One of the more bizarre moments in MMA’s young history occurred five years ago, on Oct. 4, 2008, when EliteXC visited Sunrise, Fla. At the time, CBS was televising the card as its third installment of "Saturday Night Fights on CBS," dropping the bloodsport of MMA into every wholesome family’s living room across the country a full three years before the UFC’s game-changing deal with FOX.
Such an experiment in the grand scheme of things was made ironic by EliteXC’s most bankable star, a bare-knuckle street brawler named Kimbo Slice, who emerged as an antihero in an anti-PC movement. In that way, he was exactly the kind of commodity that spoke directly to television executives.
The appeal was familiar. Kimbo stirred our appetite for violence the way Mike Tyson did in the mid-1980s, only instead of unleashing his violence within four layers of sanctioned rope, Kimbo -- a bouncer-turned-bodyguard for the Miami-based pornographic production company Reality Kings -- got famous for a collection of homemade fight videos that he put out from South Florida. In these "grown ass man" events he laid waste to single-named toughs like "Chico" or "Adryan" in backyards on lazy sunny afternoons. He was a curiosity like nobody we’d known in this context. YouTube was his arena. Parking lots were his cage. And millions of people watched the careening handheld footage of his fights through their fingers, just to get that raw experience from the king of the streets.
This made Kimbo Slice transcendent.
He streamed uneasily into casual America the way that the rap collective NWA rolled into the suburbs in the early-1990s. He was a black man bulging with cartoon muscles and a wife-beater, with gold teeth and an uprush of chest hair. He wore fancy doo-rags and skullcaps, some of which were crafted like fine doilies. His belly button was a notorious outie, and his beard, as EliteXC’s one-time matchmaker Rich Chou says, "was as iconic as Chuck Liddell’s mohawk." His beard was all menace, and it glistened in the sun as he went about beating hoodlums unconscious.
"He was a pop culture icon," Chou says. "We saw that with him in movies -- I mean, he’s in hip-hop lyrics. When you’ve reached that level you’ve gone beyond just your field."
By the time Kimbo entered MMA, he was so disquieting that we couldn’t pry our eyes off of him. In the summer of 2007, he choked out bygone boxer Ray Mercer in a Cage Fury fight. In his first couple of EliteXC events, he beat Bo Cantrell and then the original barroom brawler, Tank Abbott. By that point, he was in the Tyson-esque early stages of captivation. For his next fight, on a card that would be the first ever to air on American broadcast television on May 31, 2008, CBS drew 6.5 million viewers on the strength of Kimbo alone. That was the night he popped James Thompson’s cauliflower ear to the groans and beer glass clanks of a nation.
"When I looked at the crowd in his previous fights, those were not fight fans," Chou says. "That’s the big differentiator. It was like the circus was in town, and they were going to check out ‘the show.’ They aren’t there to see the other MMA fighters and they weren’t MMA fans. They were Kimbo Slice fans."
Kimbo was what people wanted to watch. Without Kimbo, "EliteXC: Unfinished Business" -- which CBS aired on July 26 featuring a rematch between Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith -- fell off by nearly four million viewers.
So when Kimbo was getting set to take on the 44-year old Ken Shamrock at "EliteXC: Heat" on Oct. 4, he was the star. The network, on the strength of CBS’s Senior Executive Vice President Kelly Kahl’s persuasiveness, was relying on him to deliver another big number. EliteXC was relying on him to carry them into a long-term deal with CBS. ProElite was relying on him to get them out of the red. The crowd in Sunrise that night was relying on a Kimbo, their hometown icon, to add another name to his casualty list. The viewers at home were still in hyper-gawk mode for this curiosity who was running his brand of refined street thuggery through MMA.
And Shamrock, of course, was a perfect foil.
The Shamrock name was "second only to the Gracie’s in MMA," as Chou says, and Ken hadn’t won a fight in over four years. He was an Andy Warhol-sized tomato can from one perspective, which just happened to be the smaller, inconsequential one. From the other perspective -- the perspective that dictates ratings -- he was a recognizable name that would help Kimbo in his flight pattern towards super-stardom.
The only one not in on the backdoor reasoning of booking Ken Shamrock against Kimbo at this juncture might have been Ken Shamrock himself.
"I’ve been a fighter a long time and I’ve trained a lot of fighters," Shamrock says. "When they asked me if I wanted to fight [Kimbo] I was really shocked, because obviously he didn’t have a chance in hell against me. Other than landing a punch, which is a really small percentage with somebody that would focus on the takedown. So I thought, okay, yeah, sure I’ll take it! For me it was really a no brainer. The guy didn’t have the skills. I saw his fight before [against Thompson] that and the guy got saved. So I jumped at the chance. I was really excited about having that fight."
Jared Shaw, the vice president of EliteXC and son of boxing promoter Gary Shaw, originally wanted Brett Rogers to fight Kimbo next. But Shamrock made sense.
"We thought Kimbo and Shamrock would be a great fight from the perspective of Kimbo’s growth, and the perspective of a television rating," he says. "Ken Shamrock obviously brought a lot of recognition to the table. And it was the right place in his career because, look, if he won? He had an opportunity to revive his career with EliteXC. Had he lost, it would be a big win for Kimbo and his growth, and we would all see how much Kimbo had progressed as a mixed martial arts fighter."
Problem was, Kimbo Slice wasn’t a mixed martial artist. And in that way, CBS -- along with Showtime, EliteXC and its parent company ProElite -- built a fortress around a house of cards. One sudden gust of wind and the whole thing would blow over. As crazy as it sounds, Kimbo would enter the cage as the hinge piece to a thousand futures.
That was the plank that everyone was walking on Oct. 4, 2008. Like most television, there was a plenty of sleight of hand in play. Unlike most television, nobody could control the content.
The Day Before
The lead-up to the fight was one of loftiness, and the bad blood between Kimbo and Shamrock was real enough. But so was the behind the scenes money situation that began burbling between Shamrock and the promoters. Shamrock was to be the highest-paid fighter on the card, per his contract agreement. But when partnering promotion Affliction lent EliteXC its Andrei Arlovski-Roy Nelson bout late in the process, that contract situation got ugly.
"It was the whole idea that me and Kimbo Slice were the main event," Ken says. "We sold out that event before the show. [Nelson and Arlovski] were not going to add any more value to this show. Because their show bombed in Vegas -- they sold 700 tickets -- they wanted to take their main event and put it on somewhere else. So they put them on our card without any acknowledgement to Kimbo or myself. Not that Kimbo cared because he’s not really much of a business guy, but to me it was like a slap in the face, because these guys were getting paid so much more money than me."
Chou says that Affliction was responsible for paying Arlovski -- a disclosed $500,000 for the fight, the same as Kimbo -- not EliteXC, therefore it wasn’t a breach of contract. Nevertheless, the discrepancy made for last-minute drama, and led to concerns about Shamrock showing up for the weigh-ins.
But Shamrock did show up, and he weighed in fine. It was one of the more memorable weigh-ins in MMA’s history. The original female star in the sport, Gina Carano, came in overweight for her bout with Kelly Kobald and had to disrobe beneath the cover of towels while Jimmy Lennon Jr. kept his eye from roving. She made it while naked. Jake Shields and Paul Daley had a moment of heated tension. Nelson and Arlovski squared off. The card was so ridiculous that Cris "Cyborg" Santos was fighting on the undercard, against some so-and-so that looked like prey.
And when Shamrock and Slice finally came together fresh off the scale, Kimbo flexed his muscles and played for the crowd. As Kimbo turned to walk away, Shamrock became incensed at being so thoroughly ignored. He shoved Kimbo from behind yelling, "don’t turn your back on me."
"Kimbo had like 15 guys in his entourage at the weigh-ins," says Aaron Rosa, who had weighed in to fight Seth Petruzelli. "It was crazy."
And Kimbo’s faction, which included Bas Rutten -- who was training him, most curiously, into the further reaches of overall MMA -- swooped in like a school of shiny alewives. Though tempers flared and plenty of arms began to shove what could be shoved, the thing was subdued quick enough.
It was a perfect table setting; it was all the right kind of drama.
Shamrock weighed in at 206.5 pounds, barely topping the minimum for a heavyweight fight. Kimbo was 234.5 pounds of crude, mystic strength. The thing was on.
Even with Shamrock airing his grievances over pay, the fight would happen. That night, Petruzelli would go to bed as an anonymous undercard fighter with an anonymous Rosa on his mind. And Frank Shamrock would go out celebrating his good fortune. He had a deal to fight Ken behind the scenes, and he was commentating again on CBS. Life was good. Frank went on what the old-timers call a bender, drinking into the wee hours of the night. Half of it was nerves.
"That’s legit," he says. "You know, we were on CBS."
Maybe the other half was brotherly intuition. Or worse. Maybe it was something like foreboding.
In the ether that lay between that night and the next morning, that’s when the chaos started.
Ken Shamrock -- who was in the rare spot to fight in a big-time main event, on broadcast television, while making a large sum of money, against the game’s most transcendent figure at the moment, despite riding a five-fight losing streak and his advanced age -- suffered a cut.
The cut was right above the eye. He was rolling with his nutritionist Dan Freeman -- who he says is "kind of built like Kimbo" -- in his hotel suite, and got clipped with a head butt. It was an anger session, Shamrock said -- just him blowing off some steam after EliteXC had refused to sort out the pay squabble.
"I was very pissed off," Ken says. "What happened was that obviously [EliteXC] didn’t want to sit down and talk with me, explain why they did what they did. And I felt it was disrespectful to myself because we had put all the work in, and all the interviews, and all the bad blood to promote this fight and to sell it out and then these guys were going to come on the undercard, and actually fight on the card and make more money than the main event.
"We went into my room, I moved all the stuff out from the floor and [Freeman and I] started doing some technical stuff, like putting the hooks in, working the choke from the rear, flattening him out and ground and pound," Ken says. "Just really easy stuff, nothing fast, so I get the hooks in and I had him flattened out and I said, I want you to push up and to use power, because I knew that was what Kimbo would do, just try to force yourself up and I’m going to slide the choke in, nice and easy, working through the process step by step.
"I wanted to clear my head. I wanted to get back into what I was there to do. So we start warming up, we start doing this and I told him to push up, and when he pushed up, I had my head down behind his head and I lifted up as he pushed up and he threw his head backward and it caught me on the tip of the eye."
It was a bad gash that required stitches -- double stitches, in fact. Just like that, the fight was in doubt. He still wanted to fight, but at that point, with a fresh red cut that might as well have been a crevasse through his skull, it was up to officials.
"I found out the morning of the actual fight," says Mauro Ranallo, the play-by-play man for the CBS broadcast. "I was told he had been cut in a session that morning, rolling and practicing. And of course, all of us were like, why would anyone be doing that on the day of the fight? And that was anybody’s guess."
Chou remembers that dreadful turn, too.
"I remember being in the back with the team, and [Ken] arrived at the arena, and all of a sudden, everyone -- all the network execs -- are just going over there checking him out," he says. "There were a lot of people involved. It was quite the scene."
It was the craziest, most unbelievable thing to happen on the day of a fight since Kevin Randleman slipped and knocked himself out in the dressing room at UFC 24. That night in Lake Charles, Randleman’s heavyweight title fight with Pedro Rizzo was cancelled, which was a buzzkill for the several thousand on hand. Of course, that was a pre-Zuffa pay-per-view, when the sport was still restricted to underground bunkers.
This was a CBS fight with do-or-die consequences. This was Kimbo Slice, fighting in his hometown, where the situation could slip into something serious if he didn’t appear. Kimbo was carrying an enterprise on his back, and needed to fight. Immediately, as the news trickled out of Shamrock’s injury, red flags began to wave with the promoters, who’d heard him complain about the pay. In the blur of events, many were thinking the exact same thing -- could Ken Shamrock have sabotaged the main event, and just how crazy would he have to be to do that?
"[The cut] was just really weird," Chou says. "It looked funny. You can tell when there’s a collision with a knee. It just looked a little fishy, real surgical. It just looked…fishy. But, we couldn’t dwell on that, you’re in the back, and the first thought is, how do we fix this? How do we not have 10,000 people throwing beer at us and trying to start a riot?
"Once we verified he wasn’t able to fight, we had to move on. There were a ton of crazy conversations going on. You really had to explore all kinds of ideas, and everyone was jumping in with their thoughts -- from the network execs, to Showtime productions, PR, everyone. That’s what made it difficult. At some point we just had to break away and make the group a little smaller and take it from there."
Ranallo believed that scrapping Kimbo from the card, even at the eleventh hour, was still an option.
"I think CBS had every right that, if they didn’t get the fight they wanted, to pull the plug," Ranallo says. "I know that the backstage machinations, it was bedlam. I don’t know what everyone thought the end result would be."
As the executives convened over what to do, Frank Shamrock -- Ken’s brother -- offered his own solution.
"I was just freaked out because I was going to be commentating on CBS," he says. "That was very nerve-racking. Then literally they call everybody who was wearing a suit into a room, and they tell us Ken is not fighting, that something’s got to happen or the show is going to be cancelled.
"It only took about ten minutes for me to raise my hand. I had all my paperwork and stuff in order from the California commission, because I was still in the game. People were literally freaking out, going around going ‘arghhh!’ People were yelling calm down. It was totally insane. And I was sitting there with my book and notes, and I just raised my hand, because you can’t stop the show. That was my biggest thing."
Later Shaw -- who was also known by his hip-hop alias $kala at the time -- had said that Frank had not only volunteered to fight, but had volunteered to essentially throw the fight, in a kill two birds with one stone attempt.
"The real truth is that when I threw the information out there and said, ‘I’ll do it,’ I thought for certain they were going to do it," Frank says. "Then Jared came back and said, ‘Kimbo is not going to fight you.’ I said, look, I’ve been drinking all night, I’ll take it easy on him. That was a fair statement. But everybody took that and ran with it and made their own thing. I would have went out and kicked Kimbo’s butt because that was my job."
In the end, Frank was not seriously considered, but did ratchet up the backstage chaos by asking to stand in.
"I had heard Kimbo refused to fight me, but I also heard from the corporate side that it was just too weird," Frank says. "Now we’re just getting into another realm of weirdness for what’s supposed to be a sport, to have a commentator come off the bench. For me it was great, and it made sense, but when I look back on it seems totally crazy."
Crazy, yes. On a night when crazy had no limits.
To build a promotion around a street fighter is some David Blaine territory, and, five years later, it’s clear EliteXC and CBS were operating as trapeze artists in October of 2008. Everybody knew that Kimbo had limitations. He could grimace, look mean, roam around with an entourage and pop thugs in the grill with his naked knuckles, but he couldn’t defend a single-leg too well. He was never anything other than fight game ephemera.
The thing was always a matter of time.
As the people began to file into BankAtlantic Center to watch the myth of Kimbo Slice fight, backstage a hundred people were bumping into each other searching for solutions. It boiled down to either cancelling the fight, which could be a fiasco beyond repair for all involved. Or they could find an alternative to replace Shamrock. And, with Arlovski-Nelson the only other heavyweights on the card and non-separable, there were two in consideration: Aaron Rosa, the Texan…or Seth Petruzelli, who had recently been cut by the UFC.
Both, as true mixed martial artists who would catch Kimbo unawares and with no time to prep, represented the end game for a promotion if they dared do their job correctly. This was the pickle.
"Petruzelli was picked by [EliteXC’s director of fight operations] Jeremy Lappen, the reason being that he was the only fighter close enough in weight on the card -- or in the area I guess -- to take the fight," Shaw says. "We’re down in Florida and the worst situation is not having Kimbo Slice, the hometown hero, and CBS’s first face, not be on the card."
Lappen and Shaw were not friends -- not like Shaw and Kimbo were. There were so many conversations going on backstage between the promoters, the executives, the fighters and the commission, that Chou says today, "I don’t even want to know the truth about all of them." Rumors afterwards were that Petruzelli was bribed to keep the fight standing, which he later exacerbated and then quelled. Somewhere in that haze of such conversations, Rosa, who was already working up his pre-fight sweat getting set to face Petruzelli, saw a gang of officials converging on him.
"Right before the fight and we were about to go on, and I had my gloves on and everything, Ken got cut, and he couldn’t fight," Rosa says. "My manager, Monte Cox called me, and said, ‘I threw your name in there, do you want to do it? I said, for sure I want to do it. And he said, ‘they’re going to pay you a hell of a lot more money if you do it, too,’ and I said, even better! So they asked if me or Seth wanted to fight Kimbo. We both said, ‘yes, of course.’"
Petruzelli remembers that historic moment, too. He was ultimately the one chosen to be upgraded to the main event (which, for all fighters everywhere, meant the chance to expose some puppet strings).
"Coming off a loss from the UFC, [the Rosa fight] wasn’t a make or break, but it was really important for me to win the fight," he says. "So, I was real nervous and anxious for the win. Then, warming up in the back, the athletic commission and all the guys from EliteXC came in, and said, ‘hey, we got an opportunity for you.’ They said, ‘Ken Shamrock’s out.’ I’m like, whoa. And they said, ‘do you want to fight the main event?’
"There wasn’t any decision with it -- they hadn’t even told me the money yet, it was just, yes, let’s do it. After that, even though I was anxious for the fight with Rosa, for some reason, it just all went away. I’ve never not been nervous for a fight, and this was probably the only fight in my entire career where I was like, whatever happens happens.’"
Meanwhile Ariel Helwani, a relatively unknown journalist working for the now defunct web site MMA Rated, got one of his first big scoops on Shamrock’s removal from the card and broke that to the country. A little while later, Jimmy Lennon Jr. broke the news of Shamrock’s withdrawal to the partisan crowd.
On the live telecast, both Kimbo and Shamrock were interviewed backstage. Between a rock and a hard place, EliteXC had saved the main attraction, Kimbo Slice, from falling off the card. But in the process, it made the main attraction that much more vulnerable to exposure. The promotion and the network had been walking on eggshells with Kimbo as its biggest star, and now those eggshells began crunching underfoot in a worst-case scenario.
Macbeth was about to play out on national television.
"All the insiders knew," Frank Shamrock says. "I don’t think the guys at the top really got it, because they weren’t really MMA guys. We all knew eventually Kimbo was going to crap out, and we needed some backup plan."
Ranallo saw the writing on the wall, too.
"I don’t think we’d have even made it to CBS without a guy like Kimbo Slice, but at the same time, I think way too much was put into the Kimbo Slice train and not enough done to really create other stars which are necessary to last," he says. "I thought it was a little bit strange that everything was being put into the Kimbo Slice basket. But I don’t begrudge what they did with Kimbo. The ratings speak for themselves. I think it was a stroke of genius to bring a guy like Kimbo Slice in. I don’t know that he necessarily needed to headline every show, and in fact that’s what I thought was the biggest problem. There was a lot of talent with the EliteXC -- the Nick Diaz’s, the KJ Noons’, and the Robbie Lawler’s, and the women. There was an opportunity to make stars out of the real mixed martial artists, and yet use Kimbo Slice as a draw."
In fact, the next EliteXC event on Nov. 8, to be held in Reno, featured Nick Diaz against Eddie Alvarez. It was "next" only in theory, because it would never happen.
Petruzelli began making his way to the cage.
"I definitely knew I was the enemy, as soon as I started to walk out I was like, oh s---, because of all the boos and smack talking on my way down," he says. "It was nasty stuff, too. It wasn’t ‘he’s going to beat you,’ it was ‘he’s going to kill you.’ It was bad. After the fight it was worse. I mean, they spit on my brother. They threatened to kill my wife at the time. It was pretty hardcore afterwards. I had to have four cops escort to the back of the building, and then out."
Petruzelli needed the escort because he exposed the greatest bit of hocus pocus the fight game had known to that point.
14 Seconds to Destruction
"Right when I saw Petruzelli knock him out with a jab I thought, that’s crazy," Rosa, who was paid his show and win money to stand aside for Petruzelli, remembers. "He dropped him with a straight jab -- a weird jab, too, he jabbed him backing up and just dropped him and it was over, and the whole place went crazy. I was like, what? Is that all you had to do? I could have made a lot more money, dude. In the arena, Kimbo’s entourage was going crazy."
Right beforehand, referee Troy Waugh instructed the fighters, saying, "let’s give the millions of fans that are watching this fight the fight they want to see."
Petruzelli did just the opposite. As Kimbo rushed to the center of the cage, Petruzelli coolly back-pedaled towards the fence. When Kimbo moved in, he threw that short right jab that didn’t look like much of anything to the television audience. Yet down dropped Kimbo face-first to the canvas. And Petruzelli, smelling the proverbial blood in the water, pounced. A few follow-up shots later, Waugh moved in and called him off. That moment felt like a heist.
"The minute Kimbo was diving head first, leading with his forehead, I knew the whole thing had crumbled," Frank Shamrock says. "You could literally see the money falling down with him."
On a day where fates collided, and so much rode on the outcome of a single fight, it took fourteen seconds to end the drama. Petruzelli was the strong gust of wind that met the house of cards.
"I remember I did my three victory laps around the ring, screaming and then the Florida athletic commissioner at the time came up to me and said, ‘listen, you’ve got to calm down, the crowd’s getting crazy, you’ve got to calm down," Petruzelli says. "I kind of came back to my senses at that point and looked around and could see all these people booing and yelling and screaming, and I thought, oh god, there’s going to be a mob rushing the cage. I remember calming down and saying to the commissioner, you’ve got to get me out of here. Can you guys get me out of here? "
The lasting image was an impassioned Shaw -- a.k.a. $kala -- screaming bloody murder at the referee as Kimbo went down. He was screaming about blows to the back of the head. There were no blows to the back of the head. There was just a blow to EliteXC -- the deathblow, as it were.
EliteXC shut down a couple of weeks later.
Five years later, that night lives in MMA’s canon of strange things that have happened. It was a major fork in the road that sent everybody off in different directions and rearranged the MMA landscape.
Petruzelli, who had gained a new nickname as "The Kimbo Killer," resurrected his career for a little while. Strikeforce, until then a regional promotion that operated in San Jose, snapped up all of the great MMA talent that were left in EliteXC’s wake. They became the No. 2 behind the UFC, and eventually got bought out by Zuffa. Ranallo and Frank Shamrock both continued to call fights for Strikeforce on Showtime. Ranallo eventually called boxing’s biggest event of the in recent history, the megabout between Canelo Alvarez and Floyd Mayweather.
Ken Shamrock, who added profound meaning to his nickname as "The World’s Most Dangerous Man" that weekend in Sunrise, fought four more times (winning twice and losing twice).
Shaw, who described the EliteXC fallout as "sunglasses and Advil," got out of the MMA racket, after being skewered by media and fans for having so active a rooting interest Kimbo’s fight.
"I made a huge error, because I forgot what it was like to have the eyeballs on you," he says. "I saw red. It was hysteria. But 100 percent, it was nothing more than a kneejerk reaction by a 28-year old growing up. The truth is, Seth Petruzelli won that fight, there’s no doubt about it. That’s what happened. Also probably going through my mind at that moment is I knew the company just s--- the bed. This was an event for EliteXC who was hoping to get bought full out by CBS, so that we could continue this company. Kimbo was the face at that point. And there was a lot of talent, but he was the face. It was a crumbling effect of everything."
And Kimbo Slice, who declined to partake in this story, continued on. He eventually went on to compete on The Ultimate Fighter 10, the heavyweight edition, and brought big numbers to the enterprise. But he couldn’t sustain a career in MMA. He lost to Roy Nelson during the show, which was the highest rated exhibition bout in the history of "meaningless" exhibition bouts, but went 1-1 in the UFC officially. He won an abysmal decision over free-swinging brickhouse Houston Alexander, before getting knocked out by Matt Mitrione at UFC 113. His post-MMA boxing career has unfolded very quietly by comparison.
But on Oct. 4, 2008, Kimbo Slice was a new kind of star, as ruthless as Tyson and as big as Brock Lesnar.
"It really comes down to the right place at the right time," Ranallo says. "We talk about it already being the five-year anniversary, and yet you look at how technology changes exponentially -- daily, almost -- and nowadays ‘YouTube sensation?’ Big deal!
"But in those days it was a big deal. He kind of represented technology and the advance of technology colliding with our vintage form of media. Here we take an Internet superstar and put him on primetime network TV, and boom, a confluence came together. I think Kimbo Slice’s mystique was that, yeah, he represented this new, cool technology. The kids and everybody wants to jump on the next big thing, and I think for many of the younger demographic, he was like that video game come to life -- him and his underground videos. I really think that timing was everything. Kimbo should have been used to build something, not as the main ingredient."
And even five years later, for all the theatrics and hype that comes with carrying the weight of an industry on his shoulders to work every day, it still feels a little weird to think that Kimbo has a real name, Kevin Ferguson.