by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
A pack of wolves waited for Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson when he entered the flagship gym of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., on Thursday.
Position to position, hour to hour, Thiago Alves, Luis Cane, Mike Brown, Yves Edwards, Jorge Santiago, and Dan Cramer drilled Kimbo in jiu-jitsu. The hardened veterans didn’t hold back. Boxing coach Howard Davis got a little time, but striking took a back seat to the mat.
Kimbo, a longtime resident of Miami, came to the gym two years ago and left in a rage after a fighter caught him in a painful armbar. This was his first time back since then.
Ricardo Liborio, founder of American Top Team, has sent Kimbo back to school to learn the basics.
“Right now, what we can see is a big, hardened guy with a fight mentality and a lot of heart,” Liborio told MMAWeekly.com. “It’s just a guy who knows how to punch and is very heavy handed, but has a long way to go with the grappling and the wrestling stuff.”
After cutting his teeth with Bas Rutten and Randy Khatami in a rush from YouTube brawler to mixed martial artist, Kimbo this week signed a training contract with American Top Team and plans to stay there for the foreseeable future.
Liborio’s goal for Kimbo is to stay upright long enough to use his heavy hands.
“Don’t engage in an exchange of wrestling that you’re not prepared for,” says Liborio.
What Kimbo lacks, by his accord, is the muscle memory that comes with years of dedicated practice. Jiu-jitsu black belt Liborio and American Top Team are there to fill the gap.
“I think I’m still there… working on my ground game,” said Kimbo. “You’re gonna learn a lot, but you’re not going to master anything in two years. The more you roll, the more you learn, just like as long as you live, you gonna learn as you live. It’s not something that you say okay, you’ve learned it, you’ve got it, you’re good, you can go kick someone’s ass now. No, no, no. That’s something that you have to continue to do.”
Nowhere was Kimbo’s lack of seasoning more evident than in his most recent televised fight against Roy Nelson on the tenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” As soon as the former streetfighter let his hands go, Nelson swarmed and took him down. Kimbo floundered as Nelson passed his guard and twice pinned his body and arms in a crucifix, the second of which brought the fight to an end.
Many of Kimbo’s castmates were surprised by his humility in asking for help on the ground, particularly Nelson, who was his roommate in the fighter house and broke down his victory step by step afterwards.
And well-rounded fighter or not, Kimbo is still ratings gold. Fueled by legions of YouTube fans, the Wednesday broadcast broke records in viewership for Spike TV. He has now participated in three of the four most watched fights in U.S. MMA history.
After three days of twice-a-day sessions with his bearded pupil, Kimbo has lived up to some of Liborio’s expectations and confounded others.
“Let’s put it this way: he’s exactly where I thought he would be in skill level, but he’s way more acceptable in terms of learning and mentality,” he said.
The idea is not to let Kimbo get ahead of himself.
“Number one: ABC’s, you know what I’m saying?” said Liborio. “You’ve got to go back to basics. There’s no way to get a solid foundation, sort of jumping over positions and try to do something that’s acrobatic and crazy. He’s not at that level of skills right now. He’s gotta go through the fundamentals of grappling and ground and takedowns. Very basic stuff; foot positions, and hand position.”
The good news, says Liborio, is that Slice is a sponge for learning, an observation backed by his camera time on TUF.
“Maybe two days is too early to say something, but it’s been easy to work with him,” he said. “He’s very coachable. If he keeps the way he’s doing right now, it’s going to pick up fast.”
Kimbo all but confirmed he is set to fight on the show’s season finale Dec. 5 in Las Vegas, and says he is currently “in camp.” UFC president Dana White has declined to confirm his participation in the finals or elsewhere, but it’s clear that the company has big plans for Kimbo down the line.
Liborio, meanwhile, hopes this week is the beginning of a constructive partnership.
“The plan is, win or lose, to keep the guy in the family,” he said.