CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Rosemary Clarke is a soft-spoken, slight woman. The kind who makes you naturally lean forward when you first meet, so as to not miss a word.
There’s something almost soothing about the delicate way in which she speaks. It’s a trait you notice from the moment she introduces herself.
“Hello, I’m Rosemary. Kimbo’s mom.”
Another thing you’ll learn about Clarke is that she enjoys talking about her son. You can tell it brings her joy. She actually refers to him by his birth name, Kevin.
Everyone, in fact, enjoys talking about Kevin (or Kimbo, or Ferg, or Dad — depending upon whom you’re talking to). And just about all of them tend to do so in the present.
“He’s my son,” Clarke says. “Every parent will say their son is great. And yes, he is great. He’s a good dad, he’s very compassionate. And he don’t take foolishness from nobody. He don’t. If he say he gonna do something, he gonna do it. And don’t get him angry. He has patience, he’ll take a lot. But if you push him too hard, that’s it. That’s it.”
The best one to verify that last comment is Slice’s younger brother, Black (birth name Devon). Like many younger siblings, Black was born with an innate talent of pushing his older brother to the edge. But he says they always were, and still are, best friends.
When the two were boys growing up in south Florida, Slice always promised Black he would make it in either football or professional fighting. And when he made it, he’d get the whole family — Rosemary, Black and older sister Renea — “out of the hood.”
“At least when we were good he’d say that,” Black recalled. “He’d say he was going, and that he was taking everyone with him. Then he’d get mad at me for something, and it’d be, ‘When I make it, I ain’t taking you nowhere. Just me and Mom.’ I’d be like, ‘Goddamn!’
“But when he made it, everyone left. He took us all with him. He’d say, ‘Hey, remember when I told you I was going to make it and get us out? I wasn’t lying.’ And I’d say, ‘I know you wasn’t lying. We all here right now.'”
Framed pictures of Slice literally cover the walls of his family home, Clarke’s home, and his high school friend and longtime manager Mike Imber’s home. He talks to his family from them, and they to him. Black says he’ll get this feeling sometimes, as if Slice is about to reach out and grab him.
But as valuable as these daily interactions with Slice are for his family, they can be painful, too. Especially for Clarke, who, as much as she enjoys talking about her son, cannot bring herself to talk about the final days of his life, which he spent in a hospital bed at Northwest Medical Center in Margate one year ago.
“I look at him and I laugh sometimes at the things he be saying,” Clarke says. “And then again, it’s like — sadness. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, why did he go and leave me? I’m supposed to go before him.'”
Kimbo Slice died on June 6, 2016, from traumatic heart failure. He was 42.
At the time of his death, efforts were underway to arrange a transport to the Cleveland Clinic, where Slice would have awaited a heart transplant.
The sudden loss of life — the speed at which his condition turned critical — was a shock, but the medical issues surrounding his heart were not. Slice suffered from, and took medication for, high blood pressure for years.
At home, his health had grown increasingly worrisome near the end.
“It hurt so much because I watched him for, I’m gonna say a good month, slowly, really getting to the point of his heart getting bad,” says Antoinette Ferguson, Slice’s wife. “I watched him go through it. And I guess, the reason why it was so hard for me was because he still fought. He still continued, even at the end, ‘I’m fighting my next fight.’ He was like, ‘I’m going to get up out of this hospital and I’m going to fight.'”
Four months prior to his hospitalization, Slice appeared in a heavyweight fight against Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris at Bellator 149 in Houston. Dada5000 was an acquaintance from Slice’s past, an organizer of backyard brawls in Perrine, Florida. He wasn’t even a pro fighter, but he had an intriguing storyline with Slice, which he could cash in on by facing him in the cage.
The fight was scheduled for three rounds, but no one thought it had a chance of lasting longer than a few minutes. It was a throwback to the backyard brawling history of both fighters. Fists would fly and someone would quickly fall. Later, paychecks would clear.
Several minutes went by in the Feb. 19 bout, however, and it wasn’t over. Both were exhausted immediately — too exhausted, it seemed, to throw a punch capable of knocking the other out. Slice eventually won in the third round, when Dada5000 awkwardly tumbled to the canvas in a heap of fatigue.
His family and friends celebrated the victory with Slice, but it had a heavy effect on their collective thoughts about his future. His wife and mother had already been asking him to retire, individually and together as a “tag team” once. Antoinette really believed her husband’s win against Ken Shamrock the previous year should have been his final fight.
After what happened in Houston, everyone agreed with her.
“I knew there was something going on with his conditioning,” says Mike Brown, Slice’s coach for his last two fights. “It wasn’t good. At times, it could be really bad. But I knew the challenges we had ahead were manageable. They were bite-sized. Shamrock was 50 years old, and I didn’t think Dada was a real fighter. He looked afraid of fighting, to me. I was confident in Kimbo’s ability to go across the cage, bing bang boom, throw hard punches, find his target and land one in the first minute.
“I didn’t think he should fight anymore after Dada. That was, ‘This is it, man. We will never find another guy like Dada, this type of matchup. That was like, the best fight we could ever possibly get and that was too much. That was way too much. So, it’s over.'”
Two months later, despite protests from his loved ones, Slice agreed to a fight against James Thompson at Bellator 158 that July.
The family accepted the decision with mixed emotions … and one unifying feeling of powerlessness. There was nothing anyone could say or do to stop Slice from taking that fight and providing for his family.
“He didn’t want me to come in between him and that fight and him making more money,” Imber said. “And I was trying to let him know, ‘You’re going to make money regardless of whether you fight, you don’t need to do it.’ But I think that’s where that fighting spirit was coming out.”
Antionette, who met Slice through his older sister and knew him before he became famous in the backyard, says they were never the kind of couple that fought frequently. But of course, they had their healthy share of arguments as a married couple. His health, and insistence on fighting, was at the root of many of them.
“Him not fighting, I don’t think he would have been himself. It’s like, when a baby knows that bottle is going to keep him fed and is always going to make him feel good at the end — that was what fighting was for him.”
Kimbo Slice died on a Monday. The Friday before, Imber went to visit him in the hospital.
Slice asked how he looked, and Imber told him he looked fine. He was struggling to move around, but the signature biceps and broad chest were still there. He still looked like Kimbo.
“Never, in a million years, would I have thought he only had a few days left,” Imber said.
Despite his hospitalization, Slice’s upcoming fight in London against Thompson weighed heavily on his mind. He had no intention of pulling out of the event, even though, according to Brown, he had not been in the gym once since the Dada5000 bout in February.
“At some points I was angry with him, but then I was like, ‘There’s no need to be angry, because this is him,'” Antoinette says. “As a wife, you’re divided in two. You’re thinking of things to continue to keep them strong and fighting, but on the other hand, you’re like, ‘When is this [drive to continue fighting] gonna end?’
“Every day, he let the doctors know, ‘When can I get out of here? I need to get cleared.’ Even when he was short of breath, he just knew it was going to be a miracle. He just felt he wasn’t done.”
On Sunday, less than two full days after visiting Slice, Imber was walking into a Whole Foods when his phone rang.
“He called me up and was like, ‘They’re telling me I need a heart transplant,'” Imber said. “And I’m obviously not a doctor or nothing, but when you hear that, you know that’s not good. I don’t know if it gets worse than that.
“And he said, for the first time, ‘You know, Mike, I’m scared. Is there something you can do? Can you talk to somebody about expediting the transplant? There’s stacks of paperwork.’ I went and made whatever calls I could. One of our business partners, his father is in the medical world, he started doing whatever he could to make arrangements.”
Monday morning, Imber talked to Slice on the phone again. He was in Miami, but planned to drive to the hospital that afternoon. Slice wanted to know where he was, what time he’d be at the hospital. And he wanted Imber to know that he’d been right about the upcoming fight with Thompson. All those conversations they’d had about it being over and there being no shame in walking away — Imber had been right.
“He was like, ‘I f—ing hate you, but you’re right. You’re right about it. [Antoinette’s] been telling me the same thing. Mom’s been telling me the same thing.’ I said, ‘It’s because we love you, it’s not about being right or wrong. We care. You don’t have anything left to prove.'”
Slice and Imber were friends for more than 20 years. Slice spent so many nights at Imber’s house, he had his own room there. Years ago, they ran cables to connect televisions in opposite rooms, so neither could cheat when they played Xbox against each other. That phone call on June 6 was the final time they spoke.
“The day before he passed, he told me he was sorry,” Antoinette said. “And I’m not saying he never said sorry to me, but it’s how he said it. It was like he was letting me know that he didn’t listen. And that maybe I was right, you know, when it came down to taking a break.”
On May 19, 25-year-old Kevin “Baby Slice” Ferguson Jr., Slice’s oldest son, entered a Bellator cage at Wembley Arena in London and knocked out Darryal Griffin in a little less than four minutes. It was his first win as a professional fighter.
Imber was in London alongside him, as his manager and friend. His family watched from home in Coral Springs.
The Slice family is still a fight family. When they talk about Baby Slice in the ring, the conversation inevitably turns to Kimbo in the ring — and in those backyards.
And as much as they did encourage him to stop near the end, it’s still exciting to remember what it was like watching Slice fight.
They all remember the “look” he’d get in his eyes, that moment when they knew something bad was about to happen to the poor man in front of him. Antoinette clenches her fist and punches the kitchen air when she describes it. Clarke remembers one fight, when she found herself breathing down the neck of a cameraman cageside, with no recollection of ever leaving her seat. “I would just get up and go, without knowing it,” she said with a laugh.
Slice is survived by his widow, mother, brother, sister and six children. His three youngest — Keiyera, Kassandra and Kevlar — attend primary and secondary school in Florida. The older three — Kevin Ferguson Jr., Kevin Ferguson II and Kevina — are in their 20s.
As Black tells it, he continues to live through them all. Baby Slice in the cage. Ferguson II on a college football field in Missouri. Keiyera in a state track and field meet this past spring. Kevlar, 12, is the spitting image of his father when he was that age.
When Antoinette first met Kevin, she was attracted to the typical stuff. He was handsome and funny. It was “the best dating” she ever experienced in her life, just them learning things about each other.
She describes him as always being a protector, too. One that had so much strength, she knew she could always lean on it. Antoinette admits she probably needed that in her life when they first met. It was good that he had that for her.
The day he went to the hospital last June, she remembers seeing a “glossiness in his eyes,” and he admitted, briefly, that he could “feel a difference” in what was going on. In that moment, Antionette says, everything she’d ever learned from her husband about being strong — and fighting — welled up somewhere inside her.
And it has been there ever since.
“Every day, I look up at the sky and I let him know that I’m hanging in there,” Antoinette says. “I let him know that the babies are OK and the big kids are fine. Mom’s OK. I’m always talking to him.
“Sometimes, it feels like he hasn’t been away, because of his presence. His spirit will always be amongst me because I had a strong love for him and he had a strong love for me.”
Brett Okamoto ESPN Staff Writer