On June 6, the combat-sports world was left in shock as one of its most popular figures, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, passed away at the age of 42. Slice had achieved an enormous amount of fame through backyard fights that became viral sensations. He achieved even more with his transition into MMA. Slice was a magnetic personality. Everywhere he went, people watched and were entertained. The tragic news affected so many, including Bellator MMA color commentator Jimmy Smith, who I had the opportunity to talk with regarding a number of topics, including Kimbo’s sudden passing, his impact on combat sports and, most importantly, the type of person Kimbo Slice truly was.
What were your immediate thoughts when you heard of the Kimbo passing?
Smith: He was a nice guy. That was the first thing that occurred to me, is we all know Kimbo Slice the character — what we see on TV. I was able to meet him and interview him and deal with him while he was signed with Bellator, and the first thing that really kind of struck me about the guy was, he’s a really nice guy. He’s really humble, a gentleman, very polite and articulate to everyone at Bellator, so the only thing that struck me was the human element of it. Of what a nice guy he was and what a shame it is that he went that young. So that was the first thing that occurred to me when I first got confirmation of it.
What was your first personal interaction with him? Was it when he came over to Bellator?
Smith: Yeah, I had never really dealt with him before that. I may have met him or something, but I never actually had a conversation with him, never sat down with him until he came over to Bellator. And then, through that, of course you meet him at fighters’ meetings, you sit down and interview the guy to get to know him a little bit, and that was my first real interaction with him. And he really surprised everybody who had never met him before. His personality is just not what you’d expect. The persona you see — the guy in the backyard beating people up — you assume a guy like that would be loud and obnoxious, and he’s not like that at all. So, what you see when you’re dealing with Kimbo isn’t the person. When you get to know the person, like I said, he’s nothing but a nice, humble, articulate guy.
I know a lot of people will have their say about what he was as a fighter and his fights, positive and negative, but for you how was it covering Kimbo Slice?
Smith: What always got me, like you said when you look at his fights, it wasn’t about the breathtaking technique. It wasn’t about the MMA, necessarily ability he brought when he fought. What always stunned me the most were things like press conferences and weigh-ins, and any time the fans had an opportunity to see Kimbo Slice. They lost their minds. Any time we announce a fight about Kimbo Slice, the fans lost their minds. Good or bad. He never [did] not [get] a reaction. People were never indifferent about Kimbo Slice. He never failed to provoke emotion out of people.
That’s what always stunned me. It wasn’t that I was blown away by what he accomplished in the cage. It was what he accomplished in the interest he brought to his fights. You look at a regular Bellator fight and there’d be 20 comments about the fight. You look at Kimbo-Dada , it’d be in the hundreds. You can say a lot of them were negative, a lot of them were this and that — great, whatever. You didn’t ignore him.
When I watched Kimbo, it was like I wasn’t watching him. I was more watching people’s reactions to him, and it was always dramatic. It was always a huge reaction.
The Houston Card was my first time covering Kimbo, and I, too, was blown away. He sold out the arena — just the amount of celebrities that were in attendance for his fight was unreal. During his fight, people were going crazy. Looking at press row, looking at the celebrities, the fans attending, and whether that was a good fight or not, everyone had a reaction and was entertained.
Smith: It’s hard to duplicate. It’s easy to find guys that are quote unquote better fighters than Kimbo Slice. It’s a matter of finding somebody the fans identify with and are passionate about like they were with Kimbo. That’s lightning in a bottle.
What about the first time you had heard of Kimbo Slice mentioned?
Smith: The first time I had heard of him and really looked at him, is when a guy who beat him — Sean Gannon — was brought into the UFC. I think he fought a guy named Branden Lee Hinkle. He was brought into [the UFC] because he had beaten Kimbo in some backyard fight. So, that was the time I thought, “Well, they picked this guy up because he beat this other guy.” So I looked online and saw what everybody else saw. That was my first look at him, and it was what everyone saw: this big, gigantic brawler just knocking people’s heads off. And so, when Sean Gannon got his shot in the UFC because he beat that guy, that’s when I kind of backtracked and looked at him.
Isn’t that a bit surreal, that a guy got to be a part of the UFC after beating a backyard brawler and viral sensation? It had to have been the first time something like that occurred.
Smith: Yeah, exactly. So, when you get a name off beating somebody, well, that guy must be pretty good. It seemed like people were talking more about the guy he beat in a backyard fight than the fight he had coming up in MMA. I had heard the name, but when I first got into MMA and pro combat sports, the street-fighting thing didn’t really appeal to me very much. It was kind of like, backyard fighting wasn’t what I was really into. I was more into the pro aspect of it. So, when it crossovered to that point, where you’re hearing about a guy winning a backyard fight and then getting into the UFC because of it, that’s when I looked at Kimbo.
Going back to his time at EliteXC, he had a huge hand in the first MMA promotion to have a card televised on a primetime network. A street fighter was responsible for getting MMA broadcast for the first time ever on CBS. That’s an incredible impact.
Smith: Huge. I mean, the people that followed this guy, the people that were passionate about this guy, the people that would come out and watch this guy in record numbers, still, was unbelievable. You can deny a lot of things about him, but what you can’t deny about him was his appeal [and] how much people loved watching him fight. I mean, just today before you called, I’m at this sports bar reading and having lunch, and these three guys immediately started talking about Kimbo. That’s all they were talking about — all his street fights and everything. Just, the passion people had for this guy and how much people supported him was huge. Huge.
I had a similar situation happen, looking through social media and seeing so many people acknowledge Kimbo. People I would have never guessed knew of the guy. I kind of underestimated his appeal and just how popular he was.
Smith: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy every time. When we would come out to announce the fights in Bellator, sitting cageside, the reaction he got was just huge. And I’m in the combat-sports world. Like I said, the appeal of street fighting doesn’t resonate with me as much as it does to other people, so I was blown away. I was blown away to when you see how people reacted to him, his depth, and, like you said, the number of people you didn’t think would be fight fans who just went nuts for this guy and were really saddened by his death.
And it came in two forms for me. There were people who just knew him casually or knew of his work and [were] bummed to see Kimbo go, and then people who actually interacted with him, like me, who knew a genuinely good person. And that just sucks.
Why do you think he had generated so much interest? I know there were the fights, but there had to be more to it. Why do you think he was such a magnetic figure to where, when he fought, everybody showed up and everybody watched?
Smith: Well, it was almost like he took that type of certain, when you’re in high school and somebody gets in a fight, everybody runs to it situation. There’s a certain energy of a street fight kind of environment, and he brought that with him. That same energy you had in high school when a fight broke out and everybody went running to it. — professional combat sports doesn’t always have that. It’s a contest of wills. It’s technical. It’s this, this and that. It doesn’t always have that street fight kind of feel to it, and I think Kimbo brought that every single time.
It kind of reminded us of that high school fight whenever he fought, and it was that energy and enthusiasm that isn’t there every time pros get in the cage. And there was also… I was talking to somebody last night, and she was sitting up in the stands after Kimbo’s fight and Ken [Shamrock] and Royce [Gracie] were fighting in Houston, and she said every fan that came up to [Kimbo], he gave an autograph. He’d pause for a picture. He said hi to everybody. He missed the fight. He didn’t watch anything because he was dealing with the fans, and he was a really approachable, nice guy. And I think that combination is what made him popular.
Yeah, looking at social media, you’re seeing that right now. People are talking about how Kimbo took the time to take a picture with them or sign an autograph. So many people remember the interactions they had with him because it’s like, “Man, this guy is so popular, but yet he’s taking time for little ol’ me, to make my day.”
I think Kimbo is one of the few people that was responsible for bringing in more fans to the sport, as far as the person who saw Kimbo was fighting, and so they watched and immediately got hooked on MMA afterward.
Smith: Exactly. That crossover ability — to bring eyes to the sport that didn’t have eyes on it before — that’s what we need, what we want, and that’s what Kimbo Slice did.
A lot of people are seeing Kimbo as an embodiment of the American Dream — that rags-to-riches story, growing up in a rough part and making something of himself.
Smith: Yeah, and that was part of his appeal. He appealed to the people that look up and go, “Hey, maybe I can get out [of] my situation. Maybe fighting can lift me up and get me out of where I am.”
And fighting has always been that. It’s always been the sport of the underprivileged. Boxing for years was the sport of the person trying to make it in this world. And Kimbo Slice’s ability to do that and still stay true to his community in a lot of ways, that’s a combination a lot of people appreciated.
How would you like Kimbo to be remembered by fans?
Smith: When I was doing Fight Quest in China, I was leaving this temple and the guy that runs this temple, this Buddhist priest, was standing at the top of this stairway and I turn back and he says, “If you never practice Kung Fu again, just be a good person.” And when you look back in the annals of fighting, yeah, you’re not going to be talking about the technique of Kimbo Slice. But everybody who met him talks about what a nice guy he was. And what a humble guy he was. And what an articulate guy he was. And if it’s humanity that people will remember him for, hopefully, that would be a great thing. He really was a genuinely, really, really nice guy and that’s not everyone in this business, I’ll tell you that.
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