Kimbo Slice's a sissy: The fight that wasn't threatens to ruin a sport that isn't

Michael Wilbon, a sports commentator with ESPN and the Washington Post, has recently and repeatedly declared that South Florida 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 see 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 bigger man. The company also paid Petruzelli a $15,000 "knockout" bonus before the fight.

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

Meanwhile, a source of mine called last week with a scoop: Kimbo, he said, had thrown the big bout. The tipster's belief was centered on the words of a friend, a Fort Lauderdale man who claimed to know members of Slice's coterie. The friend said that Slice's camp had bet large amounts of money on Petruzelli, an almost six-to-one underdog, on offshore gambling sites and made off with a bundle of cash in addition to the $500,000 purse.

It's an enticing tip, but it's totally unsubstantiated and next to impossible to prove.

Proof of a fix or not, 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 among its mainstream detractors. 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 mind-set that makes the Grand Theft Auto franchise a video-game phenomenon: The notion of doing wrong vicariously."

The spectacle of Kimbo Slice has only hardened those opinions. Slice's entire presence in the sport has only damaged MMA's reputation. He's most famous, after all, for YouTube videos of truly brutal backyard fights that employ none of the skills possessed by veteran MMA pros.

The Slice-Petruzelli fight represents a critical moment in the history of the sport. Had it been a success, widespread popularity might have followed. But as it stands now, MMA remains on the fringes, though with a hardcore audience intact.

It may be good news for detractors like 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 United States.

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, a band of professionals who come from all over the Western Hemisphere to get a chance.

I visited the giant gym this past Thursday afternoon and found about 30 fighters hard at training. Full disclosure: I've never been a fan of the sport. Always seemed like a mess of elbows and knees occasionally interrupted by an unseemly wailing on some poor fellow's head. But I do like a good fight, and I came with an open mind.

The fighters 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, MMA 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 players. And they worked tirelessly, dripping in sweat, trying move and 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 a bit awestruck.

The team's manager, Richie Guerriero, guided me around the gym, showing me some of his star fighters. Grappling on the ground in front of us was Antonio Silva, former heavyweight champion. The Brazilian, nicknamed "Bigfoot," is six-foot-three and weighs about 265 pounds. He looks impossible to beat, but his career is in hiatus. Silva is serving a yearlong suspension after the California State Athletic Commission found that he tested positive for steroids.

The positive test obviously doesn't reflect well on the sport, but it's 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, whatever that is worth, as the same state commissions oversee both sports.

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