For better or worse.
CBS broadcasted EliteXC from the Prudential Center, the first live mixed martial arts event on network television, and its centerpiece was the most compelling sports figure of the 21st century: Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson.
Slice's story -- from homeless to bare-knuckled backyard brawler to the cover of ESPN: The Magazine -- is well known by now. Depending on point of view, Slice is either the embodiment of America or the twisted demagogue of the quick-fix, "American Idol" generation. Purists decry him as a marketing gimmick, but he inspires quasi-religious adulation from young males who fall in line behind his unique cadence. Certainly no athlete since Mike Tyson in his prime has generated such fervor.
An announced 8,033 fans arrived early and filled most of the arena by the third bout. By the time the CBS lights clicked on, the only empty seats were nosebleeds and all present were standing when their hero was introduced. Less than three rounds later, Slice landed a haymaker to James Thompson (Pictures)'s left ear. The fight was stopped and EliteXC's cash cow survived for another day.
"It was definitely exciting and entertaining," former UFC champion Mark Coleman (Pictures) said. "Kimbo works really hard and he's improved a lot. You have to give him credit. He puts asses in the seats."
This was by far the closest fight of Slice's fledgling career. Thompson won the first two rounds -- including 10-8 in the second on one card. In fact, while no grappling wizard, Thompson outclassed Slice on the ground and pounded Slice for the last 1:40 of the second frame and the bout was close to being stopped. But Slice's big punch in the third dazed Thompson, prompting referee Dan Miragliotta to step in at the 0:31 mark.
"He kept me on the ground for a good little minute," Slice said. "I was waiting for the right time to explode."
The explosions were not confined to the cage. During the press conference, Brett Rogers (Pictures), who won the first televised bout, spoke about Slice's performance.
"Everybody saw the fight today," Rogers said. "A man is a man and what I saw today was garbage."
Slice -- and his rowdy posse -- responded.
"That sounds like a challenge," Slice said as he and Rogers faced off on both sides of EliteXC promoter Gary Shaw before calmer heads prevailed.
While the event may have introduced Slice to mainstream America, no one benefited more from Saturday's telecast than female fighters. Buoyed by appearances on "American Gladiator," Gina Carano (Pictures) (6-0) earned a legion of fans and a standing ovation with a doctors-stoppage win over the exciting Kaitlin Young (Pictures) (4-2).
Carano did not make weight for the fight and had to pay Young a reported 12 percent of her purse. They combined for the night's best display of technical striking and perhaps the best give-and-take. Young's striking earned her the first round on one judge's card, but Carano landed several effective combinations, a powerful straight kick to the body and was going for a rear-naked choke as the second round expired. Young's face was swollen and the fight was called before the third period due to a cut below her left eye.
"Kaitlin is an amazing person," Carano said. "I have a lot of respect for her."
By comparison, Robbie Lawler (Pictures)'s middleweight title defense against Scott Smith drew boos in just over one minute and finished to the loudest jeers of the night -- but through no fault of the fighters. Lawler and Smith exchanged during a classic second stanza, but the fight ended prematurely.
"We went to war out there," Lawler said. "I was going in for the kill and so was he."
In the first, Lawler (15-4, 1 NC) hurt Smith badly with two left kicks to the body as Smith nearly fell into his corner after the bell. But momentum swung back and forth during the second round and most of the third before Lawler inadvertently thumbed Smith (15-5, 1 NC) in the eye. He was ruled unable to continue at the 3:26 mark and the bout was ruled a no-contest. After the decision was announced, Smith immediately ran over to Lawler.
"I told him I wanted to keep going," said Smith. "I didn't want to stop."
Two judges had the fighters even through two rounds. After the match, Smith learned he had broken his foot, but was pleased with the post-fight finances.
"I paid both fighters a winning purse," Shaw said.
Middleweight Joey Villasenor (Pictures) (26-6) picked apart Phil Baroni (Pictures) with stiff jabs and a standing guillotine. He landed a few more blows as Baroni (10-10) crumbled and the bout was stopped at 1:11 of the first. Baroni stormed out of the cage after he regained his senses.
"They don't call him 'Smokin' Joe' for nothing," Baroni said after tearing up during the press conference. "I've been down before. I want to fight my way back."
The victory illustrated Villasenor's well-rounded game and pressure, but CBS likely would have rather cashed in on Baroni's well-crafted character. In many ways, Baroni's entire career had been building towards this moment, but on the largest stage he ran into a superior fighter. He has always cultured a professional wrestling-style persona -- one that is easily digestible for the uninitiated masses. His smoke-filled, sun-glass-clad cage walks could have garnered him more fame than his fighting prowess, but his network debut fell flat.
In the first televised bout, Rogers (7-0) landed a short right hook to Jon Murphy's jaw and followed him to the mat 1:01 into the fight. Rogers' post-fight comments were almost uniformly directed towards Slice.
"For him to come out and perform like this is unacceptable for the fans," Rogers said.
Two notable undercard fights turned into fiascos when fighters were unable or unwilling to continue. Former NCAA wrestling champion and NFL all-pro lineman Carlton Haselrig (Pictures) (2-0) rode Carlos Moreno (Pictures) (5-3) for most of an uneventful first round. His face to the cage, Moreno refused to come out for the second, resulting in a technical knockout. The brightest moment in the fight: Moreno nearly lost his shorts late in the first round.
More embarrassing was Nick Serra (Pictures)'s performance -- or lack of -- against Matt Makowski (Pictures) (3-0). The brother of former UFC champion Matt Serra (Pictures) came out strong, but faded quickly. Makowski took control midway through the first round when he slammed Serra (8-3) after the New Yorker attempted an armbar. Serra clowned from the mat, but Makowski's superior striking began to take its toll. He landed several kicks and knees to Serra's body before the latter attempted to pull guard -- from five feet away. Serra landed on his back and Makowski called him to his feet. Referee Kevin Mulhall deducted a point after Serra failed to rise in a timely manner. As soon as the fighters engaged again, Serra attempted to pull guard again. Makowski shouted, "Come on!" and gestured for him to rise, but Serra remained on the mat even after Mulhall deducted another point. Serra still refused to move, forcing the referee to make an executive decision at 3:57 of the second round.
In the most impressive non-televised bout, Philadelphia's Wilson Reis (Pictures) (4-0) put on a grappling clinic at 140 pounds against Justin Robbins (Pictures) (12-4-1), winning by rear-naked choke at 4:06 of the first. Reis brought his own hype man and live rappers for his entrance. He scored a quick takedown and quickly moved to a deep armbar. With his arm at a severe angle, Robbins managed to twist out of danger, but wound up in a triangle. Again Robbins fought out of trouble, but Reis eventually took his back, loosened him with strikes and snuck in the choke.
In other bouts, Jim Bova (Pictures) (3-1) won the first round, but was cut near the left eye in the second against Chris Ligouri (9-7). The fighters traded strikes during a close round before Ligouri won via doctor's stoppage at 4:31 of the second round. ... Lightweight James Jones (Pictures) (7-5) secured a rear naked choke on Calvin Kattar (2-1), forcing a tap at 4:49 of the first ... Bantamweight Zach Makovsky (Pictures) (4-1) relied on superior striking and takedown defense to batter Andres Soares (Pictures) (5-2) to win a unanimous decision with scores of 29-28 and 29-26 (twice). ... Lightweight Joe Sampieri (Pictures) (1-2) got the better of the stand-up and finished Mike Groves (Pictures) (0-3) with ground-and-pound at 4:58 of the first.