The Death of a Great Vol. 8: Kimbo Slice (1974-2016)
It might seem like tempting fate to run a memorial series while we’re only halfway through the year, but Grub staffers are not known for their superstitions (we’re known for our underwater basket-weaving). With the loss of so many cultural luminaries in the first half of 2016, writers in the Grub community and beyond needed time and distance to process what those collective losses meant to them. Some of those losses, like Bowie and Ali, were felt across the globe, while others you might not have heard about at all. In this series, writers come to grips with what we gained and lost in the lives and deaths of key cultural figures this year. In the seventh installment of this series, our own Jonathan Escoffery reacts to the death of Kimbo Slice.
In a notable year for celebrity deaths, you might’ve missed the news that Kevin Ferguson, known more widely as Kimbo Slice, died this past June, just three days after Muhammad Ali. Ferguson was, among other professional titles, an MMA fighter and a boxer, and at the time of his passing, held a boxing record of 7-0. And while his undefeated record reads as his most impressive athletic achievement, those who witnessed his ascending star might agree that the creation of the legend of Kimbo Slice was undoubtedly his more awe inspiring feat.
As a spectator, the way you’ll remember Ferguson, or Ferg, or Kimbo, likely depends on when you began witnessing his career. For me, it began on a 1AM lunch break at the warehouse where I loaded freight circa 2005. A coworker who regularly hocked low-quality bootleg DVDs brought in a recording of a Kimbo fight and insisted we crowd around his laptop to watch it. Working, and thus living, overnight creates fertile grounds for the uncanny, and what I witnessed that night seemed just that. The recording featured Ferguson’s backyard bare-knuckle brawl with “Big D,” one of his earliest circulated fights and the one for which he is perhaps most famous.
I won’t strain to describe the match, because you can easily find it online in all its pixilated glory. Watch the YouTube video, and you’ll find that the distortion acts as censorship for the damage Ferguson inflicts on Big D’s eye. Through the pixilation you can make out the yard’s sun-burnt grass and the Satellite dish the two fighters nearly run into. You can discern Ferguson’s impatience with Big D’s hesitant jabs. You see him drop his arms to his sides, scream, “Hit me!” and allow Big D to take several wild swings without defending himself. Ferg takes some blows, direct or indirect, and yells, “That’s all you got? It’s over,” before landing a punch that sends D stumbling, pleading for Ferg to stop with a, “Chill, dog,” and a raised palm.
What I recall seeming obvious while watching, was that the fight had taken place locally, which the amateur footage and the venue seemed to suggest. Several of the guys I worked with had gone to school with Ferguson and knew him from his high school football days. They knew him simply as Ferg. I nearly asked my coworker if he’d recorded the fight, before realizing the video was making the rounds, starting a mile or two away in Perrine where the fight took place, and traveling far beyond Miami Dade’s county lines.
Soon enough after, I watched several more of Ferguson’s fights, this time on YouTube, which was its own brand new phenomenon in 2005. There appeared Kimbo in a shipyard, knocking out two fighters in succession. There went Kimbo, pulverizing Sean Gannon in Boston, the off duty cop’s cardio allowing him to pull off a rare (slim) victory over Ferguson in the end, though the physical damage appeared one-sided, swelling over Gannon’s face. No matter—the Kimbo Slice movement was on the road in more ways than one. He became one of the first YouTube stars. His videos’ hits were and are in the millions. The confluence of newly available technology and his action movie-like finishes made Ferguson a sensation. His fights were more entertaining than the main events on Pay-Per-View. Eventually, the UFC took notice and cast him for The Ultimate Fighter.
From there, Kimbo went on to win some fights, and lose some, both in the UFC and elsewhere. Skeptics questioned his drive and criticized his notoriety as undeserved hype. Opponents went so far as to call his lack of roundedness, and his supposed “easy in” as an internet star, an insult to MMA. These slights usually came with digs at the street fighter’s “streetness.”
But the further Ferguson continued on in MMA and boxing, the more I became a fan. If you paid attention, you could see he was making small improvements on his ground game and cardio; you could see—long after some YouTube fans turned on him when he failed to dominate in the UFC—that he was working as hard as ever to build something. With more serious competition to face, he might not be heading for any title fights, but he managed upsets often enough to stay relevant on one platform or another, and boxing allowed him to add to his highlight reel.
The mystique of the unstoppable street fighter slipped away; Kimbo’s legend did not transcend the backyard brawls, but I can only see his career, and by extension his life, as an overwhelming success, especially knowing where he was coming from— knowing he had gone from living out of his car to doing what he loved on the world’s biggest stages.
It’s worth saying too that Ferguson, outside of the “ring,” was humble. In most of his street fights you can see him checking on his opponents to make sure they are okay (often after knocking them unconscious, but that’s the name of the game), and in Miami he had a reputation for using his brawn in only the most focused, career-oriented ways. More than any of that, I respected that when the myth of Kimbo faded and the road that his name had paved brought him no further, Ferguson kept on working at what he loved, which is all any of us really can do.
Ferguson was getting cast in movies, a path more and more fighters are taking to pad the latter parts of their careers. He was training with a top team in South Florida. Had his heart held up, there’s no telling where he would have landed next. If you buy into the idea that Kimbo was all hype, then he may have been among the greatest hype-men of our time, because he turned nothing into something with little more than his bare hands.
Jonathan Escoffery’s writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, AGNI, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, Salt Hill, The Caribbean Writer, Creative Nonfiction, The Best American Magazine Writing 2020, and elsewhere. His most recent honors include winning the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship, the 2020 National Magazine Award for Fiction from the American Society of Magazine Editors, and a 2020 Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico grant. He has received awards and honors from The Best American Short Stories anthology, Aspen Words, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, the Somerville Arts Council, The Writers' Room of Boston, Kimbilio Fiction, the Anderson Center, Wellspring House, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Jonathan earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota where he was a DOVE Fellow, a COSP Fellow, and the Fiction Editor at Dislocate magazine. He attends the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program as a Provost Fellow. For a full listing of his publications and projects, please visit jonathanescoffery.comSee other articles by Jonathan Escoffery