Professional fighter dies after match; opponent speaks out

A picture of the MMA fighter that died from injury.
Participant in MMA event dies from injury
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June 28, 2010 -- News 12 at eleven o'clock

AUGUSTA, Ga. --- It was supposed to be the beginning of his professional career. Instead, the Mixed Martial Arts industry is mourning the loss of Michael Kirkham.

Thirty-year-old Kirkham was fighting in Saturday’s “Confrontation at the Convocation Center” in Aiken. During the first round, he sustained several blows to the head and lost consciousness. He was transported to Aiken Regional Medical Center, where he died Monday morning from his injuries.

Kirkham had competed in several amateur fights, but this was his first professional match.

News of Kirkham’s death hit members of the MMA community hard. Only one other person has died as the result of a professional MMA match.

“I’ve probably been to two or three thousand fights in my life, and this one was no different. The only thing different about this one is that the young man didn’t recover,” says Mark Greubel.

Greubel owns Greubel’s Mixed Martial Arts in Augusta and trains fighters of all skill levels. He saw the fight that ended Kirkham’s life, and says the blows came during a routine MMA move called “the mount.”

Carlos Iravuro was the other fighter in the ring that night. He says he is still upset over what happened to his opponent.

“I’m in there to compete for a sport,” he says. “I’m not there to do any permanent damage to anybody. I was concerned. Very concerned.”

Greubel requires his students to wear protection when they practice, including gloves, headgear, shin and mouth guards. During competition, fighters wear only gloves and mouth guards. Greubel says regardless of the gear, as with any other sport, there are risks.

“Absolutely it’s a risk. It’s obviously a very rare risk,” he says. “There’s tons of rules in place to keep the fighters as safe as humanly possible.”

Emergency technicians are required to stand by during each fight. Competitors also sign a waiver before stepping into the ring. Fighters have have the option to "tap out" during a fight, and there are referees on hand to stop action if necessary.

Both Greubel and Iravuro maintain theirs is a safe sport.

“I don’t believe I did anything wrong,” Iravuro says of the fight. “You know, it was a sport. We both knew what we were doing; we knew what we were getting involved in. I just did what I was supposed to do.”

Iravuro says he will get back into the ring eventually, but for now he’s still grieving what happened during his first professional fight.

“I can’t fully explain how sorry I am,” he says. “To his family and friends, I am truly sorry and shocked that this tragedy occurred. I, too, will never forget him.”

Mixed Martial Arts is a combination of boxing, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo and wrestling. Greubel says the majority of his clients train non-competitively; only a small percent actually spar and even fewer fight competitively.

An autopsy will be held Tuesday in Newberry, S.C. to determine the exact cause of death.

Greubel is raising money to help Kirkham's family. He asks that anyone interested contact him at his studio.

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