Jared S. Hopkins, Chicago Tribune –
The room at Mojoes in Joliet was filled with, at most, a few hundred people. The crowd wasn’t loud. Maybe it was bored after having watched eight mixed martial arts fights. Maybe it was tired as the buzz wore off that December night.
Not Jeff Dunbar. Since losing his first bout in April, the 20-year-old had won three of five fights. He was focused.
Teammates from his North Lawndale gym, where he had trained for more than a year, shouted encouragement. They also were giving Rudy Bahena, his 23-year-old opponent from Elmwood Park, the business.
Dunbar rolled his shoulders, loosening his trim 5-foot-9, 146-pound frame one more time. He took one last swig from his water bottle.
“No mercy!” a man yelled from the audience, the crowd showing some life.
There would be very little of that for Jeff Dunbar.
Barely a minute into the fight, Dunbar struggled to escape the grasp of Bahena, who had wrapped himself around Dunbar’s back and neck. Bahena was trying to make quick work, close out the match with a chokehold.
Dunbar couldn’t shake loose. Desperate, he tried bucking Bahena off. He lost his balance, falling forward and spiking his head into the canvas with Bahena landing on top of him.
“I heard the impact. I heard the thud,” Bahena said.
On the ground, Bahena completed the chokehold and was declared the winner.
Winston Matthews, the referee, separated the fighters. Dunbar lay on his stomach. Video footage of the fight reviewed by the Tribune does not show whether Dunbar was rolled over onto his back before paramedics arrived. The issue remains a debate among those who where there. Dunbar eventually was rushed to nearby Provena St. Joseph Medical Center.
This bout was over. His dream of joining Rashad Evans, a family friend who is an elite professional in the UFC, has vanished.
His next fight — through a tangle of incomplete state laws, a lack of national safety standards and mounting hospital bills — is just beginning.
Bad news gets worse
Dunbar was conscious when he arrived at the hospital but already had lost movement in his legs. He had only weak feeling in his arms. Tests showed he did not sustain serious head injuries but had dislocated two vertebrae — one forward, one backward — crushing his spinal cord.
“(It) was a complete injury from the very beginning,” said Mark Chwajol, the neurosurgeon who performed the seven-hour surgery on Dunbar.
Doctors told him he probably will never walk again. On Christmas Eve, one week after the fight, Dunbar’s lung collapsed, and he later underwent a tracheotomy. He is confined to his hospital bed and may never breathe without the aid of a ventilator. Chwajol said Dunbar will need months of rehabilitation before possibly regaining strength in his arms and fingers.
Dunbar does not have insurance. His mother, Kathy, doesn’t know how she’ll pay for his growing medical costs. Already relegated to a wheelchair after suffering a series of strokes several years ago, Kathy depended on her son as her caretaker, his wages paid by the state. She is seeking public aid and donations but said she has not been contacted by the promoters — Nilo Soto of Berwyn, owner of Fight Card Entertainment; or his business partner Brian Angelo — regarding insurance coverage or financial support.
“My son is fighting for his life and I’m fighting with him,” Kathy Dunbar said.
Soto and Angelo declined to discuss their insurance with the Tribune. It is unclear whether promoters had a policy on Dunbar’s bout.
Dunbar has been transferred from Joliet to Kindred Hospital Chicago North, where he has started physical therapy but has no scheduled release.
“When you do hear about something like this, you never think, ‘It’s going to be me,'” said Evans, who lives in Chicago, where he will compete in a UFC event Jan. 28. “It’s one of those things that remind you how dangerous this sport can be.”
The rules — as they are
Dunbar’s injury is rare in MMA. But for a physical and brutal sport in which oversight varies by state, his case starkly highlights the risks all fighters, especially amateurs, take when putting on the gloves.
In Illinois, promoters aren’t yet required to provide fighters like Dunbar or his immediate family with insurance. The state’s only requirement is notification of a fight 20 days prior, which Soto and Angelo complied with, the Tribune confirmed through public records.
Among provisions in a law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in July, promoters are required to carry $50,000 in insurance coverage for injured fighters. Though signed, that law has not taken full effect.
The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which includes the Illinois Athletic Commission, has yet to propose rules on how to apply the law. Those rules then must be adopted by a panel of legislators. A six-month grace period is required to give those impacted by the new rules time to adjust. Then the law would be fully implemented.
Emergency rules could have put the law into effect immediately — a rare option in Springfield but one the state employed in 2004, when it banned some physical contact sports.
Dunbar and his family describe his injury as a “freak accident,” something that could’ve happened to anyone. But if there is good to come from his situation, he hopes for more protection for fighters.
“They should be insured,” he said from his hospital bed, mouthing each word as a family member repeated after him. “That should be the law. Injuries can happen to anyone at any show.”
Unlike amateur boxing, amateur mixed martial arts has no national organization setting safety standards. The result is a scattered array of testing, safety requirements and insurance rules. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, the federal law passed in 2000 outlining boxing regulation, doesn’t apply to MMA.
Rob Maysey, a Phoenix lawyer working to organize fighters, said insurance at amateur shows will remain an unseemly mess without federal action.
“Do I think it’s likely foreseeable that these local events are going to have insurance to cover these kinds of incidents? No, the money’s not there,” Maysey said. “You’re going to need a few deaths, a few broken necks, a few paralyzations — and for Congress to take notice.”
Dunbar signed liability waivers with Soto and Angelo, according to copies obtained by the Tribune.
Collin Williams, an attorney who owns the Chicago gym Emerald Smoke, said it’s unclear what kind of legal muster that waiver could hold.
“This is sort of a dramatic issue that I don’t think there’s any precedent for,” Williams said.
‘Some kind of nightmare’
Dunbar was a multisport athlete at King High School, but nothing spoke to him like MMA.
“It’s the ultimate form of competition, and I like competition,” he said.
Before Dunbar’s injuries, many in MMA recall Zach Kirk, an amatuer from Iowa who broke his neck in 2009 in just his third fight. Kirk, now 23, said the promoter replaced his opponent at the last minute with a heavier fighter.
“Accidents happen. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said recently.
Kirk said his promoter, Craig McIntosh, didn’t provide insurance but did provide $1,000 from a benefit event. His medical payments remain unresolved and he last spoke to the promoter two years ago.
“There is definitely some resentment toward him,” Kirk said.
McIntosh declined comment.
In a recent interview inside his Elmwood Park karate studio, Angelo said proceeds from an event in February will go to Dunbar’s family. He said he and Soto abide by the “rules and regulations” but deferred questions regarding insurance to Soto, who did not respond to the Tribune.
Illinois law prohibits nonmonetary prizes valued above $50 for amateur fights. Kathy Dunbar, 45, said if amateurs aren’t going to get paid, medical costs should be covered. Otherwise, she wants MMA banned.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “It’s just like some kind of nightmare.”
At the gym where he trained, Dunbar is known as the resident comedian.
“He made practice fun,” said Darrell Edmonson, 21, of Chicago. “When I went to visit him, he told me, ‘I’ve got movement in my arms and I’ll be doing jabs next week, so be ready.’ ”
On Wednesday night, Dunbar’s hospital room was abuzz with friends and family. They were laughing. He was smiling. And he disagreed with a doctor who said it would be impossible for him to avoid depression considering the change in his life.
“Nothing,” Jeff whispered, “is impossible.”