- Michael Woods, Boxing
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Kimbo Slice's transcendent personality in MMA has brought a whole bunch of eyeballs to mixed martial arts, in the same general manner that Mike Tyson's compelling mixture of assaulting excellence and surprising introspectiveness lured curious people to the sweet science back in the mid to late '80s.
Some of these newbies may be pleasantly surprised to learn that many fighters are some of the most down-to-earth, grounded, humble souls you'll find shedding sweat and blood in any athletic arena.
It makes sense -- a fighter is alone on an lonely island with a foe, and must summon mental, physical and even spiritual reserves to persevere and prevail. There are no teammates to blame when things go awry, so post-bout, a fighter is left to peer into the mirror and make amends with the sole driver for his success or failure.
Of course, excuses and delusions are often alluded to, in the form of crooked judges, or inept referees, or what have you. But fighters, most among all athletes, often rise from humble or horrific origins, and so are forced to subject themselves to rigorous self-examination early on.
"Can I, and only I, rise to the occasion, and make something of myself?" "Can I, and only I, show the necessary discipline and strength to prepare adequately to emerge from the ring as the victor?" "Can I, and only I, shrug off the slight prospect that I may pay the ultimate price for my participation, my life?"
I still find myself, after 20 years of covering combat sports, being impressed with the humility shown by fighters as I interact with them and try to see what makes them tick, so I can share with readers the people behind the punching.
James Thompson (14-8), who has been chosen to be the next rung in Kimbo's step up the MMA ladder, is a man who, after 22 professional MMA fights, is still not quite sure what sort of athlete he sees when he looks in the mirror.
The 29-year-old fighter grew up in Manchester, England, the oldest of four kids. His parents wished he was an electrician or plumber, especially after their boy was KO'd in his last two fights, the first in July 2007 and the last in February.
Back-to-back stoppages would have some reconsidering their vocation, and seriously considering vocational Plan B. But Thompson has already used up a good bit of the alphabet: He did two years at drama school and then worked a variety of jobs in debt collection and security.
He got into MMA six years ago, after seeing a tape of UFC action. "I knew I had to give it a go," says the fighter whom ring announcers refer to as "Colossus," "so I found a local club and had my first competition six weeks later. I didn't really know what I was doing to be honest. I was just a big guy fighting with no knowledge but a lot of heart."
Heart and size are important blocks of a successful fighter's foundation, but a solid chin is also a necessary component for someone who wants to string together enough wins to gain some momentum and build an education fund for his 9-year-old daughter.
Thompson's chin hasn't cooperated with him as much as he'd like since he debuted in 2003. Of his eight losses, seven of those have come via stoppage on strikes and one on submission.
Yes, he holds wins over Dan Severn (a decision win in September 2004) and Don Frye (a first-round knockout in April 2007), but that chin will hold a magnetic appeal for Slice, who does own legitimately heavy hands.
When asked about his glaring weakness, Thompson does not bluster about his own considerable power (10 striking stops in 14 wins), or traffic in delusions and whine about clueless referees.
Instead, he acknowledges the papier-mache elephant in the room, without hesitation.
"It's hard to say what happened in my last knockout loss, to Brett Rogers," he says. "You do all the training and hope you win. [If you don't win] you look at the holes in your game and keep on doing things you can do, being positive."
Thompson has been brought over from England to lose, to put it bluntly. And, also, more bluntly, to be knocked out. Preferably, he will put up a decent battle, stick around for more than a round, maybe force Slice to show off his Bas Rutten-honed ground skills. The Brit isn't offended that he's seen as a stepping-stone, though.
"They hope I get whacked on the chin and that's it for me," Thompson says. "It doesn't bother me. Because of my last two fights, I don't deserve this chance. I intend to take full advantage."
Promoter Gary Shaw, who signed Slice after his son, Jared Shaw, showed him YouTube clips of Slice's Miami street fights, has been around combat sports long enough to understand that sometimes sacrificial lambs don't lie down to be slaughtered.
"Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson," he says. "Anything can happen on any night."
Slice, who has not so far taken to sipping his own Kool-Aid and regularly proclaims that he'll always think of himself as a baby in the sport, is not banking on a fast finish.
"I think the fight will be exciting," Slice says. "I'm expecting it to go to the ground, and I'm more excited about going to the ground than standing up."
Standing up is where this fight will be won, and lost, in all likelihood. Slice, at least in the first year of his accelerated course in the art and science of MMA under Rutten, is a banger.
He shows decent footwork, and remembers to move his head so he doesn't always have to trust his own sturdy beard.
In case you haven't figured this out, he has a good-sized brain to go with that brawn -- it is not an accident that he has exploded as a multimedia focal point this year -- and his innate fighting sensibility means that he will go after his foe's glaring weakness. Thompson knows this.
"I got holes in my standup and defense," Thompson says. "I don't want a three-round war with Kimbo. I want to go to the floor and answer some of the questions."
Thompson meant questions about Slice, and how much information he's soaked up from Rutten on grappling and submissions. The smart money says that the questions Thompson will be left wrestling with after he fights Slice on May 31 will be self-directed. All fighters eventually have to ask and answer them. "Should I continue?" "Do I still have what it takes?"
Whatever his decision about the next course of the journey, Thompson will certainly know that even if his chin betrayed him and was a glaring hole in his game, no one could ever say that in the cage, he had a hole in his heart.
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.
Fight fans will never confuse James Thompson's chin for a slab of concrete. But what the British fighter lacks in whiskers, he more than makes up for in will and heart.