7 Deaths That Rocked the MMA Community
The sport of mixed martial arts is dangerous. Two men compete, utilizing every physical and mental tool they have, hoping to render the other defenseless.
Some men endure, overcome, thrive. Some break mentally; some break physically. A few have even died as a direct result of competition.
There’s no skirting the realities of the sport.
It takes a legitimately tough guy to enter a cage prepared to fight another trained professional. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Whether it is physical or mental—or both—it doesn’t matter. The mixed martial artist is a special breed.
Competing in one of the most challenging sports doesn’t come without its risks. That’s the beginning and the end of the line.
If your goal is to compete in the world of professional MMA, be prepared to sweat, cry, bleed and sadly, perhaps even die.
We’ve lost some promising talents and colorful characters over the years. Promising upstart Tyrone Mimms passed away last year after experiencing extreme fatigue during a fight and collapsing later backstage. Dustin Jenson watched two bouts following his own at a RingWars event last year only to head backstage and have a seizure. Sadly, he died soon after.
There are plenty of examples, and the deaths linked to MMA aren’t specifically cage-related. UFC veteran Gilbert Aldana drowned in an unfortunate accident in 2007. Chris Smith didn't have the chance to get his career moving before a car careened head-first into his vehicle last year.
Fighters compete in a wildly dangerous sport, but they’re human beings. All life meets an end.
MMA doesn’t necessarily kill people, but the sport has and will continue to experience untimely departures and unfortunate losses. That’s not just the name of the game—that’s the name of life.
Shawn Tompkins never achieved a wealth of fame as a professional mixed martial artist. He was, however, an elite kickboxer who held gold and was one of the finest mixed martial arts coaches the sport has ever known.
He was also an extremely nice guy.
I conducted a phone interview with Tompkins quite a few years ago, and he was a pleasant guy through and through. Our conversation was lighthearted and I can say that from my stance, he seemed like a very legitimate and honest guy.
Unfortunately for all, Tompkins passed from a heart attack on August 14, 2011.
Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr.
Mask was a prominent figure in the MMA community. The founder of the once unbelievably popular TapouT clothing line, he did quite a bit for the sport.
Mask reached new heights of popularity as the Versus network launched the TapouT reality show in 2007, which followed Mask and his business partners Dan “Punkass" Caldwell and Tim "SkySkrape" Katz as they traveled across the U.S. scouting and sponsoring young MMA prospects.
In a tragic turn of events, Lewis met his startling end on March 11, 2009, when he was involved in a high-speed car accident with an intoxicated driver.
The sport lost a quirky but fine ambassador who constantly carried with him an unbridled love for MMA.
While the aforementioned deaths tug at our heart strings due to our attachment, the death of California-based mixed martial artist Levens yanks at the core for completely different reasons.
Levens took the life of his wife Sarah McLean-Levens and then turned the gun on himself in December 2008.
I knew Levens fairly well and covered a number of his early fights here in California. The Levens I knew was a decent and giving guy. He wasn’t perfect and he had his own wars to wage outside of the cage, but he always struck me as a fun-loving guy.
Some will remember him solely for his final, selfish act. Others will remember him as a flawed character who had a warm charisma and at least gave things a go in life.
However you remember him, you cannot deny the fact that what happened was despicable, wrong and genuinely saddening.
Eilers competed for some of the most recognizable promotions in fight history, including the UFC, WEC and EliteXC—most of us remember EliteXC for all the wrong, but noteworthy reasons.
He was a brawler by nature, who turned in some good fights and once tangled with Andrei Arlovski for the UFC heavyweight title.
Some career inconsistencies led to rumors of depression (per Yahoo!) for Eilers, who competed in his final bout on July 26, 2008 when he met Antonio Silva at EliteXC: Unfinished Business.
Eilers died on Christmas night in 2008. His stepfather, James Robert Malec, shot Eilers once in the chest after a physical altercation. Malec was later arrested and eventually charged with manslaughter. He’s currently serving a 15-year sentence in prison.
In 1998, there was still a somewhat primitive nature to the fight business. It wasn’t unheard of to see unsanctioned events unravel, with no paramedics on hand and shady backstage practices.
Dedge was the first American to die as the direct result of competing in an MMA bout, and sadly it could likely have been avoided. Reports of Dedge suffering from minor health issues during training prior to the bout surfaced after his death, which occurred two days after his fight at the International Super Challenge in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 16, 1998.
Had Dedge been mindful of the warnings his body was giving him in the buildup to his fight, we might not have this slide to discuss.
Blatnick was one of MMA’s most iconic figures, particularly in the earlier days of the sport's existence. He was a remarkably gifted athlete himself, who battled and beat cancer, eventually winning an Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.
He died October 24, 2012 from heart surgery complications.
The guy was all heart and passion, and his days as a commentator were days to enjoy and respect—Blatnick covered countless shows and was a pronounced voice of the UFC announcing team from UFC 4 through UFC 32.
While Blatnick didn’t boast extensive knowledge of every martial arts discipline in existence, he was savvy.
He knew wrestling, he learned the art of the submission and he brought a confidence to the mic that comes only after competing as a high level athlete.
For those who do not know, Blatnick was also responsible for helping to establish a lot of the rules we see today, and he’s the man credited with seeing the sports name evolve from NHB (“No Holds Barred”) to MMA (“Mixed Martial Arts”).
Tanner was the subject of my first major MMA news assignment. The job was a time-consuming one, but well worth every invested second.
Tanner was a philosophical individual who proved to be very approachable and very likeable.
The fact that I’d been following his career since seeing a bootleg VHS tape with a handful of his Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation fights only made the experience greater, and the 10-hour drive to the Hard Knocks gym in Las Vegas far less aggravating.
Tanner was a good guy and a true explorer at heart. That was what he lived for, and ironically that’s exactly what killed the former UFC middleweight champion.
Authorities discovered Tanner’s body in the Palo Verde mountain region of Southern California on September 8, 2008. He was 37 years old in the middle of an attempted career comeback after a two-year hiatus from professional competition.
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