Following the death of thirty-five-year-old fighter Sam Vasquez resulting from injuries suffered during an MMA bout in Houston, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations has reviewed the event and announced that it was operating in compliance with all safety precautions and procedures. That makes this a good news, bad news scenario, in a way.
Actually, that isn’t true. It’s more like a bad news, but not worse news scenario. That a man is dead as a result of competing in MMA is bad enough. That the rules were followed, even if they couldn’t prevent his death — I guess we’ll have to settle for that as some sort of consolation.
For years the aficionados of this sport (myself included) countered claims of barbarity by pointing out that sanctioned MMA had never produced a single death. We can’t say that anymore, and I suppose it was bound to come to this point sooner or later. Now MMA joins sports like boxing, football, car racing — even cheerleading — as activities that could result in death.
Of course, we knew this already. Guys punching and kicking each other in the head, purposely trying to hurt one another? Yeah, that can kill a person. Now it has. Now it’s just a matter of how we react to it.
I remember not too long ago when Tim Sylvia knocked out Tra Telligman with a vicious high kick that left Telligman immobile in the Octagon for several minutes. He was eventually carried out on a stretcher and made a full recovery, but there were a few tense moments when MMA fans watching the live broadcast held their collective breath.
This may be it, I remember thinking. MMA may have just produced a death on live TV.
Thankfully, it didn’t happen that way, but I have to admit it made me wonder what the reaction would be like. Would there be calls for MMA to be banned, to be taken off the airwaves? Would the UFC come to its defense, or wait for the storm to blow over?
At present, it doesn’t seem as if Vasquez’s death has provoked a great public outcry against the dangers of MMA. Aside from the usual suspects in the MMA media, I haven’t heard much mention of it. This might be in part because it happened at a small, non-televised show, and because he died weeks after the actual fight, making it less appealing as a big news story.
But either way it brings up the same issues that MMA has been dealing with for some time now. This is a dangerous sport. You can be seriously injured or possibly killed competing in it. It involves risks that shouldn’t be taken lightly. And yet, those risks are acceptable. Maybe for some, they are even necessary.
Norman Mailer wrote, in his essay on the death of boxer Benny “Kid” Paret, which Mailer witnessed from ringside, that the ensuing cries from the Establishment to ban boxing after the incident were unfounded, mainly because they were missing a fundamental truth about human beings. The Establishment felt, according to Mailer, that any activity that shortened life was to be abhorred. What they weren’t taking into account, he said, was that a man’s life is his own to shorten, and that, for some, to be denied the opportunity to risk it is to deny them their freedom.
And yet, as Mailer also captured in the following passage, witnessing the death of Paret was a terrible thing:
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet.”
And then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
It is a tragic and sad thing what happened to Sam Vasquez, but it is not the only type of tragedy. Vasquez knew the risks and accepted them. That was his right, just as it is ours. Odds are this won’t be the last death in our sport, but that makes it no different than any other. Let everybody understand this, and then let them move on.