MMA's Post-Kimbo Limbo

Michael Wilbon, a sports commentator with ESPN and the Washington Post, has recently and repeatedly declared that Miami native Kimbo Slice took a dive October 4 in his much-publicized mixed martial arts fight at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. A little-known challenger named Seth Petruzelli decked Slice in a mere 14 seconds.

Wilbon, however, offers no evidence other than a video of the fight, which you can view below:

Petruzelli added fodder for conspiracy theorists when he told an Orlando radio station after the fight that EliteXC, the company that staged the match, encouraged him to "stand up" and duke it out with the larger man. The company also paid Petruzelli a $15,000 "knockout" bonus prior to the fight.

In a cursory investigation, the Florida Boxing Commission cleared EliteXC of wrongdoing, but the company has gone out of business anyway.

Though there's absolutely no proof of a fix, the Kimbo Slice fight, which MMA fans hoped would propel the sport to a wider audience, has proven a debacle.

Not that it needed much help. The sport is already treated as if it were a freak show. Wilbon is far from alone as a detractor. Veteran Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote recently likened MMA to dogfighting.

"It's sort of an adult version of teenagers beating up a homeless guy," Cote wrote in a May 29 column in which he rued the fact that CBS had agreed to air some matches. "It appeals to our most vile fascination with violence, from the same mindset that makes the Grand Theft Auto franchise a videogame phenomenon: the notion of doing wrong vicariously."

The spectacle of Kimbo Slice has only hardened those opinions. He is most famous, after all, for YouTube videos of truly brutal back-yard fights that employ none of the skills possessed by veteran MMA pros.

Had the Slice-Petruzelli fight been a success, widespread popularity might have followed. But as it stands now, MMA remains on the fringe, though with a hard-core audience intact.

It might be good news for detractors such as Wilbon and Cote, but it won't be good for South Florida, which is actually a mecca for the sport. A 20,000-square-foot training facility in Coconut Creek serves as one of the top MMA gyms in the nation.

The gym was founded by a former Brazilian jujitsu world champion named Ricardo Liborio, who moved to South Florida from Rio de Janeiro about six years ago. He created an MMA organization called American Top Team, and today it has 50 fighters on contract, professionals who come from all over the Western Hemisphere.

I visited the giant gym last Thursday afternoon and found about 30 fighters hard at training. They were paired off on the mats, pretzeled together in ways impossible to describe, practicing locks and holds, each trying to bring the other into submission with age-old techniques.

This wasn't glitzy or cheap or brutal. It was elemental, bringing to mind boyhood wrestling and images of ancient Greeks. Most of them were practicing Liborio's specialty, Brazilian jujitsu, the fundamental art used in MMA. But, as the name of the sport suggests, it combines a number of disciplines, including karate, judo, muay thai (kickboxing), wrestling, and traditional boxing.

The American Top Team fighters were all obviously professional athletes, with sculpted bodies that would rival any NFL player's physique. And they worked tirelessly, dripping in sweat, trying move after move for almost two hours.

I'm not sure why anyone would want to do what they do for a living, but I defy anyone to watch these guys train and not leave awestruck.

One of the star fighters is Antonio Silva, former heavyweight champion. The Brazilian, nicknamed "Bigfoot," stands six feet three inches tall and weighs about 265 pounds. He looks impossible to beat, but his career is on hiatus. Silva is serving a yearlong suspension after the California State Athletic Commission found he tested positive for steroids.

The positive test obviously doesn't reflect well on the sport, but it is nothing that players in Major League Baseball and the NFL haven't done. And the fact that Silva was caught shows that MMA is governing the sport. In fact it's just as well regulated as boxing; the same state commissions oversee both sports.

Silva was on the mat with Bobby Lashley, a former college wrestler who was a professional wrestling champion before coming to MMA. Lashley is huge and in flawless shape; he looks more like a champion bodybuilder than a fighter. He is scheduled for his first MMA fight in December.

Not far away, Richie Guerriero, American Top Team manager, pointed out one of the smaller fighters and said, "That's Mike Brown, the best grappler in the world." Brown weighs 145 pounds and is a 33-year-old former high school wrestling champion from Maine who has compiled a 19-4 record since turning pro in 2001. It earned him a shot at a world title against featherweight champion Uriah Faber this Wednesday night at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood.

"It's a big one," said Brown, still dripping with sweat from the training. "I'm just going to try to hit him hard.

Brown's body is a battered testament to the violence in the game. During his fighting career, he has undergone four knee surgeries, two in each leg. In Tokyo in 2006, Japanese fighter Masakazu Imanari, one of the world's great leg-lock experts, destroyed Brown's left knee, requiring him to get surgery to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament.

The YouTube video of that fight (in which Brown seems to have the upper hand before Imanari strikes with his devastating leg lock) had 37,120 views. It's a respectable number, but not close to the millions that Slice's street-fighting videos average.

I asked Brown about Kimbo Slice.

"He's nowhere near the best in the world. He's not even in the top 30 or 40," Brown said. "But he's exciting, and he sells a lot of tickets. I was even excited to see him fight."

Does Brown think Slice threw the Petruzelli fight?

"No way," he said.

Added Guerriero: "That's just an ignorant idea. He just got caught and fell."

Video of the fight seems to support Guerriero's assertion. Slice was coming at Petruzelli when the smaller fighter landed a jarring right hand. It is probably one of those fights that will forever be debated — and derided.

In the end, though, those 14 seconds of infamy have already prompted a necessary cleansing of the sport, which is now in post-Kimbo limbo. Slice, whose real name is Kevin Ferguson, has been disgraced; it is unlikely anyone will ever again try to pretend he is a great martial arts fighter.

But guys such as Mike Brown, the guts of MMA, are here to stay.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman