The room at Mojoes in Joliet was filled with, at most, a few hundred people. The crowd wasn't loud. Maybe it was bored after having watched eight mixed martial arts fights. Maybe it was tired as the buzz wore off that December night.
Not Jeff Dunbar. Since losing his first bout in April, the 20-year-old had won three of five fights. He was focused.
Teammates from his North Lawndale gym, where he had trained for more than a year, shouted encouragement. They also were giving Rudy Bahena, his 23-year-old opponent from Elmwood Park, the business.
Dunbar rolled his shoulders, loosening his trim 5-foot-9, 146-pound frame one more time. He took one last swig from his water bottle.
"No mercy!" a man yelled from the audience, the crowd showing some life.
There would be very little of that for Jeff Dunbar.
Barely a minute into the fight, Dunbar struggled to escape the grasp of Bahena, who had wrapped himself around Dunbar's back and neck. Bahena was trying to make quick work, close out the match with a chokehold.
Dunbar couldn't shake loose. Desperate, he tried bucking Bahena off. He lost his balance, falling forward and spiking his head into the canvas with Bahena landing on top of him.
"I heard the impact. I heard the thud," Bahena said.
On the ground, Bahena completed the chokehold and was declared the winner.
Winston Matthews, the referee, separated the fighters. Dunbar lay on his stomach. Video footage of the fight reviewed by the Tribune does not show whether Dunbar was rolled over onto his back before paramedics arrived. The issue remains a debate among those who where there. Dunbar eventually was rushed to nearby Provena St. Joseph Medical Center.
This bout was over. His dream of joining Rashad Evans, a family friend who is an elite professional in the UFC, has vanished.
His next fight — through a tangle of incomplete state laws, a lack of national safety standards and mounting hospital bills — is just beginning.
Bad news gets worse
Dunbar was conscious when he arrived at the hospital but already had lost movement in his legs. He had only weak feeling in his arms. Tests showed he did not sustain serious head injuries but had dislocated two vertebrae — one forward, one backward — crushing his spinal cord.
"(It) was a complete injury from the very beginning," said Mark Chwajol, the neurosurgeon who performed the seven-hour surgery on Dunbar.
Doctors told him he probably will never walk again. On Christmas Eve, one week after the fight, Dunbar's lung collapsed, and he later underwent a tracheotomy. He is confined to his hospital bed and may never breathe without the aid of a ventilator. Chwajol said Dunbar will need months of rehabilitation before possibly regaining strength in his arms and fingers.
Dunbar does not have insurance. His mother, Kathy, doesn't know how she'll pay for his growing medical costs. Already relegated to a wheelchair after suffering a series of strokes several years ago, Kathy depended on her son as her caretaker, his wages paid by the state. She is seeking public aid and donations but said she has not been contacted by the promoters — Nilo Soto of Berwyn, owner of Fight Card Entertainment; or his business partner Brian Angelo — regarding insurance coverage or financial support.
"My son is fighting for his life and I'm fighting with him," Kathy Dunbar said.