Saturday Dec. 17th at an MMA event in Joliet, Ill., 20-year-old amateur fighter Jeff Dunbar was stuck in a bad way.
In the ninth of 11 scheduled fights at a Dec. 17 Fight Card Entertainment event, fellow fighter Rudy Bahena clung to Dunbar's back, torqued a standing rear-naked choke, and had his opponent desperate enough to try the unthinkable.
CLICK READ MORE FOR FULL STORY
His trainer, Josh Bulak, was there that night for a slate of fights pitting his gym against fighters from Team 110. But Bulak still can't shake the images of Dunbar's fight, which left his young fighter paralyzed and now facing a potentially grim future. The trainer, who's operated Chicago's No Comment Martial Arts gym for the past half decade, still struggles to find the words.
"They went down," he told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "Jeff's opponent didn't know what happened, and he just finished the choke. But then the paramedics rushed in, and he was taken away on a gurney."
Because the event couldn't continue until the paramedics returned from the hospital, Bulak and the rest of the night's thousand or so attendees sat there, fearing the worst. Dunbar could speak after the injury, and he had some movement in his arms, but something clearly was wrong. The thought of paralysis crossed Bulak's mind, but the paramedics soon returned and squelched concerns.
"They said he'd be fine," Bulak said. "They said, 'Everything should be OK.'"
The event continued as planned, and after the night of fights concluded, a relieved Bulak was headed to the hospital. But encouraged by the paramedics' report, he told the rest of Dunbar's team members to simply go home and rest.
"Everyone from the team wanted to go," Bulak said. "I told them I'd meet them at the gym later since everything was supposed to be fine."
Things were far from fine, though.
Bulak arrived at the hospital and was shocked by what he learned: Dunbar was badly injured. The aspiring pro fighter was paralyzed, and doctors said he'll never have use of his legs again and will be bound to a wheelchair. He may get some use of his arms back, but there's a 95 percent chance he'll never get to use his hands either.
"The doctor didn't sugarcoat anything," Bulak said. "They told him he'd never walk again. It was a crushing blow."
MMAjunkie.com medical consultant and columnist Dr. Johnny Benjamin, who's a practicing orthopedic surgeon in Florida, said it could have been much worse for the fighter. As he's written before in his "Ask the Fight Doc" columns, Dr. Benjamin said Dunbar benefited from being young and in shape. Otherwise, the type of injury he suffered could have cost him his life.
Still, he said, he's got a tough road ahead of him.
"His life, unfortunately, is going to be very different," Dr. Benjamin said.
When discussing the move that cost his fighter the use of his legs, Bulak mentioned a UFC 72 bout between lightweights Clay Guida and Tyson Griffin.
In that spirited scrap from 2007, Griffin also found himself fighting off a rear-naked choke. Standing but hunched over, he did what Dunbar attempted: He dove forward, slamming Guida's face into the canvas.
The scary move drew audible gasps from a crowd conditioned to seeing blood and broken bones. But they clearly knew Guida survived what could have been much more serious.
Griffin's counter-move broke the choke, and he ultimately survived the round and went on to take a split decision from Guida.
Unfortunately for the young Dunbar, his attempt didn't have the same effect. Close to unconsciousness and desperate to free himself, he hurled both himself and his opponent forward. Instead of peeling off Bahena, Dunbar took the brunt of both their body weight on his neck. And it led to instant paralysis.
"We've never practiced that in class," Bulak said. "He just sort of pile-drived himself. That probably would've been the third or fourth way I'd teach him to get out of that. It's more of a desperation move. You can't really practice it. You don't practice stuff like that. It's just a freak thing.
"He should have tapped. I just wish he would have tapped."
Dr. Benjamin also understands the freakish nature of the whole episode.
"This sport just has freak injuries," he said. "There's really no way to legislate it out of the game. How would you convey that in official rules? I've seen things like this in baseball when a runner slides into the knee of a second baseman. I've seen it in swimming – not even diving, but swimming – and athletes are paralyzed, and their lives just change like that."
No commission oversight
Two years ago, the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation – the state's sanctioning body – wiped its hands clean of amateur MMA. While the regulatory body oversees professional events (including next month's UFC on FOX 2 show in Chicago), amateur-MMA oversight was nixed due to new legislation.
Hosting promotions are given guidelines, but there's little to no accounting for compliance.
Bulak, though, said it wouldn't have made a difference in this case. No amount of oversight could have prevented the freak injury. Additionally, he said he's been working with the Fight Card Entertainment officials for years, and he and his fighters have never had a problem.
"It wouldn't have changed anything," he said of the regulation void. "I can't point fingers at anyone. Other promoters in Chicago are trying to point fingers, but I don't think there's anything that could have been done differently to prevent this.
"Fight Card Entertainment, I've worked with them for four years. I know the owners, and they've been great. In fact, they're donating all the proceeds from the next show to Jeff's fund."
On the mend
As for Dunbar, he's making progress. The team's resident jokester is upbeat following a recent surgery, and he vows he'll fight again. He even laid into Bulak during a recent hospital visit.
"I got yelled at by Jeff because someone said my passion was gone, that I sort of checked out," Bulak said. "It's been hard for the gym to go back there, though. It's hard to teach after that. Life is supposed to go on, but to see someone so young injured like that, it hurt. It hit me hard.
"Broken arms, broken noses – that's about as worse as I thought it was going to be. I never thought something this serious would happen."
Despite what will be a brutally tough road ahead for Dunbar, he was born a fighter (check out a recent fight of his). In a cruel twist of irony, he had been working a part-time job and training part-time so that he could care for his mother, who's also bound to a wheelchair following multiple strokes.
Currently, Dunbar's godmother is setting up a trust for him (we'll pass along details on how you can donate once they're available). Event-night insurance will cover Dunbar for the time being, but he's got a long and expensive recovery ahead of him.
"He knows it's going to be a long road," Bulak said. "I don't know if it'll happen, but it's his goal: Like every other fighter, he still just wants to make it to the UFC."