Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good Intentions Don't Save Lives: Another Death In Amateur Combat Sports

*APRIL 27, 2015 UPDATE: Since writing this post, another amateur MMA fighter has died subsequent to a poorly regulated event. This bring us to 5 known amateur combat sports related deaths nationally in the past four years.

Sadly, there has been another death in the world of amateur combat sports. 

I have commented often in this blog regarding the medieval level of regulation in amateur MMA nationally; that unlike our sport's professional counterpart, our amateur athletes are severely neglected by our state, tribal and third party regulating bodies. This neglect on rare and tragic occasions can lead to death. While the tragic passing of 24 year old Dennis Munson, Jr. subsequent to his debut amateur fight may have happened in a kickboxing ring, the multitude of avoidable errors that set the stage for his premature passing are not uncommon in the world of amateur Mixed Martial Arts. In Milwaukee, like amateur MMA in New York and a multitude of other states, kickboxing is unregulated* by the state athletic commission.

From John Diedrich's story - Milwaukee Kickboxer Dennis Munson Jr.'s Dies Following Cascade of Errors By Fight Officials - in Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel, we see the familiar ground often laid at amateur MMA events:
So on the night Munson stepped into the ring for the first time, there was no state commissioner or inspectors and no second ringside doctor. Munson and the other kickboxers had not received full physicals by a doctor...
On the night Munson died, the officials failed to intervene at key moments as he exhibited what a dozen independent experts who reviewed a video of the fight say were obvious signs of distress. Several said the fight should have been stopped. 
Even after Munson collapsed, care was delayed by a disagreement over treatment, hang-ups exiting the building and confusion about ambulance care. Skilled paramedics were waved off and Munson was taken to a nearby regular hospital, instead of Milwaukee's Level One trauma center.
Scott Joffe, one of the event's promoters is quoted in Diedrich's story as saying:
"I think everyone did what they could at the time for Dennis....This is just a tragic situation," Joffe said. "Everything we do is done with fighter safety in mind. He looked like an exhausted fighter."
Yes, it is horribly tragic. No promoter wants blood on his hands and Joffe will certainly have to live with the albatross of this death weighing on his shoulders for a lifetime; as will Munson's opponent. Nevertheless, it seems from this report, that contrary to Joffe's intentions, not everything was done with fighter safety in mind. One of the real unspoken tragedies in unregulated amateur combat sports is the phrase "we do everything with fighter safety in mind." This is clearly not the case. As a coach, ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) trained MMA official and advocate for regulated amateur combat sport, I consistently hear promoters of unregulated events claim that all is being done for fighter safety. To put it bluntly: horseshit.

Here is a very well done breakdown of the fight by top industry experts:

I have been to unregulated events (MMA and kickboxing) with no doctor present; where fighter inspection is minimal or non-existent; where blood work is not required; where there is no pre or post fight physical by a physician; where referees oversee their own fighters in the ring; where judges judge their own fighters in the ring; where medical staff is not ringside when bouts begin; where layers of dirt from street shoes gather in the ring resulting in horrid post takedown skin burns; where fighters step on water bottles left in the cage; where fighters are allowed to use gloves not provided or inspected by the promoter; where a referee prompts a fighter who has just been KO's to stand up; where chokes have been held too long; where rules are blatantly broken by fighters with no response from event officials; where kickboxing officials attempt to regulate MMA without knowledge of the rules; where medical staff was not cageside at the time of injuries; blatantly uneven mis-matches are allowed to go on; and on and on and on. In all these cases promoters will routinely...even proudly...claim that everything they do is in the best interest of fighter safety. These examples are not from hidden "underground" fights. These are all from events "regulated" by third part bodies.

In New York, as noted by journalist Jim Genia in a recent article for Deadspin - "HIV, Hepatitis C, And More: New York's Amateur MMA Scene is a Disaster" - the risks our amateur combat athletes face is not limited to death in the ring or cage.

Don't get me wrong. There are many people doing all the right things for our amateur athletes. But, there are just many doing all the wrong things. The irony is that all promoters claim to be doing the right things and acting in the interest of fighter safety. Consequently, any coach who intends to put a fighter in an unregulated bout must assume promoters are not; and better do his research. Make sure what needs to be done is being done for your fighters. Are promoters intentionally cutting corners? Maybe yes, maybe no. Are they acting out of ignorance believing that they are doing all they can? In some cases yes. However, in the end it does not matter because the result is the same. And in the case of Dennis Munson, Jr., all the right intentions did not save his life. As the old saying goes: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

In July of 2012 I wrote about the death of amateur MMA fighter Dustin Jenson subsequent to an unregulated South Dakota MMA bout (see: Will the Dustin Jenson Tragedy Teach Us Something). Again, Jenson's death was completely avoidable in my estimation. Yet, multiple errors coupled with extremely poor judgement, led to the premature death of a young fighter. Like Joffe with Munson, the promoter of Jenson's fight may have felt he was doing the right things with regard to the safety of the fighters. He was not...and he happened to be Jenson's coach.

Then, less than three months later, tragedy struck again (see: Amateur MMA: When Will We Come Out From The dark Ages). Tyrone Mims was cut down in his prime subsequent to his amateur MMA debut. This time in South Carolina. The second such death in the state since MMA was legalized. In all fairness, South Carolina's State Athletic Commission was regulating these two tragic bouts. However, we may need to be asking ourselves if we are doing enough.

Just weeks after writing my 2013 editorial regarding the growing national concern over amateur MMA regulation, another fighter was cut down in his prime after his debut bout. Felix Elochukwu Nchikwo died subsequent to competing in an unregulated amateur MMA bout in Michigan. According to news reports, there was no pre-fight physical required and there was no cageside doctor or ambulance present.

The bottom line is this: About half of our state athletic commissions regulate amateur MMA. Of those, many have a hands off policy and farm out their responsibilities to third party sanctioning bodies with little, if any oversight as to the quality of regulation offered by their proxy. This is absolutely unacceptable. Professional MMA, with the exception of New York, is strictly regulated by every state athletic commission. Yet, if we were to look at the numbers, MMA like every other sport has many more amateur than professional fighters. I don't know of any formal study, but my guess is that amateur MMA fighters outnumber professionals at least by 10:1. To neglect the safety of these men and women is criminal.

I am tired of writing these editorials and hearing about the deaths that prompt them. Let's get it together and protect our fighters. We need a national policy. Someone step up and do the right thing.

Stephen Koepfer
Founder, Coalition to legalize MMA in New York

*For the purposes of this editorial "unregulated" is intended to mean lack of regulation and oversight by a state athletic commission.