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‘Baby Slice’ inherits a fighting spirit, but Kevin Ferguson Jr. wants to evolve the name

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The last time Kevin Ferguson Jr. fought in the cage, it didn’t count. Training out of Hartford at the time, he showed up at the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee, Massachusetts as a local intrigue — the son of Kimbo Slice — and he took out the regional fighter Tom Brink without too much trouble. That night, after his first-round victory in his first amateur bout, he made his way to the back of the Tiki lounge, upstairs to the green room area where other fighters were shadow boxing, and called his father who was standing by out in Florida.

With the bumble of the crowd still coming through the walls, "Baby Slice" told his dad that he’d won his amateur debut. A chip off the old block. He unleashed a familiar kind of hell that this one man could appreciate more than anybody else.

That was back in March, just weeks after Kimbo fought Dada 5000 in the last fight he’d ever have. Kimbo died in June of heart failure. And just like that, before his career could officially get started, Ferguson Jr. had lost his official muse. When he debuts at Bellator 165 against Aaron Hamilton out in San Jose, there will be plenty of people to impress. But not the one he wanted to. Not the one that mattered in the way things matter most.

Four months later Ferguson Jr. is left dealing in connections. In last words and new beginnings. He deals in the spiritual passing of batons.

"I take things more serious now," he says. "Like the fight game, I take it more serious. Like before I was doing it because I loved to fight, and it is my passion. Now it has a different meaning to me. It’s his legacy."

Kimbo’s legacy was like no other. A gritty street brawler who found his way to suburban living rooms via YouTube fighting South Florida toughs in vacant lots and backyards who found his way to mixed martial arts. Crossover from Muay Thai is one thing, or the boxing ring — but the alley is another. Kimbo broke records in the sanctioned cage, records in curiosity mainly, particularly in his original run with EliteXC. Based on his presence, The Ultimate Fighter 10 became the most viewed in the franchise’s history. His numbers with Bellator spoke for themselves, averaging nearly two-an-a-half million viewers.

Even with his shortcomings — his cataclysmic, myth-busting loss to Seth Petruzelli; his washout of the UFC; his hiatus and foray into boxing; and his sludge match with Dada 5000 in Bellator — didn’t detract from his it factor. Kimbo was somebody that people wanted to see fight. He was the epitome of a fighter — raw, intimidating, unnerving and cold. Cold as hell. That was how we first knew him, and that identity never left. He was seared into the fight game consciousness.

That’s the burden of the bloodline.

"I see it as continuing the legacy and evolving the name," Ferguson Jr. says. "Taking the name to the next level. That’s what I’m trying to do, take the name to the next level. My dad, he didn’t throw kicks. He didn’t throw no kicks, he didn’t shoot in for takedowns. All he did was stand up. That’s why I’m going to evolve that name. I like throwing kicks. I’ll shoot in for takedowns. I’m going to be a full mixed martial arts fighter."

Baby Slice inherited a fighting spirit, and, at 23 years old, now feels compelled to pick up where his father left off.

Kimbo and Baby Slice
(Courtesy of Kevin Ferguson Jr.)

On Nov. 19, at the SAP Center in San Jose, Ferguson Jr. will get the chance to showcase himself on the prelim portion of Bellator 165, which will be streamed live on Bellator’s website (in itself, very much in keeping with his father — menace through a computer). Since March he has relocated to Long Beach, California, and trains with Antonio McKee at the BodyShop Fitness Team.  His new family is a fight team. He trains with McKee’s son A.J. — who understands better than anyone the father-son fight dynamic — and the wrestler Joey Davis.

"I like it here in Long Beach," he says. "I just like the lifestyle is what it is."

Even with the cross-country move to a better-known gym, it’s largely been a behind closed doors building process for Ferguson Jr. Against Brink, his hands looked bestowed — so did his power. He was able to lay waste to Brink via the stand-up leather trade, knuckling up just like his old man. If he can wrestle, it remains to be seen. People suspect he can’t. If he has some submission grappling in his arsenal, time will tell. People doubt he does.

He says he hears all that.

But his teammates have embraced him, and he has embraced his team — to the point that he considers his move to California permanent. Baby Slice has found a home.

"A.J.’s been around the fight game," he says. "Those guys teach me a lot of things. They teach me to go hard, and now I understand the whole fight camp and how to push yourself to the limit everyday.

"And Coach Antonio, he’s a cool guy. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, he’s going to keep it real with you 100 percent. He kind of reminds me of my father."

He was already in California training full-time when he got the news that his father had passed away. It was a sudden thing for the public, a shockwave just days after Muhammad Ali had passed. He was getting ready for a rematch with James Thompson on July 16 in London, so there weren’t many indications that he was sick. Nobody knew that he was in need of a heart transplant, at least nobody outside of his inner circle.

His son of course knew, but even knowing something’s coming doesn’t take away from the absolutely finality once it does.

"It kind of caught me by surprise because I was talking to him days before and I knew what was going on," Ferguson Jr. says. "It was more of a shock, not so much a surprise. It was more a shock to me. I knew what was going on, but you can’t prepare for something like that…you can try, but there’s nothing like never being able to hear that voice again, or not being able to make that phone call."

Ferguson Jr. had talked to his dad on that Sunday, and Kimbo was dead on Monday. That kind of thing will lend itself to introspection. It’s one of those things, just a basic conversation, that can just as easily take on new meaning upon reflection.

"Our last talk was just about staying focused," he says. "He told me that he was going to leave me his fans. That all his fans were going to become my fans. I didn’t really understand it then. Now I understand what he meant by that."

Maybe Kimbo knew exactly what he was saying. Maybe he realized in that moment he didn’t have long. Maybe each time he spoke at that point he realized it could be the last, and in his fighter’s way — and in his father’s way — that was the only earthly thing he could leave behind to his son. His fans. His legacy. The things he’d made.

A better place to lift off from.

Whatever the case is, Ferguson Jr. got more from his father than fighter genes. It was Kimbo who encouraged him to avoid fighting. He made money and sent his son to college in San Francisco, where he attended the Academy of Art University and studied photography. He specialized in portraits and landscapes. The image of a bouncer throwing punches at you in a backyard in broad daylight is a particular kind of aesthetic. It was one way to look at the world, and deal with it.

Through a lens was another. It’s why Ferguson Jr. starts his run in the professional world of mixed martial arts as more than a fighter.

"I want to do a bunch more things," he says. "I still love photography, and I’m still going to do photography. I’m a king of all trades."

Baby Slice flexes

Still, when you talk to Baby Slice, you can’t help but take in the raw ingredients that make up his name.

"I hope he’s a fighter, coming to fight, because I’m bringing it," he says of his opponent, Hamilton (0-2), after having his first two debut dates fall through.

He doesn’t have the gravel in his voice like his dad, but he has the intention. And he has the devil-may-care attitude about the size of the spotlight, too — even if that spotlight was another of his inheritances.

"I’m used to it," he says. "I’ve been around my father a lot when he was fighting. All my nerves got out there when I was young. I even walked out with him a couple of times, so I know what to expect. It’s not my first rodeo. It’s my first time fighting [as a pro], but it’s not my first time being around a big crowd, the noise. I’m used to it. This is my passion, and it’s something I love to do.

"I don’t get stage fright. I’m just happy now that I can showcase my skills to the world and to all these fans."

Aaron Hamilton is not a household name. It’s possible you’ve never heard of him before this fight. He’s a random guy that Ferguson Jr. should beat, the prop in the encounter. He’s a man in that could easily be imagined in a different context. Perhaps at a Miami boatyard, with a small faction of betting onlookers, trying to bust up his myth and steal his street cred.

Nah. That was Kimbo. This is his son, Baby Slice, who wraps his hands with a sense of refinement.

"I’m definitely more dangerous now than I was in March," he says. "Back then, I wasn’t really getting the training I am now. I was getting good training, but I wasn’t getting that one-on-one training like I have now. Now I understand when to throw the hook, I understand my range. I understand movement now. You guys will see a different fighter than you did in March. The power might be the same…there might be a little more power and a little more speed."

This isn’t the street fighting underbelly, which will forever be distinguished by Kimbo’s outtie. This is the world Kimbo was striving for when he switched to MMA, of combining cage-fighting skills with his street instinct. He came along to MMA very late. He was up against not only cram sessions in picking up technique, but the ticking of the clock. Still, he picked up enough. He won enough. People cared about his fists more than they did the fists of others. Why is that?

Because they came from such a unique place of origin — a place that was foreign and yet a vicarious epicenter to get lost in. The words Kimbo Slice became more than a name. They became synonymous with something like the visceral connection to fighting. Its rawest urge. Its outer edge. Its crude exhilaration. Its magnetic allure. Its lunacy.

His son won’t be able to call him after Nov. 19. Those days are gone. But he can carry on in the way he knows how.

"I have a lot of names man, I have a lot of names, people call me everything," he says. "I get called Slice, I get called Kimbo, Baby Slice — as long as it has something to do with Slice in it, or Kimbo, I’m good. Everyone comes up with their own little slang, but keep those names together."