No one ever said the Ultimate Fighting Championship didn't know how to market itself, its sport and its fighters.
There may be no greater proof than the job it's done with Kimbo Slice, the famed YouTube street fighter who crashed and burned under the weight of ridiculous hype that his last promotion and CBS television put on him. One year ago this week, it took 14 seconds to prove he wasn't really the comparable figure to Tiger Woods that the network laughably claimed.
Kimbo lost again Wednesday on Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show. In a match taped in June, he was smothered by Roy Nelson, a round mound of fighting experience who twice exploited Slice's inexperience, laid him out in a crucifix position and dropped dozens of light but unanswered punches.
Referee Herb Dean, who allowed Kimbo to be saved by the bell at the end of the first round, called it early in the second.
Kimbo got beat, although not beat up. And within a minute of his loss, Dana White, the UFC president, was on the program dropping unsubtle hints that Slice would soon enough return to active competition on the show. He'll likely replace fellow competitor Marcus Jones, who in scenes from next week appears to come down ill.
The return of a promising fighter that had lost isn't unusual. In past seasons of the show, fighters have left due to injury, behavioral trouble and simple homesickness.
What's most amazing isn't that Kimbo will return. It's that the show – either through the magic of reality television or by brilliantly showing what was legitimately real – has turned Kimbo into a likeable, humble and easy-to-root-for guy.
Dana White had changed the expectations game.
Suddenly Kimbo was being hailed for putting up a decent fight against Nelson, a former International Fight League heavyweight champion with far more experience.
White and coaches Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans all hailed his effort.
In truth, Kimbo landed just a couple significant punches, one knee and used solid takedown defense to stop Nelson another time. Other than that, it wasn't much of a performance. Nelson got him down twice and then just swallowed Kimbo up.
At no point did Nelson look to be in trouble, although the few times Slice's fists connected, it couldn't have felt all that good.
"Can I get a Double Whopper with cheese?" Nelson shouted to White after the victory.
Yet for losing, Kimbo was the big winner.
And it all has to do with expectations. If he had lost this way a year ago at the final card for his old promotion, EliteXC, he would have been mercilessly ripped by fans. (That night, he lost even more decisively, a near-instant TKO at the hands of a man who weighed 30 pounds less.) If anyone had made an excuse that his opponent was too good, they would have been heckled.
White would've been the first one doing the mocking.
Back then, though, Kimbo was being hailed as a mixed martial arts legend, when even he now admits he had virtually no skills. There is no comparison to winning backyard fights for a couple hundred bucks and taking on trained professionals inside a cage.
Now, close enough is good enough because the UFC is smartly selling Slice as a boot-straps up-and-comer, someone willing to admit he has a ton to learn, a family man (six kids) who just took the opportunity given to him.
It's the same fighter, just better promoters.
White isn't above hyperbole. He also knows that honesty sells. In this case, he isn't selling an inaccurate image – he's showing a real human. The guy who used to beat people up at barbeques now seems like a guy you wouldn't mind having over to your house for one.
Slice has helped deliver record ratings for the 10th season of the show. White himself was predicting six million people would watch Wednesday's fight – and with the promise of Kimbo returning next week, the ratings won't drop far.
White has said Kimbo will stay with the company – whether he wins this season or not. Slice will fight in December, presumably at either the undercard of the TUF 10 finale on Dec. 5 or at UFC 107, a pay-per-view event in Memphis.
It stands to reason that many fans will be rooting for him, more now than ever.
He's become a person on this show, not held up as some scouring force of terror. The beard and gold teeth are still there, but TUF has shown him training relentlessly, begging for additional coaching and getting along with fellow contestants who initially mocked and cursed his presence.
More than anything, special attention has been paid to showing (if you can believe it) Kimbo's emotional vulnerability, particularly considering the built-up-and-torn-down-year he just went through.
"He's just a good person," said Jones, who played seven years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "The things put in front of him would probably crush the mental state of any other man."
Slice was seen praying, talking about how he realized "the enemy is the inner me" and making a series of hysterical malapropisms (upon realizing he's been losing weight, he noted, "I haven't developed a good eating résumé.")
The guy is Yogi Berra with knockout power.
Or does he really have knockout power? We'll see. He didn't show it against Nelson, and the pressure will be on to display more in his next fight, be it on TUF or in December. As with all contestants, Kimbo will stick around and train until filming is done, a time where he can improve dramatically.
He is currently working with American Top Team in South Florida, home to a number of top fighters. They have a reputation as a no-nonsense operation that gets fighters in top shape. It is home to MMA stars such as WEC champion Mike Brown and UFC welterweight contender Thiago Alves.
He's supposedly serious about it – even if various movie roles keep pulling him away for a couple days here and there. It's worth noting, though, that when Slice was in EliteXC, we heard he was training hard under legendary former UFC champion Bas Rutten, only to later find out it wasn't nearly so intense.
Time will tell whether at 35 he can develop into a viable fighter. Better won't work forever. Still, his performance thus far on TUF has given him a second, and perhaps third, opportunity with the UFC. It's rebranded him from street thug into modern day Rocky.
It's found a way to make a loss where he mounted minimal offense into a victory that's reviving his career.
All hail the marketing power of the UFC. No one ever said Dana White wasn't good at his job.
- Kimbo Slice
- Dana White
- Roy Nelson