In late 2016, UFC fighter Josh Samman was at the top of his game. The Des Moines, Iowa, native had managed to climb the rungs from amateur Mixed Martial Arts fighter (MMA) to a competitor in the middleweight division of the UFC, and had even landed a spot on the show “The Ultimate Fighter.”
The 28-year-old had what looked like a steady career ahead of him. But that all changed on September 29, 2016, when Samman and a friend, MMA announcer Troy Kirkingburg, were found unresponsive in a South Florida apartment. Kirkingburg was pronounced dead from an overdose of cocaine, heroin, and pain killers upon arrival at the hospital. Samman, always the fighter, held on a few days longer, in critical condition and in a coma, before passing away.
Samman’s story is all too familiar for MMA athletes. Fighters’ bodies take severe beatings before they’re pumped with prescription opioids to help deal with the pain. In all too many cases, it leads down a dark road to addiction.
League of fightersIt’s an issue that Legends of the Cage MMA, a Hall of Fame Museum and fighting league, aims to change. What started out as a museum to honor the fighting greats has become a veritable octopus, with tentacles in any and everything related to mixed martial arts.
One of their major projects – led by recent Durango transplant Nick Brockmeyer and Richard Blunk, Brockmeyer’s Dallas-based attorney – has been to build a league “for the fighter.” Dubbed “Legends of the Cage MMA,” the league is comprised of athletes who agree not to use dangerous prescription painkillers like Fentanyl or OxyContin, and treat their bodies with a mix of natural remedies, such as CBD oil or cannabis, instead.
“If my fighter is on opiates, he leaves,” Brockmeyer, also known as the CBDj, said. “Nobody in my league is on opiates. I do not push cannabis on anybody. I’m more than happy to find them a great (cannabis) company, but I don’t push anything.”
Opioid epidemicThe holistic approach to treating MMA injuries may be a new concept, but it’s a necessary one. MMA fighters have a much shorter athletic shelf-life, thanks to constant head blows and the wear and tear from high-level fighting. With limited options for pain management, athletes are regularly prescribed strong prescription painkillers, drugs that have greatly contributed to the nation’s massive – and growing – heroin epidemic. Opioid addiction often begins with pharmaceuticals, and as the addiction grows, the cost of obtaining pills becomes prohibitive. That leads people to seek out heroin, a cheaper, and incredibly deadly, way to get an opioid fix.
The number of opioid-related deaths nationwide is currently five times higher than it was in 1999, and more than 600,000 people died between 2000 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The exact number of fighters dealing with addiction issues is unclear, but doping in general – with performance-enhancing drugs or otherwise – is not uncommon in the MMA. Joe Riggs, Drew Fickett, and Karo Parisyan have all publicly battled addiction, and others, like Shane Del Rosario and Shelby Walker, have died in drug-related circumstances. A quick Google search returns dozens, if not hundreds, of MMA fighters who’ve been suspended for doping.
Part of the issue is that MMA fighters are treated much like racehorses – they’re pushed to the end of their athletic abilities, regularly injured, and then dropped when they can’t perform any longer.
“A lot of leagues will use the fighters until they can no longer fight, and suddenly they’re no longer recognized for what they’ve contributed to the sport,” Blunk said. “We want these guys to get the recognition they deserve (with the Hall of Fame). The other part is to try and help these guys with some of their medical conditions.”
It’s too late to help fighters like Josh Samman, but Blunk and Brockmeyer are hopeful that the league’s focus on CBD and THC will set an example, and prompt other athletes and fans to research holistic healing before turning to prescription drugs.
“I want to offer our fighters a real way to heal. Not a way to suffer,” Brockmeyer said.
Blunk and Brockmeyer also hope that in time, the league will help garner national recognition and more research on CBD oil, which can be derived from hemp or marijuana. A lot of ex-fighters already use the cannabinoid for aches and pains – it’s a great anti-inflammatory – but not many are vocal about their choice to do so.
“I’ve always been intrigued with promotion of this sport,” Blunk said. “It’s one of the last artforms to put on a spectacle like this. And we’re looking at how this could be used as a vehicle for CBD oil and do some good to address this opioid crisis.”
Cortez callingLegends of the Cage is also trying to address the opioid crisis right in Durango’s backyard. Brockmeyer and Blunk are in the process of securing funding for a youth-focused MMA gym in Cortez – a town that is home to both the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation and Navajo Indian Reservation – to help inspire kids and fight back against addiction.
Programs like the one proposed in Cortez are a crucial part of the battle against opioid addiction. Statistics show that Native Americans fare the worst of all minority groups when it comes to addiction issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statistics also show that Native Americans are at least two times as likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they die from opioid addictions at triple the rate of other populations.
“I came here to do these fights. I also ran into some people who told me how bad Cortez was (with opioid and heroin abuse),” Brockmeyer said. “And I knew my fighters and I could bring power to wherever we’re at. So I figured I would set up a gym and start training people.”
Intervening at a young age may be the only way to stop the spread of opioid addiction, on reservations and otherwise. According to a 2014 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the use of heroin and of the widely-abused opioid OxyContin by American Indian 12th-graders was about double the national average. And despite the harrowing statistics, American Indians are often overlooked in the addiction conversation.
“We brought them the devil – casinos, alcohol – we wrecked lives. We can help fight it,” Brockmeyer said.
Building a gym is an ambitious undertaking, but things may come to fruition for the Legends duo. They already have the land, and are working on securing grants and private funding to cover the cost of the facilities.
“The people there deserve this. We can spend some time and energy to do it right,” Blunk said.
A personal fightFor Brockmeyer, the desire to fight back against opioid addiction is a personal one. He still remembers coming to the realization that prescription addiction can be devastating for MMA fighters.
“I watched a movie when I was a kid about Mark Coleman, who was in his older years and still a fighter, still a badass. This dude was like Mr Beautiful. Just ripped, just everything… His student, halfway through this documentary, it becomes obvious he has a drug problem, and he starts becoming relevant to the filmmakers,” Brockmeyer said. “He gets out of the ring and walks right into the doctor and said, ‘I need some opiates.’ The doc didn’t have any – this was in China. He started throwing things. Even the warriors – nobody is safe.”
Brockmeyer’s own brush with prescription painkillers came after an accident at his day job in 2008 rendered him bed-ridden for nearly a year, with prescription opioids his only option for relief.
“I was in bed for like a year. I was taking opiates and all that stuff. I don’t even know how to describe that pain,” he said. “When I was on opiates, I hated my life. I’ve trained my whole life, I’ve never been injured like that and now I can’t walk.”
Brockmeyer said he knew how dangerous opiates were. His dad was on heavy-duty prescription drugs toward the end of his life, and Brockmeyer watched firsthand the horrible reactions his dad had to the medicine.
“My dad died just a couple years ago… he was a vet and they wouldn’t let him come off of it or smoke, so he had to take it. My dad had to use Fentanyl, and as soon as he would take it, his face would puff up for like 20 minutes. It was like, ‘Dad. That’s f@$king poison, man!’” Brockmeyer said.
But even with that knowledge, taking himself off of prescription painkillers was a harrowing thought.
“One of my coaches, Paul Jordan, came to me one day and said, ‘I can help you walk again. Quit taking that shit.’ And this guy is a preacher. I knew if he was saying ‘quit taking that shit,’ it was real. But I was like, ‘Man, I can’t do that. I need these pills or I’m gonna just jump out of this window.’ I went for about a year on those.”
Things changed the day Brockmeyer’s attorney pointed out he would likely be taking opiates for the rest of his life.
“I remember the day I changed my mind. I was sitting there and my lawyer said, ‘We’re gonna ask for another $250,000 or something,’ (for his injuries) and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of money.’ He was like, ‘Well, they’re paying for your life, man. You’re going to be taking these opiates for the rest of your life.’ So as soon as he said that, I was like, I’m gonna die because the doctor’s giving me something? I’ll quit this shit right now.”
And he did. A lifelong cannabis smoker, Brockmeyer began replacing the pain meds with cannabis – a lot of cannabis, he said – and it helped, but not completely. It wasn’t until he realized the strength of CBD, the cannabinoid derived from hemp and marijuana, and added it in that he really began to feel whole. His doctors weren’t exactly stoked about his painkiller refusal, though.
“I was told that a refusal to take opioids was a refusal of treatment,” Brockmeyer said. What that meant was his doctor could discharge him for not following his treatment plan.
“The government by law is killing you. They’re f@$king killing you. They’re taking away the things you need and making you put into your body things that are killing you,” Brockmeyer said.
But that’s all ancient history now. Brockmeyer’s injuries are no longer debilitating, and these days, he has his hands in just about everything, from DJing to documentaries, along with the holistic MMA league and youth gym in Southwestern Colorado.
The end game is to create vehicles to improve lives, Brockmeyer said, because opioids just ain’t gonna cut it.
“I’m gonna save some fighters and promote some cannabis.”