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The Ultimate Fighter

Kimbo Slice’s street fights made him a viral video star. His mixed martial arts bouts made him mortal.

Kimbo Slice punches Matt Mitrione in their heavyweight bout at UFC 113 at Bell Centre on May 8, 2010 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Kimbo Slice punches Matt Mitrione in their 2010 heavyweight bout at UFC 113 in Montreal.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Kimbo Slice, who died on Monday night at 42, arrived in the world via YouTube, fully formed at a reputed 260 pounds, bald and bearded, his teeth covered in gold, a menacing presence from the dark corners of the internet. He was born ready to fight.

The Kimbo origin story begins with his first recorded scrap, a bareknuckle fight filmed in 2003 that earned him $3,000 and transformed him into an online star. Like his other early bouts, this fight took place in a placid-seeming Miami location, in this case a backyard surrounded by a wooden fence and palm trees, and followed a similar script. Kimbo arrived with his posse, stalked over to his foe—a monstrous man called “Big D”—and started throwing hands. There was no warmup, no small talk, and no rules, really. This was raw street combat, and Kimbo had a gift for it. When he put away Big D with a cruel left hook, a shot that carved open his opponent’s face, his fans added “Slice” to the end of his name.

Other toughs met similar fates. Afro Puff, Big Mac, Chico, Dreads, Adryan—they all went down. “Let’s run this,” Kimbo liked to growl into the camera after dispatching an opponent. There was something fearsome and primal about what he represented, about his very existence. He was, to borrow a phrase, a “successful practitioner of ogreism.” Could such savagery really be happening behind Miami fences? Were ferocious men actually meeting at underground spots to do battle?

Yes, they were. And not just in Miami. This was the early-to-mid-2000s, before UFC had fully rehabbed its brand and gained a mainstream toehold. The demand for authentic violence was high, all the more so if it looked like it might be happening in a city near you. DVD series like Ghetto Fights, Bumfights, and Felony Fights gained cult followings. But Kimbo was unique. He shaved strange patterns in his chest hair. He wore a huge gold fist around his neck. He was weird and terrifying. More importantly, he was online and easy to watch.

There’s an obvious parallel here to the rise of free, ubiquitous online porn: the ability to watch what you want, when you want it, online and for free, no matter how outré it might be. It feels fitting, then, that Kimbo’s fights were initially posted on a porn site—after bouncing at a strip club, he found work as muscle for an online porn company in Miami. Kimbo went mainstream when his videos made their way to YouTube. By 2006, he’d become a folkloric figure, a homespun brawler who’d exalted himself from the ghetto by way of streaming video.

By 2008, Kimbo Slice had transitioned to MMA and, incredibly, fetched up on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, stroking his hirsute chin like a Rodin sculpture. ESPN’s Dan Le Batard unearthed his backstory, revealing that Kimbo, aka Kevin Ferguson, had been a star high school linebacker whose college hopes were dashed when Hurricane Andrew cut his season short. He’d been homeless and lived out of his Nissan Pathfinder for a spell, taking baths in the ocean. It was an amazing rags-to-riches tale.

The increased attention, though, undermined the fearsome YouTube legend. Kimbo was an onscreen avatar of destruction, a prelapsarian Mike Tyson for the internet age. His online badassery was so bad that it hardly seemed real. Kevin Ferguson was a real person, a Bahamian immigrant and family man bootstrapping his way through life and trying to provide for his kids. Sure, he tenderized mugs and worked for a porn company, but there was a dignity about him. According to Le Betard, Big D, the opponent in Kimbo’s first video, had been “terrorizing the neighborhood with crime and fear.” Kimbo was just serving up some street justice.

Not everyone felt so warm and fuzzy about the Kimbo phenomenon. LZ Granderson, a columnist for ESPN, called it a “low point for black Americana,” and added the following:

I don’t know if he’s necessarily stupid, because I’ve never met the man, but he certainly seems to be misguided. Why else would Slice disregard all sense of honor, pride and history to project an image that can best be described as a cross between Lil’ Wayne and Kunta Kinte—a runaway slave with a mouth full of gold teeth playing up every single stereotype of an African-American male in exchange for short-lived adoration from a soulless media with ADD.

Kimbo was destined to be a totem. He was, depending on where you were sitting, the toughest man on the planet, a bogeyman from the hood, an inspirational figure, or a minstrel clowning for dollars. For promoters, he was mostly a novelty act, a name to stick on a card to sell tickets, no skills required. There is no other explanation for his mixed martial arts career.

His debut in the sport came in 2007, in an exhibition against befuddled 46-year-old former boxing heavyweight champ Ray Mercer. Kimbo beat Mercer in the first round and never looked better in the cage.

Though he took the sport seriously, Kimbo had started late. His flaws as a fighter were obvious, even after years of training at American Top Team, one of the best MMA camps in the world. Kimbo’s cardio was nonexistent. He had a weak chin. His vaunted power, so useful in a one-minute backyard brawl, faded in the first round of a professional cage match. He couldn’t wrestle. He had no jiu-jitsu game. But he had heart. He was humble and eager to learn, by all accounts. In interviews, he came off like a typical journeyman athlete, talking earnestly about how he needed to work hard and improve.

Kimbo maintained his forbidding reputation and internet celebrity, at least for a few short years. In his third pro fight, for a promotion called EliteXC in 2008, the then–34-year-old headlined the first MMA card to air in primetime on a major television network. At the time, EliteXC was vying to become a potential rival to the UFC. Kimbo on CBS, in a fight called by Gus Johnson—this was a major event, the high point of his career.

“After [this fight],” EliteXC promoter Gary Shaw promised me before the event, “Kimbo Slice will be the biggest name in mixed martial arts.”

There was no question Kimbo could draw. More than 6 million people tuned in to see him fight a former debt collector named James Thompson, making it one of the most-watched MMA events ever. It was a terrible fight. Thompson ground-and-pounded Kimbo for two rounds, dominating the not-so-scary-seeming mixed-martial-arts neophyte. Then, in the third, Kimbo landed some hard punches that caused Thompson’s grotesquely swollen cauliflower ear—which for some reason had not been drained before the fight—to explode on national TV.

In many ways, this was more lurid than any illicit beatdown, and not merely because an organ was almost liberated from its owner’s skull. Promoters want to sell tickets and get ratings, and an exploding cauliflower ear makes for great television. So does a dynamite-fisted man-creature from the hood, regardless of his talent. This tension between promotional hucksterism and competitive integrity has often contorted MMA, a young sport striving for legitimacy. And Kimbo, perhaps more than any other fighter, existed at this torque point, more an objet d’avarice than he ever was during his YouTube days. Professional MMA, it turned out, was no less exploitative an environment than the Miami backyards in which he’d made his bones.

He lost his next fight, against a last-minute substitute named Seth Petruzelli, by TKO in 14 seconds. Kimbo had been exposed, but so had the matchmaking and promotional packaging around him. This was Gus Johnson’s call after Petruzelli floored Kimbo with a baby punch thrown off one leg while leaning backward: “Rocky! Rocky is here! Seth Petruzelli shocks the world! … The most incredible victory in the history of mixed martial arts!”

The only thing shocking about Kimbo Slice’s MMA career was the level of cognitive dissonance required to buy what MMA promotions were hoping to sell. Before the Petruzelli fight, UFC President Dana White had offered a more honest assessment: “Kimbo sucks.” After the fight, White doubled down and announced that “Kimbo Slice would get murdered in the UFC,” implying he didn’t have the chops to hang in the sport’s big leagues.

Less than a year later, White signed Kimbo. He was just another in a long line of promoters hoping to milk whatever was left of the legend. Kimbo appeared on the UFC’s reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter, and set ratings records. He won one fight with the UFC, lost another, then got kicked to the curb.

Throughout it all, almost tragically, Kimbo remained true to himself. He’d been elevated to the main stage at an advanced age despite only rudimentary training because he’d been a genuine underground sensation, and because fans responded to his credibility. They wanted to watch him. It wasn’t his fault that he struggled to compete at this level. People wanted to believe that Kimbo was the baddest man on the planet, and promoters happily sold them that fantasy. Kimbo sold that fantasy, too, but you can’t blame him for his willingness to play along. He didn’t just want the money. He needed the money. He was a college dropout with six kids who’d once been homeless. Fighting was his best option.

After his departure from the UFC, he boxed professionally for a couple years. He returned to MMA in 2015 to face 51-year-old relic Ken Shamrock on a Bellator card. It was a curious fight, with Shamrock inexplicably releasing Kimbo from what appeared to be a locked-in rear naked choke only to get knocked out a few seconds later.

There had been whispers that a few of Kimbo’s previous MMA bouts had been rigged. The Shamrock fight didn’t just provoke whispers of a fix but in-depth analysis of one (although it’s possible that the fight was just so bad it felt rigged). Still, the Spike TV broadcast got better ratings than any previous Bellator card.

Kimbo’s last fight was one of the saddest, least-watchable episodes in MMA history, a wheezing three-round hugfest that Kimbo won by TKO—only to have the result overturned after he tested positive for steroids. His opponent, a Miami street fighter and former Kimbo associate called Dada 5000, was stretchered out of the ring and later claimed to have suffered two heart attacks during the fight. Naturally, Kimbo vs. Dada 5000 broke the old Bellator record for viewers.

This week, it was Kimbo’s heart gave that gave out. He was put on a ventilator and died as doctors were preparing to add him to a heart transplant list. Kimbo Slice’s life ended an hour from where Kevin Ferguson grew up.

Though Kimbo’s MMA career was mostly farce, the man along for the ride was real. He was a genuine street fighter who captured the imagination of millions, was disdained by MMA purists when he entered the sport, and eventually won over his critics because he was impossible not to like. Kimbo tried hard. He respected his craft. He was humble. He wanted to improve.

In 2010, in the run-up to his fight against Matt Mitrione at UFC 113, Kimbo talked about how he wanted to be remembered after he died. “I just want people to say that that guy evolved,” he said.

Watch that clip, and then decide whether Kimbo Slice was a thug or a minstrel or an invincible brute. Whether he was the low point of anything, or whether he was just a dude who’d had a rough life and was trying to make it better. A dude who had the power to reach through a screen and shake up the world.