RIP, Kimbo Slice: World's First Athletic Viral Internet Star Dies at 42 in South Florida

Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson, a Bahamian-born mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who grew up to achieve internet fame in Miami-Dade, died last night at the age of 42 after being admitted to a Broward County hospital.

Details of his death are not yet clear, but Ferguson leaves behind a unique legacy telling of the times. He was perhaps the first athlete to compete in the highest league of his sport based on the success of his viral internet fame. 

Born in 1974 in Nassau, Ferguson moved with his family to Miami when he was a child, and the future star grew up in Cutler Bay. He was a standout linebacker at Miami Palmetto Senior High with hopes of winning a college scholarship. His dream was to play for the Miami Hurricanes.

The story goes that an actual hurricane — 1992's Category 5 monster, Andrew — cut Palmetto's season short, wrecked his family home, and dashed his college dreams. He ended up attending Bethune-Cookman University but flunked out. According to a 2008 ESPN profile, he lived for awhile in his a beat-up SUV but eventually found work as a strip club bouncer. He later worked as a bodyguard for a locally based internet porn business. 

While working far behind the camera in the online porn world, he found himself starring in other taboo internet videos that would propel him to notoriety: backyard fight videos. 

In the early 2000s, Ferguson participated in loosely organized brawls held in the backyards of Miami suburbs. The matches were videotaped and uploaded online. Ferguson dominated his opponents and gained a cult following on the internet. 

In his first uploaded fight, his bare-knuckled punch left his opponent with a bloody slice to the face. Already fighting under his child nickname of "Kimbo," the "Slice" moniker was added, contributing to his online legend. 
Ferguson could win thousands of dollars for each of his backyard knockouts, but what mattered in the long run were the millions of views each of his fights would rack up. What happened next was unprecedented and might never truly be duplicated. 

While the internet has disrupted the conventional path to professions as varied as pop star (think Justin Bieber and his early days as a YouTube phenom) and hired car driver (think Uber), the road to sports stardom has remained relatively untouched. 

Though it varies somewhat by sport, young athletes begin training in childhood — often in pee-wee, high school, and other youth circuits — and then develop in college or the minor leagues before attaining glory in the pros. No one uploads a video of themselves sinking 100 baskets in a row and snags an NBA contract because of it. A viral hole-in-one shot has not cleared anyone's way to win a green jacket at the Masters. That's just not how it works it most sports. 

But MMA isn't most sports. 

Combining the legitimate rules of other combat sports with the myth-making and story-building of professional wrestling, MMA was becoming increasingly popular at the time Ferguson's backyard fight videos were wracking up online views. It was only natural that MMA promoters would seek to capitalize on his viral fame. 

Ferguson made his debut for the now-defunct EliteXC in 2007 and scored wins in his first three matches (including one versus former professional wrestler Tank Abbot). 

The early wins paved the way for a much-hyped match against Ken Shamrock, another fighter who had spent time on the pro wrestling circuit, on Ferguson's home turf of South Florida. The match was scheduled to take place in Sunrise at the BankAtlantic Center. It was also poised to be a pivotal moment for the sport. It was the main event of the first MMA event broadcast on primetime network television. 

However, hours before the match, Shamrock suffered a cut to his eye that forced him to forfeit. Promoters scrambled to find a replacement, and Ferguson eventually agreed to fight then-little-known Seth Petruzelli. 

The underdog would defeat Ferguson in 14 seconds flat. To make matters worse, Petruzelli later claimed that promoters had hinted they wanted him to stick to a fight style that was more conducive to Ferguson's style by offering Petruzelli bonuses to keep the match off the ground, with less grappling. 

The controversy dealt a black eye to the reputation of the sport (EliteXC would file for bankruptcy soon after) and Ferguson himself. 

But his backstory and star power proved too much for the sport to ignore him. UFC owner Dana White challenged Ferguson to compete on his league's reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. Ferguson accepted, and the series led to his first and only pay-per-view match at UFC 113. He lost. It would be his only official fight with the promotion. 

Ferguson continued to peddle his star power, though. He competed in boxing matches at casinos throughout the world. Hollywood would come calling as well, and he appeared in everything from Nickelodeon shows to a direct-to-DVD sequel of The Scorpion King

He eventually made a return to MMA last year, this time with Bellator. In his first match with the league, he finally got to face off against and eventually defeat Shamrock.

This past February, Ferguson won a match against DaDa 5000, a former protégé and fellow South Floridian who also rose from the ranks of online street fighters to professional MMA competitors. But that match was derided by fans for its low quality. Adding to the controversy is the fact that Ferguson's win was later vacated after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. 
Though Ferguson's professional career was mixed, it's hard not to credit him as an athlete who made the most of his unique situation. He saw his original path to traditional sports stardom crushed by bad luck, but with a competitive spirit, a captivating persona, and viral infamy, he became one of the most talked-about figures in MMA's relatively young history. 

It's also worth noting that Ferguson was regarded as a gentle giant. His fighting style, at its best, wasn't one of unbarred fury and anger, but methodical destruction. Out of the ring, he was regarded as kind and professional. He leaves behind six children and was engaged to his longtime girlfriend at the time of his death. 

Maybe the best summation of Ferguson's character is that very first video of the fight that sent him to viral notoriety in the first place — the one where he left his opponent with a facial wound so grizzly it would lead to the ring name Kimbo Slice. After the fight, Ferguson hugged his opponent, and the two men laughed it out. This despite the fact that the losing competitor's eye nearly popped out of his bloodied face. 
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Kyle Munzenrieder