Some situations unfold so fast that they’re tough to explain, and even when there’s been time to unravel the details, they still don’t make sense. One such situation occurred on Christmas Night in 2008, when an argument led to a man’s life being taken in the heat of the moment, a man who, despite his flaws, made a positive, lasting impression upon the lives of many. That man was Justin Eilers, an MMA fighter from Nampa, I.D., who was best remembered for his 2005 UFC championship bout against Andrei Arlovski in his prime.
Eilers was a man who lived a fast-paced life. In the cage, he always looked for the knockout, evident by his unheard-of six submission victories due to strikes. True, he took some knockouts himself, but Eilers was always there to put his opponents’ lights out. Fans of many MMA promotions knew this – Monte Cox noted that a palpable energy surrounded the arena every time Eilers approached the ring. In many ways, Eilers’s fighting career resembled a rollercoaster ride, strikingly similar to his up-and-down life.
He made his debut against Dan Severn, and later punched his ticket to the UFC with a six-fight winning streak. His fortunes did not fare as well there, as he lost three in a row to famous names like Paul Buentello, Arlovski, and Brandon Vera. The twilight of his career saw him win 10 out of 12 bouts, losing only to former champions Pedro Rizzo and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, who will face Cain Velasquez for the UFC Heavyweight Championship next month. Silva was also caught using steroids after the bout. But another kind of opponent altogether knocked Justin Eilers out for good.
Eilers met his untimely demise at the hands of his stepfather Jim Malec, a former policeman who had married Eilers’s mother, Gwen Moore. Eilers’s manager and good friend Cox described their tumultuous relationship, saying, “Justin’s stepdad always talked big, he would tell people he could kick Justin’s ass behind his back. There was some tension there. Justin did belittle him.”
Those interactions laid the groundwork for tensions to reach a boiling point on that holiday evening, an evening where the mix of holiday cheer and alcohol turned very bad, very quickly. A fight erupted between Eilers and his ex-girlfriend over the treatment of their son.
Cox described the background surrounding this initial argument: “Justin struggled with being a father because he was fighting in Iowa while his son was in Idaho. He always thought he could be a better father. But at the time [of his death], Justin had spent a month at home trying to reconnect with his son. The camp and I were proud of him.”
Despite the good efforts of Eilers to rekindle a relationship with his son, Malec came to the defense of Eilers’s ex-girlfriend. He was in possession of a .45 caliber handgun and had it on his person, loaded, at dinner. Tensions rose, and Eilers began to throw dishes off the counter. He didn’t let his anger get the best of him, however, proclaiming, “Fuck this shit!” as he turned around to leave. That would be the last move he ever made; Malec shot him through the chest, leaving a bullet hole in the wall in the next room.
Eilers’s mother spoke up during Malec’s trial to describe the fast-unfolding scenario, as transcribed by The Idaho Statesman:
“I thought it was over,” Moore said. “I turned to the side, then I felt the shot go past my ear. I turned toward Jim and said, ‘What did you do?’ Justin had a surprised look on his face. He said, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead. I love you, Mom.”
Malec later stated that he became afraid for his life in the face of an enraged mixed martial artist. He was charged with second-degree murder and later plead down to a voluntary manslaughter charge. According to The Idaho Press, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison by Third District Judge Juneal Kerrick, who proclaimed, “You used your gun too quickly and too readily. It was too handy, loaded and ready to go without the opportunity for reflection.”
Prosecutor John Bujak added fuel to the fire, asserting that Malec still attempted to maintain innocence. “Blaming the victim and the victim’s family is inexcusable. I sincerely hope that the amount of time he will spend in prison is sufficient for him to humbly reflect on his actions and ultimately take responsibility for his excessive use of force in the senseless killing of Justin.”
Malec stands to get out in six years with good behavior.
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“He had the ability to make other people’s lives better,” Cox said of Eilers. “My fondest memories [of Justin] were just laughing.”
Cox recalled one of his favorite Eilers stories, which came from when he fought Arlovski for the UFC heavyweight title. “Eilers had broken his left hand in the fight. He broke his right hand on Arlovski’s skull. He also dislocated his knee, tearing his ACL in the process, and sprained his ankle. He had a broken nose and a black eye.”
“We got him into first class (on the plane), and he looks at another passenger. He says, ‘It’s okay. I’m a fighter. You should see the other guy.’ ‘What’d he look like?’ asked the passenger. ‘Not a mark on him!’ Eilers replied with a smile on his face.”
Eilers’s laughter and antics were apparently magnetic, as he never ceased to play pranks or have a joke with teammates and friends. That was a huge void that Cox realized was created once he was gone. “At the funeral, it really hit me,” he said. “I still had a year’s worth of pranks left to play on him.”
Humor played a huge part in Eilers’s life, something one might not always relate with being a fighter. “Justin’s laugh was contagious,” said Pat Miletich, the UFC legend who was Eilers’s coach at his gym in Bettendorf, I.A.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Eilers and the tightly knit camp from the Midwest. Cox described Eilers as being super athletic, stating, “Justin was a fantastic athlete. He had visions of playing in the NFL, but he was too small.”
Eilers found his way to MMA when he got his break from fellow Idaho native and UFC legend Jens Pulver. Cox said Eilers was incredibly raw in his first fight against UFC pioneer Dan “The Beast” Severn, but took the legend the distance before losing a decision. This was a testament to his natural athletic ability.
Miletich agreed. “Justin was powerful, athletic. Most of the time he listened to his coaches, but he would also tell you what he thought if he didn’t agree with you.” Miletich also saw Eilers as a fighter who looked to get in there and slug it out all the time.
This lead to Eilers’s fights being quite exciting, as he was always looking to knock his opponent out with one power shot. This wasn’t necessarily always Miletich’s strategy, who stated, “I always said, if you’re not the best at one thing you better be pretty darn good at everything.”
Cox went on to expand upon that topic. “A lot of it was how serious he took it. He would take fights he knew he might not have been ready for just for the money.”
Eilers had built up a good wave of momentum, but the bullet of a .45 stopped all that. Many thought the shooting could have been prevented altogether.
“From what I heard, the guy (Malec) went upstairs and got his gun,” Miletich said. “He didn’t have to shoot.”
Eilers wasn’t perfect. He had a temper, which came out when his stepfather took the side of his ex-girlfriend in an argument about Eilers’s son. He wanted to be in two places at once during his fighting career, but he often noted that he was no good to his son broke.
Despite all of this, he was a man who touched the lives of many. He was good as a fighter, and perhaps could have done much more. But maybe that wasn’t even his ultimate goal.
“As a fighter, Justin did decent, but he was the guy that made everybody laugh. He liked that role,” said Cox.
That role, however, was unfortunately lost during the heated emotion of Christmas 2008. As the overarching feel of family tension hung in the air like a fog, Malec perhaps saw it as a chance to get rid of a man he never liked. Or maybe he was genuinely scared for his life once the larger Eilers became visibly angry. Regardless, the details don’t mean much now, because a son was left without a father that night, a father who had recently began making a better effort to be a positive influence on his son’s life.
On that tragic Christmas in 2008, a family lost a son and a father, and MMA fans lost a fighter who did nothing but lay it all out on the line every time he stepped into the cage. The MMA world will remember him for having a great intensity that echoed into his real life. He may be gone, but he poured a lot of living into his short time on Earth, both in and out of the ring.
About the author, Michael James: I am avid fan of MMA since watching Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock at the first UFC events. My goal is to bring the best in MMA news and media to fans worldwide. From interviews to editorials, covering MMA is my passion. I strive to be on the cutting edge of the sport at all times.
Photo credit: Jim Genia – Rebellion Media