Sports picksJune 25, 2007

Slice vs. Mercer – the MMA fight of the year?

Kimbo Slice defeated Ray Mercer Saturday night in both fighters’ Mixed Martial Arts debuts. On the entire face of sports this fight wasn’t even a pimple – and as recent events in the MMA world have shown, it could have been much worse.

After a long battle to bring MMA out of the barrooms and into the living rooms of mainstream America, ESPN had begun coverage and reporting on fights, history and most importantly the sports television network had finally given MMA equal sports billing. MMA had finally separated itself from pro wrestling.

The UFC was now on Sportscenter then along came Tommy. Former heavyweight boxing champion and “formerly” HIV+ Tommy Morrison made his much-hyped MMA debut – well sort of.

In an unsanctioned, unlicensed and under regulated “fight,” on an Indian Reservation, Morrison needed to pass no blood work, needed no physical to pass to gain entrance into the cage. Morrison then changed all the rules to make the match a boxing match within an MMA cage. The unscrupulous promoters duped the audience and sports world into thinking this was an MMA match when in fact all it was a shameless publicity stunt.

This was not the representation of MMA that its fiercely loyal fans wanted the rest of the world to see. Morrison’s debut was exactly the image and bad publicity MMA enthusiasts and reputable promoters have been fighting against since the great MMA reformation in 2001. Yet with the increased visibility – there was Morrison hyping this “fight,” on every internet and print publication that was worth its weight in ink, his face was splashed all over these reports making the MMA world’s skin crawl worse than a ringworm on a wrestling mat.

Shortly after the Morrison debacle the bad press continued when one of the forefathers of American MMA – Royce Gracie tested positive for steroids. Gracie failed his drug test after his fight with Japanese fighting legend Kazushi Sakuraba. Gracie tested positive and the MMA community took it personally.

What the mainstream MMA fan may not realize is that there is an independent media that has covered MMA since it began its rise to prominence in 2001. Members of this media have always used Gracie as a measuring stick for what was good about the sport. The greatness of being a member of the hallowed family that brought MMA, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and even brought the Ultimate Fighting Championship to an American audience was suddenly cast as a cheater. Another black eye on the freshly-shaven face of MMA.

So enter Kimbo Slice. Slice was everything that people used to associate with the MMA athlete. He was a brawler. He fought people in backyards, in warehouses in back alleys for money – often large sums of money. Slice was the human in those “human cockfighting” labels put on the sport from Sen. Edward McCain when he tried to ban MMA competitions in the late 90s.

Slice then agrees to take an MMA fight for the upstart Cage Fury Fighting Championships against another former heavyweight boxing champ “Merciless” Ray Mercer. So here we have a bare-knuckle pit fighter against an aging former boxer set to battle on PPV. If you can hear circus music inside your head at this point you are not alone. This meeting had all the makings of another disaster – a ready for primetime disaster.

But that didn’t happen this time. Slice shocked everyone by taking the fight seriously. Seriously? Yes seriously.

Slice trained with legends Bas Rutten and UFC Heavyweight Champ Randy Couture to get ready for this fight. Slice had a game plan, had the discipline to stick to it and listened to his coaches during the fight to get the win – all characteristics practiced by the greatest MMA athletes and champions.

Slice didn’t end the fight with a thunderous overhand punch like many wanted him to nor did he win via folding-chair-to-the-head like many expected him to given the circumstances and recent history. Slice won the fight because of a very solid game plan. He used his strikes effectively, showed offense from the clinch and ended the fight with a textbook white-belt- level Jiu-jitsu guillotine choke – picking up the win via submission. No elephants, no clowns, no nonsense.

Yes this fight had all the makings of a circus sideshow but in my opinion was the fight of the year. Fights should be evaluated by more than what goes on inside the ring or in this case the cage to view the whole context of the fight.

In this case MMA was on reeling from two unfortunate associations, but recovered because of a street fighter that tried to do all the right things. In the end Slice gained credibility and MMA has its first feel-good story that the rest of the world can see.