Mercifully, perhaps, Chris Tuchscherer doesn’t really remember much about the kick. Gabriel Gonzaga does. He felt it, that moment when his foot clanged against Tuchscherer’s cup. The referee that night, Dave Hagen, mostly remembers the sound, that solid thunk of bone on groin.
The next thing Tuchscherer (21-4 MMA, 1-3 UFC) knew, he was dry-heaving on the mat, trying his best not to vomit his guts out. Gonzaga (17-11 MMA, 12-10 UFC) could only watch and try to stay ready.
Hagen tried his best to manage the scene, but as he watched Tuchscherer writhing on the mat, he began to doubt that the bout could possibly go on after a groin kick that damaging.
“I’ve worked 6,139 bouts,” Hagen told MMAjunkie, “and that’s the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
This was UFC 102, the prelim portion of the card. The crowd was still drifting into Rose Garden in Portland, Ore., on a late August night in 2009. Many had come primarily for the main event, a homecoming of sorts for former UFC champion Randy Couture, who took on Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a memorable heavyweight battle to close the show.
In another heavyweight bout further down the card, Tuchscherer made his UFC debut after going 20-1 over the course of a five-year career in mostly regional promotions. He had no idea that he was about to be on the receiving end of one of worst accidental fouls in MMA history.
Even before the kick, it was shaping up to be a tough night of work for Tuchscherer. In his first fight with the UFC, he found himself matched up against a man who’d fought for the UFC heavyweight title two years prior.
“I felt like they were kind of throwing me to the wolves in a way,” Tuchscherer said. “And then I got hit with that kick.”
The fight was barely 10 seconds old when Gonzaga aimed a left kick at the inside of Tuchscherer’s lead leg. Instead of hammering him in the thigh, Gonzaga wound up kicking Tuchscherer directly in the groin, his foot making an audible thump as it cracked against Tuchscherer’s cup.
Gonzaga had already established himself as a powerhouse kicker by this point in his career. He’d knocked out Mirko Filipovic with a head kick at UFC 70, and he then broke Couture’s arm with a similar kick in his losing effort at the UFC heavyweight title. With a direct shot from someone like that, the cup was of limited help, even if it took a moment for Tuchscherer to react to the full force of the blow.
“I kind of remember getting kicked, and then basically I was out,” Tuchscherer said. “I just sort of blacked out and came to on the mat. I think I actually grabbed the ref or the doctor’s leg, thinking I was fighting. After that is when I started to get sick.”
After a brief period of what Rogan would describe as “freaking out,” Tuchscherer began audibly dry-heaving on the broadcast. At one point officials even brought a bucket into the cage in an effort to prevent him from vomiting on the mat.
“He might have a serious injury here, Mike,” Rogan told his broadcast partner, Mike Goldberg. “He’s throwing up.”
Tuchscherer never actually vomited, but neither was he in very good shape. As he writhed in pain on the mat, those around him began to confront the question of what should happen next.
On the other side of the cage, Gonzaga offered an apologetic hand gesture to the crowd, and then began pacing back and forth while glaring over at the downed Tuchscherer.
“I was so focused on the fight, so I didn’t know if the fight was going to end or not,” Gonzaga said. “I didn’t know if he would stand up and come back to the fight. I had to stay focused, because if you feel sorry for him for the kick, that could (cost) you the fight. It’s a little bit hard because you feel guilty about the situation. But if you feel too bad he might come and knock you out if you’re not focused.”
Hagan tried to control the flow of people into the cage, allowing first one doctor and then another, but stopping Tuchscherer’s corner team, which included then-UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, from entering to check on their fighter.
“I remember Brock Lesnar tried to enter the cage, and I had to tell him to get off the apron,” Hagen said. “Brock looked at me and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I do know who you are, and you still need to get off the apron.’”
Questions swirled about what would happen if Tuchscherer decided not to continue. As Hagen remembers it, a doctor made the situation worse by telling Tuchscherer that he’d win via disqualification if he opted to stop right then.
“I had to pull the doc aside and tell him that was out of his purview, and he didn’t need to be telling the fighter that,” Hagen said. “What I needed him to tell me was if the fighter was medically ready to continue. That’s his job.”
Through the fence, Tuchscherer said, Lesnar and his coach Greg Nelson were telling him not to continue, that he was clearly too affected by the kick to keep fighting.
“I can’t imagine that Chris is going to get up and fight after this,” Rogan said on the broadcast.
But Tuchscherer was considering it, in large part because he wasn’t sure what would happen if he told the doctor he was done for the night.
“There was all this confusion about, if I didn’t keep fighting, was it a loss or a disqualification or a no-contest?” Tuchscherer said. “No one would tell me what the deal was.”
According to Hagen, at one point Tuchscherer asked if he would win via disqualification if he stopped.
“I told him, ‘I’m not discussing that with you. I’m just asking if you can continue,’” Hagen said. “He finally got to the point where he said he was ready to go.”
Part of it was the fact that it was his first fight with the UFC. He knew he should probably stop the fight, Tuchscherer said, “but you just don’t want to be that guy.”
After he hauled himself onto the stool, it was time to make a decision.
“Something kicked in inside me and told me to just fight,” Tuchscherer said.
On the broadcast, Rogan and Goldberg had all but written off Tuchscherer. Conversation had turned from the perils of the inside leg kick to the poor design elements of the human body. Then Tuchscherer replaced his mouthpiece.
Rogan: He just put his mouthpiece back in his mouth. Chris is thinking about fighting.
Goldberg: Chris is going to fight.
Rogan: Wow. Man, I don’t believe it. How tough is that guy?
Hagen gave Tuchscherer the full five minutes allotted by the rules, and then tried to add a little extra time by talking to both corners. But eventually Tuchscherer declared himself ready, and Hagen restarted the fight.
But as Gonzaga came forward to re-engage, Tuchscherer seemed still visibly shaky. Less than 10 seconds later, Gonzaga wound up that left leg again, getting ready to throw another kick. Tuchscherer’s hands went down automatically, as if on instinct. Gonzaga’s kick went high, right upside Tuchscherer’s head.
“I think I was trying to reach down and grab his leg or something,” Tuchscherer said. “I was more scared that he was going to kick me (low) again, so your natural reaction is to reach down and try to stop that. Then boom – he caught me in the head.”
This time the sound was all flesh on flesh, a damp thud as the head kick landed and Tuchscherer dropped. From his position, Hagen watched with mixed feelings.
“My feeling as a referee is that (Gonzaga) did what he needed to do,” Hagen said. “I thought it was a great move in terms of tactics. On a personal note, I think as a fighter, a coach and a human being, I might have given my opponent a little time to circle and make sure he was OK, because it was pretty damaging.”
According to Gonzaga, it wasn’t a conscious decision to throw the same kick to Tuchscherer’s head immediately after hammering him with it in the groin. It had been a part of game plan since before the fight started, he said, and he was trying to stick to it.
There was a certain brutal efficiency to it, but also a reminder of why the system for fouls and penalties in MMA remains weighted in favor of the offender. Hagen hadn’t taken a point away from Gonzaga, reasoning that the first kick was unintentional. But even if he had, the second kick rendered the scorecards irrelevant. Tuchscherer was already diminished by the groin kick, and now he’d been dropped by a clean blow to the head.
“From there,” Tuchscherer said, “I was just on survival mode.”
Tuchscherer ultimately survived a surprisingly long time, all things considered. He was dropped less than 30 seconds into the the official start of the bout, and Gonzaga immediately swarmed him with punches and elbows on the mat. It took another two minutes of abuse before Hagen finally stopped the bout.
By then Tuchscherer had blood staining his face, turning his blonde hair pink. He sat with his back to the cage and grimaced as he touched his hand to his nose. Gonzaga celebrated briefly then came over to kneel in front of the downed Tuchscherer.
“I don’t remember what I said, but probably I was saying I was sorry about the situation,” Gonzaga said. “Accidents happen. My fight with Randy Couture, I believe it was an accident that broke my nose, but the fight keeps going. You win or lose sometimes on that little bit of luck.”
Tuchscherer doesn’t remember ever receiving an apology from Gonzaga, but he also doesn’t remember feeling like it would have made much difference.
“The UFC did send me a bonus afterward,” he said. “So that was nice.”
Still, it was hard for Tuchscherer not to feel like that inauspicious start to his UFC career colored everything that came after. He fought just three more times, winning one and losing the next two, with the final bout of his career coming against Mark Hunt at UFC 127, where he lost by knockout.
“I feel like I didn’t perform like I planned to, and looking back on it now, I wonder, did the whole thing affect my career going forward?” Tuchscherer said. “Having that be my first fight in the UFC, it was like every time I got in the cage after that maybe a part of me was wondering, is something bad going to happen in this one too?”
It’s been more than six years since Tuchscherer’s last fight. These days he owns a seed business in North Dakota. Tuchscherer has lost weight, gotten leaner and quicker, but the heavyweight competitor still lives inside him. He recently got on the mats to help UFC heavyweight Timothy Johnson train for a fight, and was pleased to discover that he still knew his way around a submission or two.
Maybe if he’d taken the no-contest in that Gonzaga fight, he said, things would have turned out differently for him. Maybe if he’d never taken the fight in the first place, or if Gonzaga hadn’t started it by kicking him directly in the groin.
“But that’s just what happened,” Tuchscherer said.
Nothing anyone can do to change it now.
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