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I have seen the future of American sports, and it isn’t CBS televising mixed martial arts.
The fast-growing sport made its prime-time network debut Saturday with a card from Newark, N.J., promoted by the lower-tier organization Elite XC, and while the sport will probably be fine and the ratings were OK by Saturday-night CBS standards — better than usual but not better than a movie rerun on ABC or Stanley Cup hockey on NBC, and worse than “America’s Most Wanted” on Fox, according to preliminary numbers — it was lousy sports programming.
Not just lousy. Dishonest and lousy. It was crap. And what was crap about it wasn’t the sport itself, which is a brutal business but a legitimate sport, but the Tiffany Network’s presentation of it.
It really was a shame to see the network of “Big Brother” stoop to lowbrow fare like this.
The sport is what it is. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are rules and a referee and as far as anyone knows fighters enter the cage by choice. There’s nothing wrong with putting it on television.
What was wrong was how CBS BS’d the American public. Gus Johnson, this column’s favorite TV announcer when he’s working on football and basketball games, spent the night screaming. He called it “the dawn of a new era in American sports,” as though mixed martial arts weren’t already a mainstay on various cable networks, and as if anybody but ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox cared about the difference between broadcast and cable.
Johnson, veteran MMA fighter Frank Shamrock and Mauro Ranallo, who announces Elite XC fights on Showtime, told viewers again and again how exciting this whole thing was.
“These are now the highest-caliber athletes in professional sports,” Shamrock said in a prepared piece. “Olympic-caliber athletes.” This was, quite simply, a bald-faced lie.
There may be some Olympic-caliber athletes in mixed martial arts, but the athletes on display Saturday were more like big-city rec-center caliber. We never really got much of a look at a squad of dancing girls that was on hand, but there were some nice boobs on some of the fighters. Right up through the main event, Slice vs. an English tomato can named James Thompson, the fighters mostly lacked balance, athleticism and conditioning.
At no point in the broadcast did Johnson, Shamrock or Ranallo mention that Elite XC, an organization that’s less than 2 years old, is essentially a minor league in mixed martial arts. It was like broadcasting a Nationwide Series race or the Triple-A All-Star Game and yammering on about how these guys are the best in the world.
You could figure out the lie if you paid close attention to the story of one of the fighters on the card, Robbie Lawler, who had won an Elite XC championship after washing out of UFC, the organization that dominates the sport.
CBS wasn’t going to make that hierarchy clear — so much for the network of Murrow — but it did emphasize just how goshdarn exciting this whole new era thing was. It was so dazzling that the network let 26 minutes go by before the first bell rang on the first undercard fight.
CBS must have really figured it had something thrilling on its hands if, given two hours to present “a new era in American sports,” it spent almost the first quarter of that on features and commentary, on the bored-looking dancing girls and fighters posing next to big tires and — this part was really new-eralicious, never seen anything like it before — saying they’re planning to beat their opponent.
Not exactly a vote of confidence for the product. Ever notice how an NFL game kicks off about five minutes into the broadcast? Ever notice how CBS’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament is pretty much wall-to-wall basketball? The product’s great, so it’s hi, how are you, here’s who’s playing, let’s go.
CBS had some explaining to do for a new crowd Saturday, but it spent most of those 26 minutes on, shall we say, Olympic-caliber personality profiles.
The curtain-raiser was a 61-second knockout of Jon Murphy by Brett Rogers, who Johnson said was hoping for a bout with “one of the elite heavyweights in Elite XC,” and he listed a few names including Kimbo Slice. At the time, Slice had a career record of 2-0, both wins against fighters with losing records. Murphy looked like the most amateurish of undercard fighters in boxing, usually local tough guys, bouncers, who take a shot in the ring, almost always finding out what a bad idea that is.
Murphy wandered around off balance and wide open for a minute before Rogers, who was just as vulnerable and awkward-looking, caught him with a couple of right hands.
The next bout featured a guy named Phil Baroni, repeatedly referred to by his nickname, “The New York Badass.” Johnson said it just like Murrow would have. The announcers built him up like he was some kind of unbeatable whirlwind, barely mentioning his record on this minor-league circuit: 10-9. Baroni lasted 71 seconds before getting knocked out by Joey Villasenor.
A women’s fight followed, Gina Carano — “Crush” on “American Gladiators” — stopping Kaitlyn Young after two entertaining rounds. It was the first sign of life in the broadcast. When Carano and Young came together, there had been two minutes, 12 seconds of fighting in an hour and nine minutes of airtime.
Carano has a better chance at sustained stardom than Slice. She’s the cute badass next door, to borrow a nickname. In her post-fight interview, she guessed at the name of a maneuver she’d used and said, “That” — the maneuver — “was fun.” Then she called Young “a cool-ass chick.”
After a reasonably entertaining fight between Robbie Lawler, the guy who’d washed out of UFC, and Scott “Hands of Steel” Smith was declared a no-contest in the third round because of Smith being accidentally thumbed in the eye, Slice and Thompson met in the main event.
There was some decent action, Slice showing he could fight on the ground for the first time and Thompson nearly taking him out with a “ground and pound” sequence late in the second. Both men were exhausted fairly quickly, and MMA connoisseurs — a group that doesn’t include this column — could see how amateurish the sensation was. “That’s a rookie hold,” Shamrock said at one point as Slice briefly had an advantage. Thompson quickly slipped away.
The referee stopped the fight in the third round when Thompson took a shot on his cauliflower ear and it began bleeding profusely. Slice, barely able to speak, admitted he had a long way to go in the sport.
As does CBS, which plans to show more Elite XC cards this summer. The long, loving shots of each fighter slowly making his way to the ring have got to go, as do most of the profiles and features. The show was so plodding that the allotted two hours were over long before Slice entered the ring.
There’s no excuse for the show to be so pokey, especially with so many early knockouts. TV is all-powerful. It says to the fighters, “Get out there” and they go, warmed up or not. It’s not like the fighters on an Elite XC card, even Kimbo Slice, have the juice to pull prima donna moves.
And CBS absolutely has to stop selling this minor-league stuff as the bigs. We’re not dumb out here in TV land. We have cable. We can do things like tune in to the World Extreme Cagefighting show on Versus Sunday night.
In the main event of that card at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Urijah Faber retained his WEC featherweight title with a thrilling five-round decision over Jens Pulver. Terrific fight.
A novice MMA fan could see that Faber, a 145-pounder, would take apart anyone on CBS’s card in under a minute, including the 250-pound Slice. Every fighter on the Versus card was clearly better than every fighter on the CBS card, with the possible exception of the two women.
CBS reportedly couldn’t cut a deal with UFC’s brash president, Dana White, so it settled for the sizzle of Slice and the lesser circuit. If the Eyeball couldn’t wait to get a big-league deal done, it should have been honest with viewers. “This isn’t the top of the heap,” Johnson should have said, “these fighters are trying to move up, but we think you’re going to enjoy it.”
That’s how Cronkite would have played it.