What is the legacy of Kimbo Slices
Like Kimbo Slice and MMA, challenge our ideas about celebrities and humanity
Sudden death of the fighter and Ariel Helwani turmoil have presented the complex and compelling nature of the sport that is becoming more difficult to ignore
Summer 2009: A small group of reporters climbed a hidden staircase at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. While thousands of people milled around the UFC's first ever fan expo, we were up into a small room for a private audience with one of the most unlikely celebrities of our time.
Kimbo Slice was waiting for us.
We didn't know what to expect from a man, which we knew especially from hard-hitting fellow Floridians on YouTube. And we soon found out that he would play our expectations. When I asked if he'd carry a microphone so I could record the conversation, he growled, "No, man, I'm not into it," and looked away.
With perfect comedic timing, he ended the awkward silence. "It's all right," he said with a smile. "I'm just playin '." He picked up the microphone and charmed his way through the interview.
Kimbo Slice died on Monday the tragic coda a 72 hour span that showed MMA's best and worst. This is a sport that, in a perfect storm of new media and fickle public tastes, has challenged our ideas about celebrities and humanity.
Saturday's UFC 199 show would have been a perfect demonstration of MMA drama based solely on happenings in the cage. Dan Henderson, one of the early wave savvy wrestlers who gave up-and-coming sport credibility, braved his age (45) with an impressive knockout from fearsome fighter Hector Lombard. Then took Michael Bisping, a pioneering Englishman who rose to fame on UFC reality show The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC middleweight championship run by Luke Rockhold, who had beaten Bisping in 2014.
Bisping had long been a contender who couldn't quite break through losing several fights in which the winner was guaranteed anything but a title shot. The first was a loss to Henderson at the glitzy UFC 100 that coincided with that first fan expo in Mandalay Bay. Bisping had thrown on a USA V UK season of The Ultimate Fighter as the villain in this fight after feuding with Henderson. But on Saturday, he exulted in newfound respect after stepping in on short notice for the injured Chris Weidman and winning the UFC belt.
Even as Bisping began to celebrate a legacy-changing moment, talk had still shifted from the MMA world to outside the cage, where the UFC, a trio of journalists - Ariel Helwani, Esther Lin and E Casey Leydon - fought for the Helwani petty crime breaks news that pro wrestlers had kicked and former UFC champ Brock Lesnar would return to the cage.
Helwani, Lin and Leydon aren't the first journalists told the UFC has been lost for dubious reasons. Loretta Hunt and Guardian correspondent Josh Gross spent years carving careers without UFC credentials. But this step was still shocking. Helwani is the face of the MMA media, an ubiquitous, unwavering presence that Fox Sports, as well as the SB Nation website MMA Fights has worked on.
And Lin and Leydon, a photographer / videographer duo who were apparently evicted for an employer with Helwani, are well known in MMA circles for the view of humanity of these people having pain linked within a chain.
Helwani did a quick media tour for the next 36 hours, then broadcast his MMA lesson on YouTube to a tearful two hour retelling of the path he has taken in MMA journalism, revealing the tangled ethics of reporting on the sport. He does skillful interviews - a typical episode of the inaccurately named MMA hour, possibly four hours of in-depth conversations with eight or more fighters and other personalities in the sport - to lend credibility to Howard Cosell's MMA ambition. But he also chased bullets, tried to get tidbits of pre-match messages.
At one point along the Helwani path, he was technically on the UFC's payroll. Respective denomination sparked a new wave of backlash. On Sunday morning, Deadspin ran with the sympathetic headline "UFC throws reporters out of event, bans him for reporting news for life." According to Helwanis Show, the new post was "Blackballed MMA Reporter Admits He Was UFC Paid Shill."
It's a difficult situation. But it's awkward because who includes this sport. As long as UFC President Dana White casts in his eyes, reporters who have sinned, seek people who are still clouded in his favor. (That includes me during my three-year stint for MMA for USA Today, an organization white and company aggressively courted - then later claimed to have funded the paper UFC coverage.)
This vortex of accusations is at the center of the white self, which exemplifies the sport redefinitions of celebrity and humanity. He warmly greets fans of all kinds, especially veterans and someone with a disability struggling. In return, many fans adore him, with Q&A sessions at fan shows and other events on testimonies of faith that would make a television preacher blush.
With such activating it is not surprising that the white sometimes acts regardless of the consequences. A wild rant against Loretta Hunt in 2009 prompted the rarest of white acts - sorry - although he has now faltered trying to reconcile with hunting.
But white is far from being alone with the head of enabler and a sense of invincibility spun. Both of the sport's greatest stars in recent years, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, who had been raised with a lot of noise, found themselves in the cage after humiliating defeats. Holly Holm exposed Rousey to overconfidence, tearing the Olympic Judo Olympic Champion to pieces with skillful kickboxing and ending the fight with a devastating head kick. McGregor learned the hard way you just couldn't knock out any of the Diaz brothers, punching over the point of fatigue until Nate Diaz turned the tables and won with a choke.
McGregor and Diaz are ultimately on a rematch, but the path has been complicated by the three-way ego collision between the two fighters and White, who removed McGregor from the much-touted UFC 200 card since McGregor would fail to meet marketing obligations.
This is a far cry from the days when fighters easily gave reporters their own phone numbers. And it shows the difficulty knows and companies have in maintaining an iron grip on a sport that mainstream celebs-the latest has produced as Paige VanZant, runner-up on the final season of Dancing With The Stars.
As big as the sport is, a trivial incident can now cause an earthquake. Was it that important to Helwani that Brock Lesnar News reports a few hours before the UFC could make its own announcement? Maybe not. But it can't hurt either. If anything, the leak confirmed to Helwani talking just hours before the UFC.
Last night, the UFC announced Helwani, Lin and Leydon would be welcome back. And then shared that news in the spotlight along with shocking news that will join MMA warring parties in grief.
The irony of the Kimbo Slice as a uniter can't be understated. The YouTube video began feeling bouts with rival promotion EliteXC belittling stuck in coveted prime time network TV treatment the UFC gave its fighting credentials - with some justification, given EliteXC's unjustified hype of modestly qualified slices as legitimate world class talent. When I slice juxtaposition and wrote a story for USA Today with the growing UFC EliteXC, it sparked a polite but pointed call from the UFC PR staff.
But Slice Hearts convinced skeptics. Said he would have to go through The Ultimate Fighter to make it for the UFC, he agreed to live on the reality show Fishbowl, where he showed a warm heart and sense of humor. He even won a UFC fight before falling back to earth and embarking on a tortuous boxing career before returning to MMA with the UFC's greatest current rival, Bellator.
The often chatty white has only three tweets in the past 24 hours. Two are answers to the fans. One is a respectful picture of Kimbo wearing UFC gloves.
Mixed martial arts has struggled, with celebrities, making difficult moves into the mainstream. But the sport also has credibility by presenting humanity to these men and women beating, kicking and choking each other. The last 72 hours have shown that the sport in its purest and worst case its most shared and uniform, showing the complex and compelling nature of a sport that is getting harder to ignore.
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