Fight club

O, BY THE WAY

Network exposure can only help MMA

On mixed martial arts

June 03, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

I was one of the 4 million or so folks who watched the mixed martial arts prime-time coming-out party on CBS on Saturday night. From a purely ratings point of view, the telecast was a mixed bag for the network and perhaps for martial arts, in general.

On the one hand, the MMA event, which featured Internet phenomenon Kimbo Slice in the last bout, produced a lower-than-usual rating for that time slot - Saturday, 9 p.m.-11 p.m. Programming that typically airs in that slot attracts 5.9 million viewers, and the fights produced by Elite XC drew 4.3 million, according to The New York Times.

The good news for the show is that it more than doubled the usual audience for 18- to 34-year-old males, which is considered a highly desirable advertising demographic. Plus, the ratings did not include the featured bout between Slice and James Thompson because it occurred after 11 p.m.

Those familiar with MMA will be quick to point out that Saturday's collection of fights - including the match featuring Slice - was not representative of MMA at its best. The Sun mixed martial arts blogger Mark Chalifoux and Sun reporter Childs Walker, who are much more familiar with the sport than I, can attest to that.

However, you didn't have to be an MMA expert to see that a guy like Phil Baroni, who fought and lost Saturday night, could get himself hurt shadowboxing.

As a sports enthusiast, I came away from the more than 2 1/2 hours of MMA on Saturday ambivalent about how much good the telecast did for the sport in attracting a wider audience.

Two bouts were quite entertaining - the women's fight between Gina Carano and Kaitlin Young and the middleweight pairing with champion Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith. Carano won her fight, and Lawler kept his middleweight title in odd fashion. The fight was ended by an unintentional eye poke to Smith, who wanted to continue. The ring doctor stopped it, though, resulting in a no-contest.

The Slice-Thompson fight was the main course, though, and the night hinged on how well it came off.

For the first two rounds, it looked as if Slice was about to be exposed as a figment of the Internet's imagination. With a reputation inflated by his appearance in YouTube brawls, Slice is far more a pop culture figure than an accomplished athlete at this point. And his lack of all-around MMA skills was apparent even to a casual observer.

The ending was grotesquely fascinating. Thompson has a cauliflower ear half the size of his head. In the third round, Slice - who had been in trouble for much of the fight when the two were grappling on the mat - landed a shot on that bloated left ear, and it immediately began gushing blood. Quickly, the referee stopped the fight and Thompson, either stunned by Slice's blows or the official's decision, had a look of disbelief.

Knowing how much Kimbo Slice means to some MMA organizers, the immediate thought that I'm sure came to many folks' minds was "rigged".

So what does any of this mean to the growing sport?

While the Slice bout was a near-pro wrestling experience, I think something was gained for MMA by the exposure to 4 million people.

Television viewers, particularly those still new to MMA, saw flashes of how compelling the sport can be. The Carano-Young and Lawler-Smith fights emphasized the contrast between MMA and boxing, which is generally more deliberate. Both bouts were filled with arresting action, and the brutal results were evident.

At one point in the Lawler-Smith fight, it was difficult to tell whose blood was on which fighter. After three rounds, Young's blackened, swollen eye looked like Rocky Balboa's when he told Mickey to cut him.

There's no question; it is violent. But so is the NFL.

I have a pretty low threshold for boredom, and I stayed with the full card Saturday night.

While CBS plans to broadcast more MMA, it would appear that for the near term, the sport will remain largely on cable channels, such as Spike and Versus, and the best fights will still air on pay-per-view.

And Slice's bout might have been an embarrassment for MMA aficionados, but it's also possible that the CBS telecast created some fans for mixed martial arts who otherwise would have continued to discount the sport.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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