It takes a lot to gross out a seasoned fight promoter. Once you've seen enough blood on the mat and enough broken bones, you start to become immune to it all. At least, that's what Jamie Addie of Fight to Win promotions in Denver thought. Then he saw what happened to Justin Salas
"It was gross, man. I've seen a thousand fights and many different situations, but I've never seen that in my life," Addie said.
Neither had Salas. Neither had his trainer, Trevor Wittman
. It hadn't even occurred to them to be worried about something like this.
At first, neither even realized what was happening in the Jan. 29 fight. To Salas (8-3), it simply felt like he was having trouble getting his footing against UFC vet Rob Emerson
in the main event.
"I wanted to work my combos and move to the right, away from his power," said Salas. "I tried to get that angle there on the corner, on my right, but I was having a tough time because of my right foot, which is the foot I pivot off of. I noticed I wasn't able to pivot on it and a kind of panic set in. I was slipping and it just wasn't working, but I didn't know why at first."
As the first round wore on, Addie, who was sitting cageside at Denver's Paramount Theater that night, got a glimpse of the problem.
"I think about two to three minutes into the first round we noticed the flap of skin kind of hanging off his toe. He went back to his corner and then came out for the second round and the flap of skin wasn't on his toe anymore, it was on the ball of his foot. By the third round, it was easily a half-dollar sized flap of skin just kind of hanging there and bleeding everywhere."
After weeks of training, Salas thought he had prepared for every possible scenario. But of all the things that might happen to you in a professional MMA bout, who expects to lose the skin off the bottom of his foot?
The culprit, it seems, was the lights. According to Addie, whose company joined with Full Force Fighting to put on the event that night, it was the first time the Paramount had hosted an MMA fight.
"It's more of a music venue," Addie explained. "[The Paramount] required that they use a certain staging company to do the lighting and all that. We actually own all our own lighting – LED lights and all that, so they don't get too hot – but we had no choice. They used the good old-fashioned cam lighting, and it was a bit of overkill."
Salas and Emerson were the last bout on an eleven-fight card, which meant that by the time they stepped in the cage the mat had been soaking in the heat of the stage lights for hours.
"It wasn't like touching a burner hot, but it was uncomfortably hot," said Salas. "I think it softened up the calluses on my foot and blistered it a bit, and then it just ripped off down to the middle of my foot."I was running on adrenaline, so it hurt a lot after, but at the time I was just trying to zone in on the fight.
-- Justin Salas
While Salas said he wasn't the only fighter to suffer some negative effects from the hot mat, his were by far the worst. At first he hardly noticed, but as the skin tore more and more and exposed the raw flesh underneath it to the hot mat, then things got really painful, said Salas.
"I was just trying not to think about it. I was running on adrenaline, so it hurt a lot worse after, but at the time I was just trying to zone in on the fight."
Salas was so focused, in fact, that he failed to tell his coach what was happening to him.
"He never mentioned it," said Wittman. "I could tell he was having problems with his footwork and he wasn't doing what I'd seen him do in the gym ... I was like, man, what's going on? But he never said a word during the fight. That kid's so tough, man."
As Salas explained afterward, complaining about the foot would have given him an out. In his mind, the moment he said something he'd have a reason to lose. In a fight this important to his developing career, he couldn't risk that.
"I knew my foot was hurting, but I was thinking that I didn't want to make any excuses or give any reason to quit. It's like, if I start telling my coaches that my foot's hurting then it's like a built-in excuse for myself, and I didn't want that. I just tried to stay in the zone and push through it. Even if your game plan is kind of messed up by it, you've got to find a way to win, because this was a big fight for me."
After a three-round, fifteen-minute battle, Salas got the unanimous decision nod from the judges. As the adrenaline faded, the pain started to settle in. Over the next few days Salas could barely walk. When he was offered a fight on an MFC card in February he had no choice but to turn it down, since getting right back in the gym to prepare was hardly an option.
"It was kind of a bad deal, but in a roundabout way it probably got me more exposure than I would have otherwise," said Salas. "Between the pictures that they got of it and me getting the win, getting a unanimous decision and looking dominant, it was actually kind of a blessing."
He has a point. Without the gruesome and unusual foot injury, most MMA fans might still have no clue who Justin Salas is. Now they not only know about his victory over Emerson at a small show in Denver, but they know he's the kind of guy who will fight through just about anything without complaint – and they're not the only ones.
"It was unfortunate," said Addie, who admitted that, in hindsight, his promotion should have done more to educate the Paramount staging crew about the potential dangers of their overzealous light use. "But one thing I can say is that Justin Salas is a tough, tough kid. He didn't hesitate and didn't say a word about it. He kept fighting and came out with a victory over a UFC vet. I was really impressed. He's someone who could go a long way in this sport."