Last Saturday couldn't have been a more depressing day for EliteXC.
The main event of their CBS-Affliction ménage a trois was flipped upside down by a late injury to UFC veteran Ken Shamrock. In the ensuing scramble, a little-known journeyman fighter named Seth Petruzelli collapsed EliteXC's primary asset, street fighter turned martial artist Kimbo Slice, into a puddle of dazed hype only seconds into the main event. The only way the night could have been worse for EliteXC was if their other major asset, wonder girl Gina Carano, suffered a similar fate in her meaningless bout.
Predictably, MMA fans and the media jumped all over Kimbo as a flash-in-the-pan sensation, overhyped and undertalented. Of course, these allegations have been hanging around Kimbo's neck from the get-go, at least in some circles, even as the Kimbo hype machine was building steam in the public eye. But now, nearly everyone in the MMA media, particularly those most responsible for building up the myth and legend of Kimbo over the past year, wants to jump on the "Kimbo is finished" bandwagon. They all knew he was overrated, they said, just hours after helping to bring the Kimbo hype to a new level, enough to make this one of the biggest MMA event in televised history.
While the outcome was unexpected, this is far from the most shocking MMA upset we've seen, even recently. Just 18 months ago we witnessed MMA messiah Georges St-Pierre fall in a first round KO to Matt Serra. UFC superstar-in-waiting Brock Lesnar also took a defeat in his first fight, without much hit to his reputation. Neither was written off as a sub-par fighter after their upset losses, yet Kimbo is feeling the full heat of disappointed fans after this seemingly similar upset.
This is MMA, and a single, well-landed punch always holds the potential to end the fight at any second. This is one feature that makes modern MMA one of the most exciting sports for spectators. Though the strike that felled Kimbo wasn't even counted in the Compustrike scoring (Kimbo landed the fight's only standing punch according to their criteria), it was enough to throw him off balance and into a daze long enough for Petruzelli to pounce. Unfortunately, modern MMA does not leave much room for error and Kimbo got caught on the unlucky side of the only significant exchange of the fight.
Though Petruzelli is far from a household name, he held a 9-4 MMA record going into the fight. And while he had a poor 0-2 in the UFC, those two losses were both at the hands of reasonably competent fighters in Matt Hamill (by decision) and Wilson Gouveia. He also had a stint on The Ultimate Fighter 2, a show which has a history of producing surprisingly decent fighters. Kimbo even has a ready-made alibi in that he was preparing for a different opponent, one with a much different skill set and likely gameplan. Stepping into the ring against an opponent you've never scouted is always dangerous, especially for someone with as many technical gaps in his game as Kimbo.
Those who doubt that Kimbo "just got caught" must be forgetting that StPierre loss. One thing that separates the excitement level in MMA from that of most other sports is that the tides can turn in seconds within the cage. A single loss is not enough to pass judgment on a fighter, regardless of the time or method of stoppage. Fluke results are more common than in any other sport. Kimbo was 3-0 going into the fight, though two of those opponents had non-winning records, he was even installed as a 4-to-1 favorite over veteran Ken Shamrock, and around a 4-to-1 favorite against Petruzelli in the late lines. A quick review of media predictions show that about 2 out of 3 prognosticators favored Kimbo. Granted, that was against Shamrock, but for someone who was such a fraud, you would think some of the so-called "MMA pros" would have come out more strongly against him before the fight on Saturday.
Kimbo's problems may not be as bad as EliteXC's. Despite significant marketing efforts, the brand has failed to catch on. While this past weekend's card bounced back to solid ratings, it's unlikely to sustain as the fights failed to live up to expectations, once again. Unfortunately for MMA promotions, particularly EliteXC, there is too much competition for too few fans. The exponential growth of MMA has started to level off, and many promotions that jumped in the biz late, with the expectation that continued growth would be the tide to lift all ships, are finding that viewership is quickly reaching a plateau.
Perhaps more critical for the reputation of MMA were comments made after the fight by Seth Petruzelli, which suggested that promoters "fixed" the match to keep it standing. While that could be seen as an attempt to protect EliteXC's crown jewel Slice, who has made his rep throwing punches, speculation that this is tampering with the sport may be overblown. It is common practice throughout the MMA world to offer "knockout bonuses" and other incentives to encourage exciting fights. Nonetheless, the comments were enough to spur an investigation by the State of Florida, and the repercussion may be enough to knock EliteXC out for the count.
Is Kimbo finished? Certainly not. He has grabbed enough of the public eye that he will not be forgotten so quickly, and he will have plenty of chances to re-invent himself on the MMA stage. Kimbo reaped the benefits of (undeserved) media hype, and now he is feeling the heat as the pendulum of public opinion swings too far the other way. But the tides ebb and swell quickly, and a win in his next fight will put Kimbo back in the spotlight, at least for another 15 minutes.
Kimbo will have other opportunities to prove himself. EliteXC, however, may not be quite as resilient.
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