How Kimbo Slice, the First 'Viral' MMA Star, Changed the Sport Forever
Slice merged the worlds of unsanctioned internet fighting and legitimate MMA in a way that made many uncomfortable
Professional fighter Kimbo Slice has died at 42. “Professional,” however, was an adjective that really only described the latter half of Slice’s life, the part that would rock the sport of mixed martial arts.
The Bahamian Slice, né Kevin Ferguson, briefly attended the University of Miami (where he studied criminal justice) and had a tryout for the Miami Dolphins in 1997. For a stretch in 1994, he lived out of his truck. Throughout the 1990s, he worked variously as a bodyguard and limo driver for RK Netmedia, a pornography company better known as Reality Kings.
By 2003, he began participating in unsanctioned street fights in and around Miami. In his first taped fight, Ferguson drops his hands and lets his opponent strike him repeatedly in the face. He knocked the man – a neighborhood bully – out and earned $3,000. In that first fight, he tore open his opponent’s right eye, earning him the nickname “Slice,” which he combined with his childhood moniker “Kimbo” for his professional nom de guerre.
For four years, Ferguson worked the streets of Miami as a brawler, his videos amassing thousands – sometimes millions – of views on YouTube. He told Rolling Stone in 2006 that he’d been in more fights than he could count, and that they were arranged much the same way they would later spread online – by word of mouth. During this time, he had only one loss, to Sean “the Cannon” Gannon, a police officer from Boston, who would also go on to compete in UFC matches. In one video, a man is paid $100 just to take a gut-punch from Ferguson. It doesn’t go well for the man.
Ferguson started training officially in 2005 at the Freestyle Fighting Academy in Miami. In 2007, he made his MMA debut (an exhibition match) against Olympic gold medalist boxer Ray Mercer in 2007. He beat Mercer in the first round, though many in the mixed martial arts established turned their nose up at him. UFC president Dana White said Ferguson “wouldn’t last two minutes” in the UFC ring, and former UFC heavyweight champ Ricco Rodriguez referred to him as a “clown.”
But Ferguson’s career dovetailed with the ascendency of “viral” internet culture and its grasp on the mainstream. Years after Johnny Knoxville turned Jackass into a franchise by submitting a homemade tape to MTV, Ferguson was skipping the traditional steps towards becoming a professional fighter by substituting video views for undercard matches. “Kimbo is tailor-made for the age we’re living in,” Adam Swift, the editor of mmapayout.com, an MMA website, told The New York Times in 2008. “We’re an internet-driven culture, a reality-driven culture. He has a natural charisma and a marketable look.”
And as internet culture continued to dictate and drive popular culture, Ferguson’s star rose, even as the critics continued their attacks. He defeated Bo Cantrell 19 seconds into their first round in November 2007 and, in May 2008, defeated James Thompson in the first-ever MMA event shown on prime time network television (it aired on CBS), EliteXC: Primetime. The fight, an awkward and bloody one in which Ferguson lost both rounds on points but ruptured his opponent’s cauliflower ear, was derided by another competitor as “garbage.” Later that year, former MMA champ Frank Mir stated, “every time Kimbo fights it sets the sport back.”
After Elite Xtreme Combat folded, Ferguson appeared on a special “heavyweight” edition of UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter television show. He ended up fighting two official bouts as part of the organization, winding up with a 1-1 record before being released in May 2010. After being released by the UFC, Ferguson took detours into other fighting disciplines. He won four fights as a boxer in 2011 and 2013, and attempted a career as a pro wrestler, though he pulled out of his first match in Japan in February 2011.
No one made it easy on Ferguson. “Kimbo Slice’s Latest Boxing Fight Is an Absolute Travesty,” proclaimed a headline on Bleacher Report in 2012. “It’s a shtick, and a good one,” Kevin Iole wrote of Ferguson’s boxing career in 2013.
In January 2015, Belabor MMA announced that they’d signed Ferguson to a multi-fight deal, and he made his Bellator debut against former UFC champ Ken Shamrock. Shamrock was 51, Ferguson was 41; Ferguson won in a first-round TKO. He wouldn’t fight again until February 2016, when he defeated an old street-fighting rival from Florida, Dada 5000 (Dhaffir Harris). After the Harris fight, it was revealed that Ferguson had tested positive for anabolic steroids. He was later fined $2,500 by the Texas Athletic Commission and lost his license to fight in Texas. The outcome of the fight – which netted 2.5 million viewers, making it Bellator’s highest-rated fight ever and breaking the promoter’s previous record of 2.4 million for the Slice/Shamrock fight – was changed to a no-contest. Ferguson’s third fight for Bellator was to be a rematch with his first EliteXC opponent, James Thompson. He died a month before their scheduled bout.
For his fearsome appearance and the hype that surrounded his ascent from the streets of Florida to prime-time network appearances and spots on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ferguson was honest and humble about his place in the world of professional fighting. Even as people rushed to portray him as a pretender to the sport, he remained gracious and pragmatic. “The guys who are holding the titles, heavyweight and light heavyweight, these guys are awesome,” he told the Associated Press in a 2010 interview before his second UFC fight.
“I’m really just having happy days in the midst – being among them, fighting on the undercards, just contributing to the UFC and the sport. That’s really what I want to do. I’m not looking ahead to winning a title or anything like that. I’m just enjoying each fight as it comes.”