He lost his last fight in 14 seconds to a pink-haired nobody, and ever since Kimbo Slice's career has been on life support. "I got six shorties at the crib," he says. "They gotta eat, you know what I'm saying?"
It's a Friday afternoon, and I'm sitting in a corner of Manhattan's musty Fighthouse Gym, determined not to be intimidated by Kimbo Slice, who just walked in wearing a full beard and a gold fist around his neck. I'm joined by a gaggle of reporters trying to cash in on what's left of the Kimbo hype. We're here because Kimbo is about to do what any fading star in America must — appear on reality TV. The Ultimate Fighter 10 premiered Wednesday. The show runs through December and features Kimbo living in a house with fifteen other fighters, duking it out for a UFC contract. The twist? He is fighting for the favor of league founder Dana White, who once famously mocked him as "the toughest guy at the barbecue" — a YouTube street-brawler with no track record and little business fighting in the professional ranks. All of which means that Kimbo, the former marketing juggernaut for failed UFC rival Elite XC, has to once again run the publicity gauntlet and once again endure all kinds of outrageous and idiotic questions from the media.
"Will you," I ask him, "give me a piggyback ride?"
Kimbo has an enigmatic presence. When he walks into the room, flanked by two bodyguards half his size, every head turns to watch him pass. It's scary at first, until he grips your hand with his massive paw, looks you in the eye and flashes a warm smile, his gold teeth twinkling in the light.
It's not what I expected. The first time around, Kimbo was sold to us not so subtly (and, in retrospect, pretty offensively) as the big, angry brotha from the streets. One black ESPN writer described his act as "coonish." Whatever it was, it worked, at least initially. He was the headliner when Elite XC debuted on CBS, and viewers were treated to the bloody spectacle of Kimbo rupturing his opponent's cauliflowered ear. He was a star, the mean face of a mean sport. And then, after 14 seconds in the ring with Seth Petruzelli, he wasn't a star anymore. Fair or not, after just four pro fights, he was deemed a sham and, worse, a symbol of all that's wrong with MMA, a sport trying to shrug off comparisons to pro wrestling's theatrics and boxing's corrupt hijinks. And now, at 35, Kimbo is facing the cold truth that his last fight may very well be fought on reality TV.
He is a long way from his days as a strip-club bouncer in Miami (the stories from which he plans eventually to publish in a book). From his first parking-lot victory, Kimbo sought to make money off his ability to knock people "the fuck out," as he likes to put it. Only he shunned heavyweight boxing promoters looking to capitalize on his size and notoriety, fingering MMA as the more profitable showcase for his brutality because he says it better satisfies America's bloodlust.
"There's better opportunity in MMA because it's way more entertaining than boxing" he says. "You can watch 12 rounds of live boxing and no one's ass will touch the canvas. You're like, 'Damn, I can see that on TV!' When you come to an MMA fight, you're gonna see some blood. You see three or four matches and two of them are gonna be bloody. People are mean. They love that shit, you know what I'm saying? And as fighters, we love doing it, so it all works out."
Lately, however, things haven't worked out for Kimbo. The Petruzelli bout was a singular embarrassment, a 14-second TKO that instantly burst the hype bubble and exposed him as an MMA dilettante. Now, at age 35, he is trying to reinvent himself as a fighter with an array of talents, someone who can fight on the ground as well as he can on his feet. "This is a new year, a new millennium for me," he says. "Now I've got a target on my back. Everyone wants to fight me because they think I'm just a brawler. But now I got a little ground game and a little skills. I got a few more moves here and there."
He better. Shorties gotta eat.
His redemption is now in the hands of Dana White, of all people. Since White scooped him up after the Petruzelli defeat, Kimbo's image has softened considerably. He talks frequently of fatherhood. He's now just another dad trying to make ends meet. "My mind is always at home," he tells me. "To go away and think about training is almost six times as hard because I'm thinking about my babies that I'm responsible for, that I gotta take care of at home. Six different kids, six different lives, all going through different things."
"UFC can make it happen," he goes on. "Yeah, I want to prove that I can still do it, that I can knock top fighters the fuck out, but in the cage there's no room for pride — you gotta check your pride at the door."
Kimbo, a former linebacker, lives vicariously through his 14 year-old son, a standout high school running back in Miami: "My 14 year-old kid's balling now, so I'm living it through him," he says, smiling broadly. "He's already in the papers at Cold Springs High. He's on the varsity team at 14. He already has 200 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 games.
"When I'm about to fight, it's not just for me, it's for our whole crew, our whole city. Everyone's got butterflies. Their adrenaline is flowing, especially my kids."
My 10 minutes with Kimbo are almost up, and a fan is pushing me aside to snap a picture. The next reporter in line is fidgeting with his tape recorder. "My editor wanted me to take a picture of you giving me a piggyback ride," I say at last. "Will you give me a piggyback ride?"
Kimbo shakes his head. "Nah, man," he says, grinning. "I would, but my daughter would get jealous."
Stencil by Christian at MCDeathbear.