Search "Kimbo Slice" on YouTube and what you get is a multitude of videos totaling millions of views. To some, Slice (aka Kevin Ferguson) has just made it big as a YouTube celebrity (Think: Leave Britney alone girl or I've got a crush on Barack Obama girl). But when he makes his EliteXC debut Saturday the question he'll answer is: Can the internet superstar make himself into more than a YouTube stunt man in a time when MMA is looking for a new heavyweight celebrity?
While Slice has dominated almost every street fight he was in, the quality of most of his challengers is dubious and street fighting is not the same sport as MMA. His one loss came at the hands of Sean Gannon, a Boston police officer who trained in MMA and later went on to a very brief and rather unimpressive MMA career of his own.
But Slice said he's turned the corner from loving the internet fame to being ready for the real deal. "In a backyard fight, I used to enter those things high," Slice said. "I was smoking before I went out to fight. Definitely it's different. It's not the same. I'm focused. I know something's coming. I know these guys that are fighting me, professionals. I know they're for sure of their game. So I have to bring my A game."
So can he do it?
Slice's first professional MMA fight earlier this year hardly serves as a valid barometer -- while he showed signs of all-around ability, the victory came against a hapless and equally inexperienced 46-year-old former boxing champ named Ray Mercer. But Slice has shown enough flashes of talent -- athleticism, knockout power, and a decent chin -- to convince some that he may one day possess the skill needed to succeed inside the cage.
His training has also turned a corner: he has been training in MMA for the past two years and recently teamed up with two of the sport's top coaches -- Shawn Tompkins and MMA legend Bas Rutten. "Bas Rutten and Shawn Tompkins...swear by this guy's determination [and] swear by this guy's desire to learn, persevere, and succeed," said Luke Thomas, editor of the MMA blog BloodyElbow.com.
While there are question marks about Slice's ability right now, there isn't much doubt about his drawing power. The prevailing wisdom is that, at least initially, Slice will be able to capitalize on his vast entertainment value. Mention Slice to industry insiders and the word "marketable" pops up in almost every conversation. He's the subject of the new ESPN show, E:60, and a hot topic with MMA fans ready to see if he's worth the hype.
John Rallo, a former professional heavyweight MMA fighter and now a co-owner of a MMA Academy and a MMA trainer, said Slice hasn't earned the right to fight with EliteXC, but said, "Kimbo and his people marketed themselves wisely. They created a lot of buzz on the net... so I think people who are curious to see if Kimbo is 'for real' will tune in to see this fight."
Even Slice -- who is articulate and soft-spoken in a way that belies the sheer aggression seen in his videos -- acknowledged in a phone conversation last week that he believes his internet popularity played a big role in EliteXC signing him. And, in a conference call last week, EliteXC President Gary Shaw said, "He's unique in that he's had his career on the Internet. He's got more unique visits than any other fighter ever on the Internet. I think it's over 10 million."
Add to that mix the fact that the UFC heavyweight celebrity power is waning quickly with the loss of popular UFC champ Randy Couture, and the business is more than ready for a new hero.
YouTube fame only goes so far though. Slice will need to build up wins early in his career to remain marketable. Fans will initially give him a honeymoon period simply because they are intrigued by his story, but mounting losses will eventually relegate him to circus show status.
While Slice's path to MMA celebrity may be a fluke (he says there was no strategy behind posting the videos on YouTube: "We just put it [the videos] up to put up something cool. We weren't really looking to reap anything from it."), his marketability and raw skills are tantalizing enough to believe he may enjoy some longevity in the sport. He may never win a title, but thanks to the fame coup he's already pulled, he doesn't have to in order to call himself a success.