Kimbo Slice was best known as a MMA fighter, but his true legacy may be in the sport that launched his career – bare-knuckle boxing. Before he passed away yesterday, Slice was scheduled to headline Bellator 158 against James Thompson in London in July. But he had also been in talks to fight against Bobby Gunn in a world-title bare-knuckle boxing match at year's end. In 2015, Gunn challenged Slice to the bare-knuckle match after the latter defeated Ken Shamrock in Bellator 138. Gunn and Slice shook hands, with Slice saying, "Let's link up." Later, Slice and his manager IceyMike continued to discuss the fight with Gunn, and Slice began wearing T-shirts of the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame, where he was to be inducted next month. According to Gunn, who is defending his bare-knuckle title next month against MMA veteran Shannon Ritch in a sanctioned match in Slice's hometown of Miami, Slice was intent on returning to the sport that first gave rise to his fame over a decade ago. "He was coming home to fight for the bare-knuckle world championship title," Gunn says. "I'm just sickened for him and his family. The world lost one of the legends of bare knuckle."
The bare-knuckle fight would have brought Slice's career full circle. Essentially stand-up boxing without gloves, bare-knuckle boxing thrives in the U.S. underground – and is now breaking mainstream. Gunn won the sport's world champion belt in a 2011 fight in Arizona, and, next month, is fighting alongside an undercard of pro fighters in Miami. Although bare-knuckle matches are illegal in the U.S., Gunn's title fights have been sanctioned and held on tribal lands outside of federal law, put on with full medical oversight and referees just like pro MMA or boxing matches. Despite its brutal reputation, bare knuckle may be safer than either MMA or gloved boxing. A decade-long study at the University of Alberta recently found that MMA fighters are more likely to get injured and boxers are more likely to suffer serious head trauma. Bare-knuckle fighters hit each other with less force than contestants do in either gloved sport. "Out of boxing, MMA and bare knuckle, bare knuckle is the safest," Randy Gordon, a former New York athletic commissioner and co-host of At the Fights on SiruisXM, told Men's Journal in March.
The timing would have been perfect for Slice to make his return to bare knuckle –the sport that gave rise to his legend. In 2003, the year of his first bare-knuckle fight on YouTube, Slice was coming off a decade of hard luck. A former high school football star in Miami who had flunked out of college and was at one point homeless, Slice had worked as a bouncer and porn company bodyguard before finally catching his break in an underground street fight that broke worldwide. Brawling in a backyard in Miami, Slice took hard shots but defeated his opponent, earning $3000 for the knockout and fame once the match earned over two million views on YouTube. Often staking $5000 in the winner-take-all matches, Slice lost only once in 20 underground fights posted to YouTube.
Here, Gunn talks exclusively to Rolling Stone about why Slice dominated in bare knuckle, their discussed match and the brutal fights that never made YouTube.
When did you first meet Slice?
I'd always heard of him and seen him in the distance once in a mall in Florida. But I first met him when I confronted him in his dressing room after he knocked out Ken Shamrock last year. I had a lot of emotions built up because I wanted to fight the man. I had been trying to get a hold of him for a long time and was frustrated. And when I went in there, he was the nicest guy in the world. I couldn't get in my fighter's mold. He was just a gentleman. He told me, "Let's link up." He was all for it.
Was there a firm date for your bare-knuckle fight yet?
We had been talking about a fight later this year. The idea was Kimbo had another Bellator fight in July and then if everything worked out good we would try to stage our fight in Miami. A bare-knuckle super fight. That was the goal. This morning, his manager Icey Mike texted me and said, "Sorry about Kimbo. You and him would have been a hell of a show. Kimbo had the upmost highest respect for you."
Why was Kimbo so good at bare-knuckle fighting?
He destroyed people. People who fought him told me he hit like a mule. Big, big strong hands like cinder blocks. He only lost one fight against the cop. That loss [a 2004 match against Boston policeman Sean Gannon] was rough and tumble [meaning no rules street fighting], not proper bare knuckle. He never lost in boxing. Standup fighting was his game.
I heard of a lot more fights he had that never made YouTube. I heard about him knocking guys' eyes out of their head and breaking guys' heads wide open. Them stories always was around. What you see is what you get with him. Nothing fancy or stylish. Walk right in and bang away. And that made him dangerous and effective.
Did bare knuckle make him famous?
He never made bare-knuckle boxing. It was here before he was born. But I would say he was one of the most popular bare-knuckle fighters who ever lived next to [19th century champion] John L. Sullivan. He was a warrior who hit the YouTube market [in 2003] just as it was coming up and became a sensation. He got YouTube on board before anyone took advantage of that. He was a lightning rod for attention. The truth is he was exciting to watch. He was a crowd-pleasing fighter and that's what people loved about him.
Are you honoring Kimbo at your bare-knuckle title fight next month?
I believe Kimbo's home was in bare knuckle, more than boxing or mixed martial arts. That's where he's in the Hall of Fame. I feel bad we never got to do our fight. It would have been a super fight and I give him the highest respect. He always said "305", his area code. I say "305 forever" and I'm going to wear his name on my shorts when I fight next month.
Street-fighting legend Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson has died at the age of 42.