MMA, Bare Knuckle Fighter Justin Thornton Dies Following KO at August’s BKFC 20

Justin Thornton
Justin Thornton Credit: BKFC

A mixed martial arts veteran who tried his hand at bare knuckle boxing has died after sustaining serious injuries at August’s BKFC 20.

Justin Thornton, who posted a 6-18 record for Island Fights and other regional MMA promotions and once fought UFC heavyweight Walt Harris, was knocked out in 19 seconds in his promotional debut at the event on August 20, 2021.

According to a Facebook post by Thornton’s partner of seven years, Amber Willard, the fighter was paralyzed following his knockout loss to Dillon Cleckler. The bout ended with Thornton landing awkwardly on his head; he was later placed on a ventilator, given a tracheotomy, and administered medication for a lung infection as well as the spinal cord injury he sustained.

Thornton had regained consciousness, and was able to joke and watch movies according to Willard. Unfortunately, he later succumbed to his injuries. BKFC President David Feldman confirmed the news in a statement to MMA Fighting on Monday.

“This morning we were very saddened to be notified of the passing of one of our fighters, Justin Thornton, who competed at BKFC 20 on August 20, 2021,” Feldman said. “We join the rest of the combat sports community in sending our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.”

News of Thornton’s death was first reported on Monday by Island Fights announcer Christopher James and My MMA News.

The Natchez, Mississippi-based fighter was just 38 years old. Prior to the BKFC 20 fight, Thornton had competed in a rather high-profile mixed martial arts contest against Titan FC COO Lex McMahon last year. He’d also fought against current UFC heavyweight Chase Sherman under the Island Fights banner in 2014.

Cageside Press sends its condolences to Thornton’s family, friends, and loved ones.

Update, 10/05/2021: Thornton’s opponent Dillon Cleckler has released an emotional statement, calling the late fighter a warrior and revealing that pneumonia led to his untimely death.

“As a fighter nothing prepares you for the news I received this morning on my way to training. Some of you may not of heard yet but my last opponent Justin Thornton passed away last night due to pneumonia. I can’t help but feel absolutely devastated about this because I’ve known Justin for years. Not many people know this but we fought 8 years ago and he told me right away he wanted the rematch. I know that when he got the phone call to finally get that rematch on a bigger stage he saw a huge opportunity and took it. Justin is a warrior. It’s in his blood to fight. He loved it. He fought anyone, anytime and anywhere and when I didn’t have an opponent, he still jumped at the opportunity to get in there with me again. Any man or woman who steps in the ring or the cage is special, they take a risk that 99.99% of the world would never take and sometimes I still don’t know why we do it but Justin was a fighter his entire life and deserves nothing but respect!! My thoughts and prayers are with Justin Thornton and his family at this time. RIP warrior.”