Editor's note: This piece from Dan Le Batard was originally published by ESPN The Magazine in 2008. Kimbo Slice passed away on June 6, 2016.
Let's rewind to the most desperate time in the desperate life of a desperate man. Before he traveled by stretch Navigator limo and private jet. Before rap stars requested his menace in their videos. Before Randy Moss approached him like an awestruck teen. Or Jason Taylor wanted the best seats to watch him fight. Or Lamar Odom said, "Manny Ramirez was born to swing a bat. Peyton Manning was born to throw a football. And Kimbo Slice was born to kick ass." You know, before he made that clichéd climb from strip-club bouncer to porn bodyguard to street-brawling Internet legend to broadcast-TV star, ho-hum.
Kimbo Slice-real name Kevin Ferguson-was homeless 14 years ago. He lived out of a green, 1987 Pathfinder that had four mismatched tires. He taped plastic bags to the shattered window to keep most of the rain out. He bathed in the ocean and pools and went to the bathroom wherever he could. He was too proud to live with his mother but not too proud to wash the cars of strangers when he got turned down for menial jobs. And that mind of his-the one that has surprised the CBS suits trying to morph him into an MMA star, that convinced them to sign him for MMA's network debut on May 31-drowned in shame.
It hadn't always been so. Two years earlier, in 1992, Ferguson had been a middle linebacker at Miami's Palmetto High with the skill to think college ball. But then Hurricane Andrew blew through South Florida, wrecking Ferguson's home and hopes. Palmetto's season was shortened, and Ferguson's scholarships disappeared. He tried college at Bethune-Cookman but flunked out. By early 1994, he was out on the street. And that time makes the 6'2", 240-pound, 34-year-old badass cry to this day, just thinking about living and dying in the stink of that damn truck.
For all the fistfighting Ferguson/Slice has done, in the alleys of Miami's darkest corners and now in front of shining lights, that homeless month represents the most scared he has ever been. Which is saying something. This is a man, mind you, who still wears the scars from Hurricane Andrew on his body, like slashes on a gladiator's shield. He hid under a mattress that night as debris pelted him and his mother's home crumbled. But at least he had a mattress then. And no six kids and their two moms to feed or fail. While in that truck, Ferguson talked to himself and to God and asked both to please keep him from temptation and deliver him from evil. He found work as a limo driver, a strip-club bouncer, a bodyguard for a porn company-whatever he had to do-until he could move from backseat to cheap apartment. It would have been the easiest thing to harm someone and take their money. It was just about the world's hardest thing not to.
Violence wasn't the answer. Not yet. It would, of course, later be his salvation, and America's love of it would be bigger even than his own. He has always tried to be honorable about administering it, though. Kimbo may have street cred that makes Allen Iverson look like a Tibetan monk, but it was built upon principles.
Friends say he has never been a bully, but he likes little else more than fighting them. His first videotaped street fight-a 2003 scrap that traveled from a Miami backyard to the world, the one in which he dropped his fists and kept advancing after letting the sculpted beast across from him take shots at his face, the one that earned him $3,000 for a knockout-was against a dude who'd been terrorizing the neighborhood with crime and fear. (Ferguson himself has never been arrested for a violent act. His one blotter incident came in 2002, when he was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and an open container; the weapons charge was dropped.) A buddy put the fight up on a porn site and immediately got two million hits, which handed Ferguson a new kind of famous with the YouTube generation. And with those clicks, Kevin Ferguson began his transformation into Kimbo Slice, merging the "Kimbo" he'd been called since he was a kid in the Bahamas with the "Slice" tag that Internet fans had slapped on him and Kimbo had deemed appropriately badass.
Mano a mano, Kimbo fought to test himself and to make money. It was human cockfighting; the brawls drew crowds and bets, and Kimbo put up as much as $5,000 for any taker who could match his stake and beat him. His mother didn't approve but went to one of the fights anyway and ended up screaming throughout. "Terrified," she recalls herself being. But earlier this month, she did a CBS Mother's Day commercial with Kimbo.
Back then, there was no packaging. Surrounding neighborhoods merely brought their baddest and bravest to fight, organized by what Kimbo calls the Don Kings of the street. Many of the fights were posted on YouTube. The rules were simple: pure striking, no grappling, officiating by the masses. In more than 20 fights, Kimbo lost only once.
He fought clinically, without anger or fear. An internship on the way to a profession. Emotions just got in the way of the science of penetrating another man's psyche and defense. Kimbo has rage roiling within, and he'll admit that fighting feels like a cathartic, and sexual, release. But in those conversations with himself and with God in that Pathfinder, he decided he could not unleash that rage upon the helpless just to help himself. There was honor, nobility and money in beating up consenting adults. There would have been only money in mugging an old person. "To hurt someone vulnerable, I just couldn't do it like that," he says. "You want to be a good father and productive citizen. I could have been on the cover of the newspaper as a killer. I had to fight with myself not to hurt people, some serious mental wars. But who would have raised my boys? They would have grown up knowing their dad died another violent death. They would have been angry, and now, instead of one person dying a violent death, you've got two other little protégés who would have grown up just as violent and vicious, causing even more harm to people. I couldn't have that. I've got to be a guide to my kids. Nobody else is going to do it."
Not what you expected, right? Bald. Bearded. Gold teeth. Inked-up muscles on top of muscles. Feared because he does not seem to fear. And popular and profitable because everything about him, from his rise to his look to his aura to our infatuation to those fists with knuckles in all the wrong places, is scary. But if you can get past that, there's a conscience, a blueprint and a loving father. That's not the easiest thing to believe, especially when Kimbo feeds the mythmaking machine a morsel at a time.
"Kimbo Slice" is a combination of a childhood nickname and a name he picked up fighting on the streets. Nadav Kander
Are you crazy, Kimbo?
"A little," he says.
Are you evil?
"Just a little."
He says he can see souls tremble, and dreams of tearing off a man's arm and beating him with it. Those crude videos of his barbaric fights speak for themselves, tapping into our fear and love of violence. So raw, so real and so unlike anything else in the commercials-ization of sports. Those videos traveled broadband around the globe like a whispered secret, seeming to say ugly things about him and us, a voyeuristic peek into a frightening world. They do so much of his marketing for him, because fear is good for business in the cage as long as the paying public has that fear and Kimbo doesn't. And while America might be ready to elect a black president, it'll be a long time before it is unafraid of a giant and violent black man intent on harm and seemingly impervious to it.
As with all marketing, appearances are crucial. It's hard to imagine Kimbo's having this aura if his story were exactly the same but he was white and clean shaven. Who would he be then? Tank Abbott? Butterbean? Hulk Hogan? With only two official pro MMA wins, would he have TV commercials on CBS as the newest face of a sport? Very little about this tale is uncomplicated. The American dream is not something you typically find wrapped in violence and sex. And you hardly expect a man to find God amid fistfights and pornography. But Kimbo Slice's ride, as turbulent as life and America and life in America, takes a lot of unexpected turns and arrives in some pretty dark places. What was the model of his truck? A Pathfinder? Kimbo prayed and believed at the depths of his despair, but he didn't immediately get answers or peace or find anything that felt like a path. All he immediately got was his truck repossessed.
Kimbo's manager, a 32-year-old white friend Kimbo met in high school, is sitting in the Miami boardroom of Reality Kings, an adult-entertainment company. There is a blowfish in the aquarium, a closet full of women's high-heel shoes and a framed Kimbo poster on the wall. In it, Kimbo is surrounded by bikini-clad women while wearing a fedora and holding a pimp's cane. As always, Kimbo looks bad. Bad meaning bad? Or bad meaning good? That depends on your judgments, or lack thereof. The poster is a piece of art on the wall at Reality Kings. Really. We are all a little naked, and the kings of our own reality, so the "A" in MMA is always in the eye of the beholder. Depending on your biases, the sport can be viewed as a technical science honing the skills of our toughest gladiators or as another deviant path toward the apocalypse.
Regardless, Kimbo's manager-who won't talk unless he's called IceyMike instead of his real name-doesn't want to be portrayed as a mastermind, because this wasn't planned. He hired Kimbo out of the strip club because he needed a limo driver in the late 1990s. But IceyMike discovered Kimbo's skills quite by accident. Seems every time a guy did something inappropriate with the girls in a VIP room, that guy ended up with IceyMike's limo driver standing over him. IceyMike's lovable little mom, Suzan, now runs Kimbo's fan club and can show you inspirational letters from Britain, Poland and Iraq, from grandmas who want autographs for their grandsons and from kids who've done elementary school projects on Kimbo. Suzan is one of the few people who reprimand Kimbo and get a bowed head. Believe it or not, Kimbo says IceyMike cares about him so much that he works for free. Funny, you don't expect to walk into a porn company and leave with a love story.
But there are haters, too. MMA elitists treat Kimbo like a circus act. They hate that he is representing their sport on Jimmy Kimmel. Hate that he's guaranteed six figures per bout like only the world's top fighters. Hate that he's on magazine covers and that George Karl motivates his Nuggets with footage of Kimbo. "More and more people are resenting him and his success," IceyMike says.
UFC president Dana White says Kimbo wouldn't last two minutes in the Octagon; Tito Ortiz reduces that to "seconds." And former UFC heavyweight champ Ricco Rodriguez told a radio station, "Kimbo is a tomato can. What has he done to prove himself? He hasn't fought anybody. He's a nobody. Kimbo Slice is just a clown."
And maybe Kimbo is just aura, hype and balls. But this is true too: For his fight against a washed-up Abbott (1-7 in his previous bouts) on Feb. 16, Kimbo sold out Miami U.'s basketball arena. Rodriguez was relegated to the undercard, where fans booed because his technical fight was a bore. Truth is, a star and some buzz are good for any sport; MMA should welcome Kimbo's charisma, personality and ability to attract the uninitiated. The Kimbo circus brings more people into the tent looking for carnage instead of science. Kimbo's network fight is against a 6'5", 270-pound crazy guy named James "The Colossus" Thompson. But The Colossus has no chin and once lost to Butterbean in less than a minute. The myth will grow the moment a national TV audience sees the cool Internet legend slay another giant. Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?
Besides, Kimbo's and MMA's stories are exactly the same. Up from the gutter. Secretly popular. Misunderstood. Violent. Criticized. Dangerous. Fun. Cool. Bloody. Viral. And now, finally, mainstream. Think about all the sports and leagues that aren't as popular in the U.S. despite huge financial backing: soccer, the WNBA, maybe even the NHL. MMA popped up because we demanded it, stepping over protests and outrage. It mixes football's violence with pro wrestling's entertainment and more sciences than boxing. Kimbo combines Mike Tyson's mystique and Mr. T's personality. That combination already landed one movie role for Kimbo, as a shiv-wielding bad guy in Blood and Bone, which is awaiting release. "I consider myself an up-and-coming, intelligent black businessman," Kimbo says.
Can he keep winning? Who knows? His ground game hasn't been tested, but he's been working for nearly a year in LA (where he stays with IceyMike) with legendary trainer Bas Rutten, a fifth-degree black belt in karate. "Kimbo's a freak with strength," Rutten says. "I wish all my fighters were like him. He has more tools than people think." And Kimbo has already beaten back three doubters with both bloody fists.
Here's what Ray Mercer, owner of the hardest punch Lennox Lewis claims he ever felt, said before fighting Kimbo in the first MMA event for each: "The quality of guys he is fighting ... they're bums. I'm former heavyweight champion of the world."
Kimbo needed 72 seconds to choke out Mercer. The fight was Mercer's final MMA attempt.
Here's what MMA veteran Bo Cantrell said before facing Kimbo: "I've been fighting for five years-tough cats. I don't make a living beating up little kids on YouTube. There's a big difference between being hit by someone who's trained to fight and someone off the street thinking they're tough. People pay me, train me well. I throw combinations, kicks, roundhouses. I'm not some guy trying to do his best Chuck Norris impersonation."
Kimbo beat Cantrell in 19 seconds, with punches.
Here's Abbott before fighting Kimbo: "It's going be an easy beating. I can't wait to hurt him. I've been in over 200 fights. I bench-press 600 pounds. He doesn't have the skills to hang."
Kimbo beat Abbott in 43 seconds, and only because he waited for Abbott to get up after dropping to his knees.
"I still consider myself a baby at this game," Kimbo says. "Those guys probably know how to run circles around me, but I can bang with the best. And I'm not a one-dimensional fighter anymore. I used to have just a hammer. But now I've got a hammer, a tape measure, a screwdriver, a glue gun. Now I've got some tools in the belt."
Looks like Kimbo Slice didn't need that repossessed Pathfinder to find a path. Looks like Kimbo Slice, after one hell of a journey and a journey through hell, has found something that feels a lot like a home.
PUNCHER'S CHANCE By Michael Woods