Florida officials investigating controversial MMA fight

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

File:Elitexc-heat-kimbo-slice-vs-seth-petruzelli-300x214.jpg
Kimbo Slice vs. Seth Petruzelli
Image: EliteXC.

Boxing regulators in the state of Florida have started a preliminary investigation into allegations of corruption and fight fixing after mixed martial arts fighter Seth Petruzelli defeated Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson in the main event of the EliteXC: Heat on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

Petruzelli, who was scheduled to fight Aaron Rosa on an untelevised undercard match, was approached by EliteXC officials to take on Ferguson, who fights under the nickname Kimbo Slice. Slice's announced opponent, legendary mixed martial arts and professional wrestling veteran Ken Shamrock, was declared medically ineligible to fight after injuring himself during a Saturday morning workout session, requiring stitches to be applied to a cut over his eye. News of the injury and substitution was not made until after CBS Sports started broadcasting the show.

Cquote1.svg 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. It was worth my while to try to stand up and punch with him. Cquote2.svg

—Seth Petruzelli, to WTKS-FM

The show had been heavily promoted over the last two months on Shamrock's reputation and the credibility of his name, along with the media buzz around Kimbo Slice. CBS Sports was expecting to cash in with a huge ratings success after securing a record-setting 4.85 million viewers on their inaugural broadcast of EliteXC, the highest ratings ever for a MMA broadcast. Fourteen seconds into the main event, however, Petruzelli scored an upset win over Slice. Petruzelli hit Slice with a right cross to Slice's jaw that sent the phenom staggering backwards. Petruzelli moved in, as Slice was not defending himself, and finished off his opponent with a flurry of punches. The referee stopped the fight a few seconds later.

The controversy started the next morning after Petruzelli was interviewed on the "Monster in the Morning" radio show on WTKS-FM 104.1 in Orlando, FL and simulcast on XM Satellite channel 152. In the 18-minute interview, Petruzelli made the statement, "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. It was worth my while to try to stand up and punch with him."

Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson
Image: Cottonphotos.

It was inferred through this statement that an EliteXC official approached Petruzelli and attempted to influence the outcome of the fight. Slice, whose fight strategy is largely based on punching power, had been training to face Shamrock, another noted strike artist. Petruzelli, on the other hand, has a much stronger ground offensive. Critics during the fight noted that if Petruzelli could force Slice to the mat that it would be a humiliating upset, but if Slice could maintain control through his striking it would be an easy win.

With the statement from Petruzelli about being paid to stand up and fight on Slice's skill level, allegations of tampering with the fight began to arise within hours. EliteXC's Jeremy Lappin, Director of Fight Operations, responded to MMA Weekly's inquiries, saying "Press reports that EliteXC suggested or paid money to heavyweight fighter Seth Petruzelli to keep his fight against Kimbo Slice off the ground are false. Let me be perfectly clear with no ambiguity – that did not happen." Lappin stated that they offered him a "Knockout of the Night" bonus if he could score a win by KO. Bonuses such as "Knockout of the Night", "Submission of the Night" and "Match of the Night" are often offered to fighters who can deliver entertaining and crowd-pleasing performances. Lappin also stated, "Elite XC organizes and promotes fights. We have not, do not, and will not suggest or dictate fighters' strategies or tactics. How the fighters perform in the cage is at the sole discretion of the athletes involved."

Petruzelli also started making immediate amends the next day, blaming himself for misrepresenting his intentions. In a blitz of media interviews in an effort to retracts his statement, he said, "Honestly, when I woke up in the morning my words were jumbled and obviously my head was in a daze from drinking (laughs) the entire night. Reading the transcript, I actually now feel I worded it perfectly in what I wanted to say. I wanted to keep the fight standing and they offered a knockout bonus and I wanted to get the knockout bonus."

Florida officials from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) did not appear to be interested in performing an investigation. In an interview with MMAWeekly.com, DBPR press secretary Alexis Antonacci said, "Our interpretation is that the comments made were in reference to the promoter asking [Petruzelli] to join a fight that he wasn’t originally scheduled for. We don’t believe any wrongdoing occurred." The DBPR regulates all business and professional licenses in the state, including promotion of sports such as boxing, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Cquote1.svg Press reports that EliteXC suggested or paid money to heavyweight fighter Seth Petruzelli to keep his fight against Kimbo Slice off the ground are false. Let me be perfectly clear with no ambiguity – that did not happen. Cquote2.svg

—Jeremy Lappin, EliteXC

After being hounded by the media and fight critics all week long, the DPBR announced on Thursday that they would start a preliminary investigation. Communications director Jennifer Meale made a statement to the press. "While the Department of Business and Professional Regulation doesn't have any reason to believe there was a problem with the Slice-Petruzelli fight, given the interest in it, the Department has begun a preliminary investigation to thoroughly review the circumstances of the fight."

Pro Elite, Inc, the parent company of EliteXC, has struggled over the last year. The company is over $50 million in debt, with $24.4 million of that debt accrued in the first half of 2008. Trailing behind industry leader Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), EliteXC has rallied behind Kimbo Slice to drive up ratings on their specials with CBS Sports and Showtime Networks, attendance at live events and other merchandise sales. The October 4 broadcast drew in 4.56 million viewers, making it the third most-watched viewed event in MMA history to go along with its record-setting May 31 debut of 4.85 million viewers. Both events featured Kimbo Slice in the main event.

The corruption issue could go deeper than just fixing a fight for the company's star fighter. Further fueling the allegations are the actions of EliteXC's president, Jared Shaw. Immediately after the fight was stopped, Shaw rushed to the side of the cage and yelled to the referee that Slice was hit illegally.

"He spent a lot of money to build up Kimbo," Seth Petruzelli said. "If I saw one of my guys I spent millions on getting his face pounded I’d get upset also." Shaw later apologized for his actions, calling them improper.

EliteXC's Lappin told ESPN, "We were not trying to protect Kimbo. He had been training to fight a guy in Shamrock who has a better ground game than Seth. If we were trying to protect Kimbo we would have sent him home. We put him in a dangerous fight." Frank Shamrock, MMA color analyst for CBS Sports, and brother of Ken Shamrock, feels that EliteXC is looking out for Slice's best interests. "As for Pro Elite, are they looking after their baby? I hope so. Are they conspiring to ensure he wins? I don't think so."


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