‘Iron Ring’ a Rusty Proposition

By Jake Rossen Apr 23, 2008
Television is a sycophantic medium. If a concept proves to be commercially viable, other networks will stumble over themselves to duplicate that success.

It's why stations were bombarded with "Friends" clones in the 1990s, why "Jackass" was proceeded by other shows featuring snot as a prop, and why -- in a post-"Ultimate Fighter" culture -- BET has contaminated coaxial cables with "The Iron Ring."

The gimmick of "Ring" attempts to solve the issue that's plagued upstart promotions since man first hyper-extended the limbs of man: how to overcome the brand identification of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the contractual leash it holds over the sport's few marketable personalities.

Co-producers Campbell McLaren and David Issacs are choosing, wisely, not to play that game.

Both men are hardly neophytes to the sport. McLaren was responsible for bringing Art Davie and Rorion Gracie's concept of the UFC to Bob Meyrowitz, essentially acting as the fulcrum for the upstart form of combat; Issacs ran many of the day-to-day operations at SEG. More recently, he was the orchestrator behind the abortive attempts to get Wesley Snipes in the ring for a real fight. (Whether you hold that against him depends, I guess, on how much of a grudge you have against Snipes for "Blade: Trinity.")

Their solution wasn't to spend big money on name fighters who rarely draw outside of the UFC's umbrella. Instead, the series has rappers and mainstream urban celebrities offering words of encouragement to fight squads.

The viewer is, if I understand correctly, invited to transfer whatever emotional connection they have with performers like Ludacris or Nelly to their affiliated athletes, who appear to be acting as avatars in the absence of the rappers themselves strapping on gloves -- or Glocks -- and having at it.

This is a strange concept for several reasons, not the least of which is that a gentleman like Dipset, while clearly experienced in the ways of the record business, has about as much right to advise fighters as Ronald McDonald.

"I'm a perfectionist," explains Ludacris in one early episode on why he was taking so long to choose his athletes during the tryout phase. (Like other mascots, he seemed more concerned with evaluating his mammoth dinner plate during fights.) Others have little to offer beyond "Yeah!" and "Get ‘im!" from sidelines -- the kind of pedantic braying you'd expect from the 35th row analysts.

To help compensate for the vacuous commentary by team captains, the series relies on experienced consultants: Shonie Carter (Pictures), Jermaine Andre and perpetually court-plagued Charles Bennett (Pictures), who must have the world's smoothest-talking legal counsel.

(Carter had a brief exchange over a stoppage with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who appears to be becoming as ubiquitous on the dial as soap ads. Mayweather was later depicted ranting about how boxers have to fight 12 rounds, which proves their superior conditioning over freestyle fighters. Someone should advise Mayweather on the muscular endurance needs of a fight, particularly in the clinch, which would tire all but his inexhaustible mouth in seconds.)

The fights themselves are guerilla-style affairs: no time clocks, no introductions and wayward editing that frequently ignores the action in favor of the celebrity reactions. To satiate expectations created by Jet Li and his ilk, strikes are accompanied by a dull thud sound effect. Engagements are clusters of wild haymakers and sloppy, open-ended groundwork. One "advisor" with a traditional martial arts background makes frequent remarks about "too much romancing" going on. I had to double-check my calendar to make sure it was still 2008.

For BET's audience, though, the appeal of recording artists twirling towels around ugly fights is proving to be irresistible. The series is attracting roughly 900,000 viewers, which is a not-inconsiderable audience. (The recent seventh season premiere of "The Ultimate Fighter" drew 1.7 million pairs of eyes.) Promising for producers but disheartening for fans that still feel protective of this still-maturing sport and prefer it not be reinterpreted as an evolved dogfight.

But that's essentially where producers have slotted it. The athletes are not independent thinkers or possessed of unique stories: They exist solely to scrap and bleed for the amusement of their rich and famous spectators, who clap and smile when one collapses in the corner. Devoid of any clear structure -- six episodes in and we're still watching captains pick teams -- it's essentially a meat market.

The novelty of "The Ultimate Fighter" has long since worn off, and it's becoming increasingly guilty of sensationalist photography. (Witness the wheezing, moaning carcass on a recent episode.) But it continues to place the emphasis on the athlete and the confrontation itself, giving it due respect without edits or an artificial audio track. The lectures come from coaches who have felt the heat in the ring.

"Ring's" blockheaded approach, in contrast, is ludicrous -- however you choose to spell it.

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