TORONTO - All Felix Pablo Elochukwu wanted was a shot to represent Canada in the UFC.
So, the 35-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter from Hamilton packed a bag and headed to Port Huron, Mich., for his amateur debut on Saturday.
Tragically, his first match would be his last.
The Nigerian-born athlete died after the third round when the fight was stopped because he was unable to defend himself from his opponent. He initially showed no signs of serious injury, but later became unresponsive.
Paramedics couldn’t revive him and he was taken to hospital. It’s not clear whether he died in the ambulance or at the health centre.
“I remember seeing him a few weeks ago when we were celebrating his birthday, and he was actually talking about this fight,” said Elochukwu’s friend, Jerry Igenu, in a phone interview from New Brunswick Tuesday.
“He was very optimistic. He thought this was going to be his breakthrough match and he would move up to the next level. He wanted to fight for Canada.”
Another friend, Nnamdi Orakwue, from Toronto, said Elochukwu came to Canada from Nigeria as a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In 2012, he moved to Hamilton because it was known as a tight-knit community where he could train at the highly regarded Joslin’s Martial Arts and be a part of the Ontario MMA scene.
“He’s a straight-up guy,” Orakwue, 34, said. “He had a huge heart. I don’t think he felt he would have had enough support in Canada to grow his fighting career, so Michigan was there for him to make a name for himself.”
A spokesman for Joslin’s could not be reached Tuesday, but media reports peg Elochukwu as a 265-pound heavyweight with a blue belt in Brazlian Jiu-Jitsu and say he was a three-time gold medal winner on the local grappling circuit.
Elochukwu was close to his family — his mother, father and sister — who still reside in Nigeria, Orakwue said. He recently asked him to help send them a care package consisting of a watch, a pair of shoes, and a handbag.
Igenu, 32, said to the best of his knowledge, his friend didn’t have any medical problems that would put him in jeopardy in the ring.
“He’s one of the guys you love to hang out with,” he added. “People that know him from back home — he always led a very active life. He loves boxing and fighting. He’s got passion.”
According to Sportsnet, the first two rounds of the bout consisted primarily of grappling exchanges. However, Elochukwu showed signs of fatigue going into the third round. His opponent achieved full mount and began delivering “soft” hammer fists.
The event was staged by the Amateur Fighting Club, which confirmed the tragic news on its Facebook page.
“Last night’s event, April 6th, we lost a member of our MMA family and we would like to take this time to honour him,” the message said.
An autopsy was conducted Sunday, but a cause of death has yet to be determined.
— With files from Neil Springer