Josh Gross
Friday May 30th, 2008

NEW YORK -- June 2002. In just his sixth appearance as a professional mixed martial artist, Robbie Lawler, a 20-year-old who fancied himself the sport's Manassa Mauler, was cast in MMA's brightest spotlight: Fox Sports Net's free MMA telecast.

Heralded at the time as a watershed moment for a sport attempting to claw its way out of the shadows, the event didn't dissuade the young Lawler from treating his opponent, Steve Berger like his personal punching bag.

Trading shot for shot was a hallmark of Lawler's early fights, and it's the reason he was put in showcase positions other fighters could only dream about. To this day, Lawler's welterweight contest, and Ultimate Fighting Championship debut, against Aaron Riley remains one of the most thrilling battles in the league's history.

That hard-charging teenager UFC officials recognized in Lawler is the same mid-20s fighter EliteXC reps see today -- an unadulterated striker who rarely disappoints. And on May 31, the matured fighter -- one capable of recognizing a moment while still brushing the pressure aside with ease -- has a second chance to shine in front of an uninitiated audience.

On Thursday, while reporters peppered Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson, the event's "franchise fighter," (as promoter Gary Shaw labeled him) with questions, the always understated middleweight title-holder happily leaned back in his chair. After all, though Slice may be the face of the promotion's move into mainstream, Lawler's the only ranked brawler on the card. His reaction to the imbalance of attention, as some may claim: a shrug of his broad shoulders.

"I've been here, done that," Lawler smiled.

Technically, though, he hasn't. No mixed martial artist has. MMA in primetime, like UFC's stint on FSN, will be remembered as a seminal moment for the fighting sport. And it's no coincidence that Lawler, a hard-punching southpaw with a penchant for knockout victories, will be associated with both events.

"A fight's a fight," he said. "If it's game seven and I need to hit a free throw, what's the difference between shooting a free throw with no one there or everyone there? You go through the same movements. Everything is the same. So I want to be in this position. I want to be in the spotlight."

Yet, there's an important distinction to make: in Lawler's world "spotlight" doesn't translate to "stardom." If the money comes, great, but the 26-year-old has always wanted wins and wars. Most anticipate he'll find both Saturday against Scott Smith, whose record stands at 13-4 and Lawler considers a "really big 185-pounder with powerful hands."

Smith, too, has had his share of highlights. With a heavy right hand, he used his weapon in a dramatic fashion to get around Pete Sell during Smith's stretch in the UFC, as well as to knock out Australia's Kyle Noke in February. The Noke victory landed him in the coveted, title-contending match against Lawler.

Half a decade ago, Smith might've been able to capitalize on Lawler's ruthless-bordering-on-recklessness style, but nowadays, chances are slim. Lawler has proved time and again that a performance with strikes that don't produce knockout blows cannot be considered sub-par.

Hype gives way to actual fights. Pressure, power, patience, footwork and ruse -- all were traits that made Jack Dempsey great. And, as Lawler came to realize, there's no reason he should try to be any different.

Forget the magazine covers and front-page stories. Forget the incredibly premature -- and embarrassing -- comparisons to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson (lest we not forget these men earned their reputations by being dominant champions, not just the product of a marketing machine).

Kimbo Slice must stop James Thompson Saturday. Otherwise, anyone who was willing to give him a shot would be justified in never paying attention to the heavyweight project again.

So how does Slice go about keeping us captivated?

"Just go in to see if he can knock him out," the heavyweight's trainer Bas Rutten said. "That's the game plan here."

Undeniable at this point is Slice's raw punching power that, even for the heavy-handed Rutten, has brought on some nervous laughs as Slice pounded out rounds on a heavy bag in their Thousand Oaks, Calif., gym.

"I really worked on his footwork, rotating his body to make his punches longer," Rutten said. "He already has a good reach, but now he's got even a better reach. We made him stand a little more square. He can take a hit. He wasn't afraid. All those things are working really good together."

Thompson, carrying what many believe to be a weak chin into the fight after losing six of eight fights -- five by knockout -- since 2006, admits it feels like he's been set up to lose. And the 29-year-old Brit is just now starting to get annoyed that most people consider it a "forgone conclusion that Kimbo's going to [defeat me]."

"But I just have to keep remembering that Saturday is my time. After Saturday, we'll see then," he added. "They don't want to put [Slice] against anyone that [will defeat him]. Unfortunately for them, they got it wrong."

Thompson lacks the skills of a good wrestler as shown in his last outing against Brett Rogers, against whom the veteran brawler admitted he was too intent on getting a takedown.

"I don't want to have a three-round, stand-up war with Kimbo," Thompson said. "At some point, if the opportunity is there, I will take him down. But at the same time, I'm not going to be overly concerned."

While admitting he liked the physical matchup for his guy, Rutten conceded that Thompson can present problems for Slice.

"Thompson being taller is going to work to our advantage because it's more difficult to work for a takedown," he said. "He's going to have to come all the way down. It's way worse to fight a short, stocky guy who's really fast with takedowns."

As Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers ended the San Antonio Spurs' run for another NBA title Thursday, CBS and EliteXC were ensured they wouldn't have to compete with the NBA's Western Conference Finals for viewers. With the event slated to start an hour after the 8 p.m. ET slot had the Spurs won, EliteXC now stands alone for any sports fan willing to watch Saturday.

As of Thursday, approximately 7,000 seats were sold for the event -- a smaller-than-expected number Shaw blamed on the card's availability on prime-time TV -- but the total credentialed media has provided anything but a weak stat. According to Shaw, the tally topped 140 members, rivaling the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis heavyweight boxing match in 2002. UFC 83 in Montreal handed out roughly 120 credentials.

Ad sales have also sold-out with rumors that Miller Brewing Company and Burger King were among the players to purchase spots. Reports surfaced earlier in the week that some CBS affiliates would not be airing the card as scheduled, but Shaw said it would run as planned in 96 percent of available CBS-affiliate households, including all major markets. Kelly Kahl, CBS Primetime's senior executive vice president, told SI.com that some markets were pre-empted by previously sold time, but those affiliates would offer replays of the card.

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