What Sammy Vasquez’s Death Means To MMA

Why the mainstream media got this one right!

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By Mark Chalifoux ~ By now, many of you are probably aware of the death of 35-year-old Sammy Vasquez on November 30, 2007. As reported by The Fight Network on Saturday, Vasquez succumbed after having spent about a month-and-a-half in the hospital following an October 20, 2007 knockout loss in a Renegades Extremes Fighting bout in Houston.

Vasquez’s death is the first documented MMA death in a sanctioned event in this country. And, interestingly enough, the only real reaction to it has come from the MMA blogosphere.

In mainstream circles, the AP put out a piece on Vasquez’s death yesterday. The UPI and the Houston Chronicle also did stories. But, if you type “Sammy Vasquez” or “MMA death” in Google News, there are surprisingly few mainstream media stories that come up.

Luke O’Brien of SI.com (who I also write for, as a matter of full disclosure) did a well-balanced piece about the death in which he asked a number of questions. Some of the questions are fair ones, but it is safe to say — now three days after Vasquez’s death — that some of his gloom-and-doom predictions, along with others made throughout the blogosphere, appear to have not materialized.

Which is why I say: The mainstream media got this story right.

From everything I have read about the fight, the events leading up to it seem to have followed standard operating procedures for a sanctioned MMA event. From eyewitnesses who have recounted their stories in other articles, the fight itself didn’t seem extraordinary in brutality or otherwise. There are also no accounts claiming the ref waited too long to stop the fight.

There is also no evidence on the table that suggests there was inadequate medical attention at the arena or subsequent to that.

In other words, Vasquez’s death is a tremendous tragedy — but, from all the information available in the public realm, it appears to be a tremendous personal tragedy and not an indictment on the sport of MMA.

So the mainstream media got it right. For one thing, there haven’t been any fresh calls for banning the sport. In fact, I would have to say the coverage has been a little too muted. Has the education of the mainstream casual fan been so good that they not only expected a death to eventually occur, but they were able to brush it off as simply one of the hazards of the job?

Possibly, but maybe a better explanation is that as far as MMA deaths go, this one was the best-case scenario for not hurting the credibility of the sport. Why? There are two reasons: 1) The fighter involved was not a UFC fighter, the event was not a UFC event and therefore the event itself hardly even registered in the mainstream consciousness; and 2) The death not only occurred outside the cage, it occurred almost two months after the fight.

In other words, had this been Tito Ortiz dying in the middle of the Octagon, the cries from mainstream media and casual fans may have been much harsher and much louder (and possibly hypocritical when compared to the reaction toward Vasquez’s death). But, would they be any more justified? Maybe, depending on the circumstances of that hypothetical death.

The reality, however, is that death is a hazard in any athletic (really, any life) event. Sports fans remember the death of Hank Gathers, the college basketball player, and the paralysis of Mike Utley, the Detroit Lions football player. There are numerous instances of boxers dying after boxing matches. And, hockey fans remember goalie Clint Malarchuk’s throat being slit by a skate during an NHL game in 1989.

In fact, running is a dangerous endeavor too. Top marathoner Ryan Shay, only 28, died just a month ago today in the U.S. Olympic trials.

The bottom line is that even when all intentions are proper and procedures are as tightly monitored as possible, people can die or suffer serious injury in competition. Sometimes these deaths occur due to pre-existing medical conditions. And, sometimes they occur as a byproduct of the sport.

Why should MMA be treated any differently than these other sports? The only real difference lies in perception and in the fact that we’ve grown up with boxing, football, hockey, basketball, and even marathon running. On the other hand, for many adults, MMA is new and something that for a long time has been considered “low brow” in polite circles.

Still, MMA must deal with relevant issues that have come out of this tragedy. A big one is appropriate health insurance for fighters. Another one is appropriate life insurance for families of those who die in the cage. But, these are not issues special to MMA — all sports deal with them, including the NFL, which has received criticism for its treatment of retired players.

If there is a silver lining to Vasquez’s death, it may be that even with the increased mainstream exposure and increased scrutiny of MMA by the public, there hasn’t been an avalanche of condemnation toward the sport since his death. It appears that mainstream circles get it — there are no deep indictments to be made against MMA based on this now-singular occurrence.

And, the good thing about that is we can focus on the more important story here — the celebration of the life of Vasquez, who apparently died pursuing a dream.