Fighter’s tragic death is a reminder of the perils of the bloodlust behind the revival of bare-knuckle boxing and combat sports

Fighter’s tragic death is a reminder of the perils of the bloodlust behind the revival of bare-knuckle boxing and combat sports

The tragic death of MMA veteran Justin Thornton following his bare-knuckle boxing debut is a human reminder of the horrific risks that mean brutality should never be glorified.

When Justin Thornton stepped into the ring for his doomed fight against Dillon Cleckler on August 21, the journeyman's lot was not enviable. Six weeks on from being pulverized in 19 seconds in that contest in Mississippi, the man who loved fighting is dead, having been paralyzed by his beating and purportedly put on a ventilator while being treated for a lung infection and medication for a spinal cord injury. His parents, who traveled to be by his side, look to have had little success with a fundraiser to pay for their costs.

This is the kind of storyline that is far from the often-glamorous, excitable feel of a fighting arena, and seems perilously like an inevitable outcome of a thirst for blood among viewers. Everyone loves a tear-up, as the saying goes, provided that the consequences do not become too unedifying or fall too close to home.

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Justin Thornton fought once for BKFC © Nick Vespe / BKFC
Bare-knuckle fighter Justin Thornton dies weeks after becoming partially paralyzed following brutal KO in BKFC bout

Conversely, when horrific incidents do occur, there are always immediate calls – some from figures with huge audiences – for fighting to be banned. There are those who see the rise of MMA, partly driven by the reforms applied to the UFC since the pre-21st century days when it carried the slogan "there are no rules", as a sad and incomprehensible reflection of a society that cannot conceive of better ways to distract itself than through the kind of gladatorial gruesomeness that should have long been outlawed.

The Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship has been engaged in a tug-of-war between savage entertainment and the threshold of what constitutes acceptable violence to viewers since it began in 2018. From the popcorn-and-lights fan experience to its claim to be following traditions established in the 19th century, this is a promotion that would love to cross the sensitivity threshold, as the UFC has managed to such an extent that it has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and make good on the predominant rejection that the gloveless discipline has experienced when it has historically attempted to entice wider audiences.

Its reception remains mixed, yet it has undoubtedly become the most high-profile company to attempt to bring the sport from cultish underground gorefests to a more broadly-accepted form of entertainment. Ex-UFC fighter and Conor McGregor teammate Artem Lobov and former boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi signed up to provide something of a crossover appeal, although there were questions over whether the veterans should have been allowed to test themselves in a discipline with a notorious reputation.

More winningly from a marketing perspective, the recent signings of former UFC competitors Paige VanZant and Rachael Ostovich, bringing with them poster girl presences and vast social media following, have been another attempt to prevent the sport from being considered a purely barbaric beatdown by many. It is harder to contemplate whether the extreme side of combat sports erodes the boundaries of decency – and what it says about the mentality of those who enthusiastically encourage those boundaries to be pushed at – when the fighters involved are well-known names with millions of followers outside of the sport and slick PR operations.

The Championship's president, David Feldman, said he felt "vindicated" last year when there was some evidence that bare-knuckle fighting had a lower rate of concussion and hand-breaking than boxing and MMA, and the BKFC is keen to extol its emphasis on safety. It says it only promotes established professionals in boxing, MMA, kickboxing, or Muay Thai and works under an Athletic Commission which is part of the Association and Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports.

The headlines around the world after Thornton's passing look like a significant blow to the safety arguments, and the organization must be hoping the attention will not have a lasting impact on its prospects. Unsurprisingly, UFC president Dana White has spoken witheringly about the rival promotion while championing welfare measures within his company, and boxing promoter Lou DiBella has argued that Thornton had only "survived" his five successive losses coming into the scrap.

There is evidently some merit in that: Thornton had lost 17 of his 23 fights ahead of his bare-knuckle debut, and footage is readily available of him being swiftly knocked out by Cleckler in 2013, with his opponent revealing that Thornton had been gunning for a rematch while the pair maintained contact since that night.

Thornton's death is probably not going to provide a tipping point, despite the anger and mourning that has met the news of his death. Worse mismatches happen on almost every event of every promotion across the different combat sports, apparently in pursuit of the show going on at all costs. The old tensions will still remain between those who believe that fighting, at its worst, is archaic and unpalatably dangerous and those who will make the endlessly-visited arguments about fighters making their own choices for a spectacle that many find compelling to watch, whether it is boxing or MMA.

The problem for those apologists is that the reality of death-or-glory bravado is anything but spectacular. The credibility-straining tragedy of Thornton's case should serve as a powerful reminder of why blood-baying is nothing to thrill in and should be consigned to the past.

By Ben Miller

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