Who are we kidding? The biggest fight on Saturday’s Ultimate Fighter Finale isn’t the main event between up-and-comer Jon Jones and TUF vet Matt Hamill. Nor is it the series’ championship bout between Roy Nelson and ex-NFL player Brendan Schaub.
It’s the months-in-the-making, bottom-of-the-card clash between Houston Alexander and Kimbo Slice. And no disrespect to Alexander, but they could stick a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle in the cage with Slice and it would still be the primary reason to tune in.
Slice is one of the biggest names in MMA, a former strip club bouncer, Miami porn kingpin bodyguard and bareknuckle backyard brawler who rose to Youtube stardom knocking guys named Big Mac and Afro Puff senseless. The just-completed tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter was built and promoted entirely around the signing of Slice – they actually scrapped the middleweight and light heavyweight plans for the season at the eleventh hour, sending a lot of fighters home empty-handed – and it became the highest rated in the show’s history. The episode in which he fought – and lost decisively to the pot-bellied Kung Fu Panda called Roy Nelson – drew close to seven million viewers, making it the highest-rated show in Spike TV history by more than three million viewers.
So at a time when it feels like somebody’s using UFC heavyweight fighters as voodoo dolls, Slice’s stock is at an all-time high. He’s a bankable name at a time when the UFC is short-changed in that department thanks to illnesses and injuries. How ironic considering that a year ago, when Slice got knocked out in 14 seconds by a pink-haired punk 30 pounds lighter than him at an EliteXC event, UFC president Dana White called him an undisciplined street thug with no business being a professional fighter and now White’s relying on Slice to bring in business.
In fact, it didn’t much matter how Slice performed during TUF 10. There was no way that White was going to squander an opportunity to attract new fans to the UFC on Slice’s shouders. As a result, weekly fights aside, much of each episode was spent either teasing Slice’s possible return to the cage or taming the very same gold-toothed, gun-toting street thug image that White once mocked and ridiculed.
Remarkably, Slice was up to the challenge. He showed a lot of depth for a man who can punch out a small horse. He came across as a sensitive and spiritual family man who spouted fortune cookie philosophy (“the enemy is the inner me”) and Yogi Berra-style malapropisms (upon realizing he’d been losing weight, he noted, “I haven’t developed a good eating résumé”). More than that, he was portrayed as an up-by-his-bootstraps entrepreneur whose capital is that rare willingness to stand and trade brain-damaging blows with another human being, a Rocky for the Tapout crowd who was humble enough to recognize he still has a lot to learn about being a professional cagefighter (like what to do when he finds himself flat on his back). As Demico Rogers, one of Slice’s Ultimate Fighter housemates, described him, “he’s a giant, scary cage-fighting teddy bear.”
And that’s the sort of character the UFC needs right now while it waits for Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Gabriel Gonzaga and the rest of the heavyweight roster to heal up. Sure, Slice will probably never challenge for a UFC belt. He’s 35 and has a very limited skill set. But if he can get a win or two under his belt, thus giving him at least a little credibility as a UFC fighter, the promotion can use his name to create high-profile fights. Kimbo Slice versus Croation headhunter Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, whose career is in a bit of a skid, for example.
Of course, White probably has bigger things in mind. Slice’s bout with Alexander is being contested at a catchweight of 215 pounds, a strong indication that Slice will at some point make the transition from heavyweight down to the 205-pound class. This opens the door for fights with other big-name draws with little championship potential. You can already see the wheels spinning in Dana White’s head as he imagines pitting Slice against Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell.
Slice may not be the kind of fighter MMA purists enjoy watching – no skill, all kill – but every time he steps in the cage there’s Knockout of the Night potential. Somebody’s going out on a stretcher, and that’s something even the most casual fight fan will stop to watch, like rubbernecking a roadside accident.