The Death of Douglas Dedge

By Joe Hall and Brad Utterstrom Dec 7, 2007
Sam Vasquez's death on Nov. 30 marked the first casualty in regulated mixed martial arts. In the wake of his passing, Sherdog.com revisits here the story of Douglas Dedge, the first fighter known to have died due to complications following an MMA bout, and the unregulated Ukrainian event in which he fought.

The sources quoted in this article were interviewed in the summer of 2003, when Joe Hall researched Dedge's death for a story published in the February 2004 issue of the now-defunct Fightsport magazine. Dedge died in 1998, during a time when MMA was not winning a struggle to shed its barbaric reputation. The sport was widely banned then, and every other UFC event was shrouded in speculation that it was the last. Yet MMA was still growing at the grassroots level, where loyal followers sustaining the sport feared one potential setback above all others: the death of a fighter.


The correspondence between Will Hendricks and Andre Starovoit started in February 1998.

Mixed martial arts in the United States was not yet five years old. Randy Couture (Pictures) had recently won his first UFC heavyweight championship. Pride had held only one show.

In Kiev, Ukraine, a jiu-jitsu club called Minamoto was recruiting fighters for the March 16 World Super Challenge -- a limited-rules event that would match the club's athletes against foreign competitors. To field the opposition, labeled the "World Team," Minamoto circulated invitations on the Internet that guaranteed potential competitors travel and stay expenses, as well as $2,000 for fighting and an additional $3,000 to win.

"Don't miss," an invitation said. "Such an event happens only ones [sic] in life. You have the chance to get into the symbolic world team."

Hendricks, a manager from Colorado, had a fighter who was interested. He e-mailed an address listed on the invitation, and Starovoit, Minamoto's chief instructor, replied the next day. Within a week, two of Hendricks' fighters, Clarence Thatch and Larry Parker, had been accepted.

"In hindsight," Hendricks said later, "I don't think [Minamoto] was concerned about obtaining an experienced or qualified fighter. I really think they were looking for an opponent."

Hendricks and Starovoit agreed to the pay mentioned in the invitation and began negotiating other details. They spoke on the phone, exchanged e-mails. By the end of February, Hendricks' messages showed increasing concern for his fighters' safety and welfare.

The manager refused to have Thatch and Parker buy their own plane tickets on Starovoit's promise they would be reimbursed. Hendricks was also worried they would not be paid for fighting, and he stressed that the fighters had to be compensated in U.S. currency immediately after their bouts.

On March 4, just 12 days before the event, Hendricks was ready to pull Thatch and Parker. He gave Starovoit 24 hours to get plane tickets, hotel confirmations and a contract with updated terms. Starovoit did enough to satisfy Hendricks' requests, though, and finally sent a list of rules: no biting; no eye gouging; no grabbing the nose, ears, throat, fingers or groin; and no time limit. Fights could be stopped by the fighter or by his trainer.

The deal was done. Hendricks remained wary, however.

"Every day we have ads on TV and radio, half of tickets has been sold already and we expect full [arena]," Starovoit wrote in an e-mail a week before the show. "Besides as you know we will have professional filming and naturally you will receive a copy of this film, too."

Starovoit sent a final pre-fight message on March 13, the day before the fighters were scheduled to arrive in Kiev. Hendricks would not be traveling with Thatch and Parker, but Starovoit assured him there would be no problem recognizing the fighters at the airport.

The only problem in Kiev, said Starovoit, was that it was zero degrees and snowing.

Doug Dedge

Douglas Dedge (Illustration by Brad Utterstrom)


Douglas Dedge also learned about the World Super Challenge on the Internet. He was a 31-year-old karate practitioner from Chipley, Fla., who had a wife and five children.

He had fought in one recorded amateur MMA match -- a bizarre loss via armbar to Sean Brockmole on Sept. 6, 1997. Midway through the fight, Dedge grabbed his opponent's hair and pinned his head to the mat. Brockmole's cornerman, HooknShoot promoter Jeff Osborne (Pictures), jumped up on the ring apron and screamed.

"I had no idea what he was yelling about," Brockmole said, "but apparently [Dedge] took his wristband or headband off and was wrapping it around my neck."

Dedge also exhibited unusual behavior while training with a group of martial artists in Tallahassee, Fla., where he had occasional "spells" on the mat.

"He would lose his vision and get extremely lightheaded," said Steve Atwell, who trained several times with Dedge in Tallahassee. "We would have to stop grappling with him, as he would be staring off into space, and his face would be white as a sheet."

In one particular incident, Atwell was in Dedge's guard and looked down to see a vacancy in his eyes. Dedge's skin was suddenly cold, clammy.

"I can't see," Dedge said. "I've lost my vision."

They stopped training. Dedge waited on the mat until his sight returned, then he left.

These spells were not the result of Dedge getting slammed. "I'm not going to say he wasn't getting jostled around," Atwell said, "but I know for a fact none of us ever slammed him down."

Dedge's training partners told him to see a doctor about the episodes, especially if he was considering fighting.

"As far as I know, he never went," Atwell said. "I don't think he wanted to even admit that something was wrong."

The group in Tallahassee did not consider Dedge a competent fighter. He was tall and lanky -- not an athlete. His background was in striking, but he could not punch and his grappling was just as weak. His training partners warned him to avoid professional bouts, but he frequently e-mailed promoters and embellished his ability anyway.

"He certainly admitted to hyping up his skills to promoters," Atwell said. "I am unsure as to exactly what he would say about his skill set, but he would tell them that he had many fights in small unheard-of events."

Most promoters refused him. The Minamoto club did not.

***

Snow stranded Thatch, Parker and their trainer, Sheldon Marr, in Amsterdam until March 16 -- the day of the event. The trio finally arrived in Kiev in the morning. A man believed to be Andre Starovoit picked them up at the airport and took them to a luxury hotel. They were fed, treated well.

At the Sports Palace a few hours before the fights, they met Dedge. He had purchased plane tickets for himself and a friend, Danny Ray, on Starovoit's word he would be reimbursed. Dedge asked Marr to corner him because Ray did not train, and Marr agreed.

Someone with the event briefed the Americans on the rules. Someone checked their attire. There were no pre-fight physicals or tests of any kind.

"I don't remember that they even checked a heartbeat," Marr said.

Dedge was the first American to fight. He was wearing a gi when he walked onto the large, elevated mat where the competition took place. On each arm he wore wristbands, and his hands were taped, though his knuckles were bare. He looked taller but lighter than his opponent, the Minamoto club's Yevgeni Zolotarev, who also fought bare-knuckle and was listed as a 174-pound 2nd Dan in jiu-jitsu.

The Sports Palace was packed but freezing. Fans sat in their seats with coats on, and Marr wore a leather jacket while he stood at the edge of the mat for Dedge's fight.

Zolotarev made the first move, a takedown attempt that Dedge momentarily stopped with a sprawl. After a brief struggle, however, the Ukrainian completed the takedown, and the fight moved to Dedge's guard.

Less than two minutes into the match, Dedge used his wristband to try to choke Zolotarev, but the referee prohibited the tactic. From the top position, Zolotarev retaliated with occasional punches and head butts, though most of the blows were deflected.

A minute later the referee restarted the bout on the feet. Dedge removed his gi top, then shot awkwardly for a takedown. Zolotarev easily defended the attempt and moved into the mount. Several punches descended for Dedge's head -- many missed, some scored.

Marr described the strikes as "pretty average."

"I do remember that a couple of blows were to the side of the head, to the temple area," Marr said. "That obviously can be dangerous, but it didn't seem to be extraordinarily hard."

After absorbing a handful of strikes, Dedge tapped out less than five minutes into the fight, and the referee intervened immediately.

Larry Parker was watching Dedge's bout to decide if he was going to compete later that night or slip out the backdoor. The 34 year old from Colorado was an experienced grappler who would go on to have a successful career that included an appearance in PRIDE. From the moment Starovoit asked him to purchase his own plane ticket, Parker had been apprehensive about fighting on foreign soil -- especially with no time limits and few rules.

"If I would have thought they were letting it get too far out of hand and they were just going to let anything happen that they wanted to," Parker said, "then I was going back to the locker room, grab my bag and go."

Yet Parker saw nothing in Dedge's bout that spooked him.

"He really didn't take much punishment," Parker recalled. "He was taking some punches, he tapped, they stopped, and I thought, ‘OK, cool. They're going to keep it a sports show here.'"

After submitting, though, Dedge stood, lurched forward and then collapsed backward to the mat.

"At first," Marr said, "he just looked like he was exhausted or something. When we went to see if he was OK, he was going into convulsions and was just totally out of it. We knew he was in serious trouble."

The fallen fighter received immediate medical attention. He was promptly placed on a stretcher and carried off the mat. On a video of the event, it appears that medical personnel worked to establish an artificial airway and monitor his heart rate, but it is difficult to decipher exactly what treatments were provided. Dedge was then taken directly to the Kiev Institute of Surgery, according to a report in a Ukrainian newspaper.

The other Americans stayed at the Sports Palace. Parker fought and won. Thatch lost.

The next morning, while Dedge was at the Institute, Parker and Marr spoke with the friend who had accompanied Dedge on the trip, Danny Ray. He told them that Dedge had blacked out recently in training.

"Did he hit his head?" Marr asked. "Did he come down hard on his upper torso or his neck?"

"No," Ray answered. "He was just taken down and blacked out."

Dedge was still at the Institute when Marr, Parker and Thatch left Kiev. By the time they returned home to Colorado, he had died.

***

News of Dedge's death spread quickly. For fans of mixed martial arts, who had followed the maligned sport's struggles for legitimacy, this was the moment they had feared most -- the moment that many believed would mark the end of MMA.

Newspapers in Alabama and Florida, near Dedge's home, published reports of the incident, but larger papers like the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer mentioned it only briefly. Many major European publications ran an Associated Press report. In Spain alone an estimated two million readers learned of Dedge's death in the daily newspaper El País.

Editorials followed from Montreal to Jerusalem. Headlines were unforgiving: "Extremely Repugnant" and "No Holds Barred Fight Kills Father" and "Brain Damage Killed Wrestler."

Most reports said Dedge had died in an "ultimate fighting" match, which no doubt led some readers to believe he had been killed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The stories fueled further criticism of MMA in the United States and abroad. UFC co-creator Art Davie, who had recently turned to promoting kickboxing, publicly denounced the sport he had helped spawn.

Yet the circumstances of Dedge's death were mostly unclear. He had died on March 18, 1998, of what Petro Spasichenko, chief emergency room doctor at the Kiev Institute of Surgery, called "severe brain injuries."

Speculation abounded that Dedge was a journeyman who had suffered a brain injury during years of fighting, that he had been knocked out in training, that he had severed spinal tissue in the fight, that he had not received proper medical treatment afterward.

Now it is widely accepted that Dedge had a pre-existing medical condition, though it has never been officially confirmed. Dr. Margaret Goodman, former chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission Medical Advisory Board, believes it is very likely Dedge had a pre-existing condition that contributed to his death.

"No fighter ever really dies from one punch," Goodman said. "I'd say probably at least 50 percent of the deaths that I know of that have occurred in the ring have been in fights that were not tough fights, against an opponent that wasn't a big puncher. So I really believe that there is something pre-existing. … Otherwise, if it wasn't, we would see [deaths] all the time."

Years after Dedge's death, though, misinformation was still rampant. In April 2001, The Observer -- a newspaper published on Sundays in the United Kingdom -- reported an outrageous account of the fight. This entirely fabricated retelling had Dedge lying face down, half-conscious while his opponent trampled him and then "bashed him at the base of the neck about 14 times." The referee did not intervene, according to The Observer's source, because he was intimidated by the audience, which was screaming, "Kill the Yankee! Finish him off!"

None of that happened, though those details have been repeated as fact in multiple publications, including another U.K. newspaper in March 2006.

But back in March 1998, while MMA fans were wondering what exactly had happened to Dedge and waiting for the demise of the sport, Will Hendricks had resumed his correspondence with Andre Starovoit. As feared, Parker and Thatch had not been paid.

Hendricks told Starovoit his fighters were owed $6,250, including reimbursements for visas and the hotel in Amsterdam. The manager continued requesting his fighters' money into April, but by then he was also asking for compensation on behalf of Dedge's wife. The Minamoto club had not reimbursed her for the plane tickets Dedge bought nor had they compensated her with the $2,000 he earned by fighting.

In fact, the promoters disappeared when Mrs. Dedge flew to Kiev, on her own money, to retrieve her husband's body.

Starovoit resurfaced in mid-April, when he sent a fax apologizing for the fighters not being paid. The little they had been compensated, said Starovoit, had come from his own pocket. He added that the Minamoto club had a plan to generate the remaining money owed to the fighters and to Dedge's family, but Hendricks lost contact with him.

Months later, as the sport was realizing it would survive its first casualty, Hendricks received an e-mail from another Minamoto representative.

"They were going to have a representative in the United States trying to market the tape of the event," said Hendricks, who was propositioned to buy the rights to the video, distribute it and use the profits to settle his financial squabble with the club. "They thought it would be worth a couple million dollars because it had a death involved in it. It was pretty sad."

Hendricks declined the offer, and he never heard from Starovoit or his Minamoto associates again.
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