One brief moment during Elite XC's second installment of Saturday Night Fights on CBSencapsulated the plight of the new promotion: UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva flashed across the screen.
The CBS commentators quickly began singing his praises, first as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter, and then as simply the best 185-pounder.
While the commentators were right on both counts, the point is that the incident happened while Elite XC's middleweight title was up for grabs. When RobbieLawler defeated Scott Smith to retain the belt in front of the best middleweight in the world, it was hard not to wonder what the belt around the new champion's waist is really worth.
It's not that Elite XC didn't put on a good show, or that it doesn't have good fighters. In fact, its second offering was a significant improvement from the first, addressing all the complaints from hardcore fans. But it doesn't change the fact that Elite XC put three titles on the line during a free, prime-time show and was still flattened in the ratings game. Its competition: the always formidable Cops/America's Most Wanted combo. What's more, Elite XC sold less than 3,000 tickets in the mixed martial arts-friendly California.
The ironic July 26 event highlights the precarious position of MMA when it comes to mainstream acceptance. Elite XC served up Lawler, Jake Shields and Nick Diaz -- all high-level fighters, though none at the top spot in their division -- and got a response that was lukewarm at best. But, on May 31, when the promotion featured Kimbo Slice in a fight that was, ultimately, meaningless for the heavyweight division as a whole, the event turned in better-than-expected ratings.
What's an upstart fight promotion to do?
Throw Kimbo back in there. Add a little Gina Carano. And, then, just hope for the best. Without the Anderson Silvas (UFC) or Fedor Emelianenkos (Affliction), it might as well get used to being in third place.
If pop music and reality TV have taught us anything it's that mainstream popularity doesn't equate to quality programming. Rather, "mainstream" has often become synonymous with "watered down." Appealing to the masses is an issue MMA fans have to remember when they pine for acceptance of their beloved sport.
It's a tough line to walk for Elite XC. It's trying to make a big-time product without big-time fighters, so it's forced to settle for big-draw fighters -- no matter if it appeals to the hardcore base or not.
It simply can't, and never will be able to, please everyone. Eventually, the promotion is going to have to choose between the loyal MMA diehards, who knew Lawler long before he went prime-time, and its CBS executives, who look at ratings first and the sport's quality second.
Unfortunately, the choice seems all too obvious. Survival is too powerful an instinct to ignore.