[Photos by Kathryn Harrington]
[This story has been updated to reflect the cause of death and that the fighter suffered from a heart condition.]
Donshay White was sprawled on the floor of the cage. He covered his head with both hands as Ricky Muse sat on his belly, landing a couple tired blows until he was so winded he had to pause to catch his breath.
It was only the second round of a heavyweight mixed martial arts fight, but White could not get up, and yet he refused to submit.
Referee Gary Copeland bent over the fighters to ask White a few questions and check on his wellbeing, and then let the fight continue. Muse was weary and tried to rest on top of White, but Copeland told him he had to do something. He could keep punching, make a wrestling move or get up.
Taking a breath, Muse punched White in the head a few times.
And then Copeland called the fight.
Within a few minutes, White, a 37-year-old Army veteran and father of a 2-year-old daughter, would collapse backstage and die.
His girlfriend, Denise Cason, would find out moments later.
“I never wanted him to do that fight anyway,“ Cason told LEO in an interview. “I told him he was too old. We always had a joke that he was going to go out like Apollo Creed.”
White’s death on that Saturday, July 15, at the Derby Park Expo Five in Shively remains under investigation by Louisville and Shively police.
The referee, Copeland, told LEO he “did everything by the book.”
Still, it was a night filled with decisions that led to second-guessing and lingering regret.
Both Cason and White’s trainer contend he was not ready for the fight. Although White worked occasional warehouse jobs, he received disability and was being treated for high blood pressure, Cason said.
On Thursday, the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office deemed that White died of “natural causes” with the cause of death listed as “Hypertensive/atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”
The Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Commission did not respond to requests for comment on the finding.. Earlier, in the days after the fight, the commission, including its representative at the match, Todd Neal, would not comment, saying they were instructed not to talk to the media. Elizabeth Kuhn, commission spokesperson, did not respond to requests for information.
But shortly after the fight, the commission released a statement that said, in part: “Mr. White was attended to by a licensed ringside physician and first responders immediately following his bout, and he received onsite medical attention before being transported via ambulance to the hospital.”
No one from Hardrock MMA, which produced the fight, responded to requests for comment.
Deaths as a result of MMA fights are rare, with about a half-dozen deaths in sanctioned fights in the United States since the sport began, according to published reports.
It was the 90th bout Hardrock MMA, run by promoter Brandon “Hardrock” Higdon, put on in and around Kentucky since 2008.
It was the first death.
Most of the fighters that night couldn’t recall even a serious injury in the ring, or anything like that Saturday at Derby Park Expo Five.
White’s opponent that night, Muse, 34, a firefighter for the Kentucky Division of Forestry, told LEO he took the fight on two weeks notice. He left knowing that his first fight ended with the death of his opponent.
“I’ve been doing a lot of praying and soul searching since I heard the news about Mr. Donshay White,” he wrote in a text to LEO. “All I will say is that my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this worst of times.”
White competed in the second fight of the scheduled 15-fight Hardrock MMA 90 card at Expo Five in a Quonset hut filled with $3 Miller Lites and bikini-clad ring girls.
It was the second amateur fight for White, and his first in more than a year.
White lived with his longtime girlfriend, Cason, in the Radcliff, Kentucky, area for about 10 years since he left the Army, after serving a tour in Iraq, said his mother and Cason.
He stood 6 feet tall and weighed in at 210 pounds. Muse, of Fleming County, Kentucky, is 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 232.
All fighters passed physicals earlier that day, administered by Dr. Dennis Sparks, the ringside physician. Also, new commission rules require that MMA fighters complete a physical when they obtain or renew their license.
White passed another physical the week before the fight. But Cason said that one of the physicals showed that his blood pressure was 164 over 109 after hopping in place 100 times. Below 120 and 80 is considered normal for a resting blood pressure rate.
No one from the commission would respond to requests for comment about White’s physicals.
White was fighting that night against the wishes of his trainer.
White’s trainer, Billy Smith, told LEO he had recommended to his fighter not to take the match. He said he told White he could not attend the fight that night because of a conflict.
“I knew we couldn’t train for the fight because I had things going on,” Smith said. “He took the fight anyway, against my will. That’s kind of what happened.”
But he did not need a trainer with him that night.
If White never fought before, a trainer would have had to have vouched for him to receive his initial license. But White had won his previous fight, in 2015. So there was no reason for the commission or Hardrock MMA to keep him out of the cage.
However, with no trainer at his side, White had to pick up someone to be in his corner. All he had with him was Cason, and their daughter, Raven White.
“They said he was an independent fighter,” fellow fighter Stone Beverly told LEO. “He asked one of the guys in the back to corner for him. Donshay didn’t have any corner-man. He didn’t have anyone for him.”
White started the fight with a barrage of punches that staggered Muse. White swung with a wild, windmill style.
“You hit like a girl,” someone in the crowd yelled, laughing.
Then, White kicked Muse in the ribs. Muse cried out in pain and seemed stunned. Both fighters appeared to tire quickly in the three-minute first round.
“Your body goes through intense situations in a fight,” the trainer, Smith, said. “If you’re not training and working like you’re supposed to, to get your body prepared, to have your heart prepared, you can’t go in there and fight two rounds. Five-and-a-half minutes of fighting is a long time.”
Cason said her boyfriend was looking for a quick knockout. “He went in there real fast and got winded,“ she said. “That’s what he’s used to doing, knocking out somebody quickly.“
Copeland, the referee, has more than 10 years of experience in MMA. In an interview, he said both fighters appeared exhausted, but unhurt. Between rounds he asked each if he was all right to continue.
“It got wild at times,” he said. “They were leaping and doing weird stuff.”
In the second round, both fighters struggled to throw punches. Muse got White on the mat and straddled his chest.
If it were a wrestling match, it would have been over. But not in MMA. There are no pins. Other than the fight ending in a decision, it is stopped only by submissions, or knockouts, unless the ref or physician calls the fight.
As a referee, Copeland said, his responsibility is to protect the fighters, to follow the rules and maintain action.
White was covering his head with his gloves, and, Copeland said, Muse’s blows didn’t seem to be dangerous. “He was taking no damage,” Copeland said. “No ref wants to see a fighter getting hurt in the cage. I felt that night that I did everything by the book.”
Beverly recalled that Muse seemed tired, as well. “He wasn’t really landing solid strikes on him. That’s why they ref didn’t stop the fight. He wasn’t really in any danger.”
White lay in the cage for a while after the match was called. Sparks, the ringside physician, checked on him. White stood up groggily after a bit and was half-dragged down the steps with someone under each arm.
When White arrived backstage, he seemed barely awake, Beverly said.
“I went to the back to get ready for my fight, and he was in a chair,” Beverly said. “He collapsed and passed out. The doctors were trying to wake him up, and I was literally standing three feet from him.
“The doctor was taking his blood pressure, and they said he had no blood pressure, so his heart had stopped,” he said. “They laid him down on the ground. His eyes were rolled in the back of his head, and he wasn’t breathing or anything.”
The doctors started cardiopulmonary resuscitation and cleared everyone out of the back area. EMTs were called.
“Dr. Sparks, you could tell he was tore up about it,” Louisville fighter Nick Maupin told LEO. Sparks is his family physician.
Cason, White’s girlfriend, said she saw him being helped backstage and tried to call him. She got a call from someone else, who told her to wait by the ambulance. “I got in the car and was waiting, and the ambulance never moved,“ she said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?”
“Then one of the police officers ran to me and said his heart stopped. They told me they were taking him to UofL Hospital. ‘‘So I already knew that if the ambulance was not moving and his heart had stopped, he had to be already deceased.“
Cason did get a chance to see White for one last time — in the hospital. She said she was surprised to see his mouthpiece still in his mouth.
White’s trainer, Smith, said he feels some responsibility for the death.
“If he’d got the training with me, things would have probably been different,” Smith said. “That kind of weighs on my mind a little bit.”
Copeland did not return to referee or judge any more fights that night. He said he was frustrated because the fighters didn’t seem prepared to be in the cage. “Fighters need to make sure they are in condition to fight the full nine or 15 minutes,” he said.
Cason said she told White he needed to train better for the fight. “He didn’t prepare himself like he should have,“ she said. “I got on him every day about that.“
‘HE WAS HAVING TROUBLE BREATHING’
Before the rest of the night’s fights resumed, the commission’s Neal gathered all the fighters and told them that, in lieu of White’s obvious distress, they could pull out of their fights if they wanted to do so. They weren’t told he was dead.
Three fighters took him up on it.
The rest wanted to continue. Of the planned 15 fights, 13 were amateur and two were professional. The amateurs compete for a medal and a T-shirt. The pros may make $1,000 for winning.
Maupin was scheduled to take on Will Sirles in a 165-pound bout, but Sirles decided not to fight. “In my opinion, I felt like we should, and I was ready to go,” Maupin said. “If it was me, I’d rather people not feel down and sorry. I’d rather they go and enjoy what I liked to do especially.”
He said he suspected White would have wanted the fights to continue. “Obviously, it was a passion he liked. I know in the same circumstance he wouldn’t want everyone to mope around. He’d probably still want to go. Just about everybody felt thataway.”
John House took over for Copeland as referee when the fights resumed.
The seventh fight was a 145-pound fight between Chance Keller, 21, and newcomer Kalen Ray, 19. The first round both fought well, but Ray did not come out for the second round. Two eventful rounds had been completed in the fight between Bryan Hamilton and Matt Schofield when medical personnel rushed to the backstage to help Ray.
Ray was in distress from his fight, so he was loaded onto the last ambulance. “He was having trouble breathing and stuff, too,” Beverly recalled.
Later, Ray told LEO that he had decided to call his fight because he had a broken nose and was completely exhausted. When he got backstage he said he had no energy to sit up or stand.
According to accounts of those who were there, the commission rep, Neal, then assembled the fighters and told them that the rest of the fights for the night were off. Some grumbled and protested, wanting to continue. According to those there, Neal yelled and cussed at the fighters who still wanted to fight even with one fighter dead, ambulances gone and the tanks of oxygen used up.
Announcer Jason Weinel went out to tell the crowd the fights were over. The 800 or so fans didn’t know that White had died. All they knew was that they had stayed through several unexplained delays and didn’t want to leave just 7 2/3 fights into a 15-fight, mixed-martial arts card. They booed, called for refunds and circled the fight cage.
An exasperated Weinel told the crowd: “I’m just the messenger.” He explained that the onsite ambulances had left to take fighters to hospitals. So by Kentucky law — not to mention common sense — the fights could not continue without an ambulance on hand.
Finally, fearing a riot, Beverly, 18, who had won his 150-pound amateur fight earlier that night, jumped into the cage and took the microphone from Weinel to talk to the crowd. “I said we had a guy who fought tonight, and he died,” Beverly recalled saying. “These people are trying to take care of the fighters and stuff, and they don’t want these fights to end as much as you don’t. They’re trying to watch out for us and look out for the fighters and keep us safe.”
That took the fight out of the fans, and they quickly filed out of the venue.
The Boxing and Wrestling Commission had a regularly scheduled session the next Wednesday in Frankfort. According to those at the meeting, no potential rule changes were discussed as a result of White’s death.
The commission did hold a moment of silence, and a commission lawyer reported that everything that night had been handled according to the rules.
Dr. Tad Seifert, a neurologist from Louisville who is a member of the board, spoke with LEO before the fights. He said that studies show that MMA injuries are “pretty comparable” to those in boxing.
He said he takes flak from medical colleagues for having a role in a sport in which neurological impairment is a goal.
“The sport is not going away,” he said. “I can be a healthcare advocate for those fighting.”
ONCE A FIGHTER, ALWAYS…
Even that bitter first taste of MMA may not be the last for Muse. “I truly love the sport of MMA,” he wrote. “If and when I do get back in the cage, it will be to honor the memory of a fallen warrior.”
For White, too, MMA was more than a hobby, his girlfriend said.
“He loves MMA fights. He records all the fights,“ Cason said. “I’ve still got a bunch of recordings in the DVR now. He orders all of them. When they come on you can’t talk, you have to be quiet. He’s studying them. It’s just something he loved.”
White’s mother, Eunice Jackson, lives in Missouri City, Texas, where she buried her middle child on July 22. She is taking care of her granddaughter Raven for a while.
She came to White’s first fight in 2015, but she did not see his final fight.
“I didn’t like MMA. I don’t like all those contact sports,” she said. “I don’t even like football. I don’t like it as a mother. But that’s what he likes. He’s enjoyed wrestling all his life from when he was a toddler. That was his passion.” •