So for some reason, this question is something I see asked very often. And I suppose it makes sense. Deaths are not uncommon in boxing, and since MMA is often perceived as more dangerous than boxing, it may lead people to wonder how often death occurs in MMA.
Since the UFC is the biggest MMA organization, people want to know if a fight in the UFC has resulted in the death of a fighter. So how many people have died in the UFC?
Nobody has ever died in the UFC since its inception in 1993. However, outside the UFC, there have been seven deaths in sanctioned bouts and nine deaths in unregulated bouts, as of April 2019.
Even though there have never been any deaths in the UFC, it could very well happen, as MMA can be just as dangerous as boxing. In the rest of this post, I’m going to discuss the deaths that have occurred in MMA, as well as how major organizations like the UFC prevent deaths inside the Octagon.
As mentioned, there has never been a death in the UFC from injuries sustained in a fight (or otherwise). However, there are a number of deaths that have been recorded since the emergence of MMA as a major sport.
I created a spreadsheet that lists deaths in MMA, and also contains critical information, such as the fighter’s information name and age, where the fight took place, and whether or not it was regulated. You can find it here.
The UFC and other promotions turn to the Athletic Commissions for any medical requirements needed from the fighters. This helps limit the risk of the fighters. Major promotions also strictly follow any regulations required of the promoter as declared by the commission.
For example, medical personnel are always present at UFC events, and are ready to stop the fight at the first sign of concussion or debilitating injury. There is also transportation ready to go for the fighters, in case the need arises to rush them to the hospital.
When fighter João Carvalho passed away after his last MMA fight, Dana White explained why the UFC has never had a death, saying, “If you look at the UFC, as long as we’ve been doing it for 16 years, there’s never been a death or serious injury. It’s all about doing the proper medical work before they fight, having the proper medical team there during the fight, and making sure they get the right care after the fight. And that’s really what it’s all about. As long as you’re on top of that, it’s a fairly safe sport for a contact sport.”
These preparations prevent deaths and major injuries in the bigger MMA promotions.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for smaller, more amateur MMA promotions. Oftentimes, deaths in MMA can be the result of improper preparation by the promoter to secure the safety of the fighters.
For example, the last recorded death in a sanctioned MMA bout was on March 30, 2019. Brazilian MMA fighter Mateus Fernandes died from a heart attack after losing a sanctioned amateur MMA fight by TKO.
According to the wife of the promotion owner, Mateus was allegedly using drugs the night prior to his fight, and died from an overdose in the ring.
While this is likely true, the promotion still did not know much about Mateus’ condition in terms of health. The bout was sanctioned by the Amazonas Athletic Commission. However, having an athletic commission to regulate the bout is useless if the regulation is loose and unenforced.
The commission did not require Mateus to submit any medical information regarding his heart or his brain, two vital organs that are highly at risk during combat sport. Had Mateus been required to submit medicals on his cardiovascular system, an underlying issue may have been found, which could have prevented him from fighting, potentially saving his life.
Probably a better example of a promotion being unprepared for a medical emergency occurred back in 2013, when fighter Felix Pablo Elochukwu died from injuries sustained in his fight. The fight was held as an amateur bout, and was unsanctioned.
Immediately, there are issues with the fight being unsanctioned. Neither Felix or his opponent were required to submit pre-fight medicals, and so it is unknown if Felix had any pre-existing health condition. This is why the UFC works so closely with the athletic commissions, as they ensure the safety of the fighters this way.
Regardless, the fact that the bout was unsanctioned is only part of the issue. The bigger issue is that there was no medical staff on standby for the venue, and there seemed to be no protocol in place for a fighter that needs medical attention.
Unfortunately, Felix was that fighter who needed medical attention. The only people in the venue that showed up to help him were a Registered Nurse, and a first responder (Ryan Puzan), both attendees from the crowd who simply went to watch the fights.
According to Ryan Puzan, there was no medical staff in the venue. After asking a promoter to call an ambulance, the promoter told him that they were already on the way. Ryan would later say, “I don’t think that was the case, because EMS didn’t show up until 40 minutes later.”
Ryan would also say: “I’m just appalled by it, even local football and baseball games have an EMS truck there. In my opinion, if Felix had access to a defibrillator there, he could be walking and talking today.”
The lack of medical staff, as well as the lack of medical equipment and safety protocol, make the promotion at least partly to blame for the death of Felix.
Another big factor in why the UFC hasn’t had any deaths, is the experience level of the fighters. Fighters who join the UFC typically have a good number of wins under them. Even undefeated fighters have a few wins on their record before they join the UFC, such as Cody Garbrandt, who was 5-0 before getting signed.
However, there is an interesting stat found regarding deaths in MMA, which I noted in the spreadsheet. None of the fighters hade more than four pro fights. The most they had were four pro fights, or in some cases, just a few amateur fights.
There are several reasons why this might be the case. One might be that these fighters’ lack of experience puts them more susceptible to damage, as their technique is not at an elite level yet.
A more likely reason is that the regional promotions have less stringent medical requirements. Perhaps a promoter for a regional show might be able to let a fighter compete without submitting pre-fight medicals, something that would never happen in the UFC or Bellator.
Of course, regional promotions are also less prepared than the UFC for a medical emergency, which could exacerbate any complications that arise from a fight.
And the last reason is that fighters who are susceptible to trauma probably suffer from it early. This is completely an assumption on my part, but if a fighter has arteries in the brain that are more susceptible to bursting than the normal person, then they will suffer a hemorrhage during one of their first few fights.
The likelihood of them continuing to fight without suffering a traumatic brain injury decreases after every fight. Of course, I am assuming that the fighters who passed away from brain injury had some factor that made them more susceptible to it, meaning that they were very likely to suffer from that injury eventually. The fact that they fight competitively shortens the time for when they will suffer an injury, and due to the nature of fighting, it happens early in their career.
Weight cutting has been a part of MMA since the addition of weight classes, for which a fighter must cut weight to meet the designated limit. Of course, this involves the fighter severely dehydrating themselves to lose water weight quickly, and then gaining the weight back after weighing in.
This can lead to a number of health issues, and the UFC has had several fights get canceled due to a fighter being hospitalized after an unsuccessful weight cut.
Although this did not happen in the UFC, another MMA promotion, ONE Championship, saw the death of a fighter due to an extreme weight cut. That fighter was 21-year-old Yang Jian Bing, who passed away while cutting weight attempting to make the 125-pound flyweight limit.
ONE Championship took action almost immediately and banned weight-cutting from the organization, initially mandating that fighters fight at their walking weight.
The organization has now created a system to create an even playing field for the fighters while maintaining their safety. Instead of cutting weight to meet a certain limit, the weight class limits have been moved up by one. So for example, a fighter who previously cut weight to fight at 125 pounds, now weighs in at 135 pounds fully hydrated, no weight cut.
To ensure the fight is still fair, the promotion conducts specific-gravity tests on the fighters, which measures their hydration level. Fighters will only be allowed to compete if they meet the weight limit fully hydrated. The system is very effective, and several have called for its use in the UFC, most notably by UFC commentator Joe Rogan.
In short, there has never been a single death in the UFC from a fight, since its creation in 1993. However, there have been a total of 16 deaths in MMA fights outside of the UFC, with nine of those being in unregulated events.
I hope this post helped you learn about fatal injuries related to MMA, and how promotions can ensure the safety of the fighters. If you enjoyed the post, consider checking out similar ones on the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!