Fatal MMA fight in Aiken almost did not happen

Depending on your perspective, fate did everything to separate or bring together Carlos Iraburo and Michael Kirkham.

 

Both were amateur mixed martial arts fighters making their professional debuts June 26 at USC Aiken's Confrontation at the Convocation.

The match quickly ended as Kirkham lay unconscious with head injuries that ultimately would be fatal, but the fight between the two almost didn't happen.

Kirkham almost didn't make it from Gaston, S.C., to Aiken in time for the initial weigh-in. After several canceled flights and a vehicle breakdown, Kirkham managed to get a ride and make it to the fight..

Kirkham was not scheduled to be Iraburo's opponent. Three others dropped out because of injuries, and Kirkham filled the vacancy.

The first meeting between Iraburo and Kirkham was at a hotel for pre-fight publicity photos. Iraburo said Kirkham approached him and struck up a conversation about their tattoos.

"You could see in his eyes that he was a good guy," Iraburo said.

The two lightweights were the second-to-last of 12 fights that night. Because both were amateur fighters, Iraburo didn't have any tape of Kirkham's previous matches to study. But he did know that Kirkham's lanky, 6-foot-9 frame would give him an incredibly long reach and kick.

His plan was to bring Kirkham to the mat early in the match to equalize the odds.

Iraburo's plan worked, and within seconds of the match's start the two were grappling on the mat. With Kirkham pinned beneath him, "I pushed his head down and just began punching," Iraburo said.

Within seconds the referee broke up the fight, and Iraburo said he climbed off Kirkham and waited for his opponent to stand up, too.

But Kirkham lay there, his eyes half open, his breathing slow.

As medics swarmed over the fallen Kirkham, Iraburo said he had a bad feeling.

"I got really emotional and thought, 'What have I done?' " Iraburo said.

He went home that night to his wife and two children still worried about Kirkham. He tried calling the hospital in Aiken, but no one would give him any information.

When he read online the news of Kirkham's death, "it was overwhelming," Iraburo said.

"I have to admit, it's not an easy feeling. I'm going to be messed up inside for a while."

Jake Miniard, a senior at USC Aiken, attended the event to support friend and fellow communications major Kelly Cook. He sat in the front row and enjoyed cheering Cook to victory in an amateur bout.

"An unfortunate part of human nature is people like to see other people fight," Miniard said. "The crowd gets into it, and it's more exciting than boxing."

Staff Writer Matt Middleton contributed to this article.