Given it’s one of the most no-holds-barred sporting divisions in the world, some might assume that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) could ultimately some fighters’ lives in jeopardy.
So, how many UFC fighters have died in the Octagon? Have there been any mixed martial arts (MMA) deaths outside of the UFC? And how does boxing, a similarly savage sport, compare in this regard?
Has Anyone Ever Died in a UFC Fight?
No. There have never been any UFC deaths in the Octagon itself, which perhaps owes partly to how well-regulated it mostly is (at least in comparison to other MMA divisions, arguably).
But unfortunately, other MMA fighters away from the UFC have lost their lives from fighting, as we’ll get onto now…
Has Anyone Ever Died During an MMA Fight?
Yes. As of April 2019, there have been seven recorded deaths from sanctioned MMA contests and nine from unregulated bouts, even if none have stemmed from the UFC.
Fatalities in Sanctioned MMA Fights
- Sammy Vasquez died on November 30, 2007 aged 35 due to complications of blunt trauma of the head with a subdural haemorrhage. He had competed in a Renegades Extreme October 20, 2007 in Houston, Texas, losing consciousness shortly after. and was taken to Saint Joseph Medical Center’s Critical Care Unit. He fell into a coma for 48 hours until his death on November 30. Vasquez was the first fighter to die from injuries sustained in a sanctioned North American MMA fight.
- Michael K Kirkham died on June 28, 2010 aged 30, two days after fighting Carlos Iraburo at Dash Entertainment/King MMA ‘Confrontation at the Convocation Center’ at the University of South Carolina Aiken campus. Iraburo had Kirkham on the canvas within seconds, before landing several strikes to his head. Kirkham soon lost consciousness and never recover. His cause of death was reported as ‘subarachnoid haemorrhage of the brain’.
- Tyrone Mims died on August 11, 2012 aged 30, having competed in an amateur MMA show at Conflict MMA Fight Night at the Point IV in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina earlier that day. Mims became weak and tired in the second round and the referee stopped the bout because he could not continue. Soon after being helped back to the locker room, he lost consciousness, and was pronounced dead that night. His autopsy results proved inconclusive, with no evidence of a concussion or brain trauma, while the toxicology report did not detect any drugs or alcohol in his system.
- Booto Guylain died on March 5, 2014 aged 29, having suffered swelling of the brain. Guylain sustained a head injury his bout against Keron Davies at EFC AFRICA 27 held in Johannesburg on February 27, 2014. He was stabilised on-site and taken to hospital, but passed away six days later.
- Donshay White died on July 16, 2017 aged 37, having lost a sanctioned amateur heavyweight bout against Ricky Muse in Louisville, Kentucky at ‘Hardrock MMA 90’ earlier that day. Afterwards, he collapsed backstage and was taken to an ambulance, where he died. The cause of death was ruled as hypertensive heart disease, while the autopsy revealed White was suffered from high blood pressure but not taking medication for it.
- Rondel Clark died on August 15, 2017 aged 26, three days after a bout with Ryan Dunn at ‘Cage Titans XXXV’ in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was halted roughly two minutes into the third round when Clark appeared too fatigued to intelligently defend himself and the match was ruled a TKO victory for Dunn. Clark reportedly had difficulty breathing and, following a post-fight medical examination, was carried out on a stretcher and taken to hospital. He died in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, his autopsy later concluding that he passed away due to the rapid breakdown of muscle tissue caused by physical overexertion combined with dehydration.
- Mateus Fernandes died aged 22, hours after an amateur bout against Obed Pereira at Remulus Fight in Manaus, Brazil on March 30, 2019. After winning the first two rounds, he was dropped to the canvas by a series of punches and the referee halted the contest. Fernandes then reportedly had seizures and was transported to Raimundo Accident and Emergency. At the hospital, he reportedly suffered four heart attacks, dying at 11.45p.m. local time. Fernandes was part of a program that helped people deal with drug addiction through martial arts, and it has been alleged that the fighter spent the night of March 29 taking drugs. He passed his pre-fight blood exams, but did not have his heart or brain checked before the bout.
Fatalities in Unsanctioned MMA Fights
- Alfredo Castro Herrera died on April 14, 1981 aged 15, after an unsanctioned MMA bout with Angel Luis Rodriguez in Tijuana Mexico, described in the St. Louis Globe Democrat as ‘boxing mixed with karate and judo’. The cause of death was never publicly revealed.
- Douglas Dedge died on March 18, 1998 aged 31, two days after competing at an unsanctioned ‘World Super Challenge’ event in Kiev, Ukraine. After tapping out following multiple blows to the head, Dedge stood and almost immediately collapsed back to the mat. He was then taken to the Kiev Institute of Surgery where he died two days later due to ‘severe brain injuries’. Dedge was reported to have passed out during a training session before the bout and it is now widely believed (though never confirmed) that he had a pre-existing medical condition.
- Lee died aged 35, following an unsanctioned MMA bout in a sports bar in Samsong-dong, South Korea on May 12, 2005. No pre-fight physical exams were conducted. His cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
- Mike Mittelmeier died on April 27, 2012 aged 20, following an unsanctioned bout in Bolivia on April 21. After taking down his opponent and applying a leg lock, his opponent illegally kicked him in the head with his heel, knocking him out. The fight was stopped and Mittelmeier won by disqualification. A few seconds later, he collapsed, and was later diagnosed with a cerebral haemorrhage that left him comatose. The promoters allegedly did not have a doctor or ambulance standing by, and it took a while before he was transferred to a hospital. He died six days after the fight.
- Dustin Jenson died on May 24, 2012 aged 26, following an unsanctioned ‘RingWars’ event on May 18 at in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he tapped out. Jenson watched the next two fights before going to the locker room, where he suffered a seizure. His cause of death was listed as subdural haemorrhage from blunt force trauma to the head, which was related to an injury suffered approximately a week prior.
- Felix Pablo Elochukwu died aged 35 after competing in his first amateur MMA bout in the Amateur Fighting Club in Port Huron, Michigan, on April 7, 2013. Reports said neither he nor his opponent required pre-fight medicals. During the third bout, he was mounted without properly defending himself, causing the referee to stop the fight and award the win to his opponent. Elochukwu seemed fine, but he stopped and sat down on his way to the dressing room, saying he was exhausted. The crowd suspected his blood sugar may have dropped and they offered him orange juice, but it didn’t help. Elochukwu soon collapsed from the chair he was sat on. The ER was supposedly called, but not until about 40 minutes after his fall, leading to doubts as to whether organisers rang them immediately. People from the crowd tried, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate him with CPR, and Elochukwu was pronounced dead at 10.12 pm. Elochukwu’s tragic death led to Michigan’s legislature regulating MMA in the state soon after.
- Ramin Zeynalov died in March 2015 aged 27, while competing in an amateur MMA bout in his native Azerbaijan. A takedown by his opponent KO’d Zeynalov, his head hitting the canvas and medical personnel unable to revive him. His cause of death was later confirmed as a brain haemorrhage.
- Jameston Lee-Yaw died in April 2015 aged 47 while competing in an amateur MMA bout at the SouthShore Mall in Aberdeen, Washington (in Washington state, amateur bouts at a gym do not require medical staff on site). Lee-Yaw collapsed in the ring and was carried to a dressing room where he was found to be having trouble breathing. He died at Harborview Medical Center due to kidney failure. It is unknown what caused the kidney failure. Plus, Lee-Yaw’s age would, by law, disqualify him as a fighter in many states, which have age limits similar to those in boxing.
- Joao Carvalho died in April 2016 aged 28, two days after a bout at Total Extreme Fighting 1 in Dublin with Charlie Ward. His cause of death was never revealed, but led to the Irish legislature regulating MMA in the country (at the time of Carvalho’s death, there was no governing body for professional MMA in Ireland, but the Irish Amateur Pankration Association governed the sport at amateur level.)
Has Anyone Ever Died From Weight Cutting?
Yes, but again, not in the UFC.
In the Asian ONE Championship, Chinese flyweight Yang Jian Bing passed away on December 11, 2015 at the age of 21 following his weight cut for a bout with Geje Eustaquio at the ‘Spirit of Champions’ event later that day. This harrowing story caused the division to change the way they weigh in fighters (i.e. through long-term testing and hydration testing).
Bing reportedly arrived at San Juan De Dios Hospital in Pasay, Philippines unconscious and unresponsive, and was repeatedly losing his pulse. He later died of rhabdomyolysis – the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of muscle fibre contents into the bloodstream.
MMA fighter Leandro Souza also sadly died after passing out before the weigh-in for a bout in his native Brazil in 2013. He had reportedly been taking diuretics to lose the necessary weight – such drugs are banned by the UFC.
Will UFC Get Rid of Weight Cuts?
There aren’t any signs of it being banned as yet, rightly or wrongly.
Or, even, any signs of them introducing as stringent a set of weight-cutting guidelines as ONE brought in after Bing’s death (including random weight checks and regular submissions of walking and training weights).
What there are, though, are alternatives to weight-cutting. Not only for those competing in the UFC, either, but just about any MMA fighter.
Exercise more regularly, eat more healthily and don’t snack meals, drink more water – all the obvious stuff, really. It’s a more gradual process than weight-cutting but is healthier and better for your body.
Other things for authorities to consider introducing are checks on things like:
- Do their bone and muscle masses weigh the correct amount?
- Have they re-hydrated enough before their fight?
- Could random weight tests as in the ONE Championships alleviate competitors doing too much weight-cutting too soon?
MMA Deaths v Boxing Deaths
Boxing has suffered more deaths, but then again it’s been around for far longer, so perhaps that should come as no real surprise (even if it is generally more ‘restricted’ than MMA).
And while boxing was certainly more deadly back in pre-MMA times (per ‘How They Play‘, 1,876 deaths from boxing-related injuries between 1890 and 2019, 266 documented between 1740 and 1889), it can still happen.
Scott Westgarth, for instance, lost his life aged 31 after collapsing in his locker room after his light-heavyweight bout with Dec Spelman as recently as February 2018, for instance. Or take the even more recent example of Patrick Day, who passed away aged 27 in October 2019 from brain trauma sustained in a knockout loss against Charles Conwell four days earlier.
So, while MMA has garnered a reputation as ‘no rules,’ it’s still arguably a safer sport than boxing, whose average number of annual deaths still eclipse it hugely. There’s been only the aforementioned 16 officially recorded in MMA, whereas throughout boxing’s history, it’s seen, on average, between roughly ten and 15 fighters lose their lives from blows sustained in bouts every year.