There's a saying in football that the scariest injuries are those that involve no physical contact. On November 3 in Houston, that extended to MMA.
During the second round of his fight with Charlie Ontiveros, Clovis "C.J." Hancock, a 32-year-old fighting for the regional Legacy Fighting Alliance promotion, collapsed onto his back and went into cardiac arrest. Then his kidneys failed.
Medical professionals rushed to his aid and later told Hancock he was dead for five long minutes inside the cage. Hancock doesn't remember anything from the second round until he woke up—luckily, doctors told him—in a hospital bed.
The culprit, Hancock said, wasn't anything that happened in the fight. It was instead the weight cut before that saw Hancock shed 45 pounds in about a week, including 15-20 pounds of water weight. While in the hospital, Hancock needed eight bags of saline to return to a safe hydration level.
Hancock is on the mend, but his MMA career is likely over.
"I probably won't be able to fight again," Hancock told Bleacher Report, "because I was stubborn."
Hancock's typical weight classes were 205 and 185 pounds, both substantially closer to his "walking around" weight of 215 pounds than the 170-pound welterweight class, where he fought November 3. But when LFA officials offered a date with Ontiveros, it was too enticing to pass up. Like Hancock, Ontiveros has experience in Bellator MMA, which occupies the space between shows like LFA and the UFC. Hancock understood the name value and felt he had a winnable fight on his hands. In any event, he had made the weight before.
"Going into the fight I knew he had three times as many fights as me, but I knew I had better wrestling and jiu-jitsu," Hancock said.
Any advantages evaporated during his weight cut. Hancock had less time to prepare for Ontiveros than normal, forcing the double whammy of a massive weight loss on a compressed schedule. It was exacerbated by a fairly common mindset among fighters, one Hancock had as he sat endlessly in the sauna and moisture-leeching saltwater baths: that there is nothing they can't endure.
"I was getting dizzy and sick but I thought I could power through," he said. "I knew weight cutting was dangerous, but I didn't know that anything like this would ever happen to me. I knew other people who went through something like this, but I was tough."
From the opening moments of the contest, Hancock could feel that something was wrong.
"As soon as I clinched up with him, I knew I just wasn't there," he said. "I had no strength. I remember the second round. I was feeling dizzy, but I thought I was fine."
In a statement sent to MMA Fighting's Marc Raimondi, LFA CEO Ed Soares suggested a body kick from Ontiveros, landed several seconds before Hancock fell, was the real reason for the collapse.
"It's a very unfortunate situation where C.J. Hancock took a body kick during his fight," Soares' statement read. "After the kick landed, there was a few seconds delay, and then he collapsed in the cage."
This would likely be the first time in recorded history a body kick caused death, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, severe dehydration or any combination thereof. The statement does not mention weight cutting.
In any case, soon after Hancock's collapse, cutman David Maldonado signaled for aid. Personnel swarmed. CPR began. "I would say there were five minutes that he was dead," Maldonado told MMA Fighting. "Him even having a [heart] rhythm, someone could argue and say that's some form of life, but no. By the time there was anything reactionary or something like that, that looked more like a voluntary or self-propelled movement was not until he was almost in the ambulance. And even then, that was just one time."
At one point, they shocked Hancock with a defibrillator. During a recent interview with a local TV station, he viewed the scene for the first time.
"They showed me a video of them giving me CPR in the cage," he said. "That was tough to watch."
Hancock is home now from the hospital, still taking painkillers and on total rest for the next six weeks. The event nearly killed him, but he suffered no permanent damage from the ordeal. He said he is leaning on his coaches, friends and girlfriend, Christine Ross, who kept worried fans and observers up to date.
"My girlfriend has been here taking care of me," Hancock said. "I just want to thank her and all my coaches and trainers."
After he recuperates, barring complications, he's right back to training. However, as MMA essentially requires at least a small weight cut, and Hancock can never cut weight again, his career in the sport is likely over. He does, however, plan to pursue Brazilian jiu-jitsu "superfights" where cutting weight is not necessary. Even so, he doesn't completely rule out a return to fighting, noting that "if a really great offer comes up, you never know."
In the meantime, Hancock is seeking to better understand what happened and why he survived. Although punching, kicking, submissions and the like are the most outwardly dangerous of MMA staples, a quieter, less visible culprit may be even worse.
“Honestly, this has given me motivation and a push to show people said there was a reason I was brought back," Hancock said. "Someone was looking out for me up there. There's something else I have to do on this planet. I could be an advocate against weight cutting. Kids do that when they're wrestlers. Maybe that's why I came back. I'm not sure what it is yet, but I'm going to figure it out."