05 October 2008

Kimbo Slice: Man, Myth & Metaphor

On the night of October 4, national TV viewers witnessed the sort of scenario that only seemed possible in implausible movies. The EliteXC mixed-martial arts organization was presenting its latest live card on CBS, featuring its main attraction, Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson. He was scheduled to fight one of the most famous "ultimate fighters," Ken Shamrock, but Shamrock was forced to withdraw due to a cut sustained during training earlier that day. Slice would instead fight a complete unknown, a mediocrity who had not fought for many months.

Kimbo Slice was promoted as the next superstar of "MMA." He's a grass-roots phenomenon, earning notoriety as a barnstorming street fighter whose impromptu bouts were posted on You Tube and other venues. Looking at some of those fights, today, I was unimpressed but could understand his appeal. Slice started out as an old-school bareknuckle brawler, more like someone you'd see in "Toughman" tournaments, where a lack of professional experience is the only prerequisite. There'll always be a demand for his type of fighter once casual fans grow bored with refinements in the discipline of any martial art. Mixed martial arts is founded on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is oriented toward getting people into submission holds. Educated fans can appreciate the subtlety of maneuver as two experts grapple for a superior position, but the casual fan will look at this the way most American sportswriters look at soccer; there's no obvious action, no points being scored as far as they can tell, so it's boring.

With brawlers like Kimbo Slice we're back to the primitive origins of combat sports as a kind of religious rite. People want to see fighters give their all and use every ounce of energy trying to beat the other man. They're impatient with defense. They're not interested in seeing how well someone can protect himself, but would rather view a fight as a kind of trial by combat in which the fighters do nothing but punch or kick or throw elbows until one goes down as if by the verdict of fate or god. At its roots it's still about human sacrifice, though the true ultimate hasn't been asked for in quite a while, and when fighting gets too skilled or too disciplined it's like someone is holding back. This is the same demand that transformed professional wrestling from a legitimate combat sport into dramatized slapstick, and the advent of Kimbo Slice caused many MMA fans to worry that their sport might go that way.

Slice was promoted beyond his evident talent due to the freakish fame of his fight videos, which to me looked little different from bumfighting. He couldn't even claim to be undefeated, having been beaten down by a Boston cop in a ten-minute struggle, but he struck some as charismatic, even as he impressed me as looking and talking like a bum. He is, in fact, a high-school graduate who spent some time in college but found himself working as a security guard for porno shoots. He seemed to appeal to the hip-hop community, at least in the South, and to anyone who preferred "pure" brawling to any martial "art." Elite XC promoted him in tried and true fashion, pitting him initially against has-beens whose names could still lend credibility to Kimbo's victories. He beat up a 46-year old former heavyweight boxer. He pounded "Tank" Abbott, who could be called Kimbo's precursor. In the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship Abbott briefly prospered as a "pit fighter" and seemed poised to become a star because of his wild brawling. He was soon beaten regularly by anyone with skills, and by 2008 had no businesses going into a cage with anyone. But he had a name that would promote the show and Kimbo's ascent, so he was sacrificed. October 2008 was supposed to be Ken Shamrock's turn. He was a legitimate star of early UFC and remained credible even after a stint in professional wrestling, but he'd declined rapidly in recent years, and was clearly signed in the expectation that Kimbo could take him. Perhaps Shamrock believed it too; if so, hence the cut that took him off the card.

But the show must go on. After two women beat the crap out of one another, and after a guy wearing plastic vampire fangs beat up a fat guy, it was time for the main event: Kimbo Slice vs. some non-entity nicknamed "the Silverback." This is what happened:

Rather than embodying the primitive essence of fighting, Kimbo Slice appears to have been yet another entrepreneurial con job. His career up to last night was a product of promotion rather than promotion based on merit. Fight fans were sold an image, and thousands of fans paid who knows what to watch the reality. This is the caveat emptor principle in practice. You pay up front with no assurance that the product is worth the price, and someone makes money no matter what: Kimbo himself, the promoters, and the TV network.

Even after this, they'll try to make the show go on. They were making excuses for Kimbo moments after he fell. He had trained for Ken Shamrock, not for the Silverback, they cried, as if Kimbo were Sarah Palin preparing for a debate with no room for spontaneity, or as if one can train so specifically against another man's style that you forget not to leave your face exposed for a punch. But they had to admit that this was a major setback for their phenom. Their answer was, "Back to the drawing board," as if they could get people to buy the same lemon all over again -- and maybe they can. Maybe next time people will want to see the rematch of Kimbo vs. Silverback so badly that they can make it a pay-per-view. An old practitioner of this art is fond of saying, "Only in America," as if he couldn't expect to get away with such stuff elsewhere. I'm afraid that I'm too much of a pessimist about human nature everywhere to agree with him, but I understand the sentiment.


hobbyfan said...

I wanted to watch Slice vs. Shamrock. I flipped it on a little after 9, just in time for Gus Johnson to tell me that Shamrock had been scratched for the cut earlier in the day. "Medically disqualified", we were told. I'd read the next day that Ken's brother Frank, one of the color analysts, was considered as a sub. What they went with instead, Seth Petruzelli, a UFC alumnus, pulled off a shocker that in the eyes of the uninitated would be on the order of Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. Petruzelli was already on the undercard, but got moved up to the main event on short notice, and he ends up with what amounts to the biggest win of his career, depending on who you talk to. Did I watch the fight? No. I went back to the Dodgers-Cubs game and eventually fell asleep. Yahoo's Dan Wetzel is already pounding the drums saying Slice---and by extension EliteXC---is done. The nay-sayers, Wetzel included, were saying Slice had to win for EliteXC to survive. CBS will stay in the game as long as corporate cousin Showtime stays on, but the aura of Slice is all but gone.

Prediction: By this time next year, Slice will be in the WWE, where Vince McMahon, learning nothing from this, will hype the man to the moon and back, then watch the PPV buyrates collapse. Just like the Cubs.

Samuel Wilson said...

I think that's a good prediction. What would you bet that Kimbo would be pushed as someone who was just "too tough" for MMA? IN fact, I was trying to think which rassler Kimbo most reminds me of. Was it the Junkyard Dog or Kimala the Ugandan Headhunter?