Purity doesn't own a monopoly on sport's best moments. On thankfully rare occasions, absurdity can do an equally wonderful job reminding us what greatness looks like.
Twice, live in primetime on CBS, an infamous street fighter from Miami made famous via YouTube provided mixed martial arts a check on itself. Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson wasn't very good. He admittedly possessed limited skill, not that his promoter, ProElite, cared. Slice invited controversy and brought eyeballs. He was, as it eventually came to pass on Oct. 4, the eggs to ProElite's broken basket.
With a pouring tropical rain battering the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla., Slice was again the focus. He said all the right things. Brought in all the right people. He trained. He worked. Really, he wasn't so different from thousands of fighters who took to a cage or ring in 2008.
But with the value added of spectacle and hype and celebrity, Slice came to represent the best and worst things about the emerging combat sport. That any fighter could captivate the public and receive big-money endorsements was terrific. That it took a man who didn't even consider himself a mixed martial artist was not.
It would be easy to define '08 as the year a once underground, misunderstood, ugly, violent enterprise blossomed. It would be easy because it's true. But beyond the reality of a sporting spectacle now rightly regarded as more sport than spectacle, this was the year when "Are you watching the fight this weekend?" referred more often to MMA than boxing in North America.
Slice was a major reason.
More people tuned in to watch him fight Ken Shamrock than had ever seen a MMA bout before. Some six million. Though their disappointment soon came when the 44-year-old Shamrock -- 3-8 since 2000 and loser of his last five fights -- was cut above his left eye hours before the fight. He needed stitches and the main event was scrapped. ProElite and CBS executives scrambled to save Slice's fight. He was the attraction, the reason Floridians were in the arena, and why many watched at home. Anyone with a pulse would have sufficed.
They settled on Seth Petruzelli, a light heavyweight set to appear in an off-TV bout earlier in the evening. After a good deal of bartering, the fight was signed. Florida State Athletic Commission officials signed off, and the evening appeared saved.
That all this happened on network television was painfully hilarious. That a short punch to the chin from a man facing a 30-pound weight disadvantage put Slice down at the 14-second mark was too much to comprehend. That days later Petruzelli ignited the biggest controversy of the year and marked the beginning of the end for ProElite by claiming promoters paid him to stand with Slice was jaw-dropping. (Florida commission officials exonerated Slice, Petruzelli and the event promoters of any wrongdoing.) That anyone cared about the whole episode was a disservice to fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre.
That we see the truth is a testament to the absurdity of the moment.