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Canada Death of boxer Tim Hague highlights regulation gaps in Alberta’s pro fighting industry

Edmonton heavyweight boxer Tim Hague flexes at a weigh-in on Feb. 5, 2010, in Las Vegas.

The Canadian Press

Before he took Adam Braidwood’s first punch, Tim Hague was already in trouble. Not only had the veteran heavyweight lost his three previous fights by knockout or technical knockout – results that should have earned him a medical suspension – but he had suffered a grave setback earlier when he was knocked out while training with a sparring partner.

It was a stunningly bad development that occurred just days before his June 16, 2017, boxing match with Mr. Braidwood, the former Edmonton Eskimo who floored Mr. Hague repeatedly before referee Len Koivisto signalled the fight was over. After crash-landing on the back of his head, Mr. Hague managed to walk to his dressing room at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre, then lapsed into a coma. He never regained consciousness. He was 34.

“I killed my friend in the boxing ring,” Mr. Braidwood told a Victoria audience last October during a TED talk. “I took away a boy’s father, a brother, a husband, a son, and I took him on Father’s Day.”

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Little more than a year later, the death of Timothy Edward Lee Hague remains unfinished business in Alberta’s professional fighting industry. That he was failed by a system that allowed him to fight when he should have been convalescing was especially disturbing considering he was well-known, well-liked but not well-protected.

Alberta is the only province without a provincial combative sports commission designed to enforce standardized medical and safety protocols and better monitor fighters. Instead, combat sport organizations in nine Alberta municipalities follow the U.S.-based Association of Boxing Commission rules but are also free to make changes and regulate themselves. That can make it tougher to keep tabs on fighters who are able to move from one discipline to the next and from one city to another.

Mr. Hague had jumped from mixed martial arts, which has no national commission in Canada, to boxing without his MMA losses calling for a medical suspension issued by the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission (ECSC). As well, the ECSC did not know Mr. Hague had suffered a knockout in Lethbridge at an MMA/boxing fight two months before.

In other provinces with province-wide oversight, all that information would be in one place.

But even those looking for lessons learned from Mr. Hague’s death acknowledge any system only works if the people within it – in this case, the promoters, trainers, coaches, fighters – are willing to report the medical incidents that could get a fighter suspended. Mr. Hague’s friends in the boxing community are beset with guilt over what they might have done differently.

“I’ve put personal blame on myself for letting Tim get that far,” said Kyle Cardinal, an MMA referee and a friend of Mr. Hague’s.

“At times I considered using my influence on commissions to tell them Tim was not functioning the way he used to. Years of too many fights had taken their toll on him. I could have done those things [and contacted the authorities]. It could have cost me a friendship with him, but maybe he’d be here today.”

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Joey Beltran punches Tim Hague in their heavyweight bout at UFC 113 on May 8, 2010, in Montreal.

Richard Wolowicz/GETTY IMAGES

Tim Hague was a lovable lug. He was born in Boyle, Alta., and was teaching Grade 4 English at the elementary school in Beaumont, Alta. He was extremely popular with the kids and adored his nine-year-old son Brady. When Mr. Braidwood’s original opponent, Mexico’s Jesus Paez, pulled out two weeks before the fight date, Mr. Hague asked – some say begged – for the chance to step in. He made it known he needed the money, and taking on a boxer such as Mr. Braidwood would be good for his reputation.

The unexplored issue was Mr. Hague’s previous fight, on April 7, 2017, in Lethbridge in a boxing-MMA hybrid called Super Boxing. (Fighters use four-ounce MMA gloves in Super Boxing compared to the better-padded 10- to 12-ounce gloves used in boxing.) Mr. Hague was knocked out 40 seconds into the match. That meant he had suffered three losses by KO or TKO in less than 12 months, which should have seen him suspended for a year.

The ECSC also wasn’t made aware of Mr. Hague being KO’d in training for Mr. Braidwood.

Mr. Cardinal got a phone call the night of the Braidwood fight telling him Mr. Hague was hurt and being taken to the Royal Alexandra Hospital. Mr. Cardinal drove to the hospital where others would soon join him for a vigil.

“The doctor came in and was telling us what was going on with Tim,” Mr. Cardinal said. “One of his close friends said [Mr. Hague] had been knocked out a couple of days ago.”

Trainer John Mendoza, who had fighters on the Braidwood-Hague undercard, said the same thing when he and others in the combat sports business appeared before Edmonton city council a month after Mr. Hague’s death and answered questions.

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Mr. Mendoza said that after Mr. Hague’s death he was told he had been knocked out in training, which should have postponed the fight. But because he so desperately wanted a shot at Mr. Braidwood, lips were sealed.

“He got knocked out in training, and nobody says anything?” Mr. Mendoza said in an interview. “Everybody who was there [at the Braidwood-Hague fight] was responsible – not just one person, not Pat Reid [the former executive director of the ECSC], not the promoter [Melanie Lubovac of KO Boxing], not the corner, not the ref [Mr. Koivisto], but everybody.”

Adam Braidwood, left, reacts after knocking down Eric Martel-Bahoeli during a WBU Heavyweight title fight in Quebec City on Feb. 24, 2017.

Jacques Boissinot/Globe and Mail Update

Ontario’s Office of Athletics Commission is believed to be the most stringent commission in the country when it comes to fighter safety. For example: Promoters must post $1,700 per bout. If a fighter is KO’d, that money is used for an MRI “or any examinations ordered by the ringside physician for any injury sustained by a contestant during a bout,” reads Ontario’s stance.

In Alberta, Edmonton requires first-time pro fighters to undergo an MRI. It’s to provide a baseline for competitors who may later suffer a brain injury and need an MRI to map the extent of the damage. Calgary does not make its pro rookies have an introductory MRI or CT scan.

There are differences when it comes to how many physicians are at a fight. A small sampling shows that Edmonton and Calgary use two – one to examine the post-fight competitors, the other to be ringside for the next fight on the program. Saskatchewan, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia also go with two doctors; Manitoba uses one. The extra physicians allow for more extensive pre- and post-fight examinations, a procedure that would be constant if a provincial commission were assembled.

Edmonton mayor Don Iveson says he is convinced that “the opportunity for error in an area with mortal risk is inherently greater if you have a patchwork of regulatory regimes. … A single provincial database that is able to interface with the other provincial databases – and international databases – would increase the standard of transparency and information-sharing about fight histories and fighter health.”

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Last Nov. 8, Mr. Iveson and Red Deer mayor Tara Veer sent a letter to Alberta’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ricardo Miranda, asking the province to take charge of combative sports. Mr. Miranda replied that he had also heard from municipalities that prefer the current system but added that he would “consider this request and work with municipalities, sports organizations and other government ministries to determine the best approach for the province.”

There was no indication as to when that would happen.

But Shirley Stunzi, the head of Calgary Combative Sports, cautioned that a single governing agency would not solve every problem.

“Any regulatory body is only as strong as its policies, procedures, integrity and experience,” she said. “A commission isn’t automatically more effective just because it covers a larger geographic area.”

Mr. Hague was examined before the fight by Dr. Shelby Karpman. Dr. Hans Yamamoto, who does examinations at most Edmonton combative events, examined both Mr. Hague and Mr. Braidwood at the pre-fight weigh-ins. Dr. Shirdi Nulliah was ringside during the fight. Given the medical green light, Mr. Hague looked sluggish. He was knocked down three times in the first round, giving the referee ample opportunities to stop the fight. It ended suddenly when Mr. Braidwood delivered the final punch that sent Mr. Hague falling backward and slamming the back of his head on the floor.

Following Mr. Hague’s death, Edmonton city council put a one-year ban on combative sports events. Three months later, the ban was lifted after council received a report from MNP, a business-consulting firm that was hired to conduct an investigation. The Combative Sports Review Report stated the ECSC was in need of better record-keeping when it came to injuries and previous fight results. All totalled, 18 recommendations were listed, with some of them easily adopted by ensuring medical suspensions in MMA are the same for boxing and requiring promoters to acknowledge they have reviewed the medical history of each fighter.

The report also called for a tip line so anyone could call in their concern over a fighter’s well-being while maintaining anonymity.

There have been other developments since Mr. Hague’s death. David Aitken was appointed executive director of the ECSC, replacing Mr. Reid, who could not be reached for comment. Mr. Braidwood has boxed six times. In five of those matches, he won by KO or TKO. In the sixth bout, he took a TKO drubbing from Simon Kean.

As for Mr. Hague’s family, his sister Jackie Neil and brother Ian Hague have hired the Assiff Law Office and are preparing a wrongful-death suit against the ECSC and the city of Edmonton.

“Everybody has a responsibility in this game,” Mr. Mendoza repeated. “This isn’t checkers, man.”

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