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Nine wins, four losses, winless in two UFC appearances, owner of a haircut that seemed like it was designed to piss off your dad’s barber. That was Seth Petruzelli before he was called upon to fight Internet sensation Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson on Oct. 4, 2008.
To say he was unknown to all but hardcore fans would be giving hardcore fans too much credit. He’d never won a fight on anything that might qualify as a big stage. His only victory over a notable name had come against Dan Severn, who was 45 and participating in his 74th pro fight when he dropped a decision to Petruzelli in 2004.
Petruzelli showed up to “EliteXC: Heat” in Sunrise, Fla., thinking that he’d fight Aaron Rosa on the prelims. How could he have known then that he was one small facial laceration away from his shot at a specific brand of fame, or that he was about to introduce himself to a network TV audience of more than 4 million people in a fight that would somehow, in some way, bring down an entire promotion?
If you didn’t live through it, you almost wouldn’t think it possible that Slice was as big a deal as he was back then while only having three professional MMA fights to his credit. In fairness, he’d won them all. In the interest of total accuracy, none of them had quieted the chorus of MMA heads who dubbed him an overhyped neophyte under the protection of a boxing promoter who had learned the value of careful target selection.
The words “viral video sensation” were still new to the culture when Slice became one. In street fight videos that popped up first on a porn site before spreading to the entire Internet, he battered one would-be tough guy after another, dropping fools in backyards and boat salvage yards.
By 2007, he’d drawn the eye of boxing promoter Gary Shaw, who seemed to fall so in love with Slice’s charisma that he was willing to work around his relative lack of skills. After Slice choked out former boxing champ Ray Mercer in a Cage Fury fight in Atlantic City, he went right to work against a series of hand-picked opponents in EliteXC. First it was Bo Cantrell, then an aging and out of shape “Tank” Abbott, and then a network TV main event bout against James Thompson, whose bulbous cauliflower ear exploded on impact live on CBS in February 2008.
By the fall, Slice was a household name with the kind of instant, polarizing notoriety that was newly possible in the Internet age. While UFC President Dana White wrote him off as nothing more than the “toughest guy at the barbecue,” Shaw pumped up his fame and invited comparisons to Mike Tyson.
“I’ve been to a high-class steakhouse with Kimbo and I’ve seen it,” Shaw said in 2008. “People, not just the young kids, all stand up and say, ‘Kimbo! Hey, there’s Kimbo!’ You could take most of the best fighters in the world and have them walk into a place like that and the maître d would say, ‘OK, we’ll have a table for you in 40 minutes.’ Kimbo is a superstar right now, and he’s only going to get bigger.”
EliteXC entered October with a plan to push Slice to new heights, using a name from the old days.
Ken Shamrock was 44 and riding a sharply downward trending line when he showed up in Florida to fight Slice. After ending his UFC run with back-to-back TKO losses to Tito Ortiz, he dropped a fight to Robert Berry in Cage Rage, bringing his losing skid to five straight fights.
He looked for all the world like a fighter whose last good days were in the rearview mirror, but he still had the name. He still was Ken Shamrock, and that still would draw viewers on CBS, especially when he was presented as the old school taking on the new.
But Shamrock soon proved difficult to work with. He became upset with the EliteXC promoters once he learned Andrei Arlovski would make $500,000 to fight Roy Nelson on the undercard. That the purse was paid not by EliteXC, but instead by the Affliction MMA promoters, didn’t seem to matter to Shamrock. It was the principle of the thing.
Shamrock’s gripes about pay were sufficiently well-known that when word spread he’d been cut by a clash of heads while grappling on the morning of the fight, suspicion set in quickly. Had the ex-WWE wrestler pulled a fast one on them? Did his resentment boil over into sabotage?
Shamrock later would swear up and down that the cut was legitimate, though unfortunate. Some EliteXC employees seemed unconvinced, but the problem of the moment was salvaging the main event. People had bought tickets to see Slice. Viewers on CBS were tuning in for him. The Internet brawler couldn’t not brawl. Something had to be done.
Frank Shamrock, the former UFC champion and Ken’s adopted brother, offered to forego his commentating duties for the night in order to save the day. So what if he was nowhere near heavyweight and had been busy partying rather than training in the lead-up to the big night? He was always up for a fight, and somebody had to do it.
EliteXC officials decided instead to look for a warm body at the right weight. The only other heavyweight fight on the card was the Arlovski-Nelson bout, which EliteXC wasn’t about to touch for a variety of reasons. But there was that one light heavyweight scrap on the prelims. Petruzelli vs. Rosa, now that was a fight you could scratch without much trouble. Both men readily offered their services, but it was Petruzelli who got the chance to change his life – and he didn’t need to be asked twice.
As Slice walked to the cage that night, commentator Mauro Ranallo did his best to put a positive spin on this turn of events, hyping Slice’s willingness to “take on all comers.” The tale of the tape graphic listed Slice’s discipline as “brawling,” while Petruzelli’s style was described as “karate.”
The crowd showered Petruzelli with boos during Jimmy Lennon Jr.’s introduction. Slice, introduced as the “undefeated, heavy-handed phenom, the popular legend and street-fighting star of the Internet,” got a steady stream of cheers from his fellow Floridians. Referee Troy Waugh brought the fighters to the center of the cage and implored them to give “the millions of fans that’s watching this fight the fight that they want to see.”
“And it’s about to get serious,” commentator Gus Johnson said as the fight began.
Seconds later, Slice plodded forward and lunged directly into the jab of a retreating Petruzelli. It was a nothing punch, just something thrown out behind the front kick to check Slice’s advance in the bout’s opening moments. If you weren’t paying close attention, you could have missed it.
But then there was Slice, pitching face-forward onto the canvas as Petruzelli stepped around him and began raining down more right hands, only these were serious. These had force and confidence behind them. Slice turned to face them and got blasted with more blows, one opening a cut above his left eye as his body went briefly stiff.
Waugh jumped in then, waving the fight off as Slice reached for his leg in a desperate takedown attempt. By the time Waugh had explained to him how he got there, Petruzelli had already made several victory laps around the cage.
“The most incredible victory in the history of mixed martial arts!” shouted Johnson.
Not that everyone was happy about it at the time. An enduring image after the bout was EliteXC executive Jared Shaw, the son of the boxing promoter, screaming at cageside about what he perceived as punches to the back of Slice’s head. His histrionic reaction neatly conveyed what all the suits at EliteXC must have been thinking just then. Their star had just imploded in 14 seconds, knocked out by a nobody light heavyweight from the prelims. Now what were they supposed to do?
Things didn’t improve in the days that followed. Petruzelli went on a radio show and suggested that he was paid extra in exchange for promising not to take Slice down and test his non-existent ground game. He later would attempt to walk those comments back, but the damage was done. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations opened an investigation. The UFC president declared it “(expletive) illegal.”
While EliteXC promoters eventually were cleared of any official wrongdoing, the brand was damaged beyond repair. They’d put all their hopes in Slice, and when the bubble burst it brought the whole show down with it. EliteXC never would promote another MMA event.
Slice jumped to the UFC, where White, the man who had claimed over and over again that he absolutely “sucked,” offered him a chance to prove himself on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Petruzelli’s next fight was back on the small circuit, where he TKO’d Chris Baten at Art of Fighting 4 the following summer. He eventually got back in the UFC and lost two straight before being cut once again. He ended his career with a brief run in Bellator before transitioning to professional wrestling.
Slice and Shamrock did eventually meet in the cage in 2015, but that cage belonged to Bellator. Even then there was controversy, with some fans claiming the fight was fixed, an accusation that sent Shamrock into another of his trademark fits of rage. A year later, Slice died of heart failure in Florida. Even Petruzelli felt the force of the sudden loss.
“I give all my credit to that fight,” he said in 2016. “I’m under no delusions thinking that I would still be huge if it wasn’t for the Kimbo fight. I know that’s what made my career and my name. I’m proud of that and happy for it. I definitely have a lot to thank that fight for, that’s for sure.”
“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”