Dillon Cleckler considered Justin Thornton not only an opponent but a friend.

The two Mississippi-based fighters competed against each other twice – once in MMA in 2013 and once in bare-knuckle boxing in this past August. Cleckler won by first-round knockout on both occasions, but the second finish resulted in severe injury and ultimately Thornton’s death.

Cleckler caught him with a right hand, and Thornton fell to the canvas face first just 18 seconds into the fight. Thornton was taken out of the ring on a stretcher and reportedly had been hospitalized since the fight. According to a Sept. 23 post on his personal Facebook page, Thornton was paralyzed and placed on a ventilator with a tracheotomy and IV drip.

Thornton, 38, died Monday. His death “devastated” Cleckler, who opened up about the situation in a lengthy Facebook post Tuesday and wrote that pneumonia was the cause of death.

“As a fighter nothing prepares you for the news I received this morning on my way to training,” Cleckler wrote. “Some of you may not of heard yet but my last opponent Justin Thornton passed away last night due to pneumonia. I can’t help but feel absolutely devastated about this because I’ve known Justin for years. Not many people know this but we fought 8 years ago and he told me right away he wanted the rematch. I know that when he got the phone call to finally get that rematch on a bigger stage he saw a huge opportunity and took it. Justin is a warrior. It’s in his blood to fight. He loved it. He fought anyone, anytime and anywhere and when I didn’t have an opponent, he still jumped at the opportunity to get in there with me again. Any man or woman who steps in the ring or the cage is special, [sic] they take a risk (that) 99.99% of the world would never take and sometimes I still don’t know why we do it but Justin was a fighter his entire life and deserves nothing but respect!! My thoughts and prayers are with Justin Thornton and his family at this time. RIP warrior.”

Belinda Brashier, a woman who identified herself as Thornton’s older sister, commented on Cleckler’s post with a brief statement and asked people to respect the Thornton family’s privacy during this time.

“Yes he loved (fighting) – we wish he had give up a long time ago but he died doing what he loved,” Brashier wrote. “He knew what could happen.”


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