Deivison Ribeiro, like most Brazilian cage fighters, dreamed of one day being remembered among the likes of fellow countryman and former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva.
In June of 2016, that dream was realized.
Unfortunately for the hard-hitting “Dragon,” he was unable to accompany the legendary “Spider” in the pantheon of combat sports deities. Instead, Ribeiro shattered his shin -- much like Silva — to gain entry into the highlight reel hall of fame alongside Tyrone Spong and Corey Hill, among others.
The technical knockout loss ended a career resurgence for the returning Ribeiro, who brought a 26-10 record — with 15 devastating finishes — into his Titan FC co-main event against the undefeated Andre Harrison in Coral Gables, Florida.
Welcome to mixed martial arts (MMA).
As UFC color commentator Joe Rogan so eloquently explained, the fight game doesn’t give a f—k about where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or where you want to go. You can enter the cage as a top-rated title contender on the strength of a four-fight winning streak, like Ribeiro, and exit on a stretcher with $60,000 in unpaid medical bills.
Also like Ribeiro.
“I’ll spend an entire year without being able to fight, and I still get a $60,000 bill for my troubles.” To be fair, MMA is probably one of the safer contact sports when compared to the violent, jarring hits of professional football, or the prolonged damage incurred across double-digit rounds in boxing. But for every million-dollar moneymaker in the much-ballyhooed big leagues, there are a dozen struggling fighters with big dreams and small paychecks.
Paychecks that don’t leave much room — if any — for the unexpected.
“I’m in a very bad spot,” Ribeiro told MMA Junkie. “I’ll spend an entire year without being able to fight, and I still get a $60,000 bill for my troubles. I can’t even earn money. I tried talking to the promoters. I just want this hospital bill taken care of. I don’t want to make any money above and beyond that. I’m not looking for any personal gain, even though I have other bills I can’t pay.”
Just as most regional fighters can’t live on fight purses alone, promoters operating independently are also challenged during instances of financial hardship. Titan was covered for $20,000 in medical coverage ($1 million in general liability) and also contributed out-of-pocket, while helping its fallen fighter set up a GoFundMe page.
A strategy that was met with a fair amount of reluctance.
“In short, the bill is mine, and not their problem,” Ribeiro continued. “They suggested starting a GoFundMe page to raise the money from my fans, and from whomever takes pity on me. I can walk again. I don’t want to take advantage of donations, when the bill should go to the promotion or the insurance company.”
In the absence of resolution, the bills continued to pile up, as did Ribeiro’s mounting frustration. In the months since the Brazilian was sidelined, Titan has already staged three separate events, with its fourth just around the corner. Likewise, Harrison went on to capture two straight, joining World Series of Fighting (WSOF) along the way.
The show must go on?
“I can’t even earn money. I just want this hospital bill taken care of. I don’t want to make any money above and beyond that. I’m not looking for any personal gain, even though I have other bills I can’t pay.”
Perhaps, but something about that just didn’t sit right with Combate Americas’ founder Campbell McLaren, who knows a thing or two about the hurt business after co-creating UFC more than two decades ago. So, how did the head cheese of the world’s premiere hispanic MMA promotion, just a few weeks ahead of its Mexico debut, find time to chip in for the Brazilian fighter?
“I wish I had a more spectacular answer, but at the end of the day, it was just a matter of doing the right thing,” McLaren told MMAmania.com. “I had an opportunity to help a young fighter, so I called the folks at Aspira A Más and got it done. Will $5,000 change the world? No, but it will certainly help Deivison get through the holidays and pay a few bills.”
More importantly, it afforded the Brazilian something he hasn’t been privy to in several months.
“To have received this help from Campbell was a life changing event,” Ribeiro said. “After all I have been through, I was getting very negative. This made me see that there are good people and hope! I can’t thank him enough.”
Ribeiro’s financial quandary, which McLaren called an “eye opener,” served as a catalyst for the award-winning television producer to pursue more comprehensive options for combat sports athletes, starting at home. To that end, the donation -- split between Combate Americas and insurance carrier Aspira A Más — will serve as the jumping off point for a proactive approach to protecting fighters.
“Every fighter in this business goes out there and puts his or her life on the line for our entertainment,” McLaren continued. “The least we can do is make sure we’ve done everything we can to protect them. I believe with the right partners, like our sponsors at Aspira A Más, we can find cost-effective solutions that work.”
In addition, McLaren and Co. are actively working with Ribeiro to secure employment opportunities, which in turn can help the recovering fighter get closer to his goal of being debt free.
Aspira A Más, part of the IHC Group, carved out a space in the Hispanic community by focusing on health insurance education, desperately needed in the wake of Obamacare, as well as providing affordable insurance products.
There’s likely no better fit for Combate Americas.
“We are very proud of Combate Americas' support, as a promoter, taking action and speaking up for fighter needs, essentials such as providing appropriate and affordable medical care,” said Javier Tejeda-Vera, Vice President of Sales for Aspira A Más. “We are a tight-knit community and we look out for each other. One of the main reasons why we are a sponsor of Combate Americas is to educate the fighters and their fans as to the importance of having adequate health insurance.”
MMA, historically, has offered little-to-no protection for its fighters outside of the basic requirements mandated by local athletic commissions. That changed in 2011 when UFC introduced customizable insurance coverage (to mixed results), leaving the rest of the fight world to fend for itself.
“This isn’t window dressing or some PR stunt to satiate critics of MMA,” McLaren said. “This is a moral obligation we have in the fight community to look out for one another whenever we can. You can’t always get to everybody, but if you can start with one, then you can at least get one step closer to helping another.”