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(Corrects 9th paragraph to clarify CBS will be first major Broadcast network to air MMA events, rather than first of any commercial network)
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - CBS is bringing mixed martial arts, the bone-crunching combat sport popularly known as "cage fighting," to prime-time television this spring, the U.S. network said on Thursday.
Branded as barbaric by critics in the 1990s for its lack of rules, mixed martial arts, or MMA, has evolved into a more mainstream sport that bars biting, eye-gouging, head-butting and strikes to the groin.
But fierce punching, kicking, karate, judo and wrestling moves -- with no protective gear -- are still very much a part of the sport.
One of its biggest stars, the bald, bearded Kimbo Slice, has become a YouTube.com sensation for video clips showing him punching his adversaries into submission within 30 seconds. The sport remains unsanctioned in more than a dozen states.
Beginning in April or May, CBS plans to broadcast four MMA events each year as two-hour live specials airing on Saturday nights, a time period once reserved for such family fare as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart" and "The Carol Burnett Show."
Saturday nights have become a virtual dead zone for broadcast networks generally due to drastically changing viewer habits. CBS now devotes much of its Saturday prime-time lineup to movies, the news magazine "48 Hours Mystery" and reruns of its hit crime dramas.
But CBS executives are seizing on the growing popularity of mixed martial arts, especially among the young men most prized by TV advertisers, as an opportunity to build a lucrative franchise where none exists.
"It is a sport that has a very strong fan base and attracts a terrific audience," CBS Entertainment executive Kelly Kahl told Reuters. "We're putting it on Saturday nights, a night that has been underserved by all the networks for quite some time. So it's low risk and a potentially large reward."
CBS is bringing MMA fights to major broadcast network TV for the first time through a deal with ProElite Inc., one of the sport's leading promoters, which has produced mixed martial arts for the sibling cable channel Showtime since last year.
ProElite matches, and those of its larger competitor, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, also are big draws on pay-per-view television, and tickets to live events are often priced at more than $500 per seat.
Kahl said CBS would broadcast its MMA matches as they are already presented on Showtime, with no special rules or alterations to tone down the level of violence.
The refereed matches are conducted on circular mats enclosed in a mesh cage in a series of five-minute rounds.
"It is a sport, and it has violent elements. So does football, so does hockey," Kahl said. "If an injury does happen, we'll try to treat it as tactfully and tastefully as we can. But it's not something we're going to hype."
Douglas DeLuca, the CEO of ProElite, said most critics of MMA "have never watched the sport and certainly don't understand it."
"This is a sport of highly trained, highly talented ... world-class athletes," he said. "It is a chess match when these guys get in there and fight, when you understand exactly what they're doing. It's like a beautiful dance."
He also said the CBS events would not be limited to MMA's male stars. Some of the fights will feature the sport's female stars. One of them, Gina Carano, currently appears as Crush on the NBC reality hit "American Gladiators."
Editing by Mary Milliken and Stuart Grudgings