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Monday, March 24, 2008

Love It Or Hate It: MMA Goes Mainstream

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


By Sarah Spain
Love of Sports Correspondent

It's just your typical story of a high school football standout turned pornography company bodyguard turned street fighter turned major network star.

We here at The Love of Sports have given love to Kimbo Slice before (http://www.theloveofsports.com/index.php/site/comments/kimbo_slice_already_a_legend/), but in a few short months, his legend will grow even more.

Slice, née Kevin Ferguson, has turned a life of underground bullying into a career as a mainstream "athlete". The 6-foot-1, 230-pound 34-year-old, who looks a bit like Mr. T with a healthy dose of hobo mixed in, is the face of Mixed Martial Arts organization EliteXC.

Last week, CBS announced a deal had been brokered to bring Slice and his fellow brawlers to primetime television. Some fans wish the larger, more popular organization, UFC, had been the one to sign with the network, since EliteXC has far fewer recognizable stars and Slice hasn't yet proven himself against established MMA fighters.

Nevertheless, the move is a big one for a sport that's been kept mostly in the periphery. CBS plans to air bouts in four Saturday night specials a year, most likely in the 9:00pm to 11:00pm Eastern time slot. A quick glance at TV listings for the next two weeks shows that a repeat of "Criminal Minds" and a new "48 Hours Mystery" currently fill the two-hour spot. Not exactly family television, but certainly less controversial than airing the real-life violence of an MMA bout.

Most sports fans love the thrill of a fight. Whether it's hockey fisticuffs the refs let play out or a spontaneous brawl during an NBA game, nothing gathers a crowd around a TV faster than a good ol' fashioned beatdown. While most viewers would rather ride a seat-less bicycle on a cobbled street than step into the ring with Slice, they're more than happy to watch some other schmuck get pummeled for a couple thousand bucks. But while these fans keep tuning in, others are asking: "Does MMA take competitive fighting too far?"

Wearing nothing but spandex shorts and gloves, MMA competitors punch, kick, knee, choke and wrestle until someone is knocked out or cries uncle. A lot of critics hate the idea of this brutal, dangerous sport entering millions of American homes on one of the Big Four networks. While anyone with a computer can access MMA videos on YouTube, introducing the sport to the very traditional medium of mainstream television validates it in a way viral video and cable shows cannot.

Detractors think putting a spotlight on what is essentially no holds barred cage fighting will glorify savagery and promote violence amongst viewers. Others wonder whether kids will hear about Slice's rise to fame and fortune and think they'll have the same success soliciting fights in back alleys and empty parking lots. Without proper training or a complete understanding of the rules and regulations upheld in the octagon, a wanna-be fighter is destined to suffer more than just the bruises and bumps earned in a backyard football game.

Meanwhile, MMA lovers hope the CBS deal is a breakthrough that'll further legitimize the potentially billion-dollar industry. Their response to critics is that mainstream sports like football and boxing are just as brutal and dangerous, if not more so. Professional football players hurtle into each other at high speeds, sometimes resulting in serious spinal injuries and countless broken bones. Traditional boxing matches see far more blows to the head and serious injuries (or death) than MMA contests. Boxers are encouraged to recover from major hits and keep fighting, while contestants in the octagon are often seeing tapping out in just a few minutes if serious danger seems imminent.

Fans of the combat sport need not worry that execs will try to tone down the violence for network television, either. CBS reps say no rule alterations will be made.

Love it or hate it, MMA is the fastest-growing sport in America. The demographic most coveted by television execs (men 18-34) is the very same one propelling MMA to ever-greater heights of popularity. Put the two together and you've got what CBS hopes will be ratings gold.

As TV execs try to keep up with the ever-changing demands of American audiences, new programs will continue to push the boundaries of censorship. I've always been of the opinion that watching violent movies and TV shows doesn't cause violence amongst kids — absent or indifferent parents are the real culprits. If the ratings are there and the fans keep asking for more, MMA is gonna stay on the air for years to come. If you're not into two greased-up dudes in shiny tighty whities trying to execute the devastating rear naked choke, go ahead and tap out (i.e. change the channel).

What's your take? Slice and Co. on CBS. Do you "Love It or Hate It?"


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