by Jeff Cain – MMAWeekly.com
Elite XC emerged on the mixed martial arts scene with a bang in late 2006 announcing a partnership with Showtime Network Inc. and put on their first event on Feb. 10, 2007 headlined by Frank Shamrock and Renzo Gracie, two legends in the sport. Nearly a year to the day later on Feb. 27, 2008, the news broke that Elite XC had reached an agreement with CBS to air mixed martial arts events in a prime time television slot on a major American network.
Shock waves tore through the mixed martial arts community. An organization a year old had landed the coveted network television deal in prime time.
Powered by the stardom of Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Gina “Crush” Carano, Elite XC went live on CBS on May 31. And the audience that tuned in made it the most watched mixed martial arts event in the sports’ short history. Elite XC was riding high headed into 2008, but the ride would be short lived. Two events and a mountain of debt later, Elite XC would cease operations on Oct. 20, 2008.
While Elite XC proved to be a flash in the pan organization, they did build some stars, give fighters an enormous audience and put a much needed spotlight on women’s mixed martial arts.
ELITE XC ANNOUNCES DEAL WITH CBS
Elite XC announced a deal with CBS becoming the first mixed martial arts promotion be air in prime time on a major American television network. The deal was struck Feb. 27. The Ultimate Fighting Championship had reportedly been in talks with CBS as well, but was unable to come to an agreement. Most sources indicated that the UFC’s reluctance to give up control of the production of its events was a major reason that they did not come to a deal.
“This is a pivotal moment for the sport of mixed martial arts now that a major television network plans to broadcast live MMA events during prime time hours,” said Douglas DeLuca, Chief Executive Officer of ProElite at the time. ” The network television agreement with CBS is an important milestone for ProElite as we continue to implement our growth strategy and develop existing relationships with our international partners.”
“Our world-class fighters and the high production value of our events continue to drive ProElite as a global MMA organization that is fortified by the bedrock foundation of a partnership with CBS,” said Gary Shaw, the then President of EliteXC. “Broadcasting our events on CBS will instantly engage a new fan base, as well as provide an opportunity for EliteXC to further establish itself as the world’s premier MMA organization.”
The first event aired on CBS on May 31 and garnered excellent ratings but left a sour taste in the mouths of many tuning in with a controversial ending to the main event featuring “Kimbo Slice” and James Thompson, and a no contest rendered in the co-main event between Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith. Gina Carano stole the show with her TKO stoppage of Katlin Young.
THE RISE OF GINA CARANO AND WOMEN’S MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
Women’s mixed martial arts was on the fringes of the sport, appealing to it’s niche audience until Elite XC put it on the main stage with Showtime and then on CBS. Was America ready for female fighting? The risk was great, but Carano delivered and America answered with a resounding yes. While women’s mixed martial arts has a storied history, Elite XC brought it out of the regional promotions and gave it national attention driven by Gina Carano, her fighting style, contagious smile and ability to win fights.
After her performance against Kaitlin Young in Elite XC’s debut on CBS, Carnao rose to the top of Internet search engines. She had a strong following from her fights that aired on Showtime and her role on American Gladiators, but the exposure of CBS propelled her status into super stardom. During Elite XC’s final event on Oct. 4, the rating peaked during the Carano and Kelly Kobald fight. They plunged after the women left and former UFC heavyweight titleholder Andrei Arlovski and Roy Nelson made their way to the cage.
What Elite XC did for women’s mixed martial arts will probably go down as their greatest contribution to the sport. Millions of households were seeing it for the first time and it’s critics were changing their minds. Ultimate Fighting Championship president, Dana White, has gone on record several times throughout the years saying he wouldn’t put on a female fight in the UFC. In 2007, White stated, “I’m not a huge fan of women fighting. Period. Not to say that I don’t acknowledge that there are amazing female athletes out there in every sport. I just think right now we had a hard enough time getting over the stigma of the men.” He recently commented, “Gina Carano is a star, I think she’s talented. I think she’s got all the tools, so what I’m willing to do is bring Gina into the WEC. We could do fights whenever there’s a challenger for Gina. That’s how I’ll test the waters and see how it goes.”
GARY SHAW AND DOUG DELUCA RESIGN
When Elite XC Live Events President Gary Shaw and Executive Chairman of ProElite, Doug DeLuca, resigned from their positions in the company on July 30, it substantiated rumors of the company’s decline. Gary Shaw had been the public face of Elite XC since its inception. It was his contacts with Showtime through his boxing promotion that opened the door for Elite XC to materialize and those contacts that helped facilitated the television deals with Showtime and later CBS.
DeLuca had been with the company since the beginning, starting out as the company’s Chief Executive Officer before becoming Chief Strategy Officer and Chairman of the Board.
In the months leading up to his resignation, Shaw had announced a reduced role in the company due to the constant travel involved, as he is based on the east coast and the Elite XC offices were in California, but that he would still be included in all Elite XC business. Both Shaw and DeLuca were kept on as consultants while collecting a salary from ProElite.
ELITE XC STRIPS KJ NOONS OF LIGHTWEIGHT TITLE
KJ Noons became the Elite XC lightweight champion when he defeated Nick Diaz by TKO in Nov. of 2007. He defended his belt by taking out Yves Edwards in just 48 seconds on June 14, 2008 in Hawaii. Nearly before Noons’ hand was raised in victory, Elite XC hustled Nick Diaz to the center of the cage to call out the titleholder and promote a rematch. An altercation ensued and it would prove to be the closest Elite XC would come to putting together Noons vs. Diaz II.
Elite XC desperately wanted to put together the rematch and Diaz was all for it, but Noons had different ideas. The entire saga played out in the media with Elite XC accusing Noons of being scared of Diaz. Noons responded, “It is not about being scared to fight Diaz, who I previously defeated, it is about the fight I am currently in with Elite XC regarding my career.”
The war of words between Elite XC and Noons continued with Elite XC vice president Jared Shaw issuing an ultimatum to Noons demanding he sign the bout agreement to fight Diaz. Noons ignored the ultimatum and said he would focus on boxing instead of mixed martial arts.
Elite XC stripped Noons of his lightweight belt on Sept. 19. “We are stripping KJ of his championship belt for refusing to defend against Diaz,” said EliteXC Head of Fight Operations, Jeremy Lappen, in a public statement. “It’s a very unfortunate situation but we cannot have belt-holders who refuse to fight the top contenders. We want champions who will fight anyone, anytime, anyplace. That’s the mentality all champions should have.”
Noons remained under contract with Elite XC despite the stripping of his crown, but on Oct. 8, Noons declared he was a free agent. “Stripping me of my title makes me a free agent,” stated the former titleholder. “They can say however much that I owe them the fights. I owe them championship fights as the champion. They stripped me, which doesn’t make me the champion, so I don’t owe them anything.”
THE CRUMBLING OF “KIMBO SLICE”
Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson began 2008 by knocking out legendary brawler David “Tank” Abbott in just 43 seconds at the BankUnited Center in Miami in front of a hometown crowd. Riding his popularity from Internet backyard brawl videos, Ferguson jettisoned through the mixed martial arts stratosphere. No other fighter in the history of the sport had more hype before they ever professionally competed than “Kimbo.”
The average public thought he was a wrecking machine while the mixed martial arts community remained skeptical to say the least. Ferguson sought out legendary fighter and trainer Bas Rutten for preparation and guidance, but his third Elite XC outing against British bomber James Thompson exposed the gaping holes in his game. Ferguson would get the win, albeit a questionable stoppage, but Thompson was able to take the brawler down and control him much of the fight. It was clear that “Kimbo” had some areas to work on.
Ferguson was lined up to fight Ken Shamrock on Oct. 4 in what would become Elite XC’s final event, “Heat.” In a bizarre turn of events, Shamrock pulled out of the bout just hours before Elite XC was scheduled to go live on CBS due to a cut received that morning. Elite XC scrambled to find a replacement and light heavyweight Seth Petruzelli who was slated to fight on the card accepted the late-notice fight.
Petruzelli would land a short punch that put Ferguson down and finished him off with strikes on the ground in just 14 seconds leaving the “Kimbo Slice” hype machine laying on the canvas and Elite XC vice president Jared Shaw screaming cage-side for the referee not to stop the fight. The hype was gone, but the controversy continued. Petruzelli told a Florida radio station that he was paid to stand with Ferguson. “The promoters kind of hinted to me, and they gave me the money to stand and trade with him. They didn’t want me to take him down, let’s just put it that way,” said Petruzelli while appearing on 104.1 FM. He later retracted his statement saying it was a knockout bonus, but the Florida State Boxing Commission opened an investigation into the matter.
The investigation would find no wrong doing on behalf of Elite XC, but the damage was done. “Slice” was paid $500,000 for his 14-second loss to Petruzelli.
PROELITE/ELITE XC CEASE OPERATIONS, OR DID THEY?
On Oct. 20, ProElite Inc., parent company of Elite XC, sent notifications informing managers that the company was ceasing its fight promotion operations by the end of this week and it had begun the process of letting employees go. EliteXC’s remaining show scheduled for Nov. 8 in Reno, Nevada had been canceled. The card was due to be broadcast on Showtime networks.
The company had accrued over $55 million in debt in its twenty-four months of operations. Though its third CBS-televised card,”Heat,” was looked at as a ratings success by EliteXC and CBS executives, the company’s financial position could not be salvaged.
In response to Elite XC’s declaration it was ceasing operations, many of the managers sent a “notice of breach” letter to the company, citing a clause in the contract that permits fighters to terminate the contract and seek monies owed to them if ProElite isn’t able to fulfill their “promotional and payment obligations” within thirty days.
On Halloween, the company received a notice from Showtime Networks announcing the sale of ProElite assets at a public auction.
On Nov. 2, ProElite notified several fighter managers the company still intends to promote mixed martial arts events. “Elite XC and ProElite are currently downsizing its staff in an effort to improve its business moving forward,” the notice stated. “As this process is implemented, Elite XC canceled the event previously scheduled for Nov. 8 in attempt to re-schedule another event in early 2009.”
On Nov. 4, Showtime Networks made an SEC filing announcing the sale and placed ads on MMA websites – such as MMAWeekly.com – advertising it.
On Nov. 14, Showtime Networks released a notice canceling a public auction of the troubled company’s assets. It cited a clause on the original notice of sale, dated Nov. 1, giving the premium cable channel the option to “cancel or adjourn” the proceedings.