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Slicing and dicing, he prepares for the fight of his life

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. --The search for Kimbo Slice begins with a flurry of phone calls.

Slice is a legendary bare-knuckle underground fighter whose backyard brawls have drawn millions of hits on the Internet. He is on the move, training at secret locations, preparing for his Mixed Martial Arts debut against former world heavyweight champion "Merciless" Ray Mercer at the Cage Fury Fighting Championship 5 in Atlantic City Saturday.

He's currently in Las Vegas, says his manager, Mike Imber, but no media are allowed in the gym. There's too much tension with other fighters.

You don't want to anger the 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound Slice, whose real name is Kevin Ferguson. He's known for slicing and dicing - people's faces, that is.

Slice, who says he once was cut from the Miami Dolphins, has become a cult figure. The popularity of the crude videos taken of his backyard bouts prompted Rolling Stone to dub him "The King of the Web Brawlers." His bare-knuckle record is 7-0-1, his only loss coming against Boston Police officer Sean Gannon in a controversial fight held at a secret Rhode Island location in September 2003. Slice's corner was infuriated that Gannon used a guillotine choke and several knee kicks - Mixed Martial Arts moves - that usually aren't allowed in a bare-knuckle battle.

Want a piece of Slice? That's easy. He's all over the Web. Just contact him on his MySpace page, which says if you want to rumble, bring $10,000 in cash. ("I do read my questions and I do answer them," he says.) Want to get to Slice in person? Not so easy.

Getting a working address for Kimbo Slice is almost as hard as getting a weekend furlough for an Al Qaeda prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Imber is being very evasive about Slice's whereabout. They are in Las Vegas, he says; call at the end of the week. Next call, he says forget Vegas; maybe they'll be in California. Maybe not.

More calls. Go to the Valley in Cali, he says. More calls. Imber says they are not in the Valley; call tomorrow. More calls. Finally, he says, go to Thousand Oaks and call Sunday night.

More calls, no answer, and the manager's voicemail is full. A nervous call is placed at 8:30 Monday morning, waking up Imber. He calls back at 11:30 a.m. with conditions for the interview he swears will take place that night.

Finally, at 7 p.m., he gets specific. Drive to Skyline Road at 8:30, pull off the road, call again, and someone will escort you to the gym. The address is a closed Jiffy Lube. More calls, no answer, and voicemail is full. Two minutes later, Imber calls again. Drive up the hill to the end, make a right, and a quick left. He says to park, then call again.

But instead of a fenced-in backyard or a funky garage or a cave in the Santa Monica mountains, the location is a gleaming, first-class gym, home to the legendary former Ultimate Fighting Championship champion Bas Rutton.

Slice is in the ring, sweating profusely, practicing kick moves and guillotine chokes on Rutton, who retired as the undefeated UFC champion.

Rutton is explaining how the fight (three five-minute rounds) will start.

There will be the traditional shaking of hands.

"Hell no, I'm not shaking his hand," says Slice, sporting a full beard and a Manny Ramírez-like do-rag. He works hard for more than an hour, never stopping to take a drink.

When Slice finishes and removes his mouthpiece, his bottom teeth - all gold - sparkle. He's friendly and easygoing. A lot of what's been posted about him is not true, he says.

So why the secrecy? Is he worried about some street punk coming in with a .38 special?

"No, no, no. It's none of that ....." Then he excuses himself in advance for his obscenity-laced language.

"With a [expletive] like me that comes from the streets, I know wassup.

I'm not a top [expletive] that's gonna be running my mouth. I bought the streets like that cause that's how a lot of [expletive] eat. Whether you are black or white or Hispanic, I don't want to put the business out there like that." Targeting Mercer So who is this guy?

"I'm not a celebrity, I'm an average guy," says Slice. "You'll see me at Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens. I've seen guys think they're celebrity and they have attitudes. I don't ever, ever, ever want to be that. I'm just the average dude." But when he talks about Mercer, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and the World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion in 1991, the smile fades. He points to the "No Fear" tattoo on his arm.

"I respect everyone as a human being, but as far as a fight is concerned, I have no respect for the guy," he says. "You know, we're gonna have a fight, cool. Let's do our thing, may the best man win. But when you start talking [trash], you're really making it seem like I'm nobody to worry about. So now I got a problem with that." Some say the 46-year-old Mercer is washed up, over the hill, and just trying to get a paycheck. Since his stunning defeat of Tommy Morrison to retain his WBO title, he's lost to Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis, and was beaten in two K-1 kickboxing bouts.

Slice says he's in the best shape of his life. But a poll on the Cage Fury Fighting website has fans picking Mercer in a KO by a count of 47 percent to 37 percent. Each fighter is guaranteed $50,000. The winner receives an additional $25,000, plus $10,000 for a knockout.

"He's 13 years older than me, but I'm not taking him lightly," says Slice, 33. "I'm just coming in there with all heart, with everything I've got and everything I've been taught. I want to put a whupping on him. I want to win this." Slice is confident fans will pay $29.95 to see the fight.

"There's a lot of people with me from Day One," he says. "Anything I put out, they want to see more and more and more of." So how does a bodyguard for a production company that makes pornographic films start the blood-strewn journey from backyard boxer to cage fighting with a former world champion?

"It just happened, man," Slice says. "Every time someone is born, there's a new star being birthed in the sky, and at any given time, that star is going to have its time to shine. It's just that time for me." Asked how this all started, Slice shuffles again.

"It wasn't a dare," he says. "It was just conversation about two guys that's serious [about fighting]. We put it together and made it happen." Slice refuses to discuss the money arrangements for his Internet fights or the gambling aspects. "What happens on the streets stays on the streets," he says.

He also insists the fights aren't illegal.

"No, it depends," he says. "It was investigated. Two men willing to give their consent can settle their differences, whether it's for a purse or bragging rights."

Fighting and football

Slice grew up in the tough Pinecrest section of Miami, fighting all the time. He loved it.

His mother never uses his fighting name, Kimbo, which he got from his cousins in the Bahamas. She doesn't want him fighting, either.

"She tries to talk to me," he says, "but I'm like, 'Look Ma, I don't want to hear that right now.'." A standout football player at Miami Palmetto High School, he was recruited by several top colleges. He appeared briefly in a Dolphins uniform but never hit Dan Marino. ("The rules were the quarterback was off-limits," he says.) Slice grew up a Mike Tyson fan.

"That dude, when he was young, had a good corner at the time, and as he hooked up with the King family, it just went downhill," he says. "If he stayed with his people, Tyson would have been America's idol. I believe that." But now he feels MMA is the future, and he promises a better show than the Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya bout.

"It was a yawner," Slice insists. "I got up a couple times to do [stuff], and when I came back, I thought, 'Oh, is this still on?' Boxing can be staged, they dance around, prance around. MMA is not staged. People are going to get what they want to see. It's two thumbs up." It's also a huge departure from bare-knuckle brawls. Fighters are barefoot, and they can use elbows, knees, and feet. This is new to Slice.

"I'm learning a lot," he says.

Slice isn't worried about fighting in a cage in front of a big crowd.

"I'm an animal," he says with a shrug. "It's going to be like a second home. I've performed before big crowds before, at football games. I just focus because in the blink of an eye, you could get hit and it could be lights out." 'Not barbaric' At home in Miami, Slice has six children - three boys and three girls.

They'll all be in front of the TV June 23.

"My goal in life is not to let my kids down," he says. "To be a good role model for them. They're going to be home right in front of the screen." But others would never let their children watch something like this. Years ago, Senator John McCain led an anti-MMA campaign, calling it "human cock fighting." Slice thinks that is unfair.

"MMA is not barbaric," he contends. "Barbaric is when two guys want to get in the ring or in a cage and fight each other with objects. That's when it's barbaric. Right now, I've just got my hands. I'm eating by my hand.

I'm putting food on the table with the tools God gave me. That's not barbaric." As for his backyard bouts, Slice says he'd love to fight Gannon again.

"We had an agreement - hands and elbows," he says. "But I guess during the course of the fight this dude had to do what he had to do to survive." Kimbo says he offers no excuses.

"I give him his props, whatever. I don't take nothing away from the dude.

If Gannon is listening, step up to the plate, player. You owe me one." Would he fight him for free?

"No, he says, smiling broadly and displaying the gold again. "If I don't make dollars, then the fight don't make sense."