Thursday, June 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Mixed martial arts made its prime-time network TV debut without the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but with plenty of bluster and ballyhoo.
The CBS broadcast of a fight card from Newark, N.J., led off with an iconic image of the Statue of Liberty(!) followed in the opening moments by one reference apiece to the “warriors” and the “new breed of gladiator” who would be fighting in the cage that evening.
The announcers were just getting warmed up.
They also informed viewers that CBS was yanking mixed martial arts “out of the shadows” with Saturday night’s broadcast and placing the sport in its rightful spot under “the bright lights of prime time.”
They emphasized that “this is real,” and each competitor is not just a fighter but also a “real, live true warrior.”
The program featuring a series of bouts promoted by the EliteXC fighting organization, a UFC rival, was not only a “milestone moment” in sports history, but it also marked the “dawn of a new era.”
They invoked the spirit of Bruce Lee, suggesting that like a prophetic seer, Lee “predicted” the coming of this momentous occasion more than three decades ago.
And this all occurred within the first five minutes of the broadcast. Yikes.
Then there were the repeated shots of a bevy of scantily clad dancing girls outside the fighting cage. Yes, this was CBS, but perhaps not what you would expect from William S. Paley’s erstwhile Tiffany Network — unless Tiffany was the stage name of one of the go-go girls.
It’s impossible to blame the EliteXC guys for playing their hand aggressively, though. Throughout the broadcast, the announcing team of Gus Johnson, Mauro Ranallo and Frank Shamrock hammered on a series of keywords — “MMA!” “CBS!” “Prime time!” — as if to announce the organization’s arrival on the big time. They were simultaneously appealing to casual fans who might not seek out the UFC, which presents itself as the industry’s leader, on cable or on pay-per-view.
Certainly mixed martial arts is riding a wave of mainstream popularity, thanks to the prime-time slot as well as the Hollywood movie “Redbelt,” which has garnered good reviews despite the counterintuitive pairing of MMA and Mamet. (“Coffee’s for submission experts only.”)
The best part of the CBS broadcast was probably an explanatory segment in which Shamrock demonstrated various MMA moves, rules and regulations. Despite a simplistic-sounding summary of “ground and pound” — get your opponent to the ground and pound him out! — it was a good introduction to viewers stumbling across the sport for the first time.
Unfortunately, the hyperbole returned quickly as we were instructed to stay tuned for the “network premiere of the Street Fighter 4 trailer,” which to me looked a lot like a commercial for a video game.
A bout pitting Brett Rogers against Jon Murphy wasn’t just a heavyweight fight, but “an opportunity for Rogers to seize the American dream.”
Before Rogers could seize it properly, he had to get past Murphy, who is known as “The Man of Faith” and is not only “superintelligent,” but also “super faithful.” OK.
In other highlights from the card, Phil Baroni lost to Joey Villasenor despite Baroni’s prefight vow, duly shown on the broadcast, that he would be “separating his (rear end) from consciousness,” and Gina Carano beat Kaitlin Young in a crowd-pleasing women’s fight.
Of course, this “historic broadcast” ushering in a “new era” of American sports led up to the main event won by Kimbo Slice, the “street-fighting star of the Internet” who has been the “focus of a media avalanche.”
At one point, Kimbo was compared favorably to Oscar De La Hoya and Tiger Woods. Unless I missed some sort of cue, this was not the parody portion of the program.
A few days later CBS officials hyped the show as a ratings success, reporting that the audience peaked at 6.51 million viewers during Slice’s victory against James Thompson in the headliner, and that the network cleaned up in the demographics of men and young viewers.
So it appears we’re likely to see more of EliteXC. In prime time. On CBS. And why not? After all, the Kimbo Slice phenomenon “has touched a raw nerve in America and around the world!” And, undoubtedly, throughout the known universe.