Diehard fans of mixed martial arts might know Dr. Johnny Benjamin for his informative columns on MMAJunkie.com, in which he addresses medical issues as they pertain to the sport. As a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, Benjamin dissects and explains injuries and other medical problems in ways those of us who have no advanced knowledge of human anatomy can easily understand.
Benjamin also pens columns for the widely read site The Huffington Post. And it is his latest column there where he veers widely from his medical opinion to offer social commentary that is borderline offensive.
The column, titled "The Promotional 'Lynching' of Kimbo Slice," directly states that Kimbo "got used by his promotional company and now must endure the aftermath of public lynching."
In essence, it victimizes Kimbo Slice as someone set up to fail, with the promoters as the villains and the fans rooting on the betrayal. It is a dangerous theory to float, as the "lynching" terminology seems to accuse the UFC and EliteXC -- and by extension the fans -- of at least partially racist motivations. Benjamin goes one step closer to the suggestion when speaking specifically about Kimbo's time with EliteXC.
"They employed the philosophy that great theater must have a villain, and the bigger and darker the better."
The biggest problem with that argument is this: Kimbo's never been "the villain."
I've watched all of Slice's fights -- some in person -- and he's always gotten one of the biggest ovations of the night. I was there in Newark, New Jersey when he fought James Thompson at the main event of the first MMA card ever broadcast on network television. Kimbo was by far the biggest star there and the crowd favorite in the fight.
When Kimbo was featured on the cover of ESPN the Magazine two years ago, the headline read: "Who Does Kimbo Slice Think He Is?" Subheadline: "A Productive Citizen and An Up-And-Coming Businessman For Starters..."
That's a "villain"? No way. Most of America loved Kimbo. It was that way at the beginning; it was that way at the end. The only man who received a louder cheer than Kimbo in his last fight was Patrick Cote, and that's only because Cote is a native Quebecois (the event was held in Montreal).
Certainly, appearance plays a role in how fighters are received. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. But the vast majority of people liked Kimbo. They wanted more of him. They cheered him.
The notion that Kimbo was set up to fail is similarly ludicrous. EliteXC set him up as the cornerstone of its promotion because he was its biggest star. It may have not been an intelligent decision given his limitations in the cage, but it tried its best to give him winnable fights.
Bo Cantrell was 10-10, Tank Abbott was 9-13, James Thompson was 14-8, but had lost six of his last eight. And his originally scheduled opponent in what ended up being the disastrous finale against Seth Petruzelli was Ken Shamrock, who had lost seven of his last eight.
When the company folded, Kimbo had plenty of opportunities to take his talent and big name elsewhere. Admirably, he chose the UFC because he wanted a crack at the big leagues. At the time, he was 35 years old, had been training in MMA for two years, and fully realized time was running short.
During the Ultimate Fighter, he got the toughest matchup in the house, eventually losing to future TUF champ Roy Nelson, but when the UFC had the chance to hand-pick his opponents, they gave him Houston Alexander (a loser of three of his previous four fights, and a fighter who like Slice, is known for a minimal ground game). And finally, his last chance came against Matt Mitrione, a novice with far less pro experience than Slice.
That hardly sounds like being set up to fail. In fact, I'd venture to say that both promotions went out of their way to give him matchups he had a chance to win. Contrast that with someone like James Toney, who is likely going to make his MMA debut against five-time UFC champion, Randy Couture. That's no baby step.
After his loss to Mitrione, Slice was given his release by the UFC. Benjamin writes, "Dana White made his money, proved his point and sent Mr. Slice packing. The human being, Kevin Ferguson, was lost in the shuffle."
Only that's not really true either. Getting his personality across to the huge TUF audience (an average of around 3 million people tuned in every week) was a lasting effect of Kimbo's time on the show. The UFC didn't paint him as a savage or exploit him as a "big, scary Black man" as Benjamin says in his conclusion. It was just the opposite; they let Kevin Ferguson come through. People left the series liking the man they saw: a good teammate, a hard worker, a devoted dad. He was just another guy hustling to make a buck. What's wrong with that?
Even White became a fan. Though he bashed Kimbo's fighting skill before he made it to the UFC, he says it was the person who won him over.
Moments after cutting Slice on Saturday night, here's what he had to say: "The first time I ever met him, I said, 'This is going to be an interesting meeting, with all the s--- I've said about this guy over the last two years.' He came in, he couldn't have been a nicer guy. He took this seriously. He trained, went after it. His first fight wasn't the YouTube fights you saw, but he won. He won that fight and deserved another fight in the UFC. And he lost. I got nothing but respect for Kimbo. I like him as a person and I think he carried himself really well."
Kimbo might have begun his career as a fighter and public figure with only one dimension, but any serious look at his public perception shows that at least the latter didn't last for long. We may not know him completely, but we certainly know him better than the average fighter.
While there will of course always be fans that criticize fighters who lose, or who do not live up to expectations, in this case it is mostly a function of sport, not race. There will unfortunately always be those for whom race is a factor, but in the end, the vast majority of real fans understand that Kimbo's critical MMA skills simply fell short. Yet there was no shame in his effort, or for trying in the first place.
It's telling that while Benjamin writes that Slice will have to endure the aftermath of a public lyching, it's been four days since Slice has been released, yet no signs of any mobs beating down his door. In fact, most people interested in his story are looking forward, wondering what he'll do next. Maybe the good doctor should do the same instead of trying to rewrite history.
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