Adam Braidwood can tell when he’s hit somebody with that perfect knockout punch. It’s tough for him to explain exactly why, but he feels absolutely nothing in his fist. His arm, however, starts to tingle.
It’s a sensation the 33-year-old knows well, even if his boxing career is relatively young. He’s only had nine professional bouts, but has already amassed eight wins, seven by way of knockout.
“It doesn’t feel like a punch,” he says. “You feel the energy of it, but it doesn’t feel like you’ve hit someone.”
It feels like validation. It feels as though running thousands of kilometres on the streets of Victoria, the endless barrage of punches on the pads and the weekends sparring with fellow boxers in the gym were all worth it. It feels fantastic.
Except when it doesn’t. Not when Tim Hague isn’t getting up.
Hague was a legend around Edmonton from his five fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But those fights were years ago—and this was a boxing match.
Hague was knocked to the canvas three times in the first round of the main event for K.O. 79, a professional boxing event in June at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton. He was back on his feet each time—telling the referee that he was good to keep fighting. No blow was particularly devastating.
The fourth knockdown came early in the second round when a punch caused Hague to slip and his gloves briefly touched the ground. He was ready to fight before the referee tried to start his 10 count. The fight went on and Hague threw some haymakers, but they all missed the mark. He still had a puncher’s chance of winning, but even that appeared too remote to let the fight go on much longer.
Then Braidwood came forward with a lead right hand followed by a sharp left hook to the head.
His arm tingled.
Cheers erupted from the crowd—but they were quickly muted. Braidwood’s early celebration stopped when he realized Hague’s team needed help picking their fighter off the ground to a stool in the corner. Something was obviously wrong.
“I hugged him and told him I loved him,” Braidwood says. When Braidwood started to return to his corner, Hague called him back over and whispered in his ear: “Congratulations.”
Those would be the final words they would exchange. Hague went unconscious moments later in the locker room and never recovered. Two days later, the news was official. Hague succumbed to a brain hemorrhage.
It could have been the final punch that killed Hague. Or perhaps it was the heavy fall where his head bounced hard off the canvas. Maybe it was the accumulation of punches that night, or the result of a career involving many blows to the head.
Regardless, Braidwood threw the last punch. A man had died and a nine-year-old boy was left without a dad. On Father’s Day. Braidwood was distraught. He immediately sought counselling.
Boxing was his life, but how do you fight after that? How do you throw a punch again?
Tim Hague was born on May 9, 1983, at the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton and it wasn’t long before he started his strength training. Visit the Hague family farm in Boyle, Alta.—about 700 acres—and look for the thousands of rock piles scurried away in the bush. Ever since he was a toddler, this was part of his regular chores, clearing the field alongside his brother, Ian, and sister, Jackie.
Hague was tough, but loveable. He was his hockey team’s enforcer, but off the ice was more likely to be found giggling at funny animal videos than picking fights. He loved baby animals. Never mind if he was allergic to baby cats, he’d still pick them up—and deal with the consequences later.
By the time Hague reached high school, he was a bit chubbier than the other kids. Then someone invited him to try powerlifting. By the time he joined the powerlifting team at the University of Alberta, his body had put on enough muscle that he could have been mistaken for the Hulk. Someone asked him if he wanted to try combat sports.
Hague didn’t look like a fighter, remembers Kyle Cardinal, who ran a mixed martial arts gym in east Edmonton. Sure, he was huge, but he couldn't throw a decent punch and he was getting beat by the gym’s more seasoned fighters.
Cardinal told Hague he’d need months—maybe a year—of serious training before he’d be ready for a pro fight. Hague couldn’t wait. He signed himself up to fight in King of the Cage, a mixed martial arts promotion. Cardinal refused to be his corner man. “Throughout Tim’s career, he had a lot of naysayers,” Cardinal says. “I was one of them.”
Hague took quite a few punches in his debut fight, but he refused to go down. Then, in the second round, he got hold of his opponent and didn’t let go, winning via a chokehold. The crowd roared with approval. He was hooked.
After finishing his university degree, he got a job as a kindergarten teacher in the hamlet of Rochester, Alta. But when the school learned there’d only be two new kindergarten students coming in the next year, his position got cut. He went back to the gym—this time planning to make a full-time career as a fighter.
Hague started his career 5-0, until early 2008 when he faced Miodrag Petkovic, a Serbian with dangerous legs. Hague wasn’t great at avoiding his kicks—and everyone in the arena could tell. “Tim was grimacing and saying, ‘Ow!’ out loud when the guy was kicking his legs,” Cardinal remembers. He told Hague he had to bottle up that pain. Don’t let it show. Hague replied: “I know, but it hurts.”
He lost by judges’ decision, but got back in the ring as soon as he could. He won four straight fights to finish 2008, including a rematch against the Serbian kicking machine. Then he signed a contract to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major leagues.
Hague was invited to the UFC in 2009 based on his toughness. But to be more accurate, it was so that Pat Barry, one of the world’s most feared kickboxers, could beat him up for the highlight reels.
When word got out in the gym that Hague was going to the UFC, “guys were lined up to spar with him because they wanted to beat up on a UFC guy,” Cardinal says. Not to be discouraged, Hague took each sparring session as a teaching moment for himself.
If Hague had any nerves when he showed up in Las Vegas for his UFC debut, it didn’t show. Soon after they arrived at their hotel, Cardinal got a call in his room saying there’d been a mistake with the room reservation and he was getting a suite upgrade. He packed up his luggage and brought it down to the front desk, as instructed, to get his new room key. The receptionist was confused and said no one called him about an upgrade. It was Hague working on his impressions over the phone—and it wasn’t the only acting job he had in store that weekend.
Hague's team knew they couldn’t win if Pat Barry kept his distance and just kept unloading kicks. They introduced a game plan: if Hague got hit cleanly, he should pretend to act really hurt, luring Barry to move closer. At that point, Hague could tackle him and bring the fight to the ground.
Early in the first round, Hague was taking a beating. “I kicked him in the head and punched him in the face,” Barry later said. “Guess who didn’t die? Tim Hague. In my head, I could not figure out, ‘Why is this guy still standing up?’ ”
After a second flurry of hits, Hague started to wobble. Barry moved in close and threw a haymaker punch. Hague ducked and tackled Barry to the ground. Once on top, he unleashed a few punches of his own until his corner yelled to try a guillotine choke, not because it was the perfect move in that situation but because it was one of the few submission techniques Hague performed well enough in training camp.
It worked. The fight lasted less than two minutes. Hague and his trainer both had tears of joy in the ring.
Hague was a superstar in the making. He was in the best shape of his life. He even had a baby boy, Brady, born in 2008. Life was good. And he wanted to fight again.
Adam Braidwood will be the first to tell you he doesn’t have much going on in his life besides boxing. Once a first-round CFL draft pick with the Edmonton Eskimos, a third knee surgery in 2009 left him couch-ridden for half the year and off the football field for a second straight season. That’s when he started to spiral. Alcohol. Drug addiction. He relied on crime and violence to pay the bills. Pretty soon, he was carrying around a nine-mm handgun and wearing bulletproof vests.
In November 2010, a parking lot brawl from a drug collection gone awry ended with Braidwood hitting a 20-year-old man with a machete and stuffing him in the trunk of a car. Police arrested him on the highway. Out on bail a month later, Braidwood was arrested for an armed domestic assault involving his then-girlfriend. Out on bail again in 2011—his drug addiction out of control—Braidwood pulled out a handgun inside a Port Coquitlam, B.C., home and began shooting at imaginary people.
When the sentencing came down in 2013 for his various crimes, he pled guilty to unlawful confinement, got a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for an “egregious act of sexual assault,” in the words of the judge, and pleaded guilty to possession of both a prohibited firearm and the psychoactive drug MDMA.
Coming out of prison in 2015 on parole—no money, job or prospects—he lacked the confidence to even give people his real name. He got a job in construction, but didn’t much feel like going home after work to the halfway house he was staying in that doubled as a homeless shelter.
But there was boxing. The sport kept him in the gym, out of trouble after work, and restored his confidence as he gained the respect of others who would otherwise cast him aside as either a CFL flame-out, a criminal, or both.
“I don’t have a lot of money,” Braidwood says. “I don’t live a glamorous life. I don’t feel good about myself every day. But I don’t think I’m a bad person.”
His fight against Tim Hague didn’t change that, despite people on social media calling him a murderer or saying that he ruined the life of Hague’s young son. “That was hard,” he says. “The worst part was them saying I don’t care. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Braidwood would message his haters back, asking why they would say such awful things. But there were also those who rose to his defence. Among them, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, the former lightweight champion of the world, who called Braidwood to share his own struggles after his 14th-round knockout of South Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim in 1982, in which Kim died days after one of the most brutal fights of the past century.
“The call itself helped me cope—that someone would care enough to reach out to me,” Braidwood says. “It helped me when he said it wasn’t my fault.”
But no call was more important than the one from Hague’s family. “We don’t hold Adam responsible or hold any hard feelings towards him,” says Jackie Neil, Hague’s sister. “We don’t know if it was the punches or when Tim fell back and hit his head, or if it was an accumulation of 10 years of being hit in the head. If it hadn’t happened that fight, maybe it would have happened in a different fight.”
With forgiveness from Hague’s family, Braidwood went back to the gym. He talked about his feelings with friends. He met with counsellors. He gave a TED Talk about his life: his football dreams, his battle with addictions, his crimes, his comeback.
“[Boxing] is how I sustain my life. This is what saves me from going back to my evil ways. This is who I am. I’m a pro boxer. I’m a fighter. That’s all I know how to do. That’s how I live. That’s how I eat,” he explained. “Then on June 16, 2017, I killed my friend in the boxing ring.”
It still brings him to tears. But he refused to let any old bad habits develop out of fear he’d spiral out of control again. And he started to talk about his next fight.
His coach, on the other hand, still needed convincing. “My initial reaction was, 'F--k this, I’m out. I can’t be around this,' ” says Adam Zugec, Braidwood’s trainer. “I was lost.” Zugec called every coaching friend he could for help, and soon realized that Braidwood needed him.
Zugec has always been protective of his fighters, but now more than ever, says Sarah Kaufman, a boxing trainer who was also in Braidwood’s corner that June evening. “Adam [Zugec] is definitely more open to throwing in the towel.”
Replays of the fight are easy to find online, but Zugec hasn’t watched any. Braidwood, on the other hand, has seen the footage. “I look at the pictures of the fight every day,” Braidwood says. “I’ve watched the footage a thousand times. It’s a reminder—a way for me to connect with Tim. We shared his last moment.”
Boxing and mixed martial arts are dangerous sports. The force behind a male heavyweight boxer’s punch is equivalent to that of a 13-lb. padded wooden mallet striking the head at 32 km/h, according to one study. Concussions are common. No fighter is naïve enough to not recognize the inherent risks involved.
In Tim Hague’s second UFC fight, he was up against one of the sport’s most powerful punchers with a body that graced the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine. Todd Duffee was dangerous.
Cardinal remembers their game plan was to turn it into “a big old boring fight.” Hague couldn’t win if the fight was reduced to fists flying, so the plan was for Hague to tackle Duffee and try to win as though it were a wrestling match.
It was a practical, but not fan-friendly, strategy. And Hague always wanted to put on a show.
In the locker room, moments before the announcer called his name, Hague told his trainer he’d be going for the knockout punch—and the potential bonus money awarded to whoever gets the best knockout of the night. Cardinal implored Hague to stick to the game plan.
When the fight started, Hague immediately came out throwing a big left hook. He didn’t see Duffee’s straight left hand coming straight to his temple. Hague went down. Duffee jumped on top and let out a barrage of punches.
The ref stopped the fight after only seven seconds, the fastest knockout in UFC history—and a record that stands to this day.
Hague wanted to erase the memories of the humiliating loss. He was back in the octagon less than six months later, in early 2010, but lost by judges’ decision.
Ever the practical joker, he wouldn’t let a loss bring him down. After the fight, Hague and Cardinal went out on the town. When they got back to the hotel at the end of the night, Hague smiled at Cardinal and said: “Sweet dreams.”
Cardinal was confused. Hague was not one to talk like that, but they were both inebriated. Cardinal went up to his room and collapsed straight into bed. “I woke up in the morning and there was sugar all over me,” Cardinal remembers. Hague had emptied out dozens of packs of sugar on Cardinal’s bed before they all went out drinking the night before. Sweet dreams.
Upon his return to Edmonton, Hague went back to the gym. When Merrick Duggan, a local fighter, was looking to take mixed martial arts more seriously, Hague offered him the basement of his Sherwood Park home where the two could train together. The workouts were tough, but sleeping was sometimes tougher.
“Tim’s broken his nose so many times, when he sleeps, you can hear him snore through the drywall,” Duggan says. “It was loud like a bear.”
Hague was back fighting in the UFC within three months, but suffered a third straight loss. The UFC cut its ties with him after the fight. Not to be discouraged, Hague fought twice more that year in Edmonton—winning both by knockout—and got another call from the UFC to fight in January. One last chance at the big time.
For that fight, Hague spent three minutes in the octagon and one night in the hospital.
Cardinal stayed by the hospital bedside and tears welled up in his eyes. He told Hague it was time to hang up the gloves and retire from fighting. The UFC wouldn’t be calling him back—but at least he could leave with his head held high and in relatively good health.
“I didn’t want to see him get hurt anymore,” Cardinal says. “He had taking a lot punches in his fights before he got to the UFC. And his five fights in the UFC were wars.”
Nevertheless, Hague was back fighting small-circuit pro bouts in Edmonton that September. Cardinal wasn’t in his corner—nor would he train Hague again.
From 2012 to 2016, Hague had at least 18 professional fights—16 mixed martial arts and two in boxing. He lost seven of them by knockout, often in the first round. When there were no fights in Canada, Hague went to Sochi, Russia. At an event where Vladimir Putin reportedly watched at ringside, Hague lost after taking a kick to the head.
Friends tried to convince him to quit the sport—that he had nothing left to prove, that he was a pioneer for MMA in Canada, that it was time to focus on his new job as an elementary school teacher in Beaumont, Alta. Hague kept announcing his retirement after each loss—but he kept coming back. A first-round knockout loss in April 2017—and the thought of his Grade 4 students seeing him all bruised up—led to Hague’s most recent retirement. That lasted mere days until, on Instagram, he credited his students for talking him out of it.
"By the end of it, when he said he was fighting, we stopped saying, ‘I wish you would stop, dude,’ ” Duggan says. “You couldn’t tell him not to, because Tim was going to do it regardless.”
When a match against Adam Braidwood presented itself with only two weeks until fight night, Hague was already thinking about using the fight money for a vacation with nine-year-old Brady. “I’m taking this fight for one reason,” Hague said, “and that’s to give my son the summer to remember.”
Adam Braidwood is the World Boxing Union heavyweight champion. That might sound like a big deal on paper, but in the world of boxing—without a unified league and, thus, countless sanctioning bodies—this particular title means absolutely nothing, save for the cachet that the belt was once held by the legendary George Foreman. Make no mistake: Braidwood is not one of the world’s top heavyweights. Not even close. But it’s still something worth fighting for.
Braidwood had an opponent in Mexico’s Jesus Paez for the June bout, until Paez pulled out. Hague, meanwhile, was actively looking for his next fight and got the call to be a last-minute replacement. When he found out about the WBU heavyweight title’s connection to Foreman, he used it as extra motivation in the days leading up to the fight.
The question remains whether the fight should have happened in the first place. Hague had a 1-7 record over his past eight fights. An analysis from the fight website Real Fight Stories claimed that four of Hague’s fights never would have been sanctioned had the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission properly logged all his losses—and forced him to undergo the mandatory medical suspensions after each knockout. (Pat Reid, executive director for the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission, which regulates boxing and MMA fights in the city, declined to comment for this story.)
Part of the problem is that there are plenty of sanctioning bodies looking to make fights happen, but not all are diligently monitoring the health of every fighter. If the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission had refused to let the fight happen, Hague might simply have gotten clearance to fight somewhere else. He’d gone to Russia twice in the past two years to fight and talked about going back for a third time.
Months ago, someone questioned Hague online about why he hadn't retired already. “I’m just in love with the sport,” Hague wrote. “If it kills me, whatever, I’m ready."
Since his death—a rarity in boxing—advocacy groups and medical professionals have renewed their calls for a ban on boxing.
Dr. Shelby Karpman argues a ban would only increase the danger. “You’re not going to get rid of these sports,” says the Edmonton-based sports medicine physician. “You’re just going to chase them underground. And once they’re underground, there’s no medical coverage and no one looking after their safety.”
Karpman was at Hague’s final bout, one of many events he’s presided over during the past 25 years as a ringside doctor. (Dr. Shirdi Nulliah, the official ringside physician for the Hague bout, declined to comment for this story.) Karpman was backstage finishing up medical checks from the previous fight when it became evident to everyone watching the main event that Hague was in trouble.
In the locker room after the fight, Karpman met up with Hague and the two had a conversation. Hague was coherent. He knew where he was. He knew he got punched hard. And then he fell unconscious. It was the first time in Karpman’s career of overseeing boxing matches that he watched an unconscious fighter loaded into an ambulance.
“Tim was a strong guy, a strong-willed and a good fighter. I don’t think there was any concern. At the time of the fight, from all the people I’ve talked to, it’s like any other fight going on in Edmonton,” Karpman says. “It’s easy to go back and second guess.”
Braidwood is getting ready to step back in the ring for his first bout since that night. If the tragedy had never occurred, he would probably be preparing for a fight against Montreal’s Simon Kean, considered by many to be Canada’s top heavyweight boxer. Instead, Braidwood’s next bout is scheduled in his hometown of Victoria on Sept. 8. The opponent keeps changing, but will most certainly be lesser-skilled. Braidwood already talks about taking another fight mere weeks later.
“You don’t know how it is until you get back in the ring,” says Mel Lubovac, an Edmonton-based boxing promoter. “He needs to be in the ring a few more times to see if this is something he wants to continue doing.” (Lubovac was the promoter of the Braidwood-Hague fight, but refused to comment on the events of that night.)
Braidwood’s also getting back in the ring so soon because, well, boxing is all he has. “The only reason people treat me normally now is because of my accomplishments in boxing,” he says. “It would be easy for me to go back to my old life of drinking and doing drugs. I have every reason to do that. But if I did, I’d let too many people down—including Tim.”
Reporter: Aaron Hutchins
Editor: Colin Campbell
Director of photography: Liz Sullivan
Digital producer: Nick Taylor-Vaisey
Published: August 24, 2017