UFC President Dana White and ABC Boxing Medical Committee Condemn Bare Knuckles Malpractices After Tragic Death of MMA Fighter Justin Thornton

By Robert Brizel, Head Real Combat Media Boxing Correspondent

Biloxi, Mississippi (October 6th, 2021)– On Monday, October 4, 2021, bare knuckles fighter Justin Thornton, age 38, 6-18 in MMA, died two months after getting brutally knocked out and reportedly paralyzed after only 19 seconds into his match in Biloxi, Mississippi, by 12-1 Dillon Klecker at BKFC 20 on August 20, 2021. Paralyzed on a ventilator with a spinal cord injury, on a ventilator with an IV drip, the mismatch result had its handwriting on the wall the moment it was made. It could have and should have been stopped before it happened. Still, it happened. Money was made while people paid for and watched the highlight featured slaughter of a match. In a statement released, Kleckler stated Thornton died of pneumonia (during complications).

In addition to bare knuckles fighting, Thornton was an MMA fighter with an undistinguished 6-18 MMA record over 24 bouts. He fought Titan FC COO Lex McMahon in November 2020, and competed against eventual UFC veterans Chase Sherman and Walt Harris during his 13-year career. Thornton’s bare knuckles loss to Klecker was a rematch of a previous MMA bout won by Klecker, also in the first round. Thornton had requested Klecker give him a rematch in the BKB format. Klecker, who considered Thornton a friend, accepted the challenge.

Besides not being carefully and strictly regulated, part of the problem with bare knuckles boxing is it falls into a sort of “no man’s land” between amateur and professional boxing, and Mixed Martial Arts. Bare knuckles boxing is real, and while not as popular as other sports it exists, and it is a valid competitive sport going back thousands of years. In the modern era, it has become more competitive and evolved into a unique and distinct sport in its own right. It just does not garner the sort of attention of other contact sports, unless somebody dies, which is what happened in the case of Thornton.

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) Medical Committee, in light of the death of Thornton, issued a statement to MMA Junkie online, in which the ABC Medical Committee condemned common malpractices culturally tolerated and as yet unregulated in the sport of bare-knuckles boxing. Factors confronted include the age and skill of bare knuckles boxers, the demographics of fighters, and allowing fighters to fight after periods of long inactivity, common more so now during the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic time period affecting amateur and professional sports.

The ABC Medical Committee’s statement includes the following: “The Association of Boxing Commission’s Medical Committee is especially concerned that athletes competing in BKB may be at higher risks for acute and chronic injuries due to these and other factors. (More) Disturbingly, and despite our (current) recommendations, some jurisdictions regulating these (bare knuckles) events are still not following minimum medical guidelines set forth by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) and the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP). More concerning is the fact many (American Athletic) commissions still do not require any imaging studies (CT scan or MRI scan), in a sport where individuals are at risk (and many do incur) for acute and chronic head injuries.”

ABC President Mike Mazzulli told MMA Junkie after Thornton’s death “Every state and tribal commission needs to address safety, and the process (as) to how they do it. ABC is not here to tell you how to do it. We’re here to help you do it, but (the situation involving bare knuckles boxing regulation has been) really disappointing. These guys (bare knuckles promoters and matchmakers) are recycling MMA fighters that shouldn’t be fighting anymore. They will not pass the tests to be an (approved) MMA fighter, so they go to bare-knuckle boxing (instead). This is a fine example of what is wrong with bare-knuckle boxing, and what they are doing to these fighters. It bothers me. We talk about fighter safety and protecting the fighters at all costs. This (mismatching in boxing, MMA, and bare knuckles boxing) has got to stop.”

The only possible requirement should be for boxing commissions in the United States and worldwide to regulate BKB to the same extent as they do amateur and professional boxing and MMA. Laws covering BKB need to be passed at the state and federal level in every country, rules, regulations and standards for the sport of BKB need to be established in every country and jurisdiction, and they need to be enforced. Until that time, BKB remains in a no man’s land in many countries, a YouTube phenomenon, and an unregulated backyard phenomenon, subject to tragedy because laws and rules do not sufficiently regulate the sport. There are more BKB professional events taking place more recently, so the sport has public interest, it just needs laws, and athletic commissions to set additional rules regulating BKB and enforce them, same as other competitive contact sports.

UFC President Dana White commented on Thornton’s passing at the Contender Series post-fight press conference in Las Vegas.

“First of all, is anybody shocked? I mean (a death) in bare-knuckle fighting? I’m not a big fan. And I get, I guess I would call it concerned (about the switch from MMA to bark knuckles fighting) when I see some of our people when they leave here and go there. It’s like oh my God.

But when you look at this (our MMA track record versus BKB) , we’ve been putting on fights for 25 years. I’ve done over seven thousand (MMA) fights with no serious injuries in the UFC. Every year we spend over 20 million dollars on athletic medicals, 20 million a year (for) health and wellness or whatever it may be, and 25 percent of our athletes we send to specialists (for additional testing and evaluation). So (if) a guy will come (for testing) and his brain test won’t come out (as normal) it’ll be irregular. So we send him to a specialist. If something was irregular with his heart (rhythm), he or she goes and sees a heart specialist, and we spend the money to find out whatever it is that’s wrong with him (or her).

And as a result of that, our pre-fight screening throughout the last 20 years, we found 10 athletes that had life-threatening medical problems with them and career-ending, (deciding) that they shouldn’t be fighting. That if they weren’t in the UFC (where we test thoroughly), they probably would’ve fought (elsewhere) and they probably would’ve died.

So we shouldn’t even be talked about in the same sentence as bare-knuckle boxing. It’s two completely different worlds. And yes, we’re very sorry to hear that this guy (Justin Thornton) passed away, but you’re never going to see any of these other organizations doing the type of health and safety and medical testing that we do for our athletes.”

BKFC president David Feldman wrote in a statement the bare knuckles “Our promotion was very saddened to be notified of Thornton’s death” and “We sent our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones on behalf of BKFC.”