Artwork by Grimoire
It's still sinking in that there's no more Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson.
According to South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, last Friday Ferguson arrived at Northwest Medical Center with abdominal pain, shortness of breath, and nausea. By Monday, his condition had worsened and he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and placed in intensive care. Doctors talked about a heart transplant. Late that evening, at age 42 and a month out from a scheduled rematch against James Thompson, he passed away.
It was news out of nowhere. It was also the unexpected end of a life that would have read like fiction if we hadn't watched it with our own eyes: a bald, bearded, skull-capped mesomorph from the wilds of South Florida with bare fists to be feared, whose illicit exploits against opponents on patchy lawns and pavement became staples of the mid-2000s Internet, who leapt from fighting in front of pre-HD video cameras to fighting in front of some of the largest audiences ever to tune into a mixed martial arts fight. Kimbo Slice was equal parts Greek mythology, Horatio Alger story, and sheer charisma. He might have been a frustrating figure for idealists worried about the sanctity of sport, but even for purists, Kimbo Slice was must-see TV.
I first heard about Kimbo Slice in 2004 in the pages of the Boston Herald, when Boston cop and part-time MMA fighter Sean Gannon got in trouble for brawling with (and beating) Slice behind closed doors. Over AOL Instant Messenger, friends who shared bloodlust copied and pasted links to grainy video clips of his handiwork. (Every time I hear about Slice getting his fame through YouTube, I want to push my glasses up the bridge of nose and point out that, actually, he was a phenomenon before YouTube existed.) Bits and pieces of a backstory emerged: once a football standout who fell on hard times, he now worked security for a porn company and fought for wads of cash. But the biography mattered less than the clips. Kimbo Slice busting apart that one guy's eye is a cultural touchstone of the Internet circa 2004.
By the time Slice transformed into a bona fide professional MMA fighter in 2007, the sport around him had writhed and convulsed into a delicate place—one foot in the mainstream, one teetering off a cliff. State athletic commissions continued bringing MMA under its purview, fighters strutted to the ring in t-shirts with screen-printed logos for tire and prophylactic companies looking to get in on a growing a sport, the UFC was the darling of Spike TV, and rival promotions like Elite XC and the IFL had made their own inroads. But signs of progress doubled as reasons for self-consciousness and thin skin. The sustainability of MMA wasn't assured, and bad impressions threatened to erase all that good will.
When Elite XC made Kimbo Slice the face of the organization, there was no secret as to why: he was a big, scary black dude—with all the racial subtext and ugly historical baggage that description carries—who promised knockouts, no man-hugging, and a dose of the outlaw past MMA trying to shed. From the start, his career was manicured to keep him winning. He beat 10-10 journeyman Bo Cantrell in his pro debut in November 2007. Three months later, he beat an overfed Tank Abbott and assumed Abbott's mantle as the premier brawler with no need for nuance (or guard passing). He wound up on the cover of ESPN The Magazine not long after.
Like Abbott, Slice's haymaker-first style embodied preconceptions about MMA that its self-styled guardians deemed dangerous to its survival. Slice was a late bloomer who, through no fault of his own, was thrust into the spotlight with grappling deficiencies he'd never fully overcome, and during a time when watching an MMA fight in casual company always required an explanation—yes, there are rules, and no, you can't kick each other in the balls—Slice was a confusing celebrity. "Every time Kimbo fights it sets the sport back," former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir told Five Ounces of Pain in 2008, speaking the sentiments of a thousand message board posts. "Guys like that just reinforce the idea in the public’s eye that we are all blood thirsty barbarians who just want to pummel each other and that there is no skill required. Guys like them do the sport a disservice."
No Kimbo Slice fight was conventionally good in a sporting sense, and yet they were always interesting. In May 2008, his headlining win on CBS over James Thompson and his swollen, purple ear led to the 6.5-million-viewer peak of Elite XC: Primetime. When Slice tumbled against late-replacement Seth Petruzelli that October, Elite XC fell apart to the tune of 4.5 million viewers. Every fight bred criticism and conspiracy theories. Every fight left an appetite for more.
Slice might have been an ambassador for a sport more complex than what he was fully capable of doing himself, but eyeballs followed him wherever he went. When he reemerged on The Ultimate Fighter 9 in autumn 2009, he was a pop star and everyone else in the house wanted to bump the turntable, send the needle skidding over the backing track, and catch him lip-synching in the aftermath. In defeat to Roy Nelson, Kimbo Slice sent The Ultimate Fighter to a ratings peak of 6.1 million viewers. He won an official UFC bout against Houston Alexander, but after a TKO loss to Matt Mitrione in May 2010, Slice was cut from the UFC and set into the wilderness of pro boxing, where he amassed a 7-0 record—not without controversy.
In Slice's half-decade absence from MMA, the paranoid instincts for the protection that came alongside his earlier surge eventually faded. It became sports-page material, wound up on rabbit-ear Fox four times a year, and showed a tendency toward attrition—MMA wasn't walking on eggshells anymore. Fighters like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor rose to fame as much for their charisma as armbars and left hooks. And in Scott Coker's Bellator, then-record-breaking viewership for Tito Ortiz versus Stephan Bonnar edified a truth that 2008's purists would have never admitted: when it comes to drawing an audience, the fighter's name matters more than the sport itself.
Last June, when 41-year-old Slice returned to fight 51-year-old Ken Shamrock at Bellator 138 and fulfilled their promise from 2008, they drew 2.3 million viewers and set a promotional record. Even before he took to the cage, Kimbo quickly reminded us why we'd missed having him around: speaking with MMA Junkie about the necessity of pre-fight drug testing, he said, "These young kids look up to us, and if we're all on steroids and fucked up on cocaine and shit, then we can't be role models to these kids." (Of course, it'd be remiss to mention that Slice tested positive for nandrolone after his next bout.) In the lead-up to his fight with Dada 5000—which set yet another viewership record for Bellator—the "baby nuts" press conference became an instant promotional classic.
But the glossed-over truth is that Kimbo Slice wasn't really known for his mouth. He never talked about title contention or walked around with a fake belt—he always made it clear that he was just trying to get better at the sport, to improve his life, and he seemed to be the only one who stayed humble and didn't overestimate who he was. And even if you hated his magnified celebrity, you couldn't hate Kimbo Slice himself. In quieter moments, he was a loving father of six: the clip of him training with his son Kevlar, who has autism, is especially touching. In the wake of his passing, everyone from his teammates at American Top Team to former opponents has recalled Slice with unrestrained warmth. Even Dada 5000, his final nemesis, paid respect.
With the coda written too soon, the lives of both Kevin Ferguson and Kimbo Slice are fully rendered. He transcended hard-luck circumstances to become one of the true characters in professional fighting. What a crazy, colorful life he lived, and he knew exactly where he stood even when we didn't: a world away from where he started, with millions watching to see what happened next.
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