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.

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

It's not just monsters like Silva and Lashley in the sport; there are numerous weight divisions, including featherweights. Guerriero pointed out one of the smaller fighters and said, "That's Mike Brown, the best grappler in the world."

Brown, who weighs 145 pounds, 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 the World Extreme Cagefighting championship against Urijah Faber on November 5 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.

"It's a big one," says Brown, still dripping with sweat from the training. "I'm just going to try to hit him hard and submit him if I get a chance."

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

His left biceps "tore off" during one fight, prompting another surgery. He also had to have a disc removed from his neck after it ruptured, causing his left arm to become partially paralyzed.

Never had a broken bone, but he's had plenty of chips, cracks, and evulsions. I asked him why he keeps fighting.

"I started wrestling when I was a kid, and I fell in love with it," he told me as he took out his mouthpiece. "I never thought I could make a living out of it."

He didn't tell me his purse for the Faber fight, but rest assured it's a fraction of the $500,000 Kimbo Slice made in the 14-second debacle. Brown hoped to win the fight and make some big money, but for now, he works part-time every Saturday at the training facility to help pay his bills. He's a working-class pro, the guts of the sport.

The YouTube video of the Imanari 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 fight?

"No way," he said.

Guerriero calls the notion "ridiculous."

"That's just an ignorant idea," he said. "He just got caught and fell."

Watching the fight video, it seems feasible that Guerriero is right. Slice was coming at Petruzelli when the smaller fighter landed a jarring right hand. It's 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 largely been disgraced; it's unlikely anyone will ever try to pretend he's a great martial arts fighter again. And EliteXC, its reputation wounded and finances in tatters, is, of course, belly up.

But guys like Mike Brown, the guts of MMA, are here to stay. And there's nothing wrong with that.

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