[20 November 2008]
Like Pussy Galore, Ebenezer Scrooge, or Fat Bastard, Kimbo Slice is among those whose name seems to give a particular insight into their personality. One need not be a Bond fan to know what Galore’s game was. Similarly, Scrooge and Bastard were, as advertised, chintzy and overweight (respectively). As his own moniker suggests, Kimbo Slice has been best known for the violence he directs against those foolish enough to oppose him in a fight. Though it’s hard to slice anything with a fist, many combatants have been taken apart by his abilities inside and, notably, outside the mixed martial arts cage.
Unlike these other characters, though, Slice is a real person—in some ways, at least. His actual name is Kevin Ferguson. His nom de guerre was given to him during a period in his life when he made ends meet as a backyard brawler. Often, this term is used to indicate an aggressive athlete who gives his or her all. In the case of Kimbo Slice, though, the description quite literally described his profession. Initially a standout high school football player in Miami, Ferguson was left homeless in the destructive wake of Hurricane Andrew. His college football prospects disappeared and he was forced to translate his skills as a linebacker into more immediately marketable commodities.
As a result, Slice became a driver and bodyguard for a porn company. After beating down several over-enthusiastic fans, his employer recognized his potential and put him to work as a combatant in illegal street fights. Slice and his handlers would show up at a designated meeting spot (often someone’s house) and Kimbo would proceed to fight whoever had been arranged for him. Nearly always, he won, pummeling opponents until they could not (or would not) get up for further punishment. Money was exchanged. Slice’s prowess was hailed. And, most importantly, video footage was recorded.
Kimbo Slice—a large, heavily muscled black man sporting gold teeth, an unruly beard, and a fearsome scowl— embodied the stereotype of black physical menace so completely that there simply was no way that he could be anything but a Bad Man, one who invoked the clear threat (and thrilling promise) of violence at any moment.
Thanks to that camera, and the rise of YouTube, Slice became perhaps the first fighter to go viral. His fight videos earned him a devoted, underground following on the Internet, to the point where his ascension to the organized rules of Mixed Marital Arts competition represented the confirmation of his status as an ultimate badass. It wasn’t that he was there to make a name for himself. In fact, when Slice first joined an MMA league (EliteXC), it was his name that was being used to garner notoriety, not the other way around. He arrived fully-formed, with a knock-out record and a back story that attracted fans and media alike. ESPN the Magazine, most notably, devoted a cover to Slice’s menacing visage, well in advance of his televised debut as an MMA fighter.
Unfortunately for Slice, and the many who sought to make money from his ascension to organized MMA, his first appearance as an EliteXC fighter on CBS was a far cry from those hand-held online documents of backyard dominance. Against a journeyman fighter named James Thompson, Slice absorbed a great deal of punishment (repeatedly trying to slow Thompson’s elbows down with his forehead), before he managed with an overhead right to stun Thompson long enough for the referee to jump in and stop the fight. In his follow-up to this widely panned debut, Slice lasted 14 seconds before being knocked out by an unknown named Seth Petruzelli.
In the fallout from Slice’s MMA incarnation, Petruzelli hinted in a radio interview that he was paid extra by league organizers to fight Slice standing up—trading blows (which presumably would have favored Slice’s strengths) rather than taking the match to the ground for a more manageable, less exciting wrestling match. The EliteXC has roundly denied the implication of a fix (and Petruzelli himself has issued a clarification), but it nonetheless was forced to file bankruptcy as the league’s marquee star was eclipsed by ineptitude and scandal.
Clearly, Kimbo Slice was not the human wrecking machine that the league, CBS, and its advertisers had been banking on. As his own future remains uncertain, the rest of us are left to wonder just why he occasioned such lofty expectations in the first place. What inspired a budding promotional company to pin the entirety of its financial hopes on an untested fighter? How did an unproven slugger come to grace the front cover of a national sports magazine?
The answer to questions like these is at once straightforward and complex: race. Kimbo Slice—a large, heavily muscled black man sporting gold teeth, an unruly beard, and a fearsome scowl— embodied the stereotype of black physical menace so completely that there simply was no way that he could be anything but a Bad Man, one who invoked the clear threat (and thrilling promise) of violence at any moment. Slice, whose fortunes were at once torn asunder and radically refigured by a hurricane, constituted a kind of perfect storm of racial stereotypes himself—the combined effects of which ensured that, no matter how skilled a fighter, he was always already understood as someone to fear.
Consider, for example, the way that Slice gained his notoriety. Though only a minor weapons charge mars his record, Slice’s backyard brawling—in unsanctioned bouts held without the organizing boundaries of a ring, an official, or commentators—ensured that he would carry with him the criminal aura of “the streets”, regardless of the arena in which he fought. Further, the seemingly spontaneous nature of these fights, as opposed to the contrivance of lights, cameras, and bikini clad ring girls, coded Slice as someone best understood as having a natural, in-born proclivity for violence. Ignoring Slice’s training regimen (and a physique like his is impossible to achieve without one), the YouTube videos instead suggest that Slice was simply born to kick ass. We understand him as someone who shows up, throws down, gets paid, and goes home.
Of course, that’s exactly what he and all the other fighters are doing in an organized MMA bout. The only difference, other than the amount of people watching (including the ref), is the amount of money to be made. For his 14 seconds of consciousness against Seth Petruzelli, Slice reportedly earned half a million dollars. A sum like that evokes two conflicting reactions. On the one hand, it’s rewarding to see a formerly destitute, self-described family man earn enough money to put his financial woes behind him. On the other, though, it serves as a sobering measurement of just how persistent and lucrative the presence of black stereotypes in sports remains.
As our enthusiasm grows for emerging new technologies that disseminate images and ideas at ever-increasing speeds, it would seem that our critical consideration of this influx continues to lag. As the case of Kimbo Slice points out, modern sports audiences still have a long way to go before they’re free from the dubious legacy of centuries-old thinking.