It's a sunny morning, and Steve Watts is sitting in a motorized wheelchair in the courtyard of a Santa Clara spinal injury rehabilitation center, his mother by his side. Watts, known locally as a ripping local jam band guitarist and music promoter who's served on a litany of Arcata boards and commissions, broke his neck three months ago during a mixed martial arts event in Trinidad dubbed "So You Wanna Fight Cuz You Think You're Tuff." A day shy of his 41st birthday, Watts is describing his typical daily routine at the facility.
He usually wakes up at about 7 a.m., then tries to eat something, a process made difficult by the tracheotomy tube doctors placed in his neck to help him breathe. After breakfast, nurses and therapists help him stretch out his body to stave off atrophy in his paralyzed limbs. Then he does about an hour of physical therapy. Sometimes this consists of moving his head, neck and shoulders against slight resistance. Other times it means specialists propping him up in a standing frame, which helps circulation to his extremities and reacclimates his body to being upright. He spends his afternoons in occupational therapy, where specialists are teaching him how to navigate life without the use of his limbs, showing him how to interact with phones and computers, get in and out of cars and the like.
Some days are better than others, Watts says, noting that he's been plagued by pneumonia, night fevers and other complications that have delayed his physical therapy regimen. "People think of a spinal injury, and think things go numb and don't work," Watts says. "It's not that simple. Internal stuff gets paralyzed too. Your lungs don't stop, but they come damn close. There's so many parts to the damage that happens to the body that you have to address before even being able to get into physical therapy ... I'm looking forward to getting past the medical emergency part of it and really accelerating the physical therapy."
Over the phone, Watts sounds upbeat but grounded. He pledges to throw himself 100 percent into rehab, but stops well short of making any proclamations and predictions. He's asked what role music — the focus of his career and one of his life's great passions — is playing in his recovery. He pauses. It simply hasn't been a part of his recovery process, he says finally. "It's been more a part of the grieving and letting go," he says, noting that when he first woke up after six hours of emergency surgery in the Redding hospital, he kept remarkably upbeat and was sure he would make a full recovery. "Early on, the hospital was really cool," he says. "This nurse would come talk to me and say, 'Your attitude is so good, but here's the hard part: You need to get to the grieving. You need to realize a part of you died, and you need a rebirth.' You can learn to walk and get all kinds of dexterity back. But playing guitar? There's no physical therapy that's going to bring that type of finger dexterity back. It's uncomfortable, but real: The reality of being like, 'Wow, I'll never play guitar again.' I didn't think that was up for grabs in this small mixed martial arts tournament. I didn't think that was on the table."
Turns out, everything was on the table in an unregulated tournament that saw hundreds of spectators who'd paid about $40 apiece to see "rough tough bikers, bouncers, brawlers, red necks, rough necks, no necks and guys and gals that 'think they're 'tuff'" — as the event website advertised — fight for prize money. Watts knows he will never be the same chiseled, multitalented man who stepped into the ring that night. "Part of it is learning to redefine yourself," he says.
Meanwhile, Watts' injury shines a light on the world of amateur mixed martial arts events, efforts to regulate them and the safety nets put in place to try to protect fighters in an inherently violent and dangerous sport. The injury also pushes a shadowy fight promoter back to center stage.
Growing up in Long Valley, New Jersey, the younger of two kids, Watts loved sports. At the age of 6, his parents signed him up to play Pee Wee Football, and he took to it with the intensity that would come to define him later in life. "He was the youngest, smallest guy on the team," says his mother, Melba Watts. "He would get very upset if there was any reason to miss practice. He just insisted that he never missed a practice, which meant we had like one month a year where we could go anywhere as a family."
As Watts grew older, he got into other sports as well: soccer, track and, starting in middle school, wrestling, which soon became an all-consuming passion. To hear Watts tell it, there was something different about wrestling. While there were physical limitations to how far he could go in other sports, Watts says the only ceiling in wrestling is how hard a person is willing to work. "There's an intensity to it and a brotherhood, and it just seemed like there was the possibility to work and work and work to succeed at it," Watts says. "It's so independent. It's just you, your opponent and the mat. And you can learn your lessons and go home and work on it year-round, thinking about how your opponents are out having ice cream and pizza while you're working out."
Through intense work, Watts says he got good at wrestling. Really good. So good, in fact, that in high school he was travelling all over the East Coast representing the state of New Jersey. He competed in nationals and traveled to Colorado to train at the Olympic Training Center. "It just continued to feed me," he says. "The harder you work, the better you get."
When he came to Humboldt State University to study environmental science, Watts founded the university's wrestling club. But after earning a masters degree in globalization, Watts left wrestling behind, pouring his energy into music. Specifically, he played guitar and practiced for hours daily. In 1999, he left Humboldt to attend the Hollywood Musician's Institute, returning to the local area in 2004 to team up with friend and fellow musician Matthew Beck to form Passion Presents, then the county's only full-service music promotion company. With Watts as the technician — he amassed a collection of top-notch sound equipment — the company took off, putting on hundreds of shows and bringing headliners like reggae star Jimmy Cliff and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio to town. Meanwhile, Watts' own band, the Steve Watts Band, took off and developed a reputation for lively, jam-band style shows. Watts also threw himself into a number of community groups, including the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, Arcata Main Street and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.
But athletics kept calling. "I just kind of needed a competitive sport," Watts says. So, in 2011, Watts started practicing Brazilian jiujitsu, a martial art with an emphasis on self-defense and grappling made famous by Carlos Gracie and his family. Like he seems prone to do, Watts dedicated himself wholly to the sport and soon had a sculpted body out of the pages of a muscle magazine and was travelling the country to compete.
Bryan Raskin says he met Watts around 1995 through mutual friends and quickly bonded with him over a mutual love of the Grateful Dead. "We clicked on that level," Raskin says, adding that he loved listening to Watts play music. But, Raskin says, it was a mutual dedication to training that really brought them close, adding that he was preparing for competitive triathlons while Watts was getting into jiujitsu.
Watts proved a natural at the sport and went on to compete in 40 tournaments, winning more than 100 matches and claiming two world championships in the course of a little over two years. That success caught the eye of a renegade Canadian fight promoter, Don Arnott, who called Watts out of the blue one day in November 2013 to recruit him to compete in one of the raucous mixed martial arts fighting events he'd been holding at Cher-Ae Heights Casino for about a decade.
After a brief and unsuccessful first stab at MMA at the November 2013 "So You Wanna Fight" event, Watts decided to give it another go on April 26. Watts said he was initially reticent to compete in a sport he hadn't been training in, but felt with his extensive experience in Greco-Roman wrestling and jiujitsu he had "two of the three legs under the table of MMA." All he lacked was striking training. But Watts decided to go for it and, once on board, he threw himself into the challenge.
He walked into the ring for his first fight that night wearing black spandex shorts, with his blond locks pulled into a ponytail and athletic tape covering his nipple rings. When the bell sounded, Watts and his opponent converged, and Watts quickly took the fight down to the mat, where he was comfortable and could rely on his wrestling and grappling skills. In the fight's second minute, Watts and his opponent were fighting for position on the ground when — in one clean motion — Watts flipped the guy onto his back and into a choke hold. The ref quickly stepped in, stopping the fight and declaring Watts the winner. Those in attendance then got a peek at Watts' trademark intensity, as he leapt up, screamed and glowered at the camera. The few hundred people in attendance roared.
When Watts returned to the ring later that night for his second fight, he faced a more seasoned opponent, Michael Hebenstriet. Things went wrong almost immediately. After the bell, the fighters came together and Watts grabbed Hebenstriet, lifted him high in the air and attempted to slam him into the mat while bringing his weight down on top of his opponent. But Watts' technique was sloppy, and his head was placed in the wrong position. Watts' head hit the mat first, with the weight of both fighters falling on top of it. The impact fractured Watts' V-4 vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord.
"In the end, I broke my own neck," Watts says, adding that he remembers every second of the fight and its immediate aftermath in vivid detail. "At that moment, [Hebenstriet] rolled away and I flopped. The last sensation I had was my hands flopping loosely behind my neck and feeling the broken bone sticking out. At that point, I couldn't feel anything from the neck down."
As Watts lay motionless on the mat, Hebenstriet, not realizing the extent of Watts' injury, regrouped and punched Watts in the face, according to a report in the Humboldt State University Lumberjack newspaper. At that point, the referee realized something was terribly wrong and stopped the fight as Watts repeatedly shouted that he couldn't move. The ringside physician stepped onto the mat. "Then it was kind of chaos," Watts says.
According to numerous witness reports, there seemed a moment of uncertainty in the ring as Watts lay motionless on the mat before a group of bystanders — reportedly off-duty paramedics — sitting ringside leapt into action, entered the ring and started tending to Watts.
Raskin was there with his wife that night, sitting near the back. He says he saw Watts attempt to slam Hebenstriet, but couldn't see the fighters once they hit the mat. Still, he saw enough to know something had gone wrong. He left his seat and walked toward the ring. "Oh God. It was a nightmare," he says, recalling seeing his friend on the mat as people worked to keep him calm and still. "I thought the people who did handle the situation in the ring did an outstanding job, and I think it was pretty critical that they were there."
After what seemed to Watts like an eternity, he was loaded onto a stretcher and taken backstage, where he waited for an ambulance and paramedics to arrive. Watts retained consciousness, but was having a panic attack. Raskin worked to keep Watts calm as his chest lurched up and down. About 20 minutes after the injury — according to Arcata Ambulance Service — Watts was loaded up and transported to Mad River Hospital, from where he was quickly flown to Redding to undergo six hours of surgery.
Looking back, Watts says the whole thing still seems surreal. "I didn't feel in any way in jeopardy," he says. "I felt very alpha two seconds before breaking my neck. It was so easy to pick [Hebenstriet] up that high. I felt like there was no chance of losing."Video of Watts' first fight on April 26, which he won.
In the aftermath of Watt's injury, Arnott, the fight promoter, told a reporter with the Lumberjack that he'd never witnessed an injury this serious in "So You Wanna Fight's" 24-year history. That may be true, but Watts' was at least the second catastrophic injury one of Arnott's fighters had suffered in a less than three-year period.
In July 2011, Arnott put on an event in Kelowna, British Columbia, that was won by Mike Boyer, a 35-year-old bodybuilder who'd never fought in an MMA event before. Immediately after the title fight, as friends congratulated him on the victory, Boyer started feeling lightheaded and nauseous. When he vomited, paramedics came to his aid and ultimately rushed him to a local hospital where a CT scan revealed bleeding in Boyer's brain. He underwent six hours of emergency surgery that left him with a foot-long scar on the side of his head, but allowed him to make a full recovery.
In the wake of Boyer's injury, "So You Wanna Fight" was widely criticized for not having a ringside physician present that night, the thinking being the physician might have noticed that Boyer was concussed during the fight and stopped it before it got as serious as it did. Arnott told a reporter for the Kamloops Daily News that he's always concerned about the safety of his fighters, which is why he had an ambulance standing by at the event. A ringside physician, he told the paper, is not required: "All a doctor does is dial 911 to bring an ambulance."
On the night of April 26 in Trinidad, there was a ringside physician but no ambulance standing by at Cher-Ae Heights Casino, and it took about 20 minutes to get one on scene. Arnott has not returned any of about a half dozen phone calls from the Journal in the wake of the fight. He also took down the "So You Wanna Fight" website immediately following the event. Casino Marketing Manager Mark Jacobson said Arnott handles all the details of the So You Wanna Fight events, which the casino simply hosts. But Jacobson said the ringside physician hired for the April 26 fight night is an emergency room doctor. Asked about whether paramedics and an ambulance were on scene, Jacobson deferred: "I can't speak to that. That's a Don question."
The casino offered a running commentary on Twitter of the So You Wanna Fight event, and posted a message about Watts: "Hats off to Steve 'Thor' Watts for great energy tonight ... sorry to see him hurt. Hoping that he's okay!" The Tweet has since been deleted. Jacobson said the casino contracts with an outside social media group to handle its Twitter page and that he didn't know why the post was taken down.
In his brief conversation with the Journal, Jacobson made a couple other interesting comments in reference to Arnott and the So You Wanna Fight events. First, he said Arnott "does events all over the nation and up in Canada as well." If this is true, there's no evidence online that he's promoted any So You Wanna Fight events anywhere other than Trinidad in the last several years. A So You Wanna Fight YouTube channel has dozens of fight videos uploaded to it, but the only videos from recent So You Wanna Fight events are ones held at Cher-Ae Heights. (They include one of Watts first fight on April 26, which was posted about a month ago). Jacobson also said the So You Wanna Fight MMA fights follow the sport's uniform rules, which isn't accurate as Arnott has made a very public point of talking about how he modified those rules to make his events more entertaining.
David Teixeira, a British Columbia government relations specialist and former wrestling promoter who has loved MMA virtually since its inception first met Arnott in 2010. Teixeira recalls listening with keen interest as Arnott told Teixeira about how he'd ditched the rules generally agreed upon by the mixed martial arts community and crafted his own event, which featured tournament style bouts that saw participants fight multiple times in the same evening. Believing crowds want to see knockouts, and plenty of them, Arnott also implemented a rule in his events prohibiting fighters from being on the ground for more than 30 seconds, forcing the action upwards and encouraging more haymaker punches. (Arnott also discussed the rules modifications in a past Journal story, "Fight," Dec. 1, 2011.)
Teixeira says he was intrigued by Arnott, but is ultimately an MMA purist, loving that the sport pits grapplers against boxers, karate masters against jiujitsu specialists, on a level playing field, leaving the fighters to push their own rhythms, like dancers battling in contrasting styles to the same music. It wasn't until Boyer's injury that Teixeira really took a closer look at Arnott and his outfit, saying he was shocked to see Arnott pull the event's website offline and essentially go into hiding after that fight. The more Teixeira scrutinized Arnott's enterprise, the more he says he found not to like. "He's putting himself out there to be a fight promoter or a mixed martial arts promoter, and he's soiling the sport," Teixeira says, adding that Arnott seems to do all possible to sidestep regulation and cut corners, even at the expense of fighter safety.
While Arnott bills his events as amateur fights with the slogan "no pros, just average Joes," Teixeira says Arnott is prone to recruiting fighters with extensive experience and pitting them against novices, with the idea that the ensuing carnage will delight fans. "That's an old carnie trick," Teixeira says. "But a skilled fighter who doesn't have to disclose his record can enter one of these events and really maim people."
Boyer's injury in Canada came as Teixeira and a coalition of folks were pushing for British Columbia to form a combat sports commission to sanction and govern MMA fights, which were actually illegal in British Columbia until fairly recently. The commission finally formed just last year, and implements a host of regulations on the sport, from pre-fight drug and blood testing and medical checks to requirements that a host of medical staff be on site for the events. Since the commission formed, Arnott has not put on another event in British Columbia, which Teixeira says isn't surprising. "I kind of figured that once regulation came to British Columbia, it's like shining a light on cockroaches — they scatter," he says.
In California, it's up to the state athletic commission to govern combat sports. In 2012, the commission was taken over by Executive Director Andy Foster, a former professional MMA fighter and promoter. In the wake of Watts' injury, the Journal caught up with Foster. "Those things you're talking about, those tough man competitions, I won a whole lot of them before I turned pro," Foster says. "And I watched somebody killed in one of those." The bottom line, Foster says, is MMA is a violent and dangerous sport, which is why it's imperative that it be highly regulated and closely watched.
Foster's commission oversees virtually all professional fights in the state and imposes a host of checks to try to make sure they are as safe as possible for fighters. In addition to a battery of pre-fight screenings and tests designed to ensure a fighter is fit to step into the ring, Foster says the commission also requires a pair of ringside physicians, with an ambulance and a team of paramedics standing by. "But just having these things is not enough," Foster says. "There needs to be a system in place where, if something does go wrong, all the people know the system so this fighter can get from the cage to the hospital in the shortest amount of time possible. There's a bit of an art to that."
Foster says that means the referee, the physicians, the crowd security team and the paramedics all communicating by hand signals so that, if needed, they can launch an emergency response and evacuation plan without saying a word. The problem, Foster says, is that these things all come with a price tag some promoters are unwilling to pay, so some — like Arnott — simply hold their fights on tribal lands, where state laws, and the commission's extensive regulations, do not apply.
But that's not to say all MMA events held on reservations are without regulation. Far from it, and one doesn't have to look too far from Trinidad to see an example. When local fight promoter Nick Kukuruza brought MMA to the Blue Lake Casino in 2003, he helped the Blue Lake Rancheria form an athletic commission to oversee the sport. Kukuruza says the commission modeled its regulations after California's, and enforces them strictly to protect fighter safety.
Kukuruza says that, under the commission's rules, he's required to have a pair of ringside physicians present at every fight, as well as a team of paramedics and an ambulance standing by. "When it's time for the paramedics, it means an ambulance ride and you need it right there. It's important having people with not just the training, but the wheels, too." But, really, Kukuruza says, fighter safety starts long before fight night, explaining that it takes him months to set up matches, ensuring fighters squaring off have comparable skill sets and are fully prepared to step into the ring. Similarly, he said fighter weigh-ins are extremely important, adding that he makes sure his ringside physicians and referee are there on weigh-in day to evaluate fighters and talk to them, feeling out their skill sets, tendencies and potential vulnerabilities.
It's largely unclear what fighter safeguards are in place for Cher-Ae Heights' "So You Wanna Fight" events. Though participants were required to go through a pre-fight screening, it's unclear what that entailed. What is clear is that, while the event had a ringside physician, there was no ambulance or paramedic team standing by.
Like Arnott, Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Chair Garth Sundberg and Humboldt County 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, a former tribal councilman, didn't return calls seeking comment about what regulations — if any — the tribe imposes on Arnott's events. Jacobson says the casino is working to have future fights sanctioned by the International Sport Combat Federation, the largest mixed martial arts regulating body in the world. He says the change will make sure the events adhere to a strict set of regulations, allow fighters to be internationally ranked and, consequently, will help attract fighters from all over, raising the caliber of the competition. But, Jacobson says, the sanctioning has nothing to do with Watts' injury and has long been in the works. "It's something we've always wanted to do," he says.
Sitting in the courtyard of the rehabilitation facility in Santa Clara, Watts doesn't sugarcoat his future. "I'm going to work hard and continue to work for a long time, and I hope to have certain faculties return, but I'm not delusional," he says. "I could end up being the same, where I'm totally paraplegic and paralyzed from the shoulders down. I understand what's real, but I'm going to put energy every day into trying to change that."
Melba Watts says her son has a very long road ahead of him, and will likely spend the rest of his life with regular physical therapy appointments. His new road will also come with significant expenses. "We haven't quantified it, but it's just a big, black glob of expensive," Melba Watts says, explaining that Steve will need a van to transport him and his wheelchair, regular therapy appointments and probably other equipment and home modifications to allow him to live independently.
Both Watts and his mother spoke glowingly of a fundraiser Raskin, Jennifer Keenan, Matthew Beck and others held in Arcata a couple months ago. Raskin said the group plans to hold several more, with the next tentatively scheduled for November. Watts' family has also set up a fund on www.giveforward.com, which has raised $23,592 so far to help with his recovery. Of the 157 donations received to date on the site, none came from Arnott or Cher-Ae Heights Casino. Watts says neither have contributed to his recovery in any way.
Watts said he's been humbled by the flood of well wishes, prayers and thoughts that have come his way from friends and acquaintances through social media in the wake of his injury. "When you can have somebody pick up the phone for you and check those messages, your whole day just lights up from getting those messages from people who care about you," Watts says. "I would say that's been irreplaceable ... It's been a wellspring of inspiration for me."
And so Watts continues working every day to regain what he's lost while squarely facing the reality that he may never get there. He's leaning on his parents, who have left their Florida home and rented an apartment near the rehabilitation facility to make sure he isn't alone. And, he's attacking his rehab with a fighter's spirit, the same one that fueled him to nationals, led him to log 10,000 hours of practice on his guitar and saw him win a pair of jiujitsu championships as his 40th birthday approached. But, he knows, this fight is different.
"With wrestling, if you get up and put in your due diligence, you're going to make progress," he says. "Here, that might not be the case. But I couldn't live with myself if I give it anything less than 110 percent."Editor's Note: Watts' family has set up webpages to help his friends and community track his recovery and donate to help with his mounting expenses.