Jerry Bell: The First Known HIV-Positive MMA Fighter
On October 17, 1995, the World Combat Championship hosted its first and only MMA event in Charlotte, North Carolina. The promotion was essentially just an early UFC pay-per-view knockoff, but featured some great talent for the time. Among the fighters in the tournament were Renzo Gracie, Olympic Judo bronze medalist Ben Spijkers, Shooto champion Erik Paulson, and IBF cruiserweight boxing champion James Warring (Also making an appearance was mulleted shootfighting fraud Bart Vale). Little did anyone suspect, however, that the most dangerous man on the card that night was an unheralded alternate fighting in the first match of the preliminaries. His name was Jerry Bell, and he could've potentially contaminated every single competitor who fought in the cage that evening.
Hailing from Columbia, South Carolina, Bell got his start in combat sports fighting in Toughman contests all across his home state. The semi-professional Toughman competitions typically feature boxers with little or no training going up against other local brawlers in a debris-strewn ring while their beer swilling friends shout useless advice at them from the stands. Bell achieved some notable success in this circuit, becoming a three time champion of South Carolina and also fighting in the national Toughman tournament. He would go on to prepare for his legitimate professional boxing debut under the tutelage of local trainer Billy Stanick, who claimed the young heavyweight possessed tremendous athleticism and heart.
Before he was to turn pro, however, Bell decided to embark on a little side venture by competing in the bareknuckle, no-holds-barred World Combat Championship. As required, he received an HIV test before fighting but evaded his doctors calls following the examination. Bell, who by his own admission both was promiscuous and "didn't believe in" contraceptives (douchebag), was nervous what the results would reveal. The repeated calls would not deter him from proceeding with his plans to step into the cage.
Like the UFC events of the same era, the World Combat Championship emphasized style vs. style contests, even going so far as dividing the tournament bracket into "Strikers" and "Grapplers" divisions (To add to the humor, Cecil Peoples was referee). Bell, being a preliminary fighter, would not be a part of the main draw and would instead face another combatant for a chance to be an alternate. His opponent, Phil Benedict, was a short but heavily muscled NCAA wrestler who could bench press 400 lbs. Despite the opposition and being a pure striker, Bell gave a relatively good account of himself, opening up a cut on Benedict's nose with a straight right cross in the first few seconds of the fight. He wound up on top of his stocky opponent after Benedict failed with a throw, but would quickly be reversed and submitted with a choke just half a minute into the bout. Benedict would end up losing to Renzo Gracie in the semi-finals of the main draw later that night.
Bell would go on to make his professional boxing debut the following year, defeating his opponent by knockout in the first round. During this time, he would continue ignoring his doctor's attempts to contact him and proceed with his daily training regimen as if everything was normal. Finally, TWO YEARS after receiving the test, Bell gave in and answered his doctor's calls to have his worst fears confirmed: He was HIV positive. Shockingly, he kept this revelation hidden until 1998 while he progressed with his boxing career. When he finally decided to quit Bell had amassed a 9-0-0 record, knocking out every single one of his winless opponents in the first or second round.
Despite the fact that his MMA career lasted all but thirty-three seconds, Jerry Bell's fight with Phil Benedict in the WCC is of profound historical significance to the sport. Bell's bizarre and tragic personal saga, abetted by his own recklessly irresponsible decision making, is tough to stomach considering he did possess a decent amount of talent by most accounts. The most recent information available on him states he's currently serving a fifteen year sentence for first-degree burglary. His story sheds some light on the dangers of poor oversight in combat sports, as he was allowed to compete both as a no-holds-barred fighter and a professional boxer despite carrying a lethal contagious disease. The notoriously inconsistent regulation of amateur MMA bears some serious scrutiny when you realize a guy like Jerry Bell could slip through the cracks.