Pushback on the UFC's Use of Kimbo Slice on "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 10

Kimbo_mediumZach Arnold laments the situation:

Don’t get me wrong, Dana White made himself a no-lose business deal here. He got exactly what he wanted. However, to watch the upcoming charade that a lot of UFC water carriers in the media are going to parade is going to be completely nauseating to watch. Time after time, I’ve heard every excuse in the book as to why someone should be justified in associating with questionable figures. "It’s the fight business!" So, be prepared over the next several months in dealing with Kimbo Slice hype and media writers who so desperately want to curry favor with UFC to make every lame, pathetic, intellectually lazy excuse in the book to try to come up with different justifications for Kimbo Slice and UFC working together as being ‘good for the sport.’ It’s good for UFC’s pocket books, but is it ‘good’ for the sport? Depends on what you mean by that.

...

The great irony in watching Dana White six months talk about how Kimbo Slice is bad for MMA is that now he’s Kimbo’s biggest pusher in the business. All the guys who tried to work with Kimbo Slice to make him into something in MMA (I’m looking at you, Bas Rutten) have to be shaking their heads and laughing at what is going on. Furthermore, what message is being sent by Zuffa to young, up-and-coming MMA fighters? For all the talk about how UFC is a real sport while PRIDE and other promotions were carnival acts, it sure feels like Dana White pulled a page right out of PRIDE’s playbook here to help bring some much-needed energy for his reality TV show.

There really is something to this. White's hypocrisy on the issue of Slice - namely, the invitation to try out for the UFC via TUF was partly a mocking and degrading gesture, White's clear record of belittling Slice's MMA abilities and White's suggestion that ElliteXC's use of false image pretense blended with street violence glorification via Slice's YouTube infamy was harmful to mixed martial arts - is on clear display.  And no matter what strategic brilliance the decision to enlist Slice in the TUF army demonstrates, there is something unsavory and overly opportunistic about the entire affair.

Arnold's mistake, though, is that he is trying to draw parallels between Shaw's use of Slice with White's to ultimately suggest there is a distinction between what the two did, but not much difference. Arnold is confusing a difference in degrees with a difference in kind. "Signing Kimbo Slice" is not a static concept locked in time that means that same things just for a new party. There are two key critical considerations to keep in mind here.

First, for all of White's hypocrisy (and there is plenty), the UFC is still running Slice through a rigorous vetting process. While Gary Shaw relied on one amateur bout with a financially and athletically desperate Ray Mercer in Cage Fury Fighting Championship and the judgement-free world of YouTube, White & Co. are relying on all of that plus Slice's experience in professional MMA plus (ostensibly) a record of success against other young prospects on the show. Of course, White is using Slice to bring the circus to town, but he is not doing so without screens in place to test the mettle of Slice while he protects the UFC brand. Unless matters change later, this is a vetting process. Additionally, White is spinning a storyline when he says Slice can prove he legitimately belongs among the ranks of heavyweight professional high-caliber fighters with success on the show, but he's also correct. There is a redemptive opportunity here for Slice that should not be denied him even if it's manufactured.

Second, there is nothing wrong with using Slice's popularity to promote the product. And here's where difference in type and difference in kind shows up the most prominently: Slice's popularity is impossible to ignore, but his baggage and dubious future make the packaging and use of it a delicate task. Even top-shelf promoters face serious dilemmas as giving him enough of the right kind of exposure without being fraudulently soft is almost too delicate a balancing act. But not for the UFC and for a very obvious reason. In this case, White doesn't need to pair Slice up with another fighter who can both sell tickets and provide some kind of respectable scrap. White has married Slice to the television show itself. Slice is able to be legitimately tested with opponents of commensurate abilities while turning in ratings without White having to worry about a financial bottom line for live gate attendance or pay-per-view draw.

And that is what I mean when I say this decision by the UFC to use Slice on the reality show proves the power of the brand. Whereas other promoters are awkwardly trying to find the right balance of how to use Kimbo Slice without destroying him and the company on main card fights, White is able to use the apparatus of a reality television show that's something of a crude developmental UFC program. White has created drama, but he isn't trying to manufacture a completely unsustainable reality because of financial pressures. In short, no other promotion or MMA organization has that capability to navigate this problem correctly. Honestly, who else in the MMA universe has those tools and leverage to make the situation operable? Who else has the vehicles? No one and it isn't even close. Were it not for the UFC machine's vast set of resources, the situation would be virtually untenable for others, at least in North America.

Let's also not forget that the longer the UFC holds onto Slice, the more White robs his competition of the opportunity to utilize a non-UFC fighter with legitimate, financially-lucrative celebrity.

We should be mindful this can all change. We afford White some language leeway because, while regrettable, his status as a promoter does give him license to exaggerate and backpedal. But it doesn't give him license to white wash (no pun intended) everything he has said or professed that he stood for. White and the UFC brass are viewed by many as the only reliable corporate executives in MMA who both understand the need to infuse drama and the spectacle of raw entertainment into their sport while preserving it's integrity. For them to use Slice in pay-per-view events should the former EliteXC star be throttled early and often on the reality show would be a major reneging of what the UFC management claim is a central tenet in their business practices. But for now, the decision to use Slice in this format is not worthy of lamentations. This is a reason for excitement.

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