Are You One of Kimbo’s Bimbos?


I am convinced that the fans who constituted the resurgence in mixed martial arts were attracted for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it had an aura of legitimacy that, at least on the surface, was lacking in another combat sport – boxing.

Now there are more boxing figures moving into the game. Gary Shaw, as you know by now, is the man who is essentially behind the operations of Elite XC. Jay Larkin, who oversaw sports, specifically boxing, at Showtime, still heads up the shell that is the International Fight League. Art Pellulo, a Philadelphia-based promoter whose past has been explored by this reporter and others, is now planning to put on shows. He’s got Kim Couture on his initial program.

Listen, I don’t hate these guys, and I’m not saying they’re evil, but I spent quite a bit of time working in boxing and I know what the basic operational philosophy is. Without trying to sound too purist, the attitude I have found in MMA is one where the ball continues to be moved a little closer to the goal line, so to speak. Well, there’s some “yardage” that is about to be lost. Don’t get me wrong; some of the guys who come into this thing will like the sport and will generally add to the atmosphere. But there are others who have not, and will not, be a friend to the real MMA fan.

A while back, I wrote a piece that appeared on FoxSports.com that focused on the insurgence of mixed martial arts in the hearts and minds, not only of a new, younger audience, but those audiences that already existed for boxing and were “up for grabs,” if you will, not unlike independent voters might be in an election.

In talking to people in preparation for writing the story, even those with a connection to boxing, what I got was a basic sentiment that there was a problem in boxing feeding fans what IT wanted, not what the fans wanted, and that MMA was thus far serving as good counter-programming to the kind of “agendas,” both on the part of the promoters and the powers-that-be, that had a tendency to alienate fans. For example, when discussing the way the UFC operated, Tim Graham, who was then a writer for the Buffalo News, said, “They basically control their product, and they can put on the very best matchups possible and give the fans what they want on a very structured basis. So from a business standpoint, it’s everything boxing isn’t.”

Some time before that, I wrote a story on Boxing Insider about what I diagnosed the main problems with boxing to be. Part of it was the self-absorbed approach of pushing fighters who had no real market value, to the point where the engineering of a record was more important to them than pleasing the audience. In fact, the customer was, in effect, being asked to pay the freight for developing the “commodity.” That resulted in a substandard product that less and less people really wanted to buy, and it went from there.

That’s not the most fan-friendly marketing logic.

The influence of these entities is inevitable, and in fact this has already begun to permeate the MMA industry. No more glaring example exists than the exploitation of the MMA fan with the so-called “phenomenon” of Kevin Ferguson, otherwise known as Kimbo Slice. With the Kimbos of the world, the sport moves in a different direction. And “Kimbo’s Bimbos” – fans who are falling for his “greatness” hook, line and stinker – are the fans who are going to be addressed more and more in the future. They tend to be moved less by great skill and great competition and more by spectacle, even if it is less than legitimate. That means you may be seeing a different product – a lesser product – as time progresses.

I don’t want to pick on Kimbo specifically, but he is in fact the poster child for what my message is about. It’s not so much Slice/Ferguson himself, but the shift in philosophy he represents, that I have a problem with. In the world of boxing, promoters have often been known to deal in illusion. If and when Kimbo gets blown out, presumably by a real fighter, you have to believe the opportunists around him will manufacture another “star” out of whole cloth to take his place.

As things go down that slippery slope, will you be there to slide with it?

JUST “SLICE” OFF SOME OF THAT RESPECTABILITY

I’m relatively new to this, which is why this may sound like a revelation, but it’s occurred to me that there are two groups of you out there – the folks that started to follow mixed martial arts in part because of what it was NOT, and those who are following it in the hope that it will become something else.

If you are part of the latter group, I’ll probably get some hate mail from you at the end of this particular piece.

I say this is the wake of Kimbo Slice’s win against someone named James “The Colossus” Thompson, a fight which, surprisingly, had a few twists and turns. Of course, maybe I should not have been so surprised, since I didn’t think that even the purveyors of this thing would be so brazen as to sell a complete tank job over to CBS in the hope of putting Kimbo, whose real name is Kevin Ferguson, over. Even so, I can tell you it wasn’t exactly their intention for Ferguson to be life-and-death (figuratively speaking, of course), going into the last round.

The fight was competitive, due to Ferguson’s obvious limitations, but as UFC president Dana White expressed on ESPN’s SportsCenter the next day, the sport certainly didn’t put its best foot forward on that night. I don’t think he would have necessarily been happy if it HAD, but that’s another discussion for this week….

I had people calling me about the blood and gore almost immediately after the fight. They had never seen a mixed martial arts event before, and this was their impression as to how it usually is. They won’t watch it again. Yeah kids, this may come as a shock, but not everybody gets off on the more disgustingly graphic aspects of life.

Mixed martial arts, which had been far out of the mainstream when it was conducting its Wild West shows in the early 1990s, had a long, arduous road in making its way into the consciousness of an audience outside of its own cult. When MMA moved into what I might call its “reform” era, which, I think is fair to say, was after Zuffa LLC took over the UFC and sought to make it, in the words of Sumner Redstone, a little more “socially responsible,” part of the marketing push was that the sport was not going to go the way of boxing, with fighters being created in phony fashion and pushed up the ladder against “opponents,” ultimately at the expense of the fans.

The UFC managed to do this quite well, while simultaneously maintaining the kind of “in-your-face” attitude that drew the demographic it was looking for. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Using their success as a springboard, other promoters naturally entered the fray. One of them had the opportunity to usher the sport to a new level with the first-time-ever exposure on broadcast network TV. Let’s face it; this was going to get a lot of attention because CBS had been advertising it as far back as the Final Four. Nobody in this sport, and I mean NOBODY, had ever gotten that much free promotion before that many eyeballs.

Not only was it a huge opportunity, it was a big responsibility as well. It was a chance to take a big step forward, toward widespread acceptance from the mainstream media, perhaps dreaded by some, but nonetheless necessary to improve the state of mixed martial arts on all levels. Instead, there was a lot of rejection. I’m not sure the promoters of this event really cared, but for a lot of people who had put in a lot of work over the years trying to build something, that work went out the window. Remember, athletic commissioners – some of which have not yet approved MMA in their jurisdictions – were probably watching this. What do you think they thought? How many gross cauliflower ears, exaggerated for effect, do you think they’re interested in dealing with?

Well, if their opinion was shaped in any way by the media coverage after the event, I’d be a little worried. Look – the event was a ratings success by any measure; what was there, 4.5 million viewers at its peak? Not to mention a lot of people watching it in bars, etc.? That’s a big audience. You may argue that if the UFC draw a million or so fans to a pay-per-view show, that audience means more money. And maybe the residual effect of this CBS spectacle will boost those numbers. Maybe not.

But to the casual fan, and more importantly the media, which is more judgmental, not necessarily interested in nuance, and always looking for a punch line, this sport may well have gone back to its “Stone Age” in the space of one three-hour period. This CBS telecast did not dispel the ugly stereotypes the nay-sayers had about mixed martial arts. It reinforced them. So with Ferguson’s victory came long-term defeat.

Or haven’t you read about it?

Personally, I’m willing to accept the sideshow – and maybe even get some laughs out of it – because I know how to identify the real thing. I feel sorry for those who can’t.

And I feel sorry for the sport if they don’t.

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