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CBS goes back to MMA with Fedor, Strikeforce

GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer

If Fedor Emelianenko and Kimbo Slice ever got in the same cage, even Slice would agree the stoic Russian heavyweight probably would break him.

CBS is eager to find out whether Emelianenko also can trounce Slice in television ratings when he finally gets his American close-up Saturday night.

Emelianenko will no longer be mixed martial arts’ least-seen superstar after CBS showcases his Strikeforce debut in Chicago against Brett Rogers on “Saturday Night Fights.” The show marks the nascent sport’s return to network TV after a 13-month absence, with big stakes for both CBS and the respected Strikeforce promotion as they rattle the octagon of the dominant UFC.

“It’s a chance that doesn’t often come along,” said Kelly Kahl, the senior executive vice president overseeing CBS’ prime-time schedule. “If we wanted to jump back in, we wanted to make a splash.”

After three ramshackle MMA shows last year generated solid ratings for CBS, Kahl is betting that a quality program from Strikeforce can keep even more young male viewers glued to their televisions on a traditionally dead night for networks. The time slot that will be filled by Strikeforce’s show is generally reserved for a rerun of “CSI: New York” and “48 Hours Mystery.”

“We hoped to come back (to MMA), but the road to Strikeforce certainly wasn’t a straight line,” Kahl said. “We didn’t know who we’d get back in business with. It had to be the right fit.”

Much of that fit is about the appeal and mystery of Emelianenko, the formidable ex-soldier who seemingly has fought for every company except UFC, which refuses to bow to his co-promotion demands.

Strikeforce, a scrappy Bay Area-based promotion with 20 years of experience, had no such problems, and CBS eagerly signed on after Emelianenko and Strikeforce made a deal this summer. They matched him with Rogers, an undefeated longshot who’s expected to catch a prime-time beating.

“When you have the No. 1 heavyweight in the world, the best pound-for-pound guy in the world, everybody is going to want a piece of you,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said. “We know where all the potholes are. We keep the pulse on this business every day, and it changes daily. If you’re out of touch, the business changes. CBS knew what we could do, and we’re going to show it.”

Early signs are promising, including strong ticket sales at the Sears Centre. Kahl said the network sold out its advertising for the show several days in advance, a rarity for sports programming. MMA’s demographic of young male viewers will be hit with ads for cars, movies, snack foods and video games – including EA Sports’ MMA game, which prominently features the Strikeforce brand.

The Tiffany Network clearly has returned to this gritty sport smarter and wiser after its three showcases with the now-defunct EliteXC promotion. Despite the hype behind Slice and Gina Carano, the shows’ quality didn’t approach the standard of Strikeforce, let alone UFC.

Two of last year’s CBS shows featured Slice, the former strip-club bouncer with an eager online following despite his self-acknowledged limited skills. CBS shoved him into its network starmaking machine, but the final show ended with his embarrassing knockout loss – and EliteXC folded 2 1/2 weeks later.

“I think CBS had a bad taste in their mouth from the prior regime,” Coker said. “We’ve proved ourselves and showed that we could do some big fights, and when we went out and (signed) Fedor, everything came into place.”

Emelianenko still isn’t a perfect fit for CBS and Strikeforce, and not just because he speaks little English. He’s the only topflight MMA heavyweight currently signed to Strikeforce, while pay-per-view star Brock Lesnar and the rest of the world’s best big men fight for UFC.

But that’s a problem for another month, after CBS learns whether Emelianenko can land ratings as easily as he lands punches and kicks to the world’s top fighters.

“There’s a story we’re trying to tell, but there are some challenges as well,” Kahl said. “Fedor is a guy that’s universally recognized as one of the top in the sport. We’re trying to get his story out there bit by bit, and we’re going to do it.”