For as long as it lasted—2007 to 2008—EliteXC was chock full of big ideas, mostly novel ways to attempt to thrive in the growing Ultimate Fighting Championship hegemony without going toe-to-toe with the giant on its own turf. Those strategies included some things in which the UFC had thus far shown itself to be uninterested, such as women’s fights and co-promotion with other organizations. However, thanks to EliteXC’s roots as a partnership venture with Showtime, a subsidiary of CBS, it also beat the UFC to the punch at one thing the UFC almost certainly craved: exposure on prime time, network television.
To inaugurate its groundbreaking broadcast deal with CBS, EliteXC put its best foot forward. EliteXC “Primetime”, which aired on Saturday, May 31, 2008, did not feature the promotion’s best fighter—that would have been Jake Shields—but it did offer its two biggest stars in Kevin Ferguson and Gina Carano. Kickboxing crossover star Carano and street boxing crossover star “Kimbo Slice” had been matched up with fighters in Kaitlin Young and James Thompson who figured to oblige their opponents with striking battles. Rounding out the top of the main card was a very telegenic-sounding middleweight title fight between Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith. Just about everything that could be done to stack the deck for a successful prime time TV launch had been done.
The first two bouts delivered, more or less. Carano missed weight—always a struggle—but her fight with Young was exactly what an upstart promotion looking to build a star would want, as Carano weathered a back-and-forth first round before turning on the jets in the second, busting Young up badly enough that the doctor stopped the fight between rounds on account of Young’s badly swollen left eye.
Lawler vs. Smith was on its way to being one of the better fights of the year, an entertaining slugfest that was gradually going more and more in the champ’s direction, until Lawler accidentally jabbed Smith in the eye partway through the third round. When Smith let slip that he couldn't see out of that eye, the doctor stoppage and no-contest left both fighters visibly upset, and they verbally agreed to a rematch in the cage. Fans can only wonder what they may have missed; considering that Smith had already authored one of MMA’s all-time great come-from-behind victories over Pete Sell—and would repeat the feat against Benji Radach and Cung Le later in his career—it’s one fight where those last two and a half rounds would absolutely have been worth watching.
With that, the stage was set for “Kimbo” vs. “The Colossus.” Thompson, who had come to fame in Pride Fighting Championships as 290 pounds of horse meat and instructional DVDs, was best known for what he called the “gong and dash,” which consisted of running straight at his opponent at the opening bell and throwing haymakers until one of the two men fell down. Sometimes it worked in his favor. Other times—most notably in his fight with Aleksander Emelianenko—it didn’t. Either way, it was predictably entertaining and it made him the ideal opponent for Ferguson, whose ground game was completely untested and whose promoter hoped to keep it that way.
Viewership for EliteXC “Primetime” peaked at 6.51 million viewers for the main event. That means that when Thompson entered the EliteXC cage, six million Americans sat forward on their couches, squinted at their television sets and said, as one, “What in the hell is wrong with his ear?” The other half-million or so, those who had seen a few combat sports events before, groaned and said, “How did he not have that thing drained?” Thompson’s left ear was one of the most grotesquely fluid-filled examples of cauliflower ear in the history of major MMA. It was so heavy that it wobbled visibly as he moved around. In case any of the television audience wondered whether that was normal, the broadcast booth helpful let them know it was not, with veteran play-by-play man Mauro Ranallo referring to it as “an alien lifeform” growing out of Thompson’s head. The more cynical—or conspiracy-minded—among the viewership pointed to it as a potential “panic button” for EliteXC’s star, a way to justify a stoppage if the fight were not going Ferguson’s way.
The conspiracy theorists ended up being proven prophetic, in function if not motive. When referee Dan Miragliotta waved the two men into action, there was no “gong and dash,” as Thompson clinched within seconds and continued to press the issue, refusing to give the brawler any space to do his work. Less than a minute in, it was actually Ferguson to brought the action to the ground, attempting a guillotine as Thompson dropped for a double-leg takedown. What ensued was a wild round in which both men attempted guillotines, Thompson spent significant time in top position—though Ferguson swept him—and it looked like anyone’s fight. The second round was worse for Ferguson, as Thompson took him down early and spent most of the round in side control. When the horn sounded, “The Colossus” was clearly up two rounds to none, and while both men were exhausted, Ferguson looked worse off.
At the start of the third round, Ferguson lit Thompson up with a combination, during which one of his punches landed on the Brit’s left ear. Right on cue, it burst wide open and spurted like a Hollywood blood pack, and while Thompson was clearly rocked by the punches, the added visual impact of his exploded ear may have helped Miragliotta decide to step in for the stoppage. At 38 seconds of Round 3, “Kimbo Slice” had turned away his sternest challenge to date, and EliteXC’s biggest star remained undefeated.