The latest reports say just over six million viewers tuned in on Saturday night to watch the sport of mixed martial arts' live debut on network television. That means that despite the fact "EliteXC: Primetime," ran over by nearly 45 minutes and included a dearth of compelling bouts, CBS will likely stick around for at least one more show with the fledgling fight company.
It is believed to be the largest American audience to watch an event of the fast-growing sport that fuses disciplines like boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu into one diverse and dynamic package. That's really too bad, considering those six million sets of eyes would've been better served had they been trained elsewhere. The people who got stuck sitting through "Internet sensation," Kevin "Kimbo Slice," Ferguson's terrible fight with professional tomato can James Thompson essentially got duped into watching the wrong MMA show this weekend.
One night after Slice and Thompson flopped around the EliteXC cage like a couple of winded amateurs having their first fight, a different pair of highly trained and experienced mixed martial artists put on what may prove to be the bout of the year on the Versus cable network.
In a show where the Nielsen rating probably didn't crest 1.0, world featherweight champion Urijah Faber defeated challenger Jens Pulver by unanimous decision after five rounds of non-stop action and technical know-how in front of 12,682 live fans at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
Unlike sluggish heavyweight behemoths Slice and Thompson, Faber and Pulver showed off a sharp array of skills that were more sweet science than backyard brawl. The accomplished collegiate wrestler (Faber) and the wily striker (Pulver) engaged in a back-and-forth stand-up battle where the younger, quicker champion eventually emerged as the better fighter.
It was Faber's 13th victory in a row. The all-time wins leader and former assistant coach of the UC Davis wrestling team may well be the sport's next great star, however neither he nor Pulver earned $50,000 for their efforts over the weekend.
That could be because in a sports culture obsessed with heavyweights, these two stand barely five-and-a-half feet tall and each weighed in for their title match at 145 pounds. It could be because the public has been told to expect copious amounts of blood and brutality from MMA and so it hungers to see heavy-swinging headhunters fight in a cage rather than more nuanced strategists.
Or it could be because nobody outside of the hardcore fans of the sport knew they were fighting. Faber and Pulver pulled off their bout in relative anonymity, without the benefit of the full time media hype machine that fueled the debacle of Slice vs. Thompson.
Commercials featuring Slice have been in heavy rotation for a few months, making EliteXC's debut on CBS the channel's most hyped sporting event since the Masters and, before that, probably the Final Four.
The inexperienced and overexposed heavyweight has also become a minor hit on the late night talk show circuit, graced the cover of ESPN the Magazine last week and was a presenter at the recent Country Music Awards. Reports say he made six figures for taking out Thompson via questionable referee stoppage. Not bad for a guy who's never actually fought anyone of substance.
Still, in spite of - or maybe because of - the success Slice has seen, EliteXC and the sport itself still fight for acceptance. To give you an example of how this weekend's show rated here, Missoula's CBS affiliate chose to tape delay the event until 11 p.m. in favor of a local telethon.
What happens to the future of EliteXC's relationship with CBS remains to be seen. There was some dissension among network bigwigs over getting in bed with MMA, but the decision gave the company a significant bump from its recent Saturday night ratings, particularly among young males.
If those people stick around for a second show is obviously unknown. But if promoters are serious about capturing an audience and keeping it in the long term, it would be advisable for them to stop shining the spotlight on lackluster fighters like Kimbo Slice and start putting a lot more stock in men like Urijah Faber.
Sports writer Chad Dundas can be reached at 523-5361 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.