Kimbo Slice is ready to take his career to the next level, which is saying something given how far he's come in recent months.

Once merely relegated as an Internet freak show, and relegated by critics as a YouTube pretender with a penchant for knocking out hapless challenges, Slice's progression into mixed martial arts carries with it the eyeballs of the fight nation -- and the expectations that he'll carry EliteXC up a few notches on the promotional ladder.

Slice (aka Kevin Ferguson) carries the dual expectations of EliteXC across his shoulders as the organization will kick off the first prime time mixed martial arts broadcast on CBS May 31 at 9-11 p.m. ET/PT.

Facing James "The Colossus" Thompson in a heavyweight main event, Slice's second sanctioned MMA bout pits him against a 14-8 veteran with a penchant for quick fights -- he's only gone past the opening round five times -- heavy hands and a suspect chin.

Slice has been on the cover of the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine. People recognize him on the street everywhere, he explains. Promoter Gary Shaw says they had 150 interview requests pending at one point. The Kimbo phenomenon may be the most pervasive meme in recent sporting memory, fueled by the weird convergence of television, media hype and broadband beatdowns. Fittingly, each next outing carries with it ever-larger stakes for Slice, but the money is a lot better than thumping guys in street fights for a few thousand per winner-take-all match.

Not bad for a former porn set bodyguard from the ‘hood who was beating up no-namers during the peak of the housing boom. Unlike that trend, Kimbo's prospects keep rising.

"I shut it all out," said Slice on a recent media conference call.

He said his focus on Thompson is absolute, despite the tempting conflagration of mass exposure, surreal hype and a pending debut on network TV in a landmark moment for the sport. It's just another scrap.

"No drinking, no smoking, no sex. I'm fighting not to be back in the gutter again. To raise my kids in a different environment. I'm no longer one-dimensional in my life. I'm more excited about being on the ground than standing up right now," Slice said when asked about how his ground game was coming along. "I'm really looking forward to that."

His tutelage under Bas Rutten (Pictures) has carried him to quickie wins over Bo Cantrell (Pictures) and UFC vet David "Tank" Abbott (he choked out former heavyweight contender Ray Mercer prior to turning pro). Slice said he's still working toward becoming a complete fighter.

"It's like the people who love boxing, they're transitioning into MMA. Like back in the days when the Romans would fill their stadiums up with thousands of people. This is a new millennium, a new era," he said. "People love to be entertained, and I'm fortunate. I love to fight. I can take a punch. Can you take a punch? That's what it's about with me."

Thompson, for his part, steered clear of the trash talk typical of the event. A loser by quick knockout in his last two bouts, the 6-foot-5 hulking Englishman sees the bout as an opportunity to fight a rising name in the game and steer his career back on track.

"Obviously I'm being brought in, I'm a big guy, the hope is that I get hit on the chin," Thompson said. "It doesn't bother me. After my last two fights, I didn't think I deserved the chance. To get this chance is massive to me."

With a first-round knockout of Abbott at the EliteXC event Feb. 16, Slice's win created a buzz, even though Abbott's best days were well behind him. According to some, Slice would lose because he wasn't legit, wasn't bopping out would-be tough guys in street fights that made him an Internet sensation. Instead, he blitzed Abbott, though the slugger landed his booming trademark right hand during an exchange.

Instead of crumpling as many expected, Slice fired back.

And won.

In doing so, he almost prompted as many new questions as old ones answered.

Slice added that he is "not worried" about anything Thompson brings to the table. But he does respect the game and is enjoying the slow process of acceptance from fans and fighters.

"He's an aggressive standup fighter," said Thompson. "I've got holes in my standup defense. Got to make sure I'm tight. I don't want to be doing a three-round standup war with Kimbo. I want to go to the floor and see what he's got there."

The Rutten/Slice duo is working on an unfinished product, as both are quick to acknowledge, but the former UFC heavyweight and King of Pancrase champ was typically enthusiastic about his charge's upside. And Slice said he's with the perfect guy to refine his abilities and bring out his best.

"I saw Bas in Pancrase," Slice said. "I said if I'm gonna train (MMA) with anybody, it has to be that guy. That's what made me cross over to the MMA world and leave the street fighting alone."

Rutten's years in Pancrase and the Japanese circuit, beginning in the early 1990s, were bouts often contested with watered-down rules, dubious endings and combatants sporting effete knee-high boots. That's a long time ago, and the sport has come a ways. Yet he made the transition into modern MMA due to being a fighter by birth -- and he maintains Kimbo's got the same thing going for him.

"I had to learn the hard way. A long time ago, I lost to Ken Shamrock (Pictures) by submission. I started training (grappling) two to three times a day, then my next eight fights I won by submissions," he said. "When Kimbo came in, we started working on it. I knew he was gonna be a striker, but guys are not going to stand with him. I think Kimbo's hands are better than 80 percent of the guys out there."

"Bas is the man. You can't ask for a better trainer, coach or advisor," Slice said when asked about the fast-changing nuances of combing striking and grappling. "He explains everything to me so I can understand the cause and effect. I still have love for the sport, all my brothers and sisters in the MMA world. We're only gonna get bigger and better and make more money. That's what we do."

Jason Probst can be reached at [email protected]

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