AMERICANS OF A certain age - baby boomers and older - were conditioned to believe that the distilled essence of our national identity was everything good and wholesome, like, say, baseball and apple pie.
In the eighth year of the 21st century, even baseball, with its lingering taint of performance-enhancing drugs, no longer seems as unspoiled as it once was. And for many thrill-seeking U.S. citizens of Generations X and Y, the essence of entertainment often boils down to sex and violence.
Those two staples of modern culture will be amply displayed Saturday night, when history of sorts is made with CBS' first prime-time, over-the-air telecast of a burgeoning cultural phenomenon known as mixed martial arts.
Promoter Gary Shaw, the president of EliteXC Live Events, and CBS executives are trumpeting the event at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., as a signal that what had been widely regarded as a cult activity finally is ready to go mainstream.
CBS plans to air 2-hour telecasts of four cards each year under the terms of a multiyear agreement.
Five of the 12 bouts on Saturday's card will be televised, the main event of which pits "legendary" street fighter-turned-MMA headliner Kimbo Slice against a 6-5, 265-pound Briton named James "Colossus" Thompson. It's scheduled for three 5-minute rounds, but the likelihood is that the ending will be quick and emphatic.
"Kimbo's longest fight has been, like, 45 seconds," said Karyn Bryant, who will do cageside reporting as part of the CBS announcing team. "Anyone with a short attention span is going to have to check this out."
What first-time viewers are apt to experience is either a revulsion to the inordinately high violence quotient, or the vicarious, primal fascination that has made MMA possibly the hottest growth property among newer or nontraditional sports.
David Dinkins Jr., who will produce the landmark telecast after doing a series of MMA events for pay-cable Showtime, understands that the sport might not be for everyone.
"We are sensitive to the violence level," said Dinkins, son of the former New York mayor. "I think we are going to see how far we can go. We are usually able to take a lot of liberties on pay-per-view and Showtime. We don't want it to be too graphic and we don't want to turn people off, but we want to be true to the sport."
Depending upon whose opinion is being offered, MMA is either an art form that serves to define the limits of human capability, or an exercise in depravity once denounced by Sen. John McCain of Arizona as "human cockfighting."
CBS officials probably aren't disposed to make a public declaration as to which of those descriptions is closest to the truth, but the network of Edward R. Murrow might have tried anything within reason to pull in ratings on a night that has become TV's skid row.
"[MMA] is a sport, and it has violent elements," conceded Kelly Kahl, a CBS executive vice president in charge of scheduling. "So does football, so does hockey.
"But this is a sport that has a very strong fan base and attracts a terrific audience. We're putting it on Saturday nights, a night that has been underserved by all the networks for quite some time. So it's a low risk and a potentially large reward."
Kahl has called this the network's riskiest move since it launched the original "Survivor."
Even those who are heralding Saturday night's event as MMA's breakthrough to legitimacy scarcely attempt to deny certain elements of its allure.
Well, in the interest of good taste, Kimbo's attire will not be adorned with advertising patches for one of his principal backers, Reality Kings, which provides content for a number of pornographic sites on the Internet. Kimbo (real name: Kevin Ferguson) once served as a bodyguard for the adult production company when he wasn't pulverizing opponents for side bets in backyard battles that made him a YouTube sensation.
"We understand what's socially responsible," Shaw said of the decision to distance Kimbo from his association with the porn industry. "CBS has a standards and practices division."
Those standards and practices provide more than a little leeway when it comes to the exposed flesh of fighters of both sexes.
"I say this in jest a lot of times, but what woman wouldn't want to be at a job where you're around guys who are in perfect shape and mostly naked?" Bryant said.
"We also have Gina Carano, who's on 'American Gladiators' [where she's known as Crush]. She's a lovely girl, a sweetheart, and a helluva fighter. By highlighting her and Kaitlin [Young] in a female fight, you're going to have a lot of women who are going to understand that this is a sport for everybody."
But for those who mistakenly believe that MMA is a parade of Chippendale's dancers flexing their muscles with the occasional round kick thrown in for good measure, the blood being shed is very real.
In extolling the virtues of Kimbo, a 34-year-old father of six, blow-by-blow announcer Gus Johnson said, "He told me the other day when I was with him, 'Man, I really think I can go far in this sport. I want to get on the ground and break somebody's arm. I want to ground-and-pound somebody.' "
It is that ability to physically and psychologically intimidate other men that has stamped Kimbo as an updated Mike Tyson, and potentially MMA's biggest drawing card despite the fact he only has had two officially sanctioned matches.
"Jarrod, my son, made me watch some of Kimbo's fights on YouTube," Shaw said of the bearded, 6-2, 240-pound hulk. "I didn't know Kimbo Slice existed before then.
"When I saw him my first thought was that this was a pure heavyweight fighter. I watched the way he moved. He reminded me of Tyson. Like the young Tyson, he had natural head movement. He fought side-to-side and did things very naturally. I didn't think of him as a backyard or a street fighter. I thought he was a future heavyweight champion of the world."
But when Shaw, who also promotes boxing, learned that Kimbo was being tutored by veteran mixed martial artist Bas Rutten, he decided that his future might play out better in the cage than in the ring.
"I put two guys on a plane and sent them to Florida," Shaw said. "I said, 'Don't come back until you have Kimbo Slice's signature on a contract.'
"I didn't look at him as a caricature then and I don't now. I looked at him as a fighting machine I could turn into a superstar. He's got an on-off switch like Tyson. He can babysit your kids and be sweet, and he can be the guy you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley."
It's the dark-alley persona of Kimbo whose countenance is on the cover of this week's ESPN the Magazine, scowling menacingly enough to curdle milk.
Longtime MMA star Frank Shamrock, who has been fighting since 1993, is one of the color commentators for the telecast. He admits to feeling a twinge of jealousy over Kimbo's skyrocketing popularity.
"The human part of me feels a little slighted," he admitted. "But I'm a realist. We're in the business of sports entertainment. It's all about timing, being at the right place at the right time. Kimbo is coming along at the right time."
Martial arts, of course, have been around for centuries, with various disciplines developed in Asia and South America. But television wasn't around way back then, and many people these days refuse to believe anything unless they see it on TV.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the leading brand in the expanding world of MMA, and its president, Dana White, apparently is disinclined to cede any part of center stage to EliteXC or other sanctioning bodies.
In dismissing Kimbo as a media creation, White recently said that even one of his downsized mixed martial artists would whittle him down to size if they ever tangled.
"BJ Penn, at 155 pounds, would destroy Kimbo Slice," White said. "Kimbo Slice isn't anywhere near that type of level. He's not a real professional."
That drew the sort of indignant response from Shaw you might expect from Donald Trump dissing Rosie O'Donnell.
"Dana White's an idiot," Shaw fired back. "If he wasn't an idiot, May 31 would have been UFC [on CBS] instead of EliteXC."
Shaw is quick to cite statistics that purport to show that MMA is less dangerous than boxing, and that rules enacted in recent years to protect the fighters have made it significantly safer, but no less exciting.
It also has targeted the youthful demographic that boxing, with its aging fan base, is failing to attract.
"MMA is fast-paced. Boxing isn't, not always," Shaw said. "There is a huge difference. In the beginning, even I wasn't sure if I liked [MMA]. Now I love it."
The rapid rise of MMA is not unprecedented. Not too long ago, there were slacker teenagers goofing around on skateboards in convenience-store parking lots. With creative marketing and a bit of television exposure, some of those kids found themselves competing in something called the X Games and snagging lucrative endorsement deals.
Shaw dreams of a day when all of MMA's sanctioning bodies allow their fighters to square off against each other, for the betterment of the sport, under one set of rules. Then again, he has wanted the same thing from boxing, whose internecine squabbles involving the various alphabet organizations are a persistent source of irritation.
"We're trying to build MMA as a sport, not just EliteXC as a brand," Shaw said. "If we don't build MMA as a sport, the brand will not last.
"There are visionaries out there like Jay Larkin from the IFL and Scott Coker from Strikeforce who see the benefit to MMA if all the organizations have their fighters fighting one another. I'm not sure if UFC ever will agree to that." *