All combat sports are dangerous to a degree. In fact, although it is very rare, some matches end up with one competitor hospitalized or dead. It is the cruel reality of these violent games, but many people wonder, what happens when a professional athlete is killed in a fight. Does his opponent get charges of murder or manslaughter? Are there any sanction against organizers of the event?

These questions might look simple to some, but if you think about it, they make sense. It is not a case of necessary defence and the person, who wins the fight, knows what he is doing. In some sports, such as MMA, he is trying to inflict the maximum amount of damage to knock his opponent out or to force him to submit. It is violent and in some very rare occasions it ends with one competitor dead. What is legal situation of such deaths?

In short, a fighter cannot be charged with murder or manslaughter if he kills his opponent in such competitions. There are some conditions – fight must be legal, athlete cannot try to inflict lethal damage on purpose, and should listen to commands of the referee. When the fight is over, it is over, no punches or kicks should be thrown after the bell. The concept is simple – all fighters know the dangers as they are entering the ring and they are willing to take responsibility for the consequences they may experience. Some of these consequences are light injuries, some are long-term cognitive impairment after fighting career is over, and some, again, in rare occasions, may be life-threatening.

You can think of it in smaller scale. A boxer is not charged with minor injuries he inflicts on his opponent – no one sues him over a broken nose. Deaths are treated as accidents in this case also and in history of combat sports there are many examples.

How a badly managed kickboxing fight looks like – Dennis Munson Jr. died after this amateur fight

In 1930 Max Baer fought Frankie Campbell. Campbell was dominating the fight. One of his punches sent Baer to the ground in the second round and gave Campbell some time to wave to the crowd. However, Baer was quick to get up and landed a heavy punch right on his opponent’s head, knocking him down. After the round Campbell complained that he feels like something snapped in his head, but continued winning third and fourth round. However, fight took an unexpected turn in the fifth round when Baer pushed Campbell to the corner and started laying punches one after another. Campbell was held upright by ropes only and, after referee stopped the fight, he succumbed to the ground. Next day he Campbell was pronounced dead. Baer was charged with manslaughter, but charges were soon dropped as the case was an accident.

Similar incident happened in   1960 in a boxing match between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith. In the twelfth round Griffith pushed Paret to the corner and started punching him to the head very hard. Paret was defenceless at that point, but referee did not stop the fight as he was still standing. Crowd was shocked seeing Griffith landing very strong uppercuts to Paret’s head, but his coach did not throw the towel in either. Ten days later Paret was announced dead. Griffith was called a murderer, but never faced any charges. Later he was forgiven by Paret’s son and admitted crying remembering the incident. He got furious after Paret’s homophobic remarks – Griffith was bisexual.

Deaths occur after amateur or semi-amateur events too. In 1998 Douglas Dedge got lethally injured in a MMA fight against Yevgeni Zolotarev and died two days later. Even though it was unsanctioned MMA match, no one faced charges after Dedge died.

People who won the fights, which ended up with one athlete dying, often felt guilty and even considered ending their careers. But as far as lawsuits go, charges of murder or manslaughter are not typically possible when the fight is legal and there is no breaking the rules, leading to the fatality. However, organizers of the event have to take care of the safety of the competitors and must make sure that medical crews are present in the building where fight is happening.


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