Something happened over the weekend that combat sports fans hate to see. Former UFC heavyweight Tim Hague passed away Sunday from injuries sustained in a Friday night boxing match. I’ve written twice before on fighter safety for Combat Docket, once on the importance of fighters knowing when their careers are winding down, and once on the role of cornermen in stopping fights to protect their fighters. Both of those topics would seem to be relevant in this case as well, but there is much more at work here.
Most of us have heard of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Redundant systems exist to combat this, requiring more than one thing to go wrong at the same time for a catastrophic failure to occur. During my time in the Air Force, I quickly became aware that military aircraft use multiple redundant systems. For instance, flight controls might have two separate hydraulic systems to operate a flap or rudder. The concept is simple – if one hydraulic line is shot out, another redundant line could still be functional and the plane can still fly and return to base safely. To bring down the plane, both systems have to be damaged. Some electronic or computer systems in modern aircraft are quadruplexed, having four separate channels, each of which must fail before the entire system stops working.
The same applies in systems of organization, with multiple people responsible for ensuring that a task is accomplished. Ideally, all of the responsible people will perform their duties well, but if one fails, there are backups in place to prevent catastrophe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way. In the case of Tim Hague, it appears that most of the people and organizations responsible for fighter safety failed to some degree. Some were minor and some were more serious, but all along the chain, a decision by any one of several people could have prevented Hague’s death.
Before getting into that, however, we will need to look at what took place during the fight. Again, this was a boxing match, not a mixed martial arts fight, but the concepts are the same. The fight took place in Edmonton, Alberta, with Hague (21-13 MMA, 1-2 boxing) meeting Adam Braidwood (1-0 MMA, 7-1 boxing). It ended with Braidwood winning by knockout in the second round. Video of the fight is available here: [LINK]. Many might not want to watch the video, which is totally understandable, and why we’re not posting it here. It isn’t particularly brutal or grisly, but make no mistake: it does show a one-sided beating, which we know after the fact resulted in a fatal brain injury to Tim Hague. For that reason, I’ll summarize the action for those who would rather not see the video. My impressions on Tim Hague’s physical status at various points in the fight are just that: impressions based on what I can see from a YouTube video. Obviously, the referee was in a much better position to assess Hague’s condition than anyone else, and I have to believe that his ability to judge is better than mine.
- The bell opening the first round rings at the seven-second mark of the video and there is no on-screen timer for the round itself. I’ll use the time cues on the video for reference, however. For about the first minute, both fighters land a few times. At 1:03, the referee cautions Braidwood to watch punches to the back of the head, following an exchange where Hague ducks down as he’s getting punched. At 1:24, Braidwood knocks down Hague. The referee gives Hague a mandatory* eight count and the fight continues. Hague appears coherent at this point.
- At 2:19, Braidwood hits Hague with a right hand that wobbles him. This leads to an exchange in the corner where Hague is hit with several hard, unanswered punches, leading to a second knockdown at 2:28. Hague gets up for another mandatory eight count. At this point, Hague looks to me like he’s not fully recovered, but seems to be functioning and cognizant of where he is.
- At 2:53 Hague is on the canvas after another exchange where he was hit hard several times. This one is a bit odd, since it’s sort of halfway between a slip and a knockdown. The referee signals that it was a slip rather than a knockdown, and the fight continues soon thereafter. Hague appears tired, but doesn’t seem outwardly seriously hurt.
- At 3:03, Hague is hit with a left and goes down. He stumbles on his initial attempt to get back to his feet, but succeeds on the second attempt. That is the third knockdown. The referee gives him another mandatory eight count, and at 3:19 the bell rings to end the round before the referee can restart the action. My impression is that Hague seems badly hurt at this point – functional, but not really all there. Summing up the first round, I would say that after a feeling-out process in the first minute, Hague was hit often with solid shots for the remaining two minutes, resulting in three (arguably four) knockdowns in the round. He was basically in defensive mode for most of the round, but getting hit often and hard.
- At 3:23, the bell rings to start the second round. Braidwood continues to hit Hague often in the opening seconds of the second round.
- At 3:49, he lands two rights that wobble Hague, but don’t put him down. The fight continues, with Braidwood landing multiple shots while Hague throws flailing punches that rarely connect.
- At 4:27, two rights from Braidwood knock Hague down again. Hague stays on his feet, but bends over briefly with both gloves on the canvas. The referee administers another mandatory eight count and allows the fight to continue. Hague is hit several more times over the next minute, until…
- At 5:28 of the video, Braidwood lands a left that puts Hague down for the last time. As he lands on his back, Hague’s head bounces on the canvas, and a knockout is declared. It’s just conjecture, but I assume that the fatal hemorrhage happened in this final exchange.
The video shows Hague on the canvas being attended to by the referee, but then there is another edit, so we can’t tell how long he was down. When the video starts again for the official announcement and the in-ring interview with Braidwood, we can see Hague in the background, first sitting on a stool having his gloves removed and presumably being examined by the ringside physician, and later exiting the ring upright with assistance from his cornermen.
So who is to blame? That is the obvious question, but ultimately a flawed one. The reality in this particular case seems to be that many factors contributed to the tragedy. Tim Hague himself can’t be blamed. He was a fighter, doing what fighters do. Given his recent history, however, he probably shouldn’t have been fighting. While his primary job as a fourth-grade school teacher probably wasn’t making him rich, neither was he destitute and forced to continue his fight career for dire financial reasons. Some friends speculated that Hague accepted the fight to get a little extra money for his nine-year-old son Brady’s education fund.
Between August 2015 and July 2016, he had five MMA bouts, losing four by knockout/ TKO. In December 2016, he lost a boxing match by knockout. In addition, he was knocked-out just two months ago on April 7th in something called “Super Boxing,” which is essentially boxing in a cage with MMA gloves (clinching and takedowns are allowed, but once it goes to the ground, the fight is reset on the feet). After this loss, Hague announced his retirement, but for whatever reason later agreed to Friday’s boxing match.
So we have a fighter who in less than two years’ time leading up to the fateful boxing match had been knocked out six times. That’s a huge red flag. But then fighters want to fight, many regardless of the possible risk. Not being one myself, I can’t claim to understand it, but I recognize how common it is. As I discussed in the Condit article, it is, unfortunately, a rare thing for fighters to be self-aware enough to get out before they are too deep into the inevitable skid where their bodies are taking too much damage. Many fighters stick around far too long, but even so, most escape without life-threatening injuries. Combat sports are inherently dangerous, but thankfully deaths are very uncommon. Still, it’s something every fighter must confront at some point in their careers, and hopefully this high-profile tragedy will make more fighters seriously consider retiring before they are unnecessarily tempting fate.
Probably the person involved who had the least to answer for in the situation is Hague’s opponent, Adam Braidwood. Braidwood is a former Washington State University and CFL football player who lately has had a successful boxing career in Canada. He was 7-1 coming into Friday’s fight, and had won the World Boxing Union (WBU) heavyweight championship in January of this year. He knew Hague prior to the fight and they were friendly. To Braidwood, it was just another fight and he wanted to do well.
Braidwood discussed the events of the fight on Monday with CTV News Channel, and the overwhelming impression is that during the fight Braidwood had no impression that Hague might have been seriously hurt until the very end of the fight. Here are some snippets of what Braidwood said during the interview:
– “I knew, man. Like, I knew in the ring…”
– “I just saw the way he fell, man…”
– “I waited on my knees for Tim to move after I did my stupid little celebration… I waited on my knees. I watched him. He moved. I picked him up, because his team was struggling to pick him up. I carried him to the corner, and like I could see in his face…[trails off]”
– “I was in the ring, and I was, I’ll be honest with you, I was like, you know, ‘it’s time to stop this fight.’ I was hoping Tim would stop it himself, and I was like “if he doesn’t, then you know, then we have to finish it until it’s done.’”
– “Tim was still there, and he said he wanted to keep fighting, and so that’s what happened.”
For the most part, there is mutual respect between fighters. It’s a dangerous business, but it is exceedingly rare that a fighter would legitimately wish serious harm on his opponent. In the heat of battle, fighters have to concentrate on their own performance, and it is unrealistic to expect them to be cognizant or overly involved with their opponent’s condition. From his statements, it seems clear that Braidwood knew only that Hague was tiring and hurt as the fight progressed, but wasn’t aware that he was in serious danger until after the end of the fight. I vacillated on whether or not to even include a section on Mr. Braidwood’s role in the incident, since he was essentially blameless. Ultimately I decided to mention it since there have been very rare instances where fighters have refused to continue a bout because they were overpowering their opponents so badly that they feared seriously injuring them.
(photo credit: Jelena Kovačević)
The Fighter’s Team
Given the predisposition of fighters to continue fighting, a large responsibility falls to their teams. Coaches, managers, families, and other people associated with a fighter must resist his or her wishes to continue in the career despite a lessening of skills and increased accumulation of damage. When the time comes, they have a duty to advise the fighter that they are taking an unacceptable level of risk by continuing to fight. This can only go so far, however. Maybe those close to Tim Hague had had “The Talk” with him, possibly on multiple occasions. Obviously, a fighter’s team cannot force him or her not to fight. Few people have the level of influence Dana White had with Chuck Liddell when they had their discussion about Chuck calling it a career. Sadly, there are rumblings that the 47-year-old Liddell wants to fight again, over seven years since his last bout.
While the team cannot force a fighter to retire, the fighter’s corner does have the de facto ability to stop a fight when it is clear that the combatant under their care is overmatched and there is no further reason for them to continue to take damage. This can be done by throwing in the towel (or otherwise letting the referee know while the fight is still active that they want it stopped to protect their fighter), or by refusing to let the fighter answer the bell for another round. As discussed in the “tossing in the towel” article from February, I believe this power is underutilized and that more corners should prioritize protecting their fighters rather than just letting a dangerous lost cause play out.
Friday’s boxing event was promoted by KO Boxing, a local promotion in Edmonton run by Mel Lubovac. The name of the event was KO Boxing 79, and TKO Boxing has long held successful events in Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre, so it’s not a fly-by-night outfit. The first thought is to blame matchmaking for the tragedy. After all, Braidwood was a hard-hitting heavyweight with a 7-1 record and a WBU title belt, and Hague, while still tough, had a 1-2 pro boxing record and had been knocked out several times in the past two years in three combat sports.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Originally, Braidwood was scheduled to face a more suitable opponent, Jesus Paez, an 8-3 boxer who had previously fought only in Tijuana, Mexico. On May 31st, KO Boxing tweeted out a fight card for the event that still included Paez as the listed opponent, so sometime between then and Friday, June 16th, Paez dropped out of the fight and the promoters offered the match to Hague. This means Hague had around two weeks, or probably less, to prepare for the fight. Here is the picture of the fight card that KO Boxing posted at the end of May:
It’s easy to see why the promoter matched Hague against Braidwood. They had worked with Hague before. He was reliable, well liked in the local area, and still had a well-known name from his UFC days. As a late replacement who had seen better days going up against one of the top-ranked boxers in the region, I don’t doubt that the matchmakers thought Hague would probably be overmatched and lose. At the same time, I don’t think for a minute that they expected him to be seriously hurt.
On Monday, KO Boxing released the following statement regarding the loss of Tim Hague:
Combat sports events in the city of Edmonton are regulated by the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission (ECSC), with Pat Reid serving as Executive Director. The commission regulates boxing, MMA, and other combat sports in the city, licensing the promoters, contestants, seconds, referees, and others involved in combat sports events.
As Combat sports law expert Erik Magraken points out in a recent article, most Canadian provinces have their own athletic commissions, but Alberta is an anomaly, with the province leaving it up to cities to provide combat sports regulation. Hence, Edmonton established the ECSC in the absence of a provincial authority for Alberta. The ECSC requires combatants to undergo medical testing before they can fight, including a baseline MRI and additional tests. Until the investigation ordered by the city of Edmonton in the wake of Hague’s passing is complete, we can only assume that he completed and passed the required tests.
In Magraken’s article, he notes that the commission’s own regulations require that “if a boxer has suffered three (3) knockouts or technical knockouts from blows to the head within a one (1) year period, a medical suspension for a period of not less than one (1) year” must be implemented. (source: ECSC Policy #9, available here as a PDF: [LINK])
Tim Hague was knocked out in an MMA match on July 15th, 2016; lost by TKO in boxing on the 2nd of December, 2016; and suffered a knockout in his April 7th, 2017 “super boxing” match. All involved blows to the head. Under the commission’s rules, Hague should not have been eligible to fight until April of next year. Did the commission fail to enforce its own rules, or did Hague not disclose his recent knockouts to the commission? Again, we’ll have to wait until the investigation is complete before we know how this was missed.
Watching the video of the Braidwood vs. Hague fight, one thing stuck in my mind above all else – apparently, the three knockdown rule was not in effect. Edmonton does not have its own set of rules for boxing. Instead, ECSC Policy #1 states that “For boxing events, the ECSC recognizes ABC rules.” [PDF LINK] Personally, I haven’t really followed boxing since the 1980s, so I was surprised to learn that the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) rules [PDF LINK] specifically state “There is NO Three (3) Knockdown Rule.” (Emphasis theirs, not mine) Some jurisdictions, including New York and Nevada where many of the biggest fights take place, do implement a three knockdown rule, but since Edmonton follows the ABC rules without modification, the three knockdown rule was not in effect for the Braidwood vs. Hague fight.
On Monday, the City of Edmonton announced that they will appoint an independent review of the fight to determine what may have gone wrong, rather than delegating investigation to the ECSC, which normally conducts its own investigations. During the announcement of the independent review, Edmonton Deputy City Manager Rob Smyth said “We want to retain — we don’t know who or how yet — a third party to do a comprehensive review and our thinking is… that review will have to get information from all of the different individuals who were part of organizing the event.” (Source: GlobalNews.ca)
The referee, along with the ringside physician, is the last line of defense for protecting fighters. The referee for the fight on Friday was Len Koivisto. Referees have many responsibilities during a fight. Beyond just enforcing the rules, I would say the referee’s primary duty is to protect the fighters. This might seem counterintuitive during a prize fight where two people are punching each other trying to knock out their opponents, but a big part of the referee’s job is to prevent things from getting out of control and one of the combatants sustaining serious injury.
I’m more of an MMA than a boxing fan, but the concept is the same. I would much rather see an early stoppage than a late one. The referee is just a few feet from the fighters and is able to judge their ability to continue much better than I can, watching on a TV or several rows back in the crowd. In mixed martial arts, besides a knockout or a tap, the referee can stop a fight when one fighter is “unable to intelligently defend themselves.” Boxing is different, but still leaves the referee plenty of latitude. The procedures in place for Edmonton on Friday are spelled out in the ABC rules, the ABC Referee Rules and Guidelines, and the ABC Official Certification Program for Judges & Referees. Under these documents, the referee has the ability to stop a fight under several circumstances.
Following a knockdown, referees are advised by the rules and guidelines [PDF LINK] that “While counting, concentrate on the downed boxer and look for signs of weakness, such as position of the eyes, glassy state, dilation of the pupils, lack of steady equilibrium, bad cuts or bleeding, etc.” and “At the count of eight or nine, ask the downed boxer is he or she can continue and have them take one step toward you.” While not specifically stated in the section, the implication is that even if the fighter is on his feet, if the referee feels that the fighter is physically unable to continue, he can stop the fight at this point and declare a technical knockout.
This is confirmed and expanded upon in the certification program [LINK]. In this guidance, it is clear that beyond calling a knockout of a downed fighter, or a TKO following a knockdown where the fighter regained his feet but is unable to continue, the ABC instructs referees that “The bout should be terminated when a contestant is unable to protect himself or the contest is so one-sided that it can no longer be considered in any way competitive. The health and safety of the contestants are the most important factors in making a determination as to whether to allow a contest to proceed or call a halt to it.”
While I am loathe to second-guess a referee who has the experience and proximity to judge a fighter’s condition far better than I, my impression is that the fight could easily have been called a TKO following the third knockdown in the first round. Failing that, early in the second round, the fight seemed to me to have further devolved into excessively one-sided territory described above that a stoppage even without a knockdown would have been warranted. This is a judgement call on Mr. Koivisto’s part. He chose not to stop the fight, and not being there I cannot fault him too vehemently. After all, I know what happened afterward, and that likely influences my impression of events. In the moment, the referee did not have the benefit of knowing what would happen minutes later.
I was tempted to call this final section “Conclusions,” but honestly I am in no position to draw any firm conclusions from what information is publicly available. That task will fall to the people selected by the city of Edmonton to conduct the independent review of what transpired.
Near the beginning, I mentioned the concept of redundancy, where duplication can stop a catastrophic event by having backup systems in place. In order for the worst case scenario to play out, all of those responsible in the matter of the Hague fight had to let it go on, even though they had the power to stop it.
A 2004 paper by Dr. Scott D. Sagan of Stanford University published in the journal Risk Analysis might give some insight on how this happened. Titled “The Problem of Redundancy Problem,” [PDF LINK] it deals specifically with nuclear security forces, but points that he makes regarding organizations utilizing several layers of redundancy are applicable in the breakdowns that lead to the Tim Hague tragedy as well. One element Dr. Sagan mentions caught my attention in particular: “The second way that redundancy can backfire is when diffusion of responsibility leads to ‘social shirking.’ This common phenomenon – in which individuals or groups reduce their reliability in the belief that others will take up the slack – is rarely examined in the technical literature on safety and reliability…”
He further states “In organizations, however, we are usually analyzing redundant individuals, groups or agencies, backup systems that are aware of one another. Such awareness clearly can influence each unit’s reliability.” Simply put, at each step, the participants give up a portion of their responsibility in the belief that those who are also responsible will assume part of their share.
The information available so far on the circumstances leading up to Tim Hague’s death gives me the impression that this might have been the overarching failure. Other than the revelation in Erik Magraken’s article that under ECSC rules Hague should have probably been just a few months into a one-year medical suspension rather than fighting last Friday, most of the participants could reasonably let the fight continue without excessive worry. While they had the opportunity to prevent the fight, or to stop it once it was underway and Hague was being injured, most of the doubts they felt seem to have been more along the lines of “I’m not so sure about this…” and never reached the level of “I can’t let this happen.” As such, acting was a judgment call that could possibly be made by someone else who also had the authority to stop it.
This is just my impression on what might have possibly taken place leading up to and during the fight. It’s the best guess of someone with no expertise in the field, and based on limited information, so I await the report from Edmonton’s independent review of the situation. In the meantime, all I can do is hope that the next time something possibly life-threatening happens in a boxing ring or MMA cage, one of those redundant elements responsible for fighter safety makes the decision to intervene.
*Note: While sometimes misidentified as a “standing eight count” because the fighter is usually standing when the referee counts, technically they are not the same thing. A mandatory eight count occurs after each knockdown, while a standing eight count takes place when a referee decides a fighter is impaired but no knockdown took place. ABC rules specifically prohibit standing eight counts.