UFC president Dana White expressed sympathy for the recent passing of a BKFC fighter, while explaining why his promotion does more than any other to prevent such occurrences.
On Monday, Justin Thornton, an MMA veteran who made the move to bare-knuckle boxing, died after a knockout loss at BKFC 20 on Aug. 20. The 38-year-old fighter was on a five-fight, first-round stoppage losing streak before taking the fight against Dillon Cleckler. Thornton was knocked out 18 seconds into the fight, falling to the canvas face first.
The nature of Thornton’s passing prompted the Association of Boxing Commissions to issue a statement addressing concerns about bare-knuckle competition and its promoters who are not following the appropriate medical guidelines. White is well aware of the practices surrounding bare-knuckle boxing, and although sympathetic, was not surprised that a death occurred.
“First of all, let me start here, is anybody shocked?” White said during the DWCS 42 post-fight news conference. “In bare-knuckle fighting? You know, I’m not a big fan. I get, I guess you can call it concerned, when I see some of our people leave here and go there. It’s like, ‘Oh, God.’
“We’ve been putting on fights for 25 years. I’ve done over 7,000 fights with no serious injuries in the UFC. We’ve had some broken bones, some bad broken bones, the shin bone being the worst. It just blows our mind when that bone breaks, and cuts … that’s what we have.”
According to White, the UFC does everything in its power to ensure its athletes are not only healthy enough to compete prior to entering the cage, but also after the fight has concluded.
“Fighter safety is a very big deal to us, has been since Day 1,” White explained.” We ran toward regulation. We do extensive pre-, post-fight medicals. We follow up afterward with these guys. …The other night when Ortega fought, I walked right into the Octagon and told his corner, ‘Do not do an interview, do not talk to any media. I want you to go straight back, they’re ready for you. They’re going to put him in an ambulance and take him out of here.”
The medical bills for a roster of the UFC’s size, which is currently over 700 athletes, can add up very quickly. However, the promotion only covers medical expenses that are fight-related. There is no medical insurance provided by the UFC for the fighters because they are independent contractors. Given the standard nature of the business relationship, the promotion still spends a hefty sum of money annually to look out for their safety.
“Every year we spend over $20 million on athlete medical,” White said. “Twenty million bucks. A year. Health, wellness whatever it may be. Twenty-five percent of our athletes, we send to specialists. … As a result of that pre-fight screening, we’ve found 10 athletes that had life-threatening medical problems with them that were career-ending where they shouldn’t be fighting. If they weren’t in the UFC, they probably would have fought and probably would have died.”
In February, the promotion released Askar Askar following a pre-fight heart scan that revealed abnormalities. He stepped up on short notice to face Cody Stamann at UFC Fight Night 184, but he was removed from the fight just hours prior to the event after failing to clear medical testing. Askar would later receive clearance after visiting a specialist and competed under the LFA banner four months later.
“There’s a lot of sh*t talk about us,” White said. “Nobody does even remotely close to what we do in this sport. It’s never been done, what we do, and nobody ever will. We shouldn’t even be talked about in the same sentence as bare knuckle boxing. It’s two completely different worlds.
“We’re very sorry to hear that this guy passed away, but you’re never going to see these other organizations do the type of health, safety, and medical testing that we do for our athletes.”