In the world of sports, there’s nothing quite like “The Ultimate Fighter”.
One of the most surprising things about “TUF” is the amount that UFC and even MMA news as a whole is routinely dominated by the goings on in “the house”. Quite a feat, considering TUF is ostensibly it’s own pocket universe, an isolated house full of fighters with no immediate relevancy to any title pictures, fighting and pranking each other more then six months ago. Like every other reality show featuring eccentric types cooped up in some isolated house with nothing but a camera crew - nobody cares, right?
Only they do. They really do.
When it comes to TUF, the right combination of personality, ego, and downright odd behaviour can really drive interest and ratings. Let’s not forget that Griffin/Bonnar 1 made the whole of the UFC what it is today. Chris Leben’s star making, door breaking performance on the show’s first season launched his whole career. The Ortiz/Shamrock trash talking of season 3 was somehow scintillating enough to draw interest for two Ortiz/Shamrock blowouts. Fighter’s like Andy Wang, Gabe Ruediger, and Jason Guida have made their reputations with an embarrassing display on the show. To say nothing of Junie fucking Browning.
So you get my point: somewhat improbably, somewhat unfairly even, the show can have a huge impact on the pulse and perception of the MMA world. I mention this by way of bringing up the latest man raised high atop the altar of basic cable stardom: Kimbo Slice.
It’s been a week since Slice’s much heralded bout with “Big Country” Roy Nelson on this season of TUF. For an exhibition match on a reality TV show, it was given an unprecedented media push (how many other first round TUF fights have their own pre-fight press conference?). And the results were impressive to say the least. Drawing an average of 5.3 million viewers for the hour, jumping to 6.1 million for the fight itself, it was far away the most watched episode in the show’s history. It also dethroned Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson as the most watched UFC fight in history. It goes without saying that the Slice’s bearded visage has dominated the MMA news world for the past week.
Now a week after the fact, and following a gigantic amount of speculation, discussion, analysis and debate about the street brawler and his place in the sport, I think there’s been enough critical distance to make one thing absolutely clear.
Kimbo Slice is a genius.
No, really. Maybe not in the traditional sense. I don’t see him joining MENSA anytime soon. But nevertheless, when it comes to marketing himself, it seems Mr. Ferguson knew a lot more about himself and his potential then just about anyone in the sports journalism world.
Just look at his career progression. First, grainy, badly shot backyard fight videos turned him into a YouTube celebrity. Not content to rest on the level of ugly Scottish singers or two girls with one cup, he parlayed that fame into a new and growing sport despite being in his late thirties when he started training, hardly the ideal situation for anyone starting in combat sports. Then, he managed to convince a semi-major MMA promotion to push him as their centerpiece and a major star, and he received huge, network TV level exposure and money as a result. His fight with James Thompson, a horrendous, borderline fixed affair, remains, with 7 million viewers, the most watched fight in MMA history.
Think about that for a minute. Any history of MMA written hence will have to include a hefty footnote on the Miami street brawler. And from what, really? Slice has never displayed a more then basic knowledge and grasp of the sport. His striking is powerful, but little else. His grappling is almost non-existent. He has never been close to any world titles and never been acknowledged by any serious fan of the sport as a legitimate, world title level contender.
Yet there he sits - arguably the biggest star in our sport. Easily in the top three. It’s a remarkable feat, one without precedent in the world of combat sports.
Of course, the same prognosticators and critics of the MMA world (myself included) were all to quick to write him off following his “blowup” against Seth Petruzelli. The “Kimbo” fad was over, we all said. The bubble of illusion Elite XC had spent months and millions creating has been forever shattered. No one will take him seriously as an MMA competitor again, we all said. His lack of activity following the much publicised TKO loss only confirmed our suspicions: Kimbo had cashed out of the sport while he could, and was going to fade into obscurity. If you had asked anyone this time last year, they’d tell you it would be Kimbo on “Dancing with the Stars” and Chuck Liddell headlining fights that draw in record numbers.
But we were wrong. Instead of accepting his 15 minutes were up and fading into obscurity, Kimbo made the unexpected move: he took up a rival’s challenge. Admit it, when Dana White first challenged Kimbo to appear on TUF, no one thought it would ever happen. And when it was announced that the former Elite XC star was going to appear on the show’s tenth season, a great many shook their heads. This is a step back for him, we said. To go from making huge, six figure purses and main event level exposure to the meagre salary, and below-undercard level of reality TV? What did he have to prove by going on the show? Does he think he can actually make a run at his age, and following the Petruzelli blowout? He won’t draw a wink of interest anymore, and his embarrassing performance on the show would only be the nail in the coffin of his career.
But once again, we were wrong.
Watching last week’s episode of TUF, I realized I was watching something incredible happen: Kimbo Slice, being reborn right in front of our eyes. In the one hour show, through the miracle of reality TV magic, we saw his image rehabilitated, remade, and re-invigorated anew. Gone was the undeserving, poseur street tough looking to make a buck who drew the ire of so many MMA fans in the Elite XC days. Kimbo came off magnificently: humble, self-deprecating, easy going and eminently relatable. His castmates raved about him. Both coaches gave glowing testimonials. Dana White 360’ed his stance of one year ago and heaped praise on his new cash cow. In less then an hour of reality TV, the UFC had managed to achieve what Elite XC couldn’t in their whole run: getting Kimbo over with the devoted fans. Transitioning him from a guy people want to see fight to a guy people want to see win.
So he lost his fight - it doesn’t matter, really. He was facing supposedly the toughest guy in the house - and he didn’t have to do much to improve from his last fight. Besides, he had his moments in the fight standing up, and being squashed to death in side control by an opponent who wants no part of his stand-up was probably the “best” way for him to lose. Poor Roy Nelson - through a combination of his personality and the “selective reality” of reality TV, he came off terribly. His cocky, self assured pro was the perfect foil to the humble, street scrapping slice, and made for a compelling contest even though most fans were confident “Big Country” was going to take it. Besides, he has nothing to complain about - 6.1 million people who tuned in saw him too, after all, and he’ll benefit massively from the exposure he gained on the last episode.
And what about Kimbo? Well, in a complete 180 from the landscape of a year ago, Kimbo’s career prospects are looking quite good right now. Ok, so he’s not going to compete for a world title, that’s pretty much a given - but we already knew that. It has already been confirmed that Kimbo will fight at the Ultimate Finale in December, in what I guarantee you will be a headlining bout. My guess is he’ll face a relative rookie like himself, and one with no interest in taking the fight to the ground, guaranteeing a good fight for the cable audience. Win or lose, Slice will continue in the UFC following that for at least one more fight, maybe more depending on how it goes. Along the way, he’ll profit handsomely, further increase his profile, erase any ill will that still exists for him in the MMA fan base, and set himself up nicely to transition into any number of media related fields when his fighting career is up.
What’s the point of all this? Simply this - in a sport that has continually defied conventional knowledge and expectations, Kimbo Slice more then anyone else personifies this phenomena. When the conventional wisdom said he should cash out, fade away and live off his 15 minutes for the rest of his life, Kimbo saw the potential for more. Knowing his own marketability, he allied himself with the biggest MMA promoter and hype machine in the sport, and together they rehabilitated Kimbo’s image and standing to their mutual benefit in a remarkable turn that no one, including myself, saw coming.
So, I guess my hat is off to you Kimbo, for succeeding where most would have failed. We were wrong about you - now just don’t go dropping 8 second TKO’s to Junie Browning and we’ll be fine.