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Dana White reacts to tragic death of BKFC fighter: ‘Is anybody shocked?’

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dana White was saddened but not surprised to hear the news about Justin Thornton.

A one-time BKFC fighter, Thornton tragically died at age 38 this week following his knockout loss at BKFC 20. Thornton had been hospitalized since losing to Dillon Cleckler in 19 seconds on August 20. He was reportedly partially paralyzed in the aftermath of the fight and battled an infection from a spinal cord injury before succumbing to his injuries.

White was asked about the sad situation Tuesday night at the Contender Series post-fight press conference.

“First of all, is anybody shocked?” the UFC president told reporters in Las Vegas. “I mean, in bare-knuckle fighting? I’m not a big fan. And I get, I guess I would call it concerned, when I see some of our people when they leave here and go there. It’s like, oh my God.

“But when you look at this, we’ve been putting on fights for 25 years. I’ve done over 7,000 fights with no serious injuries in the UFC.”

In addition to bare-knuckle boxing, Thornton was also an MMA fighter who put together a 6-18 record over 24 bouts. He notably fought Titan FC COO Lex McMahon in November 2020 and competed against eventual UFC veterans Chase Sherman and Walt Harris during his 13-year career.

Several former UFC fighters have signed with BKFC in recent years, including Paige VanZant, Chris Leben, Hector Lombard, Rachael Ostovich, and Chad Mendes.

Following Thornton’s untimely passing, BKFC president David Feldman wrote in a statement that the promotion was “very saddened” to be notified of Thornton’s death and sent “our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones” on behalf of BKFC.

In recent days, Thorton’s death has brought increased scrutiny to bare-knuckle boxing and the role of state athletic commissions — and in White’s eyes, that scrutiny is deserved.

“Every year we spend over $20 million on athletic medical — $20 million a year — health and wellness or whatever it may be,” White said. “And 25 percent of our athletes, we send to specialists. So a guy will come and his brain test won’t come out, it’ll be irregular, so we send him to a specialist. If something was irregular with his heart, he or she goes and sees a heart specialist, and we spend the money to find out whatever it is that’s wrong with him.

“And as a result of that, our pre-fight screening, throughout the last 20 years we found 10 athletes that had life-threatening medical problems with them and career-ending, that they shouldn’t be fighting — that if they weren’t in the UFC, they probably would’ve fought and they probably would’ve died.

“So we shouldn’t even be talked about in the same sentence as bare-knuckle boxing,” White continued. “It’s two completely different worlds. And yes, we’re very sorry to hear that this guy passed away, but you’re never going to see any of these other organizations doing the type of health and safety and medical testing that we do for our athletes.”

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