petruzzeli. He was knocked out by Petruzzeli early in the first round. It happens to the best in MMA and Kimbo can come back from the loss (certainly I'm not going to say anything bad about him, look at the man). But his struggles, and stardom, offer insights on the stunning rise of mixed martial arts.

Fifteen years ago, a Saturday night MMA fight on CBS was unthinkable. The first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993 was more spectacle than sport. It was largely unregulated, without weight classes and with minimal rules. The sport was ridiculed by many, including current Presidential candidate John McCain. Still, the contest rewarded great skill over brawn with Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Royce Gracie winning the first UFC tournament.

Since purchasing the financially troubled UFC in 2001 for 2 million dollars, casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and former boxing promoter (now UFC president) Dana White have grown the franchise at an astonishing pace. The UFC now has a successful show on Spike TV, regularly outperforms boxing and wrestling on pay-per-view and is likely worth near 1 billion dollars. That's a decent return on investment.

The UFC's startling success has led to increased competition including the Elite XC and the clothing company Affliction, which has partnered with celebrity mogul Donald Trump. The CBS fight last night was a collaboration between Elite XC and Affliction. This is a mixed martial arts gold rush. Elite XC has announced Kimbo Slice as its gold.

Kevin Ferguson is an extraordinary athlete, he was a talented football player and professional prospect in a previous life. Kimbo Slice has proven a talented and relentless fighter. But Kimbo struggled in his last fight to beat journeyman James Thompson. Now he has been defeated by former UFC fighter Petruzelli. Even Kimbo Slice, for all his reputation and proven ferocity, struggles to win in professional fighting. He may yet prove a champion mixed martial artist, but it will take time, if it happens at all.

Elite XC has chosen to promote Kimbo because of his internet fame, not because of his record in MMA. That is directly at odds with the UFC's approach and is unfair to Kimbo. He was obviously upset last night about the last minute change, he knew nothing about his opponent. It was much closer to his internet fights than a professional bout.

Last night made clear that the Exite XC and Affliction, despite some big name stars, are not ready to compete with the UFC. They continue to rely on spectacle as much as sport. The reasons for MMA's success are surprisingly simple. It's not the violence, not the over-sized men and personalities, thought those don't hurt. Mixed martial arts is the purest form of competition - two men facing off with nearly all possible methods available to win. Fighters must be skilled in variety of techniques - boxing, muay thai, wrestling, jiu-jitsu. They need expert offense and defense, they must be able to fight on their feet or the on the ground. MMA features world and Olympic champions in all disciplines, it's full of extraordinarily dedicated, expert athletes.

The secret of the UFC has been celebrating the competition. The UFC promotes the sport much more than its personalities. The purity of competition is why MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, and the UFC's respect for the sport is why, for now, they'll continue to lead the way.

(photo credit: cagepotato.com)