Elias Theodorou, an intellectual, charismatic mixed martial artist who campaigned to change the drug rules of his sport and is widely believed to have been the first professional athlete to obtain a therapeutic exemption for the use of marijuana died on September 11 at his home in Woodbridge, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. He was 34.
His brother Michael said the cause was colon cancer, which had metastasized to his liver.
Countless professional athletes are said to use marijuana – for pain, anxiety, to focus – but most sports prohibit or heavily regulate its use. In 2019, the PGA suspended golfer Matt Every for three months after he tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and in 2021, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was effectively disqualified from the Tokyo Olympics, after THC was found in her bloodstream.
Theodorou, who suffered from bilateral neuropathy that caused tingling pains in his hands and arms, didn’t want to be next. Known for his thoughtful, considered fighting style, he applied the same approach to his campaign to get permission to use marijuana during training and preparing for a fight.
He meticulously built his case, gathering research and testimony from doctors and attorneys, and documenting his own unsuccessful efforts to find an already-approved alternative such as opioids.
“What I’m aiming for is a level playing field,” he told Forbes in 2021. “Anyone with the same type of injury could take a handful of Vicodin to fight and it wouldn’t be an expense.”
Drug rules for sports like mixed martial arts are largely set at the state and provincial level, so he’s had to keep adjusting his pitch to accommodate different regulations. He received approval from the British Columbia Athletic Commission in 2020 and from a similar body in Colorado a year later. He was fighting in both jurisdictions and was planning to apply for more exemptions when he was diagnosed with cancer in January.
According to his attorney, Eric Magraken, he was the first professional athlete in North America to receive such an exemption, and very likely the first in the world.
Theodorou was already a widely admired sports figure when he championed medical marijuana.
He exploded onto the mixed martial arts scene in 2011, went undefeated in his first four years and in 2014 signed a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s premier advertising agency.
His fighting style was slow, crunchy, even a bit boring. But fans loved him for the charisma and humility he brought to a sport often stereotyped as violent and lacking in humor.
“His personality just came out and he brought that to the fight,” Sarah Kaufman, a retired mixed martial artist, said in a phone interview. “He would just be very smart. He was strategic and thoughtful.”
He made a lot of use of his long hair, which he wore in cornrows to fights but otherwise let it flow down his shoulders. He dubbed himself “The Mane Event,” maintained a Twitter account dedicated to his locks, and signed a sponsorship deal with Pert Plus, the shampoo brand.
A model and actor, Theodorou has appeared on the covers of 11 Harlequin romance novels (he joked he was “your mother’s favorite novel cover and your son’s favorite fighter”), had small roles on Canadian television shows such as The Listener and Played, and was a contestant in the Canadian version of “The Greatest Race”.
He also crossed borders. He spoke openly about his struggles with dyslexia. Instead of the usual scantily clad ring girl holding up a sign announcing the next round in a match, he did the same while moonlighting as a “ring boy” at several events hosted by Invicta, an all-female mixed martial arts circuit became.
“It was a beautiful subversion of this archaic institution,” said Geoff Girvitz, owner of Bang Personal Training in Toronto, where Theodorou often trained, in a phone interview.
A true happy warrior, Theodorou mingled with fans, tussled with other fighters and generally seemed in joyful awe at his own success.
“That’s the coolest thing,” he told The Province, a newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2014. “I am me and people want to see that, that’s cool. I just roll the punches – figuratively speaking and literally in the cage too.”
Elias Michael Theodorou was born on May 31, 1988 in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, to Gary Theodorou, a computer engineer for camera manufacturer Ricoh, and Mimi (Bouloukou) Theodorou, a vice president of operations at Bank of America. His parents and brother survive him.
Unlike most mixed martial artists, Elias did not grow up fighting; Instead, he skateboarded. He didn’t get into the sport until his freshman year at Humber College in Toronto – and it wasn’t until after a video of him losing a street fight going viral that he started looking for a way to defend himself.
“I’ve said this before, if I ever saw the guy I fought with I would take him out to dinner even though he hit me,” he told The Ottawa Sun in 2019. “It was a catalyst for a healthy career.”
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative advertising in 2010 and had his first professional match the following year.
With no background in any particular discipline, Theodorou developed a unique style, one that even two of his trainers described as “awkwardly effective,” combining techniques from martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai, as well as wrestling and boxing.
“He came into mixed martial arts as a blank slate,” Chad Pearson, his wrestling coach, said in an interview, “and got bits from wrestling, got bits from jiu-jitsu, got bits from hitting, and he literally created his own.” set of techniques.”
At 6-foot-1 and about 185 pounds, Theodorou competed as a middleweight, nicknamed Spartan. He appeared in The Ultimate Fighter Nations: Canada vs. Australia, a reality television competition, in 2013, a year before he joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Theodorou went 8-3 in his five years with the UFC and 19-3 in his career. But over time, it became apparent that his measured style didn’t suit a circuit that emphasized pyrotechnic aggression. The UFC released him from his contract after a loss to American fighter Derek Brunson in 2019.
It was a lesson and a mixed blessing. Theodorou developed a more aggressive style and went unbeaten for the rest of his career. But the UFC can be all-encompassing, and without it he’s had the freedom to pursue other interests, including his acting and his medical marijuana advocacy — and, he said, planning a time when he wouldn’t re-enter the UFC ring .
“Nobody wants to be hit in the head forever,” he told The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2016, “and I still want to find life after the fight.”