Could stricter licensing have prevented Michael Kirkham's death?

Disclaimer: I don't attempt to answer the question in the headline.  It's the question we should all seek an answer to, though, and I make an effort here to start asking the questions that may eventually lead to an answer.

Nate's piece today on Michael Kirkham's death led me to do did a quick search to find out if any autopsy results have been released yet.  While Nate's piece provided irresponsible quotes from various media outlets, too many in the MMA community have been quick to pass judgment just as irresponsibly.  Many have questioned how an almost 7 foot tall fighter could make the 155lb limit for his lightweight fight, suggesting - sometimes directly, sometimes implicitly - that a massive weight cut and resulting dehydration must be responsible for Kirkham's unfortunate passing.  The other major target for blame has been the South Carolina State Athletic Commission, with fans asking how the commission could license the fighter given his height and weight.

The autopsy results have been reported by local news channel WJBF:

According to Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton, autopsy results confirmed that Michael Kirkham died from a subarachnoid hemorrhage of the brain due to the injuries/blows to the head he received during the MMA match. Toxicology is pending. Manner of death is to be ruled as accidental. The Aiken County Coroner’s Office is still awaiting the video of the fight from the SC Athletic Commission.

I’m not a doctor, but here’s the link to subarachnoid hemorrhage on Wikipedia. It’s important to notice that 85% of subarachnoid hemorrhages are caused by aneurysms.  Detection can be difficult even if athletic commissions require CT or MRI scans for all fighters.  However, this raises an important question.  Do athletic commission require neurological testing before granting a license to fighters?

After the jump, I provide an answer to the neurological testing question for three athletic commissions - South Carolina, New Jersey, and Nevada.

Let me make one important comment from the outset - this is not an attempt to assign blame.  Instead, it's an attempt to understand the regulations currently in place for licensing fighters.  A second, much more important, purpose is to help us understand whether the current tragedy could have been prevented and whether future tragedies can be prevented.

New Jersey's license application can be found here.  On the first page, you should notice:

7. Original CT/MRI Brain SCAN report (without contrast), read by a physician (dated within 3 years of

Nevada's requirements for a license, "For a professional boxer/kickboxer/mixed martial artist between the ages of 18 - 35**, who has fought a professional fight in the last 36 months, has not fought over 425 professional rounds and is not under suspension in another state," includes

7.  MRI of brain without contrast and MRA cerebral circulation  - If either previously done, forward results for review.  This is a one time requirement, unless otherwise ordered.


Details of the required scan are listed in this document.

South Carolina's licensing FAQ includes the following details about the medical requirements:

Is a complete physical required prior to participating in a boxing event?

Yes. When you complete your application you must take the Medical History form to your Doctor and have him/her complete their portion of the form. NO ONE BUT A MEDICAL DOCTOR MAY COMPLETE AND SIGN THIS FORM. The boxer must also have a report indicating that you are HIV, Hepatitis B and C negative, no later than 30 days prior to the event. Also an Ophthalmologist eye examination is required. On the night of the boxing event you will be required to under go another physical by a doctor that will be at the event.

The actual medical form lists EEG, MRI, and CAT on page 2, but these are among the only items followed by "(if required)."  The other "if required" items are chest X-ray, drug screen, and EKG.

Hopefully, someone can find a medical professional to speak about the issues in more detail.  Would a neurological screening have detected Kirkham's aneurysm?  Would the screenings required in New Jersey or Nevada have prevented Kirkham from obtaining a license?  Was this a preventable tragedy, or an unfortunate yet unpreventable event that could have happened anywhere but happened to take place inside an MMA cage?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I think we need to know and owe it to Michael Kirkham's loved ones and to every man and women that will one day try to fight in combat sports.  And I say "try to fight in combat sports" instead of dropping the "try to" because some people will be denied a license to fight.  For some, this denial may save their lives.


UPDATE (taken from Nate's article on the front page):  And MMA Junkie reports on a fund raising drive for Kirkham's family -- he left five young children:

Donations can be made online via PayPal at A link to the fund is also available on

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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