(Photo by Ben Watts for ESPN The Magazine. Click image for full-size version)
With the newest issue of the “ESPN Body Issue” set to hit shelves today – featuring none other than UFC contender (by convenience) Miesha Tate – we decided to take look back at memorable publicity stunts from other MMA fighters. Some were one-time incidents, some were entire careers, and one actually managed to be both. Read on for our picks, and please continue to send your ideas for future Roundtable topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There was a time when Kimbo Slice was the most popular MMA fighter in the world. That’s not hyperbole. There are actual numbers to back this up.
After Kevin Ferguson — Kimbo’s real name, in case you’ve forgotten — became an Internet legend fighting in backyards, boatyards, and basements, the bare-knuckle brawler decided to go legit and fight in steel cages instead. Kimbo’s first MMA exhibition in June 2007 was a classic freak show against boxer Ray Mercer, which Slice won by guillotine choke in just over a minute. After that, it was a career-defining 12 months in Gary Shaw’s utterly shameless EliteXC outfit, where Kimbo picked up three consecutive wins against Bo Cantrell (who put up no resistance whatsoever), Tank Abbott (a old-school relic just there to pay off his bar tabs), and James Thompson (who was slapped with a standing-TKO loss only because his ear was about to fall off).
The fight against Thompson smashed American viewership records for MMA. Kimbo was an organic phenomenon who touched multiple groups of fight fans — from the YouTube noobs who were genuinely convinced that Slice was the baddest man in the world, to the skeptical MMA fans who were just waiting for the Miami Pound Machine to be humbled by an opponent who could actually fight. No matter what you thought of Kimbo, you watched those fights. Admit it, you did.
Despite his eerie ability to draw a crowd, Kimbo’s reputation as a fighter never rose beyond the level of “oddity,” and when he was knocked out by a back-pedaling Seth Petruzelli in October 2008 — the bizarre aftermath of which contributed to the demise of EliteXC — it seemed like the name “Kimbo” would fade away into MMA lore.
So it came as a bit of a shock when Kimbo Slice was signed to the UFC in June 2009, as part of the all-heavyweight cast of The Ultimate Fighter’s 10th season. What made the signing particularly unexpected was that UFC president Dana White had publicly trashed Kimbo as a street-fighter who would get murdered in the UFC. Of course, that was back when Kimbo was making money for another promoter. As soon as Slice became a Zuffa-controlled asset, White did his best to spin the narrative, and suddenly, Kimbo was a real fighter who White respects, and maybe he’ll surprise everybody by winning the whole thing?
Wisely, the UFC did away with elimination fights for The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights, guaranteeing that Kimbo would be living in the house for the entire 11-episode run. But if viewers expected entertainment-value from Slice, they would soon be given a harsh reality check. To get a sense of how over-hyped Kimbo’s stint on TUF 10 was, just watch this “TUF’s Top Ten Kimbo Moments” highlight reel:
Seriously, that’s the best footage they could find. #8 is Kimbo dodging out of the way as Rampage Jackson pretends to be a bull. #7 is Kimbo turning down a fight. The only action he actually saw was a lopsided defeat at the hands of Roy Nelson — a fight that confirmed our expectations about how far Kimbo could actually go in this sport — and a dull decision win over Houston Alexander at the TUF 10 Finale. (Kimbo would be booted from the UFC after a follow-up TKO loss to Matt Mitrione.)
But as transparent and absurd as this publicity stunt was, it was an unqualified success. TUF 10’s debut episode took in over 4 million viewers, while episode three, featuring Kimbo’s fight against Nelson, hit a series high of 5.3 million; that number ballooned to 7.25 million when DVR viewing was accounted for. Every episode drew 2.4 million viewers or higher.
To put that in perspective: Brock Lesnar could only pull 1.5 million sets of eyeballs on his best day during his TUF 13 coaching stint, and the same was true of TUF 17’s desperation-booking between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz cracked 2 million viewers for the 4th episode of TUF 11, but never did better than that.
Maybe that’s an unfair comparison, and not just because Kimbo Slice’s TUF season was broadcast on Spike, while Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen had the misfortune of being on FX. The history of The Ultimate Fighter has proven that superstar coaches don’t really move the needle. But having a compelling fighter on the show gives viewers a real reason to tune in, and for reasons that are still baffling to some, Kimbo Slice was massively compelling to fight fans for a brief moment in history. The numbers speak for themselves.
And some nights, if the wind is up and the moon is full, you can still hear his voice echoing across the bungalows of Miami, the triumphant bellow of a man who came, cashed in, and left, a voice as hard and shining as a fist dipped in gold:
In the interests of full disclosure: I’m a real asshole to Tim Sylvia. But just like the emotionally abusive boyfriend who reminds his baby love of those five extra pounds, I’m only doing it because I love him (the big lard-o).
And Tim Sylvia makes it so, so hard to love him. There is no one – NO ONE – who will go to the lengths that Timmeh has to embarrass themselves. Other fighters may have tried a publicity stunt for a bump in attention, the Maine-iac could write a book: Staying In the Public Eye (And Giving It Conjunctivitis).
It’s important to remember that Sylvia started his career with 16 straight wins and a UFC belt, with his first loss coming via Herb Dean freakout – an invalid result that shouldn’t even count, but whatever. Was Tim proud? Brother, this guy never took his belt off. But even when he was the UFC’s official Baddest Man on the Planet ™, his publicity was hilariously incongruent with his dayjob’s badassery. When Dana thought that having a few fighters appear on reality dating show Blind Date would be a good publicity stunt, Timmy was happy to play along. Unfortunately, his 22 year old date prospect quickly found Sylvia’s weakness: a tolerance for alcohol that falls somewhere between Taylor Swift and Mr Miyagi. Whoopsie? ( In case you haven’t seen it, click here [you’re welcome]).
But hey, mistakes happen, right? Of course they do. But Sylvia would pinball from one embarrassing story to the next. As if hearing that Tim kept his belt on during sex didn’t do enough for the world’s stock of Brain Bleach, there’s also the story about him picking up Andrei Arlovski’s sloppy seconds. And hey, playa, do you, get some, whatever, but Arlovski sent Sylvia to the burn unit with his immortal quote about tasting Andrei’s big pee pee, and it still smells like burnt hair and pork marinated in Old Spice in here.
And when the wheels fell off for Tim, they rolled in four separate directions, as if mocking Sylvia’s lack of agility and speed. After losing his Precious to Randy Couture at UFC 68 and an interim shot against Big Nog at UFC 81, Sylvia faced off with Fedor under the Affliction banner (Affliction itself being the publicity stunt, in this case, just not necessarily Tim’s publicity stunt). Sylvia got man-handled, losing the stand-up fight, the grappling exchange, and the whole shebang in just 36 seconds. (I mean damn, son – the Browns hold it together longer than that.)
Tim drowned his sorrows in meditation and determined training in the mountains of Tibet. LOL J/K I MEANT HAAGEN-DASZ . Tim showed up for his next
publicity stunt fight at 310 pounds for a fight with 48-year old retired boxer Ray Mercer. Funny thing: taking a former world champ/Olympic gold medalist lightly will get your lights turned out, because Sylvia got merc’ed in just nine (9) seconds. For perspective, it takes longer to say “Tim Sylvia got knocked out by Ray Mercer and I was embarrassed watching it” than it actually took to watch it happen, which is why no one talks about that fight, ever. Ray Mercer promptly retired (again), and probably still laughs his balls off everytime he sees that match in GIF form.
Tim has struggled with his weight ever since, even though he’s tried (and tried, and tried some more) to get back down to his old fighting shape, which, for the record, was pear. He’s still working, though, and keeping that dream alive of making it back to fight for the UFC again. But despite all his work and support on Twitter (I’m so sorry, Tim), the UFC continues to not blow up his cell phone. It’s almost like his publicity is working against him.
There are far better and worse examples of fighters attempting to use publicity to their advantage, but as history will prove, none more memorable than the career of Brock Lesnar. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been known to shit on Lesnar over the years, possibly a tad unjustly. The fact is that numbers don’t lie, and Lesnar did apparently put asses in seats. Which begs the question, why?
From 2000 till 2007 Lesnar made his living in the esteemed profession of professional wrestling. At some point during 2007 the genetically gifted athlete decided to try his hand at MMA, and what followed can only be described as…interesting (Note: I’ve decided to try and not be such an asshole, so bear with me on my choice in wording). Professional Wrestling fans jumped at this chance to prove once and for all that there is a lot more to their beloved sport than just acting. On the other hand MMA fans saw this as an opportunity to show the world that there is no place for pro wrestlers in real, sanctioned fights. While both sides were busy arguing for their respective sport, the head honchos at Zuffa were trying their best to conceal a raging money boner. At least until it was time to promote Brock.
Everyone was jumping on the Brock bandwagon in one form or another. Hell, we here at Cage Potato ran 10 separate articles on the guy before his first UFC fight. Let me put that in perspective. One MMA site runs ten articles on a 1-0 fighter that’s making his UFC debut. Multiply that by how many other MMA news outlets ran stories (10 times something…carry the one…shit, I don’t math good) and you get an idea of how much energy Zuffa was putting into promoting the unstoppable beast that is Lesnar.
Fast forward to today and you can clearly see the results of said promotion. There is still talk of a “superfight” between Lesnar and Fedor. Randy Coutre, among many others, think Brock deserves a spot in the hall of fame. And if you ask Google Brock is clearly the baddest man on the planet. Now would be the point where I remind you that this is a retired 5-3 professional wrestler we are talking about.
So say what you will about Brock Lesnar *cough* way fucking overrated *cough*, but the evidence is all there. Brock Lesnar is, was, and god willing will always be the most memorable publicity stunt in MMA history.
*approaches podium with microphone in hand, clears throat*
The Ultimate Fighting Championship paid James Toney $500,000 for a fight against Randy Couture that he didn’t even pretend to take seriously at UFC 118, which garnered a feeble 570,000 PPV buys. I rest my case.
*drops mic, walks off stage as a slow clap starts*
While one could at least make the case that the boxing career of Eric “Butterbean” Esch contained the slightest semblance of merit – to this day, his record stands at 77-9-4 (and you don’t need to look any further into it than that) and he was the one time WBA Super Heavyweight champion – to claim that Butterbean’s MMA career was anything more than a sad, albeit memorable running gag would be a crime punishable by Scaphism. In fact, until Steven Seagal reemerged from his particular realm of B-movie hell to become Anderson Silva’s Sensei, it’s safe to say that Butterbean was perhaps the biggest in-joke in the sport’s short history – a 400+ pound, tortoise of a man who has tapped to strikes on nearly as many occasions as Bob Sapp, who he was coincidentally trounced by in a sumo match.
Look, everyone from Peter McNeeley to Johnny Knoxville will tell you that Butterbean possesses some solid boxing skills and hits like a Mac Truck to boot. But as was the case with James “Kele Calamari Express” Toney, a good boxer does not a good MMA fighter make. The fact that Butterbean’s first foray into the world of mixed martial arts was against the 155-pound Genki Sudo, whom he lost to by second round cankle hook, should have told us all we needed to know about where his career was headed. The man literally lacks the ability to get to his feet once placed on his back, and you allow him to compete in a sport that is 50% ground fighting? Yeah, I’m really looking forward to Kyle Maynard’s upcoming run on the PGA tour as well. Hear he’s got a great short game.
Does anyone honestly think it was a coincidence that Butterbean fought Zuluzinho at what would be PRIDE’s final event? You ignorant sluts. Butterbean was the kind of freak show publicity stunt that finally backfired on the Japanese, resulting in the death of one of the greatest MMA promotions to ever exist. Butterbean would have a similar effect on the woefully misguided YAMMA pit fighting promotion almost a year to the day later, when he fought Patrick Smith in what would go down in the history books as an American tragedy on par with the USS Indianapolis.
Of all the embarrassing, not to mention brutal knockouts in the MMA career of James Thompson, I imagine that his loss to Butterbean at Cage Rage 20 is the first thing he thinks of every morning and is the sole reason he cries himself to sleep every night. Minowaman *dropkicked* Butterbean’s fat ass and armbarred him within a round, yet Thompson is forced to attend hypnosis classes every single day to try and erase the memory of the time he was KO’d by Portly McT-RexArms. That is some kind of hell I don’t even want to imagine.
Butterbean’s last MMA fight (for now) took place in October of 2011, with Esch tapping to strikes in under a minute, go figure. Worse than that? He lost to a guy named Sandy. Sandy. There is no recovering from that.
Pfft. I’m about to end y’all’s whole careers with my pick.