Punching up mixed martial arts -- CBS takes a chance on ''Elite XC Saturday Night Fights''

I like to go out and bang,” says Kimbo Slice, using his favorite term for punching. With his Mr. Clean dome and ZZ Top beard, Slice is the most strikingly prominent face of mixed martial arts, or MMA, the growing phenomenon that beats boxing and wrestling as the coolest way to watch people inflict pain on TV. He’s also the main event for the May 31 kickoff of CBS EliteXC Saturday Night Fights, four live MMA bouts that will air through 2008 at 10 p.m. And CBS is banking on him punching up viewership. ”[The networks] have kind of given up on new programming on Saturday nights,” says CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl. ”We think that’s a big opportunity for MMA, and this is the most exciting risk CBS has taken since [launching] Survivor.”

The odds are good. MMA-style fighting — in which people don’t just punch but also kick and throw elbows in a disciplined variety of martial-arts styles — has crept steadily into pop culture over the past few years. Matt Damon’s fight-move flurries of the Bourne trilogy are straight out of Brazilian jujitsu and Israeli Krav Maga. Spike TV’s top-rated The Ultimate Fighter, now in its seventh season, is The Real World MMA, with combatants living in a house together between elimination bouts. Champ Tito Ortiz was a Celebrity Apprentice contender, and NBC quickly followed CBS’ announcement of Saturday Night Fights by launching (in advance) its own Saturday-night MMA series, Strikeforce on NBC. If MMA has struggled at the box office with the modest turnouts for David Mamet’s Redbelt (only $2 million to date) and the teen flick Never Back Down ($24.8 million), the sport is taking over TV pugilism. The Feb. 16 Showtime fight featuring Slice rated on par with the pay net’s most-watched championship boxing matches, and helped give CBS the cojones to program Kimbo and company in free prime time.

In a crucial way, Slice is the perfect spokesman for MMA — he’s an Internet-generation phenomenon. Before turning pro, the Bahamian-born, Miami- based 34-year-old became a bare-knuckle legend thanks to the millions who watched videos of his street fights on YouTube. Slice’s physical contradictions — his fierce frown and soft, articulate speech, his bursting musculature and dancer’s fleetness — make him a spellbinder. ”In the ring, I don’t fight out of anger, because I train to be calm. It’s more like chess. It’s figuring out what punch or kick is coming three moves down the line.”

Slice believes MMA makes better TV fare than boxing. ”Oh, man, it’s way way, different,” says the fighter. ”When you train to be a boxer, you’re training one-dimensional. You focus on your hands: punching. For MMA, you have to multitask — kicks, elbows, knees. It’s tae kwon do, jujitsu, Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling, all that in one. My metaphor is: You have to be able to chew gum, walk, listen to your headphones, watch TV, read a book, talk to your kids, and also be prepared to have someone knock you upside your head.”

MMA is obviously a magnet for young men, but CBS’ Kahl is struck by how many ladies attend the bouts. ”The audience is 40 percent women,” he says. ”They appreciate the skills on display.” Women are also MMA fighters; one of the May 31 undercard bouts pairs Gina ”Conviction” Carano (a.k.a. American Gladiators‘ ”Crush”) against Kaitlin Young.

Slice’s opponent that night will be James ”The Colossus” Thompson, a British fighter. ”He’s a big dude, 6 foot 5,” says Kimbo, who’s 6’1”. ”Doesn’t matter, though. I’ll stand there and do some banging.” Call his bout The Big Bang Theory — no scrawny sitcom nerds allowed.