Friday, September 16, 2011

Could an Ox Baker heart punch really kill a man?

Alberto Torres
     On June 13, 1971 in Verdigre, Nebraska a tag team match took place that would end in tragedy.  Douglas Baker (Ox Baker) teamed with Tom Andrews (The Claw) to take on Alberto Torres and partner "Cowboy" Bob Ellis.  The match was for the AWA Midwest Tag Team Championship held by Ellis and Torres.  As legend has it, Ox Baker delivered his famous heart punch to Torres, knocking him out.  Torres died on June 16 in Immanuel Hospital in Omaha. While promoters credited Baker's heart punch as the cause of death, it was later revealed that Torres died from complications of pancreatitis that developed before the match.

     Ox Baker was also linked to the August 1, 1972 death of wrestler Ray GunkelGunkel, the Georgia Championship Wrestling Brass Knuckles champion, and Baker wrestled in a match held in Savannah, Georgia.  During the match Gunkel was the recipient of a heart punch.  Although he went on to win the match, Gunkel later collapsed and died in the locker room.  The autopsy revealed Gunkel had underlying coronary artery disease.  It has always been controversial what role the chest trauma contributed to his death. (1)

     Nevertheless, the question still remains:  Could an Ox Baker heart punch really kill a man?

Ox Baker

     The answer is yes.   Such an event is known as commotio cordis (Latin for "agitation of the heart"), and is defined as a combination of ventricular fibrillation and sudden cardiac death due to chest trauma. (2)  It is a common cause of sudden cardiac death in athletes.  While the exact prevalence of commotio cordis is unknown, the following epidemiologic data have been reported: (2) 
  • Young persons are most commonly affected (mean age about 15 years); only nine percent of reported cases occurred in someone older than 25 years of age.
  • 95 percent of reported cases have been in males.
  • 75 percent of cases have occurred during athletics (50 percent during competitive sports, 25 percent during recreational sports).
  • Most cases have been reported in sports with blunt projectiles (eg, baseball, lacrosse, hockey) and/or more physical contact (eg, football, hockey).
      The trauma to the chest results in a lethal rhythm known as ventricular fibrillation.  For this event to occur the chest wall trauma must be directly over the heart and at a specific point in the heart beat cycle.  Only impacts occurring during a 20 to 40 millisecond window during early ventricular repolarization  will cause ventricular fibrillation (see figure taken from reference 3).

Part of heart rhythm were commotio cordis a risk

     Survival from commotio cordis is poor, with one registry reporting only a 25% survival.  The chances of surviving may be improved with timely emergency medical resuscitation. (2)

     In addition to Ox Baker, the heart punch was also utilized by former WWE champion George Stipich (Stan Stasiak). 


  2. N Engl J Med. 2010;362(10):917.

The medical reference was used in the preparation of this blog.

Photographs are for illustrative purposed only, Wrestling with Death does not claim ownership.

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