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Kevin Ferguson, best known for his street-fighting name, Kimbo Slice, died Monday at age 42. No foul play is expected. A full autopsy will eventually explain the cause of death but it hardly matters. It’s a sad tale all around because Kimbo was, if nothing else, a good man, a doting father and a one-of-a-kind American sporting success story.
There was something primal about it all at the beginning, long before he was scooped up and propped up and rang up checks in the burgeoning world of mixed martial arts … despite not being anything resembling a real mixed martial artist.
In the beginning it was pure and primitive, and not just because it involved basic human violence, the bare-knuckle brawl.
It was the name: Kimbo Slice – something out of a comic book. It was the look: block-of-granite build, shaved head and bushy beard. Who in their right mind would square off with this dude? It was the backdrops: backyards and boat lots in South Florida, a window into some kind of underground street-fighting operation. It was everything.
This was captured on camera phones that were still in their infancy and loaded up on YouTube where you watched quickly because it felt like they’d soon be pulled down because, well, this can’t be legal, can it? “Human cock-fighting” is how Sen. John McCain once described MMA, which he later admitted was wrong. This, however, fit that bill perfectly.
It wasn’t just the violence. No, it fed into the natural yearning to believe that if you went deep enough into the alleyways or neighborhoods of America, you might discover a guy who was more menacing than anyone in the ring or the Octagon. The call of the wild. Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown, come to life. This was Mike Tyson without polish, if such a thing is even possible.
The succession of fights was mesmerizing. The way he’d just jump out of an SUV, remove his shirt and massive gold chain and go. The video was always shaky with cut-rate graphics, including height, weight and name.
Oh and the names. He beat up a parade of colorful hopefuls: “Afro Puff,” “Big Mac,” and “Big D.” Kimbo had a decent scrape with “Chico Grande” until he pinned him up against the wall of what looked like some broken-down restaurant and finished the job. And, of course, there was maybe his greatest ever: a bloodied knockout of “Adryan,” who came right out of central casting as some Russian mob muscle.
Who the heck were those guys?
As the clicks piled up, the mainstream came calling for the underground and Kimbo arrived in MMA, where a fledgling start-up named EliteXC and its broadcast partner CBS were trying to muscle in on the UFC. The problem was they had no true stars. They had Kimbo though. He was impossible to ignore even if he was little more than a wild brawler and the antithesis of MMA, which is built on discipline, dedication and skill.
It didn’t matter though. Most Americans didn’t know what MMA was at the time, or they just assumed it was like a “Tough Guy” competition. The CBS announcers would breathlessly declare Kimbo among the best of the best and that was that. Most importantly, there was a buck to be made on all sides. The one truism of this entire meteoric ride that was Kevin Ferguson was well aware of the part Kimbo Slice was playing in the show.
This was a one-time homeless man, porn-production bouncer and father of six cashing in. The UFC wasn’t on network TV. Kimbo was. Some 6.5 million people watched him pop James Thompson’s cauliflower ear, ending their bout in Newark in disgusting fashion. You couldn't ignore him.
Money was there. Who knows how much he made but it was a good clip. Kimbo was always about business even as the business around him was attempting a high-wire act.
In October 2008, he was set to star in his third CBS broadcast when his opponent, then-44-year-old Ken Shamrock, was injured the day of the fight. Shamrock was going to serve as a tomato can, or so EliteXC and CBS hoped. Kimbo was being propped up.
A replacement was needed but Kimbo wouldn’t sign off on anyone. Finally he agreed on an obscure undercard fighter, Seth Petrozelli, who sported pink hair and had a fulltime job running frozen yogurt shops in Orlando.
Petruzelli was 2-2 in his previous four fights and was giving up 30 pounds. He may or may not have agreed to not wrestle Kimbo to the ground – where any decent MMA fighter would quickly prevail. Yet right at the end, Kimbo, knowing that the Tiffany Network's entire primetime schedule and EliteXC’s entire existence rested on him, demanded a little more cash to take the fight.
He got paid extra and then Petruzelli knocked him out in 14 seconds courtesy of a jab that deflated the legend. It was absolute bedlam, some 10,000 fans throwing debris and screaming inside a South Florida hockey stadium. EliteXC went out of business within a month. There was never a dull moment with Kimbo Slice.
After the fight, as promotion executives huddled in depression and discussed the need for a stiff drink or eight, Kimbo was gracious, which was always the best part of him.
Even in the YouTube videos he’d hold up on a guy so as not to hurt him too bad. Kimbo never claimed he was the best fighter in the world; it was CBS and EliteXC doing that. He was humble and surprisingly soft-spoken and always gave you a look like, “Can you believe this ride?” He was funny, he was honest, he was real.
After all, he was just minding his own business fighting behind friend’s houses for spare cash. Who would turn this down? Who wouldn’t try to squeeze every last dime before it ended?
The UFC eventually took him in and put him, the original reality star, on their reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter." It was the highest-rated season ever. He fought at UFC 113, lost and that was that. The Octagon is a long way from YouTube.
Five years later he was pulled out of retirement by Bellator, another promotion trying to challenge the UFC and desperate for eyeballs. He beat Shamrock finally in a farce of a fight. It only got worse in February when he and Dada 5000 finished in a no-contest. It was a bout that the state of Texas shouldn't have sanctioned. Dada nearly died that night, sent into a coma. A few months later, Kimbo had passed on.
Meanwhile MMA just keeps getting bigger, the legend of Kimbo a rollicking footnote to its ascension.
If he had trained his whole life in the sport, the way one of his sons, Kevin Ferguson Jr., has, maybe Kimbo would’ve been a legit force. He didn’t though. He was all persona, all power, all fun and fear and intrigue.
And that’s how he should be remembered. He was as unlikely of an American sports star as there will ever be, a modern creation participating in the oldest of sports – knuckle v. knuckle.
Kimbo Slice was a hero to that; a hero to the idea that anything, simply anything is possible, like a guy made famous brawling in boat yards one day squeezing a television network for every last dollar, as millions waited to see who he'd fight, and smiling his gold-tooth way through it all.
Man, what a run for that guy. What an outrageous, spectacular run for Kimbo Slice.