Is Kimbo Slice Ready for Prime Time?


The same week that UFC President Dana White's glowering, slightly pouty mug was inexplicably splayed across copies of Men's Fitness -- a magazine with a last-reported circulation of 700,000 -- rough-knuckled Kimbo Slice took up residence on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine (cir: 1.95 million) and was featured in a one-page spread in Entertainment Weekly (cir: 1.725 million).

It is conceivable that his pending destruction of James Thompson (Pictures) on Saturday's premiere EliteXC telecast on CBS will be the most-watched fight in mixed martial arts history. CBS routinely draws a minimum three to four million viewers in that timeslot -- as much as 13 million for a big NCAA sporting event. Household familiarity with the network and recent media ogling could help Elite best the roughly five million couch occupants who watched the UFC's Quinton Jackson (Pictures) outpoint Dan Henderson (Pictures) on Spike last September.

Ratings, circulation, carry the one, blah, blah. To the point: for better or worse, Slice is poised to become the most notable (some might say notorious) freestyle fighting athlete in North America, the bearded face of a burgeoning sport that has long struggled for public acceptance and respect. For many, the impression of this complex, neurally and physically demanding activity will be distilled to Slice's haymakers robbing Thompson of consciousness in a pithy scrap that seems predestined to last less than 90 seconds.

This is not, as President Roosevelt may have said to Robert Oppenheimer, an idea that fills me with relief.

It's not Slice's alley cat vibe that concerns, or the inked physique that seems straight out of Folsom. On the contrary: all reports point to the man being gracious with admirers, hard-working, and eager to treat his new profession with respect. The dichotomy between his features and his humility is a nice media hook. Nor is his fighting style -- Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Fu -- poised to put any people off. As compelling as the ground game is, most people watch prizefights to see neurons leak out of ears.

The issue with Slice as MMA's prodigal son is this: he's had only two professional fights, both of which were against ridiculously mediocre opposition. There are a lot of journeyman sluggers who would look like supermen against the questionable mettle of Bo Cantrell (Pictures) and a rapidly-aging "Tank" Abbott. Slice just happened to the one who got the opportunity.

What EliteXC is ostensibly banking on is a man who is attempting to enter a grueling profession at the disconcerting age of 34. And worse: aside from some high school football, he has virtually no background in organized athletics.

The banner of mainstream MMA, in short, is being pinned on a guy with exactly 62 seconds logged in the ring. Arena entrances take longer.

This is not to accuse Elite of any misguided promotional decisions. An organization can hype talent, but fandom makes the ultimate decision on their value to the bottom line. Slice has resonated with people in such a way that using him as a pillar for a fledging business is an obvious proposition in an industry that has very few guarantees.

So what becomes of Slice the neophyte? Will Elite continue to schedule quarterly appointments with glass-jawed sluggers in much the same way Tyson built his reputation on a traveling tour of monthly beatings? Will mainstream media recognize his limited skillset? What will happen when promoters match him against a relevant heavyweight? (Does Elite even have any relevant heavyweights?)

With less than two years logged on the mats, it's not unreasonable to expect that any credible wrestler with some submission acumen who can get Slice to the ground will devour a limb. Even in his outsized condition, I'd wager Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures) and his decade-plus of grappling would be too much for a reformed street fighter. Promoters would sooner book Slice against Wesley Correira (Pictures), a striker of questionable ring age who is unlikely to take a shot at anyone's legs.

His saving grace? The fact that the heavyweights are routinely the least technically proficient demographic in the sport. (Imagine a 34 year old with no collegiate wrestling, striking, or grappling background debuting in the lightweight division.) If Elite is so inclined, Slice could stay busy pretty much indefinitely fighting opponents of suspect ability.

Whether viewers will tolerate that indefinitely is another issue.

Stripped to his bones, Slice is really just the latest lightning rod for the same kind of morbid curiosity that the earliest, most violently-contested UFC events attracted. Now that mixed bouts are sanctioned and usually attract individuals of significant athletic competency, they've lost a bit of their mystique.

That Christians/lions motif was resurrected when Slice began mowing down foes in Miami backyard bare knucklers. It gave us the same sensation we had when we first saw Scott Morris reduced to fleshy ribbons under the fists of Pat Smith -- that anything could happen and it was likely to be something sudden, violent, and definitive. That feeling is bound to end the moment Slice gets entangled in a competent grappler's game.

There's nothing wrong with a good firefight, and Slice is certainly capable of igniting them. But until he's neck-deep in a ground attack, there's no reason to believe he's anything more than a curiosity, a right-place and right-time bruiser who was selling what fight fans were buying.

Or maybe Charles Bronson, a bare-knuckle ringer in Hard Times, had it right: "Hey, there's no reason about it. Just money."

For comments, email jrossen@sherdog.com

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