When Bellator decided to put together a Tito Ortiz vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson PPV bout together, you could smell the stench of cracked skull a mile away*. It was an event genetically engineered to be a disaster. If Ortiz didn't pull out due to injury, Jackson would be the one pulling out because he decided to wreck Costa Mesa with a schooner.
Instead the former happened, while the latter is a loss, two tequila bottles, and ten minutes of GTA5 away from happening.
Nonetheless, Bellator is learning the hard way just how difficult the MMA business really is. And what a business. Even the UFC, with all of its financial muscle, backed by FOX, and a brand that dates all the way back to Blockbuster's glory years when renting VHS cassettes was the norm, has had its ups and downs. They've seen a decline in PPV(from over 9 million in PPV buys in 2010 to less than 6 million as of last year), and TV viewership over the years**. In other words, even the emperor of MMA wears few clothes.
But that's just the nature of a sport like MMA that relies on individual performances. It stands to reason that your entertainment business then, relies on individual stars. The UFC picked a gold mine in Brock Lesnar. Regardless of how people view him in retrospect, he was the great white hope, hype, and harbinger of spectacle. And he delivered. But what happens when you lean on the wrong guy to promote your brand?
When EliteXC started their first show in 2007, they started by hoping Frank Shamrock was still the fighter he used to be. He hadn't truly competed since 2003, coming back for Strikeforce in 2006 for a bout with Cesar Gracie in a fight with all the assembled sensation of an oatmeal fart. Frank would leave for Strikeforce after losing to Renzo Gracie via DQ.
And so EliteXC scrambled for a bankable star. Meanwhile, in an urban galaxy far, far away, Kevin Ferguson was making a name for himself in the backyard of strangers willing to challenge him to a bareknuckle boxing match.
A lot of us probably remember the first time we saw Kimbo Slice in action. Even us MMA snobs were moderately impressed. For those that don't remember how the world was introduced to Kimbo, here's the famous video in question that got the attention of Rolling Stone.
You can kind of see what made Kimbo so quickly iconic. It starts and basically ends with his appearance. His frame is as imposing as a Sam Peckinpah nightmare; his beard vast and intimidating enough to hide everything from white lies to chemical weapons. The violence that Kimbo inflicts on his opponent is perfunctory in its outcome. But when we see the man's eye hanging low enough to lick the tongue, we're taken aback again by the menace we've witnessed.
You can understand why a promotion like EliteXC was so eager to hire the man. He just looked the part. It was always a choice based purely on aesthetic.
Kimbo's first several fights were classic tune up bouts; the kind of bouts that are not "works" or "fixes" in the traditional stance (in a theme we'll return to later), but that achieve the same result a promoter wants, which is to guarantee victory for the more valuable fighter.
Bo Cantrell was 1-4 in his last five when he fought Kimbo. His last win was in 2006 over Cal Worsham; a guy who made his debut at UFC 6 in 1995 by losing a comical slugfest to Paul Varelans. Tank Abbott was Tank Abbott, but in 2008. Which tells you all you need to know.
James Thompson was legit for a fighter just starting out. It's the retroactive benefit Dana White would give Kimbo when he decided to give Mr. Slice Zuffa oxygen for TUF. The fight itself was a strange diversion from Kimbo's hype as the narrative post-fight concentrated on Thompson's cauliflower ear that achieved nuclear fission, and Dan Miragliotta's questionable stoppage.
The stage was set for a real fight. With Ken Shamrock. So perhaps "real fight" is an understatement, but the potential for a real fight was on when Jeremy Lappen offered Frank Shamrock as a replacement following Ken's warm-up that left him cut over his eye and unable to compete hours before EliteXC:Heat.
Even this moment deserves its own 1000+ words. When Frank Shamrock was approached as a last minute replacement, by his own admission he is quoted as saying (in response to allegations of attempting to work the would-be bout):
"The whole thing's goofy," he responded. "I can tell you what I probably honestly said is, ‘Don't worry about it. I'll make him look like a million bucks.' But I would have never [offered to work the bout]. That's just silly."
Asked to clarify what making Slice look like a million bucks would entail, Shamrock said it meant that he'd "kick the crap out of him with style."
Making Kimbo look like a million bucks sounds eerily close to ‘fighting in a way that sabotages the integrity of the bout by fighting in a way that gives Kimbo the best possible shot to win'. It's a fascinating comment that betrays our understanding of what a ‘work' really is. In this case, a betrayal of the idea that somehow "works" only happen when one fighter isn't physically hurt, or knocked out.
Seth Petruzelli would end up taking the bout, knocking Kimbo out in 14 seconds. But it wasn't just the loss that made EliteXC history for relying on Kimbo as the proverbial gravytrain. It was the allegations that followed. Seth would end up on the radio show, Monsters in the Morning, explaining how what felt like vivid detail, despite being slightly more than a soundbite, how EliteXC promoters sabotaged the integrity of the fight by begging him to box with Kimbo (as opposed to turning the bout into a grappling match).
Nothing came out of the investigation by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. But Petruzelli's comments felt like the death knell.
If there's a common theme here it's that the MMA gods are the most diabolical of them all. Our stars are too fragile.
They compete in a sport that demands perfection not just on the feet, where every strike can, be it from an opponent's hands knees elbows or feet, beget defeat, but on the ground...where each takedown can sap your strength, and each submission is one mistake away from snatching the fight out of you.
Perhaps this is what makes the sport itself a little frail. Our supermen aren't from the planet Krypton. They may not all be from the backyards of youtube denizens, but their humanity is no different. MMA is a sport defined more by its warts than its silky smooth skin.
*I never get tired of this reference, so apologies to those readers that do.
**A trend that has continued, as Nate Wilcox documented earlier today.