What happens when a bubble bursts? The truth is it all depends on the size of the bubble.
Economists generally agree that when a bubble -- the growth of a market into illusory territory unrepresentative of its actual value -- bursts, the market returns to where it originally started before the bubble grew. In MMA, losses can be forgiven and deft showmanship can carry weight for a fighter with less than world-beater skills. But in reality there is a finite amount of push a fighter can receive even from the best marketing machine without some form of in-ring accolades to validate the hype … or is there?
If there is any professional fighter in North American MMA whose popularity is borderline inversely proportional to his achievements in professional competition, the much-ballyhooed former street brawler turned MMA fighter Kimbo Slice tops the ballot.
For MMA, Slice has trailblazed uncharted territory. Never before has a fighter made such a deep cultural imprint and rose to heights of popularity reserved only for the benighted current or future hall of famers so quickly without notching a single win over a sturdy challenger. There are real justifications for his popularity, to be sure, but there is also valid concern that the architecture that built his success could be shown to be a house of cards under the right pressure.
The pertinent issue then becomes whether or not Slice is the beneficiary of his own popularity bubble. And if he is, is Ken Shamrock the dose of reality set to bring Slice -- and the organization he fights for -- back to a significantly more humbled reality? Forecasting such a future is difficult, but one matter is beyond reproach: The results could be ugly.
All of this posturing begs the obvious question: Probability of the outcome aside, what happens if Kimbo loses to Shamrock this Saturday on CBS? In fairness to Slice and this new territory his popularity has created, nothing is certain. Slice, like Chuck Liddell following his devastating loss to Rashad Evans at UFC 88, could be forgiven by fans and pundits alike. Many could extend to Slice the common MMA courtesy: Losing is part of the game and happens to the best of them; Slice is no different.
What is more likely to happen is the unthinkable for EliteXC: Slice’s popularity and true prowess -- a ticket sales and television draw powerhouse -- could be deflated overnight.
Slice’s appeal in MMA is positioned as the menacing hit man and bruiser. Unlike the well-rounded and tested finesse of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, Slice is generally revered for one talent: dispatching opponents with his irreconcilable might. Fans enjoy watching Slice’s frightening power and cold-bloodedness overtake his opponents like they’re prey. The obvious problem is that if that invincible might were shown to be little more than a brittle veneer, there are serious doubts fans will regard Slice as the human wrecking machine they believe he is now.
And if that were to happen, Slice could find himself in an extremely precarious situation. He currently commands comparatively large paydays, but that is based almost solely on his ability to draw fans to watch him compete. Should that ability be compromised, Slice could find himself garnering paydays that more accurately represent the meaningfulness of his particular fight rather than his ability to attract fans to the arena or television set.
Then again, even a battered and mentally unstable Mike Tyson -- a boxer similarly revered for his ability to take his opponents’ lunch money with impunity -- was still able to collect a few paychecks long after his image had been tarnished before ignobly calling it quits on a stool in what was then known as the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.
The more dire and realistic consequence would be how Slice’s fall from grace affects the struggling EliteXC promotion and its parent company, ProElite. A recent SEC filing by ProElite revealed the company has accrued massive debt in its two years of operations to the tune of roughly $55 million. Worse, that same filing indicated ProElite needed a $3.5 million loan simply to stay in immediate business, but was only able to collect a $1 million loan from Showtime. Consequently, if ProElite is unable to repay the loan including interest by June 18, 2009, Showtime will have “first priority interest on the assets of the Company.” And don’t forget about EliteXC’s July CBS effort, which garnered a 43-percent drop in ratings from the inaugural launch that included Slice this past May. To say matters are dismal would be a generous description.
Stated plainly: EliteXC’s survival is contingent upon Slice in a way no other MMA promotion is reliant upon any of their stars. While EliteXC is possessive of a valuable if incomplete roster of fighters, none save female superstar Gina Carano are able at all to deliver ratings, DVD purchases or ticket sales. And while there is no doubting the power of Carano, it’s not at all clear she can carry the struggling promotion without Slice doing much of the heavy lifting (Slice is, after all, the main event).
Chuck Liddell is incontestably the face of the UFC, but not its backbone. The UFC needs its stars, dramas and epic bouts as any other promotions does, but the massive divisions, cultural identity, vast array of supremely talented fights and most notably, its “sink or swim” attitude toward its fighters provides the UFC enough insurance in the event of disaster. Unlike the banks on Wall Street, no one fighter in the UFC is too big to fail. That isn’t to say there isn’t blowback when favored sons lose or that there aren’t favored sons at all, but there is enough cushion outside of any one fighter’s career or success to soften virtually any blow.
For the sake of EliteXC and his own career, Slice has no option but to win on Saturday. He could find a lifeboat at Affliction or another promotion even if the U.S.S. EliteXC was to sink, but UFC President Dana White has made it quite clear that his opinion of Slice is exceptionally low. While some suggest White is too adept to foolishly let a marketing and ratings machine go to a rival company, he seemingly had no qualms about allowing Tito Ortiz to find employment elsewhere upon the expiration of his contract this past August. White is simultaneously brilliant and petulant, and after he told everyone who would listen that the UFC lightweight champion would easily smash heavyweight Slice in a fight, the prospect of Slice donning UFC-labeled gloves is arguably quite remote.
Slice must recognize he is very much the master of his own future. He has the unique ability to deflate the bubble around him without much collateral damage. Should he soundly defeat Shamrock on Saturday and subsequently silence perennial detractor and authentic challenger Brett Rogers, Slice could conceivably lay the groundwork for not only a prosperous career but also the ability to be forgiven for his fighting imperfections. If Slice can demonstrate that he’s technically worked through his MMA infancy and adolescence, a loss to a real opponent or the demise of his current employer will likely not cause him irreparable harm. In fact, Slice could conceivably achieve a rarefied air even Liddell himself never enjoyed.
But if Slice loses and the bubble of his popularity -- popularity based on an image that his performances must uphold -- bursts, the Kimbo-Slice market could return to where it was before the bubble grew, leaving Slice’s icon status and the skeleton of EliteXC in its wake.
Luke Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief of the MMA blog BloodyElbow.com.