Zach Kirk remains paralyzed for life

by Matt Pitt
May 19, 2011

Zach Kirk got hooked on mixed martial arts in March 2009.

Supplementing a wrestling base honed in high school with one week of informal MMA training, Kirk won his first fight by second-round corner stoppage. A month later, he TKO’d his opponent in the fight’s first minute (see below). Third fight was a main event before a hometown crowd; shot at the title would go to the winner.

Seven seconds into the fight Kirk lunged into a double-leg takedown. His opponent defended with a routine standing guillotine choke, leaning his weight forward into Kirk. Kirk moved to drop the fight to the ground, arms and legs became entangled and Kirk fell headfirst to the mat. His fifth cervical vertebra shattered, bone fragments ground into his spinal cord and Kirk suddenly went limp.

EMT personnel on the scene rushed him to three hours of emergency neurologic surgery. Two days later, doctors took him off sedation and Kirk awoke. He was paralyzed from the neck down.

From his bed, immobile, Kirk gave interviews defending MMA’s safety to local media. After acute recovery from surgery, Kirk began rehabilitaion.

“Rehab was a great experience,” he says. “I was there for about two months. They told me I wouldn’t have any movement from the neck down, but now I can move both my arms and my left wrist.”

“My goal is to keep doing therapy -- I call it training -- until I win this fight,” Kirk says.

“I wake up every morning and just try to move each muscle, seeing if something came back in the night,” he says. “I try to start each day positive.”

Kirk uses a special tool to send text messages and type on a computer. With concentration, he can move his foot a few millimeters.

Medical science offers very little for spinal cord injury patients; damaged neurons in the central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord, simply do not regenerate. Statistically, Kirk’s life expectancy is 40 years of age.

As a wrestler, Kirk knew the risks: “I knew injuries could happen in MMA just as easy as in any other sport. I know accidents happen all the time in all sports.”

The incidence of high school wrestling related catastrophic spinal cord injury and death is approximately one per 100,000 participants. Cheerleading has a catastrophic injury risk of 0.6 per 100,000. High school football’s risk of death or paralysis is the same as wrestling’s. Pole vaulting has a catastrophic injury risk of approximately five per 100,000 athletes, and competitive diving has a risk of approximately 20 per 100,000. Professional wrestling, if one adds suicides to in-ring catastrophes, has a risk on the order of 2,500 per 100,000 participants.

MMA athletes have a right to ask for legislatures to treat their sport rationally.

By that same token, if we who wish the sport of mixed martial arts to prosper ask legislatures to be analytical in their evaluation of the sport’s relative safety, we must, in turn, be realistic in acknowledging its dangers. The current young generation of fighters -- boys and girls now in their teens -- is certain to produce new Chuck Liddells, Georges St.Pierres, Jon Joneses and Anderson Silvas.

It will also produce new Zach Kirks. Those young fighters, and we who support the sport with our money and enthusiasm, must face that fact with eyes wide open.

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