Death is a part of life. Sure, it’s a lesson we first learned while watching Forrest Gump, but it’s one that is always in the back of our minds. It can easily recall existential thoughts like “have I done enough with my life?” or “is my family prepared to live without me?;” fears multiplied for boxers and mixed martial artists.
For fighters, the next bout can easily be their last. MMA is a bone-crushing, concussion-inducing sport whose long-term results are yet to be determined. Still, an athlete’s blood, sweat, and tears engulf the gym mat after every event, symbolic of a life devoted to a single passion.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses,” said boxing legend Muhammad Ali. “Behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.”
The fighters we lost this year shared a similar desire to succeed. Regardless of their ranking, these competitors showed tremendous heart throughout their lives.
Up-and-coming Brazilian Leandro “Feijao” Souza was cutting weight when he passed out in a sauna hours before a scheduled weigh-in. With a modest 5-5 MMA record, the 26-year-old prospect had a whole career in waiting. His death serves a greater purpose as fighters become more aware of dangers associated with weight cutting.
After dominating Strikeforce and M-1 opponents, Shane Del Rosario was ready for a bigger challenge. Despite losing his first two decisions in the UFC, he was set to fight in the highly-anticipated UFC 168 pay-per-view later this month, although he was forced to pull out due to a rib injury. On Nov. 26, Del Rosario suffered full cardiac arrest following consecutive heart attacks. He was taken off life support two weeks later.
His family is interested in starting a charitable foundation to aid research on long QT syndrome, the condition that may have contributed to the fighter’s death.
“It has been truly amazing to realize just how many lives Shane touched in such a positive way,” Del Rosario’s family said in a statement following his passing. Del Rosario was 30.
Joe Camacho’s passion for teaching matched his competitive urges. The second degree black belt ran the Joe Camacho Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy while training for Bellator and King of the Cage events. Camacho had difficulty breathing on Dec. 15, which prompted a trip to the emergency room where he later died from what appears to be a heart attack.
The 41-year-old MMA veteran’s journey began in 1999 with a bout against Joe Stevenson. Fourteen years later, his impact is felt within his students and peers.
“Love goes out to his family. It’s unfortunate that the MMA community lost another one of its soldiers. He was a true fighter, man. It’s a sad day for sure,” said Urijah Faber earlier this week on MMAJunkie Radio.
Long before mixed martial arts reached commercial success, Ramon ‘Diamond’ Dekkers paved the way for today’s crop of Kickboxing and Muay Thai stars. A career that spanned three decades saw Dekkers earn eight Muay Thai world championships in six different weight classes.
While Dekker’s MMA career lasted just one fight, his contributions to combat sports cannot be measured. He received a royal award from Thailand’s Royal Family and was appointed ambassador of all foreign fighters. In 1992, Dekkers became the first non-Thai fighter named Thai Fighter of the Year.
On Feb. 27, Dekkers collapsed while bicycling in his hometown of Breda, Netherlands. Among condolences sent were some from his students, UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem and women’s bantamweight Marloes Coenen. Dekkers was 43-years-old.
What can be said about Nelson Mandela that would summarize a lifetime sacrificed for a greater good? He was a revolutionary, philanthropist and leader who broke color barriers and altered history. His ties to rugby are well known, as he helped united his country via the South African team in 1995, but his love for boxing is not as detailed.
During his 27-year prison sentence, Mandela used boxing to stay fit. In his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said that he enjoyed the science of fighting over its violence. “Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant… I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress… It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again,” Mandela wrote.
The former boxer’s career is idolized via a five-meter tall steel sculpture in Johannesburg, Africa. The appropriately titled “Shadow Boxing” statue is a testament to the fighting career of a man that used a non-violent approach to battle his opponents in and outside of the ring. Mandela was 95.