Three days after the death of Muhammad Ali, the fighting world is mourning another fallen son of Miami who chose his own name: Kimbo Slice.
That was how the world knew Kevin Ferguson, a hard-working father of six, as he earned a living playing a series of weird, violent, and sometimes racially inflected roles in increasingly visible parts of our national entertainment.
The cause of Ferguson’s death wasn’t immediately clear. Signs point to cardiac failure, but the reasons that a 42-year-old man’s heart gave out are not known.
Kimbo Slice earned that name in his first taped fight, showing two shirtless black men exchanging bare-knuckled blows in a Miami backyard, when the force of his punches ripped a man named Big D’s eye apart.
After injuries dashed his football dreams, Kimbo entered the world of fighting through the many illegal and semi-legal business opportunities Miami offered. He was homeless for a period, sleeping in his truck before he became a bouncer, and later a bodyguard for the pornography company Reality Kings. He started street fighting as a way to earn more money, and the combination of his look, demeanor, and ability to maim opponents in backyard and back-alley arenas made him a celebrity online and led him from YouTube to the UFC.
Kimbo was not the greatest fighter in the world, and few people thought he was. The problems that hampered his his career as a professional mixed martial arts fighter and boxer were evident in the street fight videos that made him famous. He was prone to exhaustion, had horrible knee problems, and was fairly easy to hit.
None of this stopped him from losing only one of his taped street fights (a grueling gym bout with Boston cop and MMA fighter Shaun Gannon). He hit hard, and he knew he’d often have to take one to give one, as his defensive boxing wasn’t exactly at the Pernell Whitaker level.
Still, his rough style made Kimbo one of the first breakout YouTube stars. Now, the term evokes hyper-manicured telegenic teenagers who perform highly-rehearsed comedy skits made to look organic or spit truisms about video games or bullying into a front-facing Macbook camera. Like all things, the practice of getting famous on YouTube was ascribed a money-making formula and financialized. But Kimbo did it first, and he did it the old-fashioned way: He fascinated people because of how he looked and what he did.
What made Kimbo fascinating was that he was a blank slate that viewers could paint their hatreds, fears, ambitions, and desires on. For some, he embodied everything that terrified them. For others, he was an entertaining and charismatic guy who maimed lesser challengers. Years later, even after he had been signed with professional outfits and heavily promoted, only to be knocked out again and again before millions of eyes, he still mystified people.
For fans, he was a cool badass who rolled up into backyards and beat the hell out of challengers. His strength and persona mystified them. The South Florida criminal world he came from was incredibly sexy, and gave them a spyglass into a universe they would never be a part of.
Others hated him. People who live in fear of the knockout game or whatever racial terror is being sold to them saw their worst fears personified in Kimbo and I think that was a reason behind some of his success. There was a Victorian element to the people who saw all of Kimbo’s pro fights just to watch him lose. When Seth Petruzelli knocked him out in October of 2008 at the Kimbo-centric MMA promotion Elite XC’s “Heat” show, they breathed a sigh of relief.
The bad black man had been shown his place.
Race aside, many hardcore MMA fans saw Kimbo as the representation of everything unfair and shitty about the sport they loved so much. Here was a man with no formal training that would lose to any top 50 ranked fighter at heavyweight, light heavyweight, and middleweight cashing huge paychecks and soaking up massive attention because he had captivated people on the internet. After being knocked out by Petruzelli in 14 seconds and causing the always-doomed Elite XC promotion to collapse under its own mismanagement and short-sightedness, UFC president Dana White placed him on Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter (one of the worst seasons of a show that probably should have been let to die long before that). The hardcore contingent was furious. Roy Nelson, a talented heavyweight who had been forced to toil outside of the UFC could only make it to the world’s biggest promotion, the only one that could give his skills the audience and payoff they deserved, by competing on a reality show with Kimbo.
When they finally met on the show, Nelson predictably took Kimbo down to where the big man was most helpless, moved past his guard, and tied up both of his arms in the crucifix position so he could suffocate the Miami brawler with his enormous gut and pepper his face with punches until referee Herb Dean had to call the fight.
But something changed after that. Viewers had seen saw Kevin Ferguson, the man. He was humble, charismatic, and sweet. He cooked BBQ for his fellow fighters, joked around, and seemed more like a goofy, fun dad (Kimbo was older than many of his fellow fighters on the cast), not some cynical marketing creation.
If this were a movie, I’d say the hate for Kimbo stopped there, but it didn’t. Kimbo competed on the finale of the show, where he beat fellow defunct hype creation Houston Alexander in a three-round decision. The fight was beyond terrible. Both men spent their time circling each other, almost afraid to engage. Kimbo did perform an amazingly cool suplex, but that was about it. Predictably, many hated it.
Kimbo went on to wash out of the UFC after fellow TUF 10 competitor Matt Mitrione ruined his night with a steady stream of leg kicks and straight punches. He matriculated into other promotions, most notably UFC competitor Bellator, where he had the last fight of his life against Dada 5000, a fellow internet star street fighter. It was, again, a comically awful fight.
But while time does not truly heal all wounds, it heals a lot of them. By the time Kimbo made his way to Bellator, the tone among truly dedicated fight fans changed. He was no longer being sold to a national audience of casual fight fans as some sort of super-bad black man. The MMA crowd laughed at the spectacle of a supposedly legitimate promotion spotlighting Kimbo, and of course, thought his fight with Ken Shamrock looked like a work (can’t say I blame them), but were happy that the man—who was still doing some sort of security work for Reality Kings to make a buck—was getting some big paychecks.
Since his death Monday, fans have mourned him. It was unfair that he got so much money and promotion behind him as opposed to more talented, unlauded fighters, but people have since realized it was just as unfair to blame him for the inequity of the industry. The image of Kimbo, the scary street fighter with criminal ties and a beard that would make most Salafists jealous, had been forgotten a while ago.
People remember Kevin Ferguson, the warm, funny guy who had heart to hearts with other enormous men in the TUF house. The guy who was dedicated to making as much money as humanly possible for his family. The guy who knew he wasn’t that good, but was willing to test himself and fail on a massive stage.