Today marks the passing of one of MMA's truly unique personas. Kevin Ferguson, better known to the world as Kimbo Slice, died in Florida this week at the age of 42. Behind him he leaves a complicated, and at times messy, MMA legacy - one that is unlikely to be quite duplicated again.
Kimbo first came to fame in 2003 not through MMA, but through unsanctioned and illegal street fights broadcast on various online video players. It's worth remembering that this is 2003 - YouTube was yet to launch, and the now ubiquitous concept of "going viral" was meaningless. Meanwhile, MMA had escaped the earliest "human cockfighting" years, paving the way for legitimate athletic competition in lieu of tough guy street fights. Yet in that environment, Kimbo managed to thrive, becoming a big cult presence by beating down hapless opponents on the streets of Miami.
In 2005, he lost for the first time, being defeated in a street fight by Sean Gannon, a Boston police officer with a 2-0 MMA record. That fight somewhat bizarrely propelled Gannon to the UFC, where he went 0-1, losing to Branden Hinkle at UFC 55. With that loss, for the first of many times, it seemed the Kimbo phenomenon had come to an end.
But in 2007, Kimbo came back onto the national scene in a big way, making his unlikely pro MMA debut. His opponent was former boxing world champion Ray Mercer, in what was billed as an exhibition fight for commission purposes. Kimbo choked Mercer out in 1 minute. He was quickly signed by MMA company EliteXC, which was in its first year of operation.
Today, EliteXC is something of a punchline, but there were major names fighting for the company, including Gina Carano, Robbie Lawler, and Nick Diaz among others. From the moment Kimbo debuted in November 2007, it was clear that his star trumped them all. He scored two fast wins over Bo Cantrell and Tank Abbott, and was then given the opportunity of a lifetime.
In May 2008, EliteXC debuted on CBS. Nowadays, with the UFC on Fox, it's easy to forget what a monumental deal this was. The EliteXC show was the first MMA show in a primetime slot on a major American network ever. And Kimbo was at the helm. His opponent was James Thompson, and fans expected another Tyson-style blowout from Kimbo. But Thompson, flawed though he was, was also a veteran and knew his way around the cage. The result was a 3 round war that saw Thompson's cauliflower ear famously explode in a gruesome battle. In the end, Kimbo stood victorious, and so did EliteXC - the show averaged an amazing 4.85 million viewers, and Kimbo vs. Thompson was the most watched MMA fight in US television history (it held that title for over 3 years before being trumped by Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos I on Fox).
EliteXC's follow-up on CBS was a Kimbo-less show, and the ratings tumbled. The message was clear - Kimbo was the draw, not EliteXC. So in October, they went back to Kimbo, pairing him with popular veteran Ken Shamrock for their third CBS show. What happened is a legendary moment in MMA, but not for very good reasons.
In the hours leading up to the show, Shamrock was injured, forcing him out. UFC veteran Seth Petruzelli was pulled from his undercard fight and thrust into the main event. According to rumors, he was also encouraged to keep the fight standing with Kimbo. He did. And in just 14 seconds, knocked Kimbo out.
From a ratings perspective, the show did well, drawing in an audience near the Thompson fight, but Kimbo's loss was a complete fiasco. EliteXC would never run a show again, closing shop just 2 weeks later. Again, it seemed Kimbo was done. Again, he was not.
Dana White had long been critical of Kimbo, and when asked after the Petruzelli fight if Kimbo in the UFC was a possibility, Dana stated that it would only happen if Kimbo came through The Ultimate Fighter (then nearing its 10th season). Amazingly, that's exactly what happened. Kimbo joined TUF season 10, joining Team Rampage against Team Rashad. His participation was huge, and gave TUF (even then starting to fade considerably) a huge boost. In the third week, Kimbo faced accomplished veteran Roy Nelson. Nelson handled him easily, defeating him in the 2nd round en route to winning the competition.
Kimbo was none the less given a shot in the UFC. At the TUF Finale, he took on Houston Alexander. Kimbo took the decision win, but both men gassed badly, and the fight is mostly known for the image of the two fighters both bent over gasping for breath after the final bell. Kimbo had one more UFC shot, taking on fellow TUF 10 fighter Matt Mitrione (then just 1-0) at UFC 113. Mitrione used leg kicks to dominate Kimbo, who was subsequently cut from the UFC. It seemed Dana White had made a clear statement with Kimbo's UFC run - this guy was not UFC caliber. And yet again, it all seemed over.
The subsequent years were relatively quiet for Kimbo in terms of public notoriety. He launched a pro boxing campaign, and from 2011-2013 put together a 7-0 boxing record. But it was not in any way memorable, as he never faced an opponent with a winning record. Perhaps the most interesting moment of his boxing career came when opponent Brian Green admitted to Bloody Elbow that he wore ankle weights to the weigh-in just so he could make the Heavyweight limit. Kimbo quietly retired from pro boxing without making so much as a ripple.
From 2013-2015, Kimbo did not fight, and as his 40th birthday passed, it seemed his combat sports career may have come to an end. But in 2015, Bellator gave him an amazing 3rd life in MMA, signing him to a multi-fight deal that brought him back into the cage for the first time in over 5 years. His opponent was, once again, Ken Shamrock. Only this time, the fight went on as planned, with Kimbo emerging victorious.
Kimbo's Bellator time was highly controversial. Many fans felt that a fight like Kimbo vs. Shamrock devalued MMA, emphasizing a sort of sideshow spectacle over the legitimacy the sport had gained. Some even questioned the legitimacy of the fight itself. Others praised Bellator for doing something different and embracing this side of the sport. Regardless, the show was a ratings success, drawing Bellator's highest ever audience and showing that, all these years later, Kimbo Slice remained a draw. It has since fallen to #2, replaced only by the next Kimbo fight.
That fight would be his last, as Kimbo defeated fellow street fighter Dada 5000 in a fight that only accentuated the controversies from the Shamrock fight. That result was later overturned when Kimbo failed a drug test, giving him a final career MMA record of 5-2, 1 NC.
That controversy surrounding his Bellator run encapsulates much of the controversy surrounding the entire career of Kimbo Slice. To a notable group of fans and MMA analysts, Kimbo represents something not quite right with the sport. They see him as a moderately trained street fighter, who only got shots due to his fame, never his skill. The other side of the debate sees him as a throwback fighter - the kind of exciting and visceral competitor you might have seen in the earliest years of the UFC, but did not expect to see in 2015.
No matter where you fall on that divide, one thing is abundantly clear from Kimbo's career: fans cared about Kimbo Slice. He drew record numbers for EliteXC, record numbers for Bellator, and big numbers for TUF. No matter how many times he was "exposed", he still made fans want to see him. At the time of his death, Kimbo was looking to rematch his old foe James Thompson for Bellator - you can bet that one would have been big for ratings as well.
Kimbo was a man of a different era. Today's MMA landscape is not one of street fighters - it is one of technical fighters and coaches pushing the sport of MMA. Yet Kimbo showed that there is still room in MMA for the sideshow style of fight. Whether that is a good thing or not depends on your own personal view, but one thing is certain: with his passing, MMA has lost one of its most fascinating characters, and a man whose unique legacy is unlikely to be matched, ever.