Future of EliteXC in Kimbo’s fists

Kimbo Slice doesn’t have much on the line when he fights Saturday.

Well, other than the very existence of the promotion he fights for – the struggling EliteXC. Not to mention the short-term future of mixed martial arts on broadcast television, since CBS could pull the plug. And, of course, his earning power that comes mainly from perception and personality, not any actual body of work. At least not yet.

A loss risks everything, since winding up flat on your back doesn’t make much of a Nike commercial or a future as a pay-per-view draw.

In terms of competitive excellence, Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. live on CBS isn’t much. In terms of importance in the brief history of MMA, it may wind up significant.

While it’s unlikely EliteXC, or any other league, can ever mount a serious challenge to the UFC’s immense popularity and market share, the possibility is non-existent if Kimbo loses.

EliteXC’s entire business model hangs on whether Slice, who gained fame from YouTube videos of his street scraps, can prove to be even an average MMA fighter.

It’s bizarre business scenario.

EliteXC has few name fighters and the conundrum of Slice. He’s the most famous and popular fighter in the world yet he may not be a top 50 heavyweight. He’s fought professionally just three times and it’s unlikely he’d make it out of the first round with anyone in the UFC.

Even his vaunted punching power – fearsome in boat yards and back alleys – isn’t much by big-time MMA standards.

If he was the devastating puncher he’s sold as, Kimbo would have laid out his last opponent, James “Colossus” Thompson, long before a cauliflower ear exploded in the third round. Fedor Emelianenko, the best heavyweight in the world, may have needed just one punch to win that fight.

The Kimbo legend lives on though. It’s the bearded, menacing, one-time homeless man, one-time porn company security guard who gets the big endorsement deals, not Fedor.

It’s Slice who can bring a nice Nielsen number, not anyone else EliteXC employs (even femme fatale Gina Carano) or perhaps even anyone on the UFC roster.

The trouble is, if Kimbo were to lose Saturday, there may not be a company on Monday – the promise of future ratings and pay-per-view buys gone if his famed ferocity is debunked.

The likeable Slice is rightfully cashing every check as quickly as possible. He’s an only in America rags-to-riches story, only one that will explode like Colossus’ ear at some point.

So Slice will enter the cage against Ken Shamrock, a pioneering legend in MMA who also happens to be 44 years old and without a victory in over four years. He hasn’t even made it out of the first round since then, a TKO loser in every fight.

To say he’s the ultimate set up for Slice kind of understates it (Kimbo is a 7-2 favorite in most sports books). Slice simply has to win.

Shamrock’s lack of recent success doesn’t guarantee it though. Thompson had lost seven of his previous nine fights – “They got him out of the (expletive) morgue,” UFC president Dana White laughed – and almost beat Kimbo anyway.

Slice’s previous victory came against the colorful Tank Abbott, who like Shamrock was an early star in the sport and comically billed himself as “master of the ancient martial art of kicking ass.” Don’t be too impressed, Abbott has just one victory since 1998 and was best served in fake professional wrestling.

Kimbo’s only other fight was a knockout of journeyman Bo Cantrell in just 19 seconds, which is impressive even if Cantrell was once dropped in a seemingly impossible five seconds.

To say there is a gap between Slice’s perception with the causal public and reality with hard core fans doesn’t begin to describe it. While it’s impossible to hate Slice for capitalizing on his earning opportunity, it’s just as impossible to approve of what he thus far represents to the growing sport.

He’s all sizzle, no steak.

At 34, Slice is too old to become an expert in one of the chief fighting styles such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – which generally takes at least 10 years to master. He will need to rely on heart, punching and rudimentary wrestling and submission defense skills to survive in his career.

This being just his fourth pro fight, it would be understandable to bring him along delicately as he continues to improve under famed trainer Bas Rutten.

Being the headliner on prime time CBS cards, Nike endorser, and like it or not, the face of the sport, doesn’t allow such patience though.

He’s paid and promoted as the toughest man on earth (in one of the most outrageous bits of sports hyperbole ever he was compared to no less than Tiger Woods in his last CBS appearance). At some point he has to at least attempt to live up to anything near that status.

The public loves a circus, but how long can they sell Kimbo as a star when he’s only taking on the over-the-hill gang?

EliteXC’s problem is to step up the competition, which means a likely loss, which means a likely end to the company. That’s why a grudge match with the solid Brett Rogers, who called Slice out after May’s CBS card, was tabled and Shamrock was dusted off.

They may fight next on pay per view (along with Carano vs. Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos) to deliver some much-needed cash to an operation that lost over $56 million the last two years.

Or they might fight on CBS in hopes of getting an extension on its original four-fight deal with the network.

Either way, the goal for EliteXC is to make it to a next time. They need to tread water until some other stars emerge, they combine with another outfit or Slice develops enough to become a legitimate heavyweight.

Until then, this entire experiment is a house of cards, built on a charade of charisma and massive marketing.

So Saturday, Kimbo Slice must win or it all comes tumbling down, sooner rather than later.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 2, 2008