There was something about Kimbo Slice he could feel right away, Jared Shaw said. Something different about the man, whose real name was Kevin Ferguson, that separated him from everyone else.
That feeling was enough for Shaw and other then-EliteXC executives to travel to Miami with a "hefty briefcase full of cash" in an effort to make Kimbo Slice the promotion's main headliner.
Shaw told Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour that he knew Slice would be able to transcend MMA right then and there.
"Honestly, yes," the former EliteXC vice president said. "I really did. It's like a see, smell, touch effect. You just know a star when you're around one."
And boy was Ferguson a star -- one of the biggest and most beloved in the history of mixed martial arts. There's an argument to be made that he was the most-watched MMA fighter ever.
EliteXC: Primetime in 2008, headlined by Ferguson and Tank Abbott, was the first MMA event ever on primetime network television. The ratings peaked at 6.51 million viewers for the main event. It was the most watched MMA event on TV until UFC on FOX 1 in 2011. EliteXC: Heat, when Ferguson lost to Seth Petruzelli, drew another 4.56 million viewers on average for the event on CBS.
Ferguson died June 6 due to complications from congestive heart failure. He needed a heart transplant in the days leading up to his death. Ferguson was just 42 years old.
Just four months earlier, Ferguson helped Bellator set record ratings on Spike TV with his co-main event matchup with Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris on Feb. 19. All Kimbo Slice did was draw eyes. There was something about him -- the former street fighter turned MMA royalty -- that connected with people. Just about everyone, really.
"We needed that face to begin EliteXC and get noticed," Shaw said. "He was also coming in the height of YouTube coming into pop culture. He had 18 million hits. MMA was entering its prime limelight. All of a sudden, we were around and Strikeforce and IFL and PRIDE. Everyone wanted MMA."
Everyone wanted Ferguson, too. After the folding up of EliteXC, the UFC signed Ferguson to appear on The Ultimate Fighter 10. He lost early on, but it was the highest rated TUF season of all time. Those numbers earned him a spot on the UFC roster. He went 1-1 before being released and embarking on a boxing career. Last year, he returned to MMA with Bellator -- and set a ratings record with his win over Ken Shamrock.
"Look at Bellator now," Shaw said. "They can put Kimbo in a technically circus fight and he's still going to draw one of the biggest ratings ever on Spike.
"It was never about Kimbo being the best ever. It wasn't about that. It was look at this bigger-than-life personality who is probably going to knock the next guy out and the next guy out."
What stood out to Shaw was Ferguson the person, not just Kimbo Slice the fighter. He was a family man, someone who Shaw called his "brother." Ferguson was never in trouble and used the money he made -- millions -- for his family, sending two of his children to college.
Ferguson, Shaw said, knew he wasn't the best MMA fighter in the world, but he tried to get better, even at an older age.
"He always knew he was outgunned in MMA, but he kept coming," Shaw said. "He really did. He knew. But you can never take his heart from him."
And what sometimes gets lost in the larger-than-life personality and wild fights is that Ferguson was an inspiration, a rags-to-riches story. He came up with nothing, an immigrant from the Bahamas. He lived on the street, bounced for a strip club and was a bodyguard for a porn company.
Then, all of a sudden, he was the most well-known mixed martial arts fighter in the world after a series of backyard fights drew an incredible amount of hits on YouTube.
"Kimbo is a hero to inner-city kids," Shaw said. "Period. The man goes from the backyards to the major leagues of MMA. You can fight your way out, too. That's something positive.
"Somewhere in South Florida, some fighter, somebody is coming and it probably wouldn't have happened if they didn't get to see Kimbo first."