Tom Brink is a 30-year old fighter from Endicott, the same town in upstate New York that produced Jon Jones. Not much was known about him heading into his fight on Saturday, March 12, other than he had pretty good hands -- no Golden Gloves or anything, but a real gamer on the feet. That was the loose scouting report from a New England-based promoter named Jesse Camp, who booked Brink to appear on his Warrior Nation: XFA XII show in the Western Massachusetts town of Chicopee.
Brink, whom select few locals call "Dozer," showed up to the Hu Ke Lau -- a Polynesian food joint that doubles as a comedy club on most nights, a fight venue when needed -- carrying a 1-1 amateur record and smartly tapered expectations. Very few starting out at 30 gets too far off the regional circuit, but he’d had a pretty good stare down with his opponent during weigh-ins, and it took everything in Camp’s power not to publicize the bout. This was one of those strange ones with legs, that could easily sell the Tiki bar out beyond fire code capacity if word leaked beforehand. It was counterintuitive to never mumble the word "Ferguson" or "Baby Slice" heading into the event, because promoters are in it to make money, not to harbor secrets.
Camp, who has been a police officer for 15 years and currently serves as a detective in South Hadley, bit his tongue though. He’s a man of integrity. This was just one of those things. Still, as these things go, word got out. The place was jam-packed with the Massachusetts accent, some of them sitting at tables rattling their rocks-drinks within feet of the action. It was a couple hundred faces popping out of a dark backdrop. The fourth fight on the card was Brink’s. The first three bouts breezed by, with ammy fighters from nearby Sityodtong and Sitmangpong taking the cage, unofficially letting it all hang out for a chance to one day materialize.
Most of the fights were competitive.
"I’m a good matchmaker," Camp said. "I get these people who call me looking to get their guys an easy fight. Not here. I tell them, go train more and then we’ll talk."
Then the time came.
Referee Kevin MacDonald was the first man in cage. Soon after came the defiant-faced Brink, carrying himself forward with his modest faction in tow. He took the cage, and by the time his foot hit the canvas he was already diminishing into an afterthought. All attention turned to the glowing white light at the entrance, as a figure in silhouette appeared. Michael Jackson’s "Beat It" was cued up, and out walked his opponent, a dread-locked fellow who, we were later told, resisted the urge to call himself "The Predator," because why make his whole being an ode to dreadlocks?
Instead he goes by the name "Baby Slice." His real name, Kevin Ferguson Jr. — Kimbo’s kid. He was making his amateur debut in the heart of New England, and the first thing you notice about "Baby Slice" is he looks a lot like Kimbo. All those assembled to see him let out a roar as he made his way. An exclusive little set getting an early look.
The sweet smells of the Polynesian kitchen hung in the air.
West Hartford, where Ferg Jr. lives, is a long way from Miami, where his father does, and an amateur bout under a sanctioned body is an even further distance from bare-knuckle fights on sunny afternoons. Kimbo Slice — that polarizing figure whose nickname (within the nickname) has become "YouTube Sensation" — remains an odd fixture in the MMA landscape, but anything to do with him draws eyes. Two Point Five Million. That was the average viewership rate for his February Bellator bout with Dada 5000, who, by the way, nearly died that night. Dada 5000 came damn close to making his last public appearance in this life.
The cost of guilty pleasure.
And just the day before his son took the cage at the Hu Ke Lau, on Friday, news came out that Kimbo popped hot for banned substances. With the circus of Kimbo, it’s hard to distinguish the motion of all the twirling hoops from the asterisks being juggled. Always has been.
With Baby Slice, though, there was no circus — there was only intrigue. What would he look like? For starters, there were no gold teeth and, far as anyone could tell, his belly button was an innie. He wasn’t a heavyweight; he weighed in at 175 pounds, and his ultimate design is to fight as a welterweight. He wasn’t cordoned off by an entourage; he had a couple of cornermen from his team at Plus One Defense in Hartford, coaches who wanted to keep his initial foray into the cage quiet, to keep the circus roustabouts (the media) at bay. Just like in the movie Creed, where Adonis Johnson smuggled the namesake into the ring, there’s pressure in something like that "getting out there."
But fighting wise, there were obvious similarities.
Just like his dad, Baby Slice prefers to knuckle-up. He didn’t hesitate against the backward-drifting, Brink -- he rocked him with a left hand, and sent him reeling early. His hands were coming out fast. The crowd, rapt with anticipation of a knockout, never settled down. And through the cacophony of voices, his corner asked "Kevin" to follow-up with combos. He did. Just a minute and change into the first round, Ferguson hit him with a crisp rapid-fire volley that had some training behind it. Brink dropped. Not like a Byrd or an Adryan or The Bouncer, the early victims in Kimbo’s success, but like a man in gloves who’d thought the whole thing through.
MacDonald moved in and called Ferg Jr. off. The official time for the unofficial bout: 1:23 of round one. It was a TKO. "Ladies and gentlemen, Baby Slice has been born," the ring announcer, John Vena, belted out. And so he was.
And so he is.
The crowd ate it up. Somebody said that George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic once played the Tiki-themed room, the very same that the fighter David Baxter was infamously choked unconscious by Justin Christie in, only to recover between rounds and win the bout. That was at a previous XFA event.
The Hu Ke Lau, to go along with its leis and volcano drinks, has some history.
Kimbo wasn’t there to see his son get his hand raised for the first time, but the 23-year old Baby Slice carried his heredity well -- and really, that’s a tricky bit of business. It’s got to be hard being Kimbo’s son. "He made it happen all on his own," said Kimbo's longtime manager "Icey" Mike Imber, who couldn't make the trip north either but vowed to be at Ferguson Jr.'s next bout. "He's got a bright future."
Yet when the son is a chip off the old block, he inherits the stigmas as well as the mystique, the punch lines right along with the expectations. It’s a life born in very specific kinds of shadows. Maybe that’s why Kimbo wasn’t overly enthused to see Jr. take off his shoes.
Ferguson Sr.’s rise to notoriety followed a path that was about as straight as an ampersand, but -- to hear Ferg Jr. tell it -- he fought bare-knuckle in the backyards, back alleys and shipyards all over Dade County so his kids wouldn’t have to. Baby Slice offers this up on the very day their careers began to overlap. His dad didn't want him to become a fighter.
Kimbo, the king of bootleg brawls in the mid-aughts, didn’t want there to be any such thing as a Baby Slice.
"No, no, he didn’t want me to do it," Ferguson Jr. said maybe half an hour after knocking out Brink. "He wanted me to go to school. That’s why I went to college. He told me to experience college first, and then if I’m not liking it or feeling it, then fine. But he said to never have MMA as my first option, school first."
That’s what Ferguson Jr. did. After high school, he packed up and moved to San Francisco to attend, of all things, art school. He and his best friend enrolled at the Academy of Art University, where he studied photography. Ferguson Jr. was still figuring out what side of the lens he wanted to be on.
Still, it’s hard when you grow up around fighting, successful fighting -- fighting that pays, and affords art school to begin with.
"I’ve been around [my father] my whole life," he said. "So I got the knowledge of it. I guess when I got started, my first time training, I trained with him and I got beat up a lot. I didn’t want to do it no more. Then I found my way back to the gym, and I started loving it."
Delicately carrying the name Ferguson, he moved east after college and found a gym in Hartford, Plus One Defense, where he’s been training formally for less than a year. It’s been a steady progression, and he’s just setting out. Yet the second generation is doing it the new-fangled way, training ground game with stand-up, under sanctioning, through the amateur ranks, one rung to the next, as he makes his way to the pros.
How far he can go is the question, but in a world where angles mean so much, Baby Slice is right now paying homage.
"I didn’t understand it as a kid," he said." I was always quiet, just soaking it in. But when I think back and look back on everything, I understand it more. I see the hard work [my father] put in. The dedication, and all the sacrifices he made. I’ve got to make the same sacrifices."
It’s odd, but those sacrifices are perhaps most evident in the gentle manner in which he speaks. Baby Slice’s teeth are pearly white and perfect. You might go so far as to call his handshake light; there are no calluses. He is soft spoken, though the familiar metallic gravel in his voice makes it clear he’s a Ferguson. He’s wide-eyed and excited to see how far he can go. He turned his phone off a full 24 hours before the bout with Brink, preferring to let his debut play out in the relative dark. Then he beat a man up in front of a couple hundred people, who showed up as if in on a secret. They were there to see him based largely on a name he hasn’t yet earned -- and one he might have to improve on, or reinvent altogether.
"I don’t really care about the attention," he said, "Because once I’m in the ring it doesn’t matter."
When you carry the name Baby Slice, attention will be part of the deal. But at that exact moment, after seeing his hands carry out a family tradition, Kevin Ferguson excused himself so that he could call his father and let him know how he’d done.