`Slice' of life

O, BY THE WAY

Miami star, emerging sport hit big time

On Mixed Martial Arts

May 29, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

From YouTube to network television.

That's how a star is born in the first decade of the 21st century. In this case, the star is an iron-fisted fury known as Kimbo Slice (real name Kevin Ferguson).

A year ago, Slice was a virtual unknown in the world of professional athletics. On the most recent issue of ESPN the Magazine, he's on the cover.

And on Saturday, Slice will be the star attraction in an event that some hail as the mainstream media legitimization of a sport that began as a brutal underground spectacle in garages and warehouses, where men with more sinew than sense pounded each other into bloody slabs of meat.

Of course, mixed martial arts has, for several years now, muscled its way onto the sports landscape with rules and regulations, evolving into a test of skill and technique and receiving considerable exposure in arenas and on cable television.

So Saturday's first live, prime-time mixed martial arts event on network television, EliteXC: Primetime on CBS (9 p.m.), is actually more of an official major league media handshake extended to MMA, a signal that the new kid on the block has finally made it.

Slice will be fighting James "Colossus" Thompson in the featured heavyweight bout at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.; Robbie Lawler tangles with Scott Smith in a middleweight fight, and Gina Carano takes on Kaitlin Young in a women's bout. And there will be others.

Without a doubt, though, Slice is the headliner, and if the former Miami street brawler wins, he will probably become the best-known - if far from the most accomplished - fighter in the relatively brief history of organized MMA.

If that happens, a bunch of guys who have been pounding on other guys, helping to build the image and popularity of the sport - literally blow by blow - will be left grinding their molars.

Slice is just 2-0 in MMA bouts, and Thompson, his opponent, has lost his past two fights. Slice's most recent match, much-viewed on YouTube with a fading MMA star named Tank Abbott in February, was a quick knockout. Slice stung the plodding Abbott with a swift left and then hammered him to the mat with rights to the head in about a minute.

Before that, what probably was Slice's most famous fight took place in what appeared to be a gym in front of a rowdy private audience against Sean Gannon that Gannon won although his face was lumpy and bloodied when it was over. In addition, there are assorted videos of Slice in backyards and parking lots laying out a series of tough-looking but poorly skilled rivals with vicious uppercuts. In short, the Kimbo phenomena is purely a product of the digital age and a fascination with Internet entertainment.

But as popular as these YouTube clips have been, Internet video still doesn't have the instant reach of network television - at least not yet. Millions watching at once still generates more media wallop than millions clicking a mouse at different times.

And for all the eulogies being extended on behalf of mainstream media, both print and broadcast, nothing reaches the masses and creates mega-celebrity quite like a shot on national TV (for reference, see American Idol).

Now whether EliteXC: Primetime and the raw charisma of Kimbo Slice can come anywhere close to doing for MMA, say, what the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants did for pro football remains to be seen.

However, even if the impact falls far short, for Kimbo Slice this is still an enormous leap from YouTube to millions of tubes.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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