(Photo via the Justin Levens Remembrance Album on CombatLifestyle.com / Props to Deadspin‘s brilliant “Dead Wrestler of the Week” feature for the inspiration.)
By Ben Goldstein
All murder-suicides are shocking. Not all of them are entirely surprising.
On December 17th, 2008, UFC/WEC veteran Justin Levens and his wife Sara McLean-Levens were found dead inside their condominium in Laguna Niguel, California, both from gunshot wounds. Initial evidence suggested that Justin was the shooter. “It was a chest wound that penetrated her heart and killed her, and his was to the head,” said O. C. Sheriff Coroner’s Office spokesman Jim Amormino.
Amormino confirmed that painkillers and anti-depressants were discovered in the Levens’s home, along with the handgun Justin allegedly used to end their lives. Police had visited Justin and Sara at least twice in the previous month, once to investigate a possible drug overdose.
At the time of his death, Justin Levens was 28 years old and hadn’t won an MMA match in over two years. He’d gone 0-5 in 2007 — an agonizing year in which his close friend and IFL teammate Jeremy Williams committed suicide, also by shooting himself — and was dealt a six-month suspension by the California State Athletic Commission in July 2008 when a pre-fight drug test came back off-the-charts for the painkiller Oxymorphone. For the last five months of his life, Levens was unable to earn a living as a fighter, and fell deeper into a spiral of depression and prescription drug use.
Justin didn’t leave a suicide note. There were no signs of a struggle. He and Sara had already been dead for four days when their bodies were discovered.
In a January 2006 Sherdog profile, writer Mike Sloan paints Justin Levens’s early childhood as a Dickensian nightmare:
“Imagine a dreary neighborhood where crack is sold on virtually every street corner, hookers are trying to sell themselves for some quick cash, dead dogs litter the curbs and vermin infest almost every house. Homeless people shacked up in rundown buildings with boards in place of windows and abandoned cars without tires are just an everyday circumstance. Try to imagine that but only worse and you might understand just exactly where light heavyweight contender Justin Levens used to call home.”
That home was a Southeast Philadelphia housing project where Levens lived with his mother, stepfather, and three siblings; according to a People.com obituary, Levens never knew his biological father. Their minority status — “we were the only white family in the whole neighborhood,” Levens said — made Justin an outcast and a constant target for physical violence. The experience turned him into a fighter, for better or worse.
“We finally moved out here to California [to get away from it all] but then I used to fight all the time out here, too,” Levens told Sloan in 2006. “I don’t know why I was always fighting; maybe I was an angry kid or something…People were always picking on me or saying rude things to me…I got into martial arts to deter myself from street fights. My parents were getting pissed at me all the time. They threatened to throw me out of the house. All kinds of crap. I had to grow up pretty fast and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I pretty much stopped getting into fights when I took up martial arts and got off the streets. I mean, I still got into a few fights, but that was pretty much it after that.”
After a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, Levens found his spiritual home at Ruas Vale Tudo in Orange Country, headed by Brazilian MMA pioneer Marco Ruas. There, Levens was able to hone his natural aggression and gameness into ferocious weapons. He kicked off his professional MMA career with seven consecutive first-round stoppage victories from 2004-2005, leaving a trail of bodies in the Total Combat, Gladiator Challenge, and WEC promotions. Though he would lose his next fight in the WEC — a light-heavyweight title challenge against a beefed-up Scott Smith — the UFC had already taken notice.
(Justin Levens vs. Tony Lopez @ WEC 15, 5/19/05)
In April 2006, Levens was signed to fight middleweight Evan Tanner at UFC 59 as a short-notice injury replacement for Jeremy Horn. (Grim footnote: To our knowledge, this is the only UFC fight ever held between two competitors who later died.) Though Levens hoped to keep the fight standing, he wound up falling prey to Tanner’s infamous triangle choke, which came a little over three minutes into the first round of their fight. No shame in that, really; Tanner was a huge step up in competition, and Levens didn’t have the opportunity to put in a full training camp. But unbeknownst to him, Levens’s Octagon debut — fighting a former champion on the main card of a UFC pay-per-view event — was actually the pinnacle of his MMA career, and so much of his later mental anguish seemed to stem from that fact. His decline as a prospect came as quickly and dramatically as his ascension. It was all downhill from here.
The UFC re-booked Levens just two months later for a match against newcomer Jorge Santiago, in the first preliminary bout of UFC Fight Night 5. Early into the bout, Santiago landed a pair of knees from clinch that knocked Justin cold, giving him his second UFC defeat, and his third-straight loss overall. Levens was released by the promotion. He returned to California, and picked up the last two victories of his career that fall — a TKO against Justin Hawes under the WEC banner, and a technical submission against Brian Warren at a Beatdown in Bakersfield event. Twelve fights into his career, Levens had still never made it out of the first round.
(Jorge Santiago vs Justin Levens @ UFN 5, 6/28/06)
In 2007, the IFL debuted four new teams for its second season, including the Southern California Condors, led by Levens’s mentor Marco Ruas. Levens returned to light-heavyweight to compete for the Condors, while his friend Jeremy Williams was the team’s middleweight representative. The IFL gig could have been a springboard to even greater success for both fighters — perhaps a ticket back to the UFC for Jeremy. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.
Levens struggled at his old weight class. In his first IFL appearance in January, he was out-wrestled by Reese Andy, losing a forgettable unanimous decision. Less than two months later, he was smashed by league standout Vladimir Matyushenko, losing by first-round TKO. Meanwhile, his partner Jeremy Williams was flourishing, submitting Bristol Marunde and Kaz Hamanaka at the same events, both by first-round triangle choke. Williams, who had taken a four-year hiatus from MMA competition to focus on coaching, was suddenly on a win streak again, and finally gaining some recognition in the sport — which made his sudden suicide all the more inexplicable.
(Levens and Williams demonstrate some submissions on ‘The Best Damn Sports Show Period,’ promoting the IFL’s second season.)
On May 5th of that year, Jeremy Williams pulled over to the side of Pacific Island Drive in Laguna Niguel and shot himself. He left behind two young daughters and a six-months-pregnant wife. According to an OCWeekly profile, Williams had moved into his parents’ house two weeks before he died due to marital problems. His suicide knocked the wind out of everybody who knew him. Said his close friend Chris Dinicola: “When you hear that classic line — ‘Oh, that’s the last person I would expect would do that’ — well, [Williams] was the last person I would expect to ever do that.” The coroner’s report on Jeremy confirmed that he had no drugs or steroids in his system at the time of his death.
Levens was “never the same” after Williams’s death. And yet, he competed at the next IFL event just two weeks later, filling in as Jeremy’s middleweight replacement. From the OCWeekly article:
Alternate Justin Levens, who fought in Williams’ place, couldn’t complete a prefight interview. “Jeremy was a great guy,” Levens said. Then he froze. His eyes welled up, and he lowered his head. Under his breath, he said, “I can’t fucking do this.” Levens was beaten badly in the first round by Brian Foster. Afterward, a television interviewer tried to speak to Levens again. He broke into tears and dodged the camera.
It would be Justin’s last appearance for the IFL. That fall, he suffered his fourth and fifth consecutive losses, dropping a decision to Nathan James and getting submitted via triangle-choke in a controversial Palace Fighting Championship bout against Kenny Ento.
(Justin Levens vs. Kenny Ento @ PFC 4, 10/18/07)
Grieving for his friend, and failing in his career, Levens turned to prescription painkillers to dull his emotions. His friends recognized that he was struggling, and did their best to offer help. One of those friends was Affliction Vice President Tom Atencio, Justin’s longtime friend and sponsor. Atencio offered him a payday on the undercard of his July 19th Affliction: Banned event, the clothing brand’s first foray into MMA promotion.
What should have been a chance at redemption for Levens turned into a total fiasco. Due to a delayed start-time for the event, Justin’s scheduled bout against Ray Lazama was canceled. Then, his pre-fight drug test came back positive for Oxymorphone. The California State Athletic Commission’s allowable threshold for the painkiller is 120 ng/mL; Levens registered a level of 10,141 ng/mL. In response, the CSAC hit him with a $1,000 fine and a six-month suspension. Levens didn’t bother to appeal the ruling. He would be dead less than five months later.
While Levens had a relatively public relationship with adult film actress Brittney Skye in 2007, his subsequent marriage to Sarah McLean was a low-profile affair by comparison. Then again, Levens was an increasingly private person in 2008, far away from the spotlight. Unless you knew him personally, you stopped hearing about him. And not even his close friends fully understood what he was going through in the last days of his life.
Here’s what we know: On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 18th, Sarah McLean’s mother visited the Levens’s condo in Laguna Niguel. She hadn’t been able to contact her daughter for five days, and became concerned. When she arrived, she found the bodies of Justin and her 25-year-old daughter lying together in bed, shot to death.
(Associated Press report on Levens’s death.)
The eulogies and tributes that circulated following Justin’s death shared two general similarities: They all focused on what an amazing person Justin was, and they all acknowledged how irrevocably lost he was. Here’s Tom Atencio talking to People:
“Justin was a self-made man who literally fought his way to the top. He was a gentle soul who struggled with life. Anyone who grew up under his circumstances would struggle, and unfortunately it got the best of him. He just had some personal demons that he couldn’t overcome. Fighting was Justin’s life but it wasn’t going well for him,. I know he was considering leaving the sport. But Justin was a fighter, I don’t know what else he would’ve done…Justin had a rough life; he was a good kid and was trying to get on the right path. This is a total tragedy and all you can do is wonder. No one saw this coming in the manner in which it happened.”
That last line seems rather loaded; perhaps Atencio felt Justin’s death was inevitable, even if he wouldn’t have guessed that his friend would end his life by firing a gun through his wife’s chest and his own head. Justin’s former agent Ken Pavia echoed the sentiment:
“I saw him become disenchanted with his career and the sport,” he said. “I think every fighter has the earnest belief they’ll reach the pinnacle of the sport, but few do. For everyone that makes it, there’s hundreds and hundreds who don’t. So I as an agent worry about guys who have a series of losses. Justin’s a guy that held promise, but it just didn’t work out for him.”
Days after the tragedy, Justin’s ex-girlfriend Brittney Skye posted a set of personal photos of her and Justin (some of them mildly NSFW) on her MySpace profile, along with a goodbye letter that veered between heartbreak and self-blame:
THIS IS THE JUSTIN I KNEW AND LOVED! A GENTLE LOVING AND TOTALLY SILLY AT TIMES BUT ALWAYS PLAYFUL MAN THAT REALLY SHOWED ME WHAT UNCONDITIONAL LOVE WAS AND TAUGHT ME HOW TO LOVE LIKE THAT AND BE LOVED LIKE THAT. IM SO SORRY JUSTIN THAT I DIDNT HELP YOU MORE, I THOUGHT I WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING FOR YOU. I THOUGHT I WAS BEING RESPONSIBLE AND NOT SELFISH BUT NOW I REALIZE I WAS WRONG. I THINK I COULD OF BROUGHT YOU PEACE AND I KNOW THAT YOU KNEW THAT. I WISH I HAD RESPONDED THE LAST TIME I SPOKE TO YOU DIFFERENTLY. I DIDNT REALIZE THING[S] WERE THAT BAD FOR YOU AND I HATE MYSELF FOR NOT TRULY LISTENING TO YOU AND I KNOW IT MUST OF BEEN HARD TO ASK FOR HELP AND I WISH I HAD BEEN A BETTER FRIEND FOR YOU. I WILL FOREVER REGRET NOT LETTING YOU BACK IN. I WILL FOREVER LOVE YOU AND NEVER FORGET YOU OR HOW YOU TAUGHT ME TO LOVE. I LOVED EVERY SECOND WITH YOU JUSTIN, WE NEVER HAD A BAD TIME OR A FIGHT. I JUST WISH I DIDNT LET THINGS COME BETWEEN US. IM SORRY I PUSHED YOU AWAY TO DEAL WITH YOUR PROBLEMS ALONE INSTEAD OF HELPING YOU WORK THROUGH THEM CUZ YOU REALLY DID MAKE ME HAPPY JUSTIN AND IM SAD I’LL NEVER HERE YOU LAUGH AGAIN.. I LOVED BEING YOUR ANGEL, NOW I GUESS YOU’LL BE MINE…. I LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU JUSTIN!! RIP BABY
Not included in the pictorial tribute was this one of Levens mock-holding Brittney at gunpoint, which must have seemed like harmless fun at the time, and is now chilling to look at.
Levens is still listed on Marco Ruas’s website, although the language of his fighter bio has been changed to past-tense. And on a tribute page created by author Carol Gambill, Justin’s mother left her own testimonial:
Hello. I am Justin’s mother. I want to really thank the person who has made this site, it is beautiful and I think he would have appreciated it. Regardless of what the media portrayed, Justin had a family who loved him very much and we miss him every single day. The last time I saw him I told him I loved him more than anyone else in the world and I would happily die for him. I am glad I had the chance to tell him that. I think sometimes he forgot he wasn’t alone. Justin had a wicked sense of humor. He could make me laugh so hard. He would get this wry look on his face just before he let go a zinger. Justin was planning on moving out to Colorado to help me here with the farm. He loved it here and he loved the animals. He was hoping to make a fresh start. I think the darkness just got too [heavy] for Sara and him.
Justin will be having a niece or nephew born the end of April. This baby was conceived on or near Justin’s birthday. (Too much information for a mother to know, I know, but it’s so cool.) Justin was the most amazing dichotomy of a human being. He would quite happily beat the crap out of anyone, but if you needed help or you were an animal, you had a loyal and loving friend. When he was a little boy anytime we walked down the street I had to give money to the homeless people or I got such a lecture from him. I was in San Francisco recently with friends and we all went home broke from emptying our pockets in his memory. Next time you meet someone in need, give a little bit, in Justin’s honor.
Justin Robert Levens, 4/18/80 – 12/17/08. Tried to do his best, but he could not.