ST. LOUIS — Here is the first thing he remembers: the cold, blue asphalt floor.
And there was a weight on his back. He remembers the weight and the way he could not move or breathe. He remembers how he couldn't think about Melissa, the woman he'd known he would marry since they were in high school.
He could only think about the weight. He remembers his co-workers running toward him, and the way their faces contorted into something more than alarm. Something more than panic.
They looked terrified.
Dustin Ventimiglia's life nearly ended on a Thursday.
It was June 1, 2017, around 9:45 p.m. Dustin worked the night shift a couple of days each week. He planned on being a professional fighter someday, but only when he was truly ready to make the leap. He'd been wrestling since he was four years old but wouldn't turn professional until he and his coaches were confident in his striking ability.
He could take just about anyone he faced in the amateur ranks to the canvas, but he knew that he'd eventually come up against an opponent he couldn't take down. And then what? He didn't want that question to be answered against professional fighters.
So from the start, before he'd ever set foot in the cage to face another human being, Dustin decided he would fight at least eight or 10 or 12 times as an amateur. His uncle, Scott Ventimiglia, had been a professional who made it all the way to a couple of Strikeforce fights a decade ago. He'd served as a gentle and cautious hand helping to guide Dustin along a wise career path.
"Don't rush it," Scott would tell Dustin. "You have your entire career ahead of you. Let's make sure you are ready."
It was Scott's way of saying: Don't do what I did. Don't make my mistakes.
Here is what his co-workers remember: They ran toward Dustin, who'd just been driving his forklift a second ago. He was carrying a bag of waste to a dumpster, just like he'd done a thousand other times on nights just like this.
But Dustin was not driving the forklift now. He was on his stomach, with the right side of his face pressed into the asphalt.
The forklift was on top of him.
His face was blue. He tried to talk, but every time he opened his mouth, he coughed. With each cough, a geyser of blood erupted from his mouth and nose, spraying the floor beneath and in front of him. And after each cough, blood filled his lungs and throat, and he'd cough another jet of blood.
Bloody bubbles were coming from his nostrils. He was whimpering. They knelt down beside him and talked to him, trying to keep the panic from their voice, trying to keep Dustin calm and to assuage their own fears.
"Hey buddy, it's going to be OK," they said." You've gotta stay with me. Stay with me, Dustin."
Someone said they needed to call Melissa. Someone had to tell her what was happening. To prepare her for the worst.
Fighting as an amateur is not a good way to pay the bills. Dustin received 10 percent of every ticket sold to his fights, but that income was negligible. He needed a full-time job. So he began working at Veolia Environmental Services.
Veolia is a company that specializes in disposing of all the things normal people can't (or should not) dispose of on their own. Let's say a company that makes cigarette lighters has a glitch that results in 10,0000 lighters needing disposal. Where do they go? There are few companies in the United States equipped for such a task; Veolia is one of them.
At Veolia, Dustin had a steady paycheck driving a forklift and disposing of hazardous materials. He would not get rich at Veolia—the salary ladder topped out at about $72,000—but the job offered benefits that were crucial for a young couple with a baby on the way.
He worked an unusual schedule. One week, he worked two night-shift days consecutively; then he had a few days off before working three consecutive day shifts. The next week, his schedule would be the opposite.
Dustin preferred the night shifts. There were no bosses around, which meant things were more relaxed. People weren't on edge as much. There was more freedom.
Here is what Melissa remembers: She was sleeping when she heard something like the phone ringing. It is a sound that reached deep inside her slumber and said something is wrong with Dustin. She knew this was true before she even picked up the phone. She dreaded picking it up because she knew there was no reason for Dustin's workplace to call her in the middle of the night.
She answered. She remembers the male voice on the other end of the line. He was trying to remain calm, trying to keep Melissa calm before he even said what had happened, what had made him call a woman eight months pregnant in the middle of the night.
"Melissa, there's been an accident," the voice said.
"I don't know, Melissa. It's bad. It's really bad," the voice said. I'm so sorry. It's really bad."
What did he mean? What kind of accident? In the background, she could hear Dustin's co-workers saying, "Stay with us, Dustin. Stay with us, man. You can do it. Don't leave us."
She leaped out of bed, scrambling for her keys or the light or something, and the voice on the phone kept saying, "It's so bad, Melissa. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry." She knew he wasn't exaggerating because, through the phone and behind the sounds of people running and shouting, she heard Dustin's voice.
Dustin. Her Dustin. The handsome, square-jawed young boy she'd fallen in love with way back in sixth grade. The one with an extraordinary amount of discipline culled from a lifetime spent in wrestling. The boy who'd broken her heart when he moved away in seventh grade and then filled it back to overflowing when he returned before their senior year. The guy she started dating shortly thereafter. The man she married five years later, in August 2016.
Dustin. The father of the baby in her belly.
She heard Dustin, her Dustin, on the phone, in the background, behind the frantic yelling of others. He was moaning.
She grabbed her keys and, with fear seizing her heart and tears running down her face, ran for the car.
On that Thursday night, Dustin was carrying a bag of waste products to the disposal. The forks on his vehicle were at their highest level, and he was peering underneath them to see where he was going. He wasn't driving really fast, but he wasn't going all that slowly, either. As he neared the disposal, he made a sharp turn. The tires caught the asphalt, and the momentum tipped the forklift.
Dustin fell out of his seat and landed on the ground just before the machine fell on top of him.
While several of his co-workers knelt beside him and tried to comfort him, another co-worker used a different forklift to extricate him. They were able to lift up the toppled forklift just enough to grab Dustin by the arms and pull him out, leaving a giant splotch of blood where his body had been.
The last thing Dustin remembered before everything faded to nothingness was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. The two paramedics in the back tried to assess his injuries, to treat what they could see and triage the most critically damaged portions of his body.
But Dustin's most pressing issues were internal. He had suffered multiple massive internal injuries, including lacerations of some of the most important veins in his body. He nearly bled to death in the back of the ambulance. When he arrived at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, he bypassed the emergency room and went straight into surgery. He was in critical condition.
Dustin was already undergoing surgery when a distraught Melissa, fearing the worst, arrived and spoke to a doctor.
Dustin was alive, the doctor told her, and she felt a sigh of relief. It was short-lived. The doctor cautioned that his injuries were severe. He was unconscious, and until they were sure of all Dustin's injuries, they were going to keep him in a medically induced coma.
"When can I see him?" she asked.
"I can't answer that," he grimly replied. He began to list off the injuries they knew about. That's when Melissa's stomach fell through the floor.
It would be three days before they knew the full extent of the damage.
His final injury list was staggering: Eight broken ribs. Four crushed vertebrae. Two broken femurs and a right leg broken in three places. Two collapsed lungs. A lacerated liver. Lacerations to the vein leading to the femoral artery. Lacerations to the vein leading to the aorta. And a spleen so badly damaged that it had to be removed.
Dustin's stomach had been sliced open from sternum to belly button during his initial surgery. Because the medical staff didn't know if they'd fully assessed all of the damage, they left the gaping hole in his stomach for the first three days, his skin splayed out to each side. They covered the hole with a Saran Wrap-like film.
And so, for three days, Melissa and Dustin's family sat by his bedside, able to see his organs through the giant hole in his stomach. The nurses covered it with a blanket to make things easier on those keeping watch by his bedside.
Dustin was kept in a coma for nine days. He thinks he remembers seeing blurry faces here and there, likely nurses and doctors doing routine checks on his vitals and keeping an eye on the staples they'd used to close his torso.
When the doctors finally decided he was ready to come out of the coma, it took longer than it usually would because Dustin's liver was so badly damaged that it had a difficult time processing the medicine typically used to ease patients out of a medicated slumber.
It is July 14, 2018, a little over one year since the night Dustin's body was crushed. You wouldn't know it from looking at him. It is once again the opposite of crushed, all muscle and sinew and raw strength. He is a strapping young man with the body of a guy who has spent a lifetime in athletic endeavors. It is a wrestling body. If you didn't know the whole story—didn't know that a year ago he was on the verge of death, that he was underneath a forklift—you'd probably think nothing ever happened.
But look closer. He lifts up his shirt. You see a long track of staple scars running from below his navel all the way up to his sternum, from where his torso was opened wide for several days. And just below his right eye is something resembling a sort of face tattoo. Except it's not ink; it is asphalt. Dustin has remnants of the floor at work stuck in his face. It is embedded there deeply, gray with a slight blue-green tint. He is not sure how long the remnants will be there. Maybe forever. "It looks kind of cool, I guess," he says with a shrug.
Dustin is lying on his back on the floor of a small room at the Ameristar Casino Resort in St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis. The cables of his white headphones leave his ears and travel down to his iPhone, clutched firmly between two hands. His eyes are closed, and he is trying to think of absolutely nothing, trying to clear his mind and his memory.
Dustin had arrived at the Ameristar an hour ago. He got his medical checkup and his hands wrapped, and then the waiting game began. Melissa would arrive in a couple of hours. For now, Dustin has sprawled in a corner of this casino conference room, eyes closed, hands clasped across his chest. The pace of his breathing is slow. For a young man who faced down death to fight another human in a cage later tonight, he is remarkably calm.
He says there is no special meaning to this night, even if everyone in his circle feels the weight of it. It is just another fight. But he admits there is also a desire to get this one over with. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. "I'm not scared or nervous or anything like that," he says. "I guess I'm just anxious. I want to get this over with and out of the way."
It is 5:30 p.m. Five hours until he would step in the cage. Five hours until he could move on with his life and stop thinking about what happened 13 months ago.
There was never a doubt Dustin would fight again. Not in his mind, anyway. He never even considered the notion of his career being over. It was only a matter of time. Melissa wasn't thrilled about the idea, but she knew trying to stop him was futile.
He'd been cleared to start training again in November, five months after the accident that nearly killed him. He started with light sparring and by January was already preparing for the eventual fight he knew would come his way. He had put on the weight he lost after the accident, adding 20 pounds to his frame and getting back to his walking weight of 195.
All that effort was scheduled to culminate later that night, when Dustin would face Bryan Barkau in the final preliminary card fight of Shamrock FC 307.
Promoter Jesse Finney started Shamrock FC as a kickboxing company; then he added amateur and finally professional mixed martial arts. He fought here and there, and even competed in Strikeforce. His true legacy, however, would be the way he helped get MMA legalized in Missouri.
Dating back to the Strikeforce days, Finney's relationship with Scott Coker (now the president of Bellator MMA) had created a pipeline for young men and women like Dustin. They can start out as amateurs in Shamrock; then have a few professional fights for the same promotion; when they are ready, they move up to Bellator and try to make a name for themselves.
That is Dustin's plan. He'll turn pro when he's ready, and then he wants to be a Bellator fighter. Not a UFC fighter, though that isn't out of the question someday. It's just that, for now, his goal is Bellator. The UFC is the dominant name in mixed martial arts, but Coker's penchant for bringing along young talent and cultivating it slowly has helped Bellator sign big-name prospects in recent years. "It seems like a natural progression," he says.
Three hours later, a notification arrives on my phone. It's a text from Finney.
"Hey, come down to cageside when you can," the text reads. I make my way from my hotel to the casino, through the empty arena and down to cageside. Finney is waiting.
"Dustin's opponent hasn't shown up," says Finney, who then makes a slashing gesture across his throat. "There's not going to be a fight.
"Out of all the fights on this whole card, of course, this is the one that falls through," Finney says. "Of course."
He says they are trying to find Dustin a new opponent, though the idea of finding someone brave enough to step in against a prospect of Dustin's talent on two hours' notice seems ambitious. It's a desperation move, but the Shamrock folks are trying.
They want Dustin to get his comeback fight out of the way. They know that his fight is not just another regional preliminary fight, not just another amateur fight, not just another would-be dreamer with a few months of training and a heart full of dreams.
This one is more important.
Back in his locker room, Dustin is trying to keep a brave face. He's hopeful Shamrock officials can make something happen. His uncle, Scott, comes in and says Shamrock thinks it can find someone to fight, someone who weighs 155 pounds.
It would be a sparring session, nothing more, and Scott says Dustin would need to go in and just get it over with. Forget about shaking off the ring rust. Forget about testing out his striking. "Get in. Get out. Move on," Scott says with a shrug. "Move on to the next one."
These things happen in MMA.
While Dustin waits, his mind is elsewhere. He is looking down at his hands, turning them over slowly, examining every inch of tape and skin. He was nearly dead a year ago, and now he is here, ready to fight, and it's the other guy who isn't showing up. The other guy—the one who didn't get crushed by a forklift, the one who didn't have his stomach held open by metal clips for three days—holds Dustin's fate on this night in his hands.
It doesn't seem fair. It isn't fair.
An hour later, Finney gives the official word: The fight is off. Dustin slumps in his chair and hangs his head. Finney tries to lighten the mood by informing Dustin that they're planning on booking him on the next Shamrock event on Sept. 7. It'll be right here at the Ameristar, and this time they'll get him an opponent who will, at the very least, show up at the venue on fight day.
"Sorry, man. … Hang in there," Finney says while shaking his head. Dustin nods, realizing that he now has to live with all of this all over again. He picks up his phone to text Melissa and tell her the news. At least now she'll be able to go home and get some rest.
On Monday, he'll go back to the gym and train. Light stuff; probably a little sparring. Just going through the motions. He'll probably let his diet get a little out of whack, but not overly so. He has a fight in less than two months, after all.
And then, when the St. Louis sky has faded to black, he'll go back to work. He'll arrive at Veolia at 9 p.m. and clock in. Then he'll get on his forklift and work until the horizon starts turning orange.
Dustin Ventimiglia faces Arvin Mills on Friday, Sept. 7, at Shamrock FC 309. The bout airs live on FloCombat.com.