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Prime-time brawling

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Video of Kimbo Slice and his jaw-crushing fists for years was confined to the Internet. That's about to change, but not everyone thinks America is ready for the bearded, burly brawler or his sport.

Today, CBS will televise a prime-time mixed martial arts event - the first broadcast to such a wide audience. The bouts represent - depending on whom you ask - either the arrival of mixed martial arts (MMA) as a legitimate top-tier sport or just an unwanted glorification of violence.

"There are a bunch of smart, progressive thinkers over there at CBS who see the sport for what it is, which is an exciting sport, a real, viable sport and a growing sport," said Doug DeLuca, executive chairman of ProElite, the promoter of EliteXC and a half-dozen other MMA events. "Kimbo brings star appeal. He could be the Mike Tyson of the sport - and for all the good reasons. He is the biggest star in MMA today, and on June 1 Kimbo Slice will be a superstar."

The first of four "Elite XC Saturday Night Fights" will debut tonight on CBS with Slice - real name Kevin Ferguson - who became an Internet sensation as an underground street fighter. He made his debut in MMA last year by beating former heavyweight boxing champion Ray Mercer, then followed with a win in February over veteran David "Tank" Abbott.

In MMA events, two opponents square off in a padded cage or octagon and fight using a combination of punches, kicks and wrestling moves. A winner is declared when someone is knocked out, surrenders voluntarily or when a referee steps in. The sport has drawn heavy criticism for its violent, often bloody nature. But supporters also tout a high level of athleticism, strategy and technique employed by the fighters.

CBS plans to show at least four two-hour Elite XC events between now and March and holds options to show more. Similar events have aired on Showtime, a premium cable network owned by CBS. Today's event features Slice against British heavyweight James Thompson and three other fights, including an all-female battle between Kaitlin Young and "American Gladiators" competitor Gina Carano.

Meanwhile, a debate rages about MMA's place among established sports - TV analysts note that the event is produced by CBS Primetime, not CBS Sports - but no one disputes that it has grown quickly in popularity.

Pay-per-view MMA events routinely pull in more than $10 million in gross revenue, and fights are some of the highest-rated events on basic cable stations, including Spike TV and Versus. Recent Web traffic statistics show that nearly as many people visit the official Web site of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the dominant MMA league, than that of the National Hockey League. UFC is expected to top $250 million in revenue this year, according to Forbes magazine, and some analysts value the league at more than $1 billion.

But until now, broadcast networks stayed away, wary of the sport's violent aspects.

"We're always looking for new types of programming," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive president of CBS Primetime. "Like a lot of people, we looked at this with skepticism as well. But we started doing some research and peeled off the layers of the onion and found there's a real sport here.

"Yes, it's a violent sport. But they've shown boxing for years on TV. We've shown the NFL every week."

MMA over the years has drawn the attention of lawmakers and state regulators who objected to its violent nature. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and presidential candidate, led a campaign to keep the sport off pay-per-view networks for several years.

Most leagues, including the dominant Ultimate Fighting Championship, instituted new rules to decrease the chances of serious injuries among fighters. Supporters of the sport now say that winning an event requires an athlete to be not only tough, but well-versed in technique and strategy.

But to some observers - CBS's top executive included - the move to prime-time television is troubling.

At a conference last month, network Chairman Sumner Redstone said he opposed the decision of CBS executives to air the EliteXC events and was not consulted about the plan.

"I wouldn't be in favor of this kind of sport, where people can actually get hurt," Mr. Redstone said at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles. "You have to know the difference between the bottom line and your social responsibility. This may be good for the bottom line. It's bad for social responsibility."

At the same conference, Fox Sports President Ed Goren said it was unlikely his network would air MMA events.

"We don't need the money that badly," Mr. Goren said. "I know it has a following, it has a young demo, but we'll leave it to others and I don't anticipate us getting involved."

A spokeswoman for the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan group that has monitored violence on television, said it plans to watch the broadcast closely.

"I think this is entirely different in nature than football and that ilk," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for council. "It's intensely, intensely violent. There's always concern about kids being exposed to those kinds of things."

However, Ms. Henson said her group has not contacted CBS or ProElite because it has generally focused on reducing violence in scripted television, not live sports.

The growing popularity of MMA, particularly among young men, suggests that CBS could earn big ratings for its fights. And the financial risk for CBS appears to be minimal - the network isn't paying any rights fees.

"They don't have to pay very much, it doesn't cost a lot to produce and if it's successful, it will be hugely profitable," said Andrew Bergstein, associate director of the Center for Sports Business Research at Penn State University. "And if it's successful and it gets renewed, that's an indication that [MMA] is up in the big leagues."

But there are some things working against CBS. Saturday night programming generally doesn't earn big ratings. And ProElite is considered a struggling, second-tier fight league, well behind UFC; recent financial filings show the company has lost more than $5 million this year alone. Meanwhile, some advertisers are expected to stay away to avoid controversy.

Still, according to TV analysts, the prime-time platform presents the potential for MMA to truly break out as a mainstream sport.

"There really is no reason they can't become the next NASCAR," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Not that I'm betting my retirement on it, but it's certainly possible."

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