Natchez native, MMA fighter Thornton dies at 38

Published 6:36 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2021

NATCHEZ — MMA fighter, wrestler and Natchez native Justin Thornrton died Monday in Gulfport. He had suffered severe injuries in a knockout at the Bare Knuckle boxing championship held in Biloxi on August 20. 

Thornton was 38 years old and a friend to many, his friend and mentor Sammy Atkins said. 

Atkins said they first met when Thornton was 6 years old. His father, Ivy Ray Thornton, asked Atkins to coach his son in baseball. He said Thornton was clumsy at first but developed into a good athlete, playing football at Co-Lin Community College in Wesson from 2001 to 2003. 

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He said they were similar because both were the youngest siblings, although 10 years separated Atkins from Thornton. His father was like a second father to Atkins, he said. 

“His dad supported me throughout college with odd jobs so I could be around Justin playing baseball, roofing or maintenance,” Atkins said. “When Justin was 10 years old, he was playing in an all-star baseball team at a Dixie Youth Tournament. He hit a home run to win the game. It was exciting for us. He won the game and he hit a homerun which was pretty special.” 

Atkins said he was neighbors with Thornton and often employed him. The last time he saw Thornton was in July when he worked the weekend of Hank Williams Jr. Concert. He served as a bouncer for Andrew’s Tavern. 

Before he started fighting in MMA, Thornton worked every weekend at the bar for five or six years, he said. When his schedule got busy, he still worked there on occasion. 

“I’ve had the bar since 2007 and he has been involved on and off,” Atkins said. “I could always count on him though. We supported him at the bar and watched him on TV.” 

He is unsure when Thornton began his fighting career but believes it started in high school. In addition to MMA, Thornton competed in wrestling. He was also a promoter for wrestling events. Atkins said it was cool because he got to meet his childhood favorite wrestlers Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Junkyard Dog and Brickhouse Brown. 

What people may not know about Thornton is he was a computer guru, Atkins said. In whatever he did, he was determined. A lot of people tried to steer Thornton away from fighting, but it was his dream to be an MMA fighter and coach, Atkins said. Thornton achieved his dream going 6-18 in his fights and owning a MMA gym in Natchez called Swamp Donkey. 

His last fight was watched by many of his friends and coworkers at Andrew’s Tavern on August 20. 

“The last fight I could remember everyone in the room just becoming numb,” Atkins said, referring to the knock-out punch in the bare knuckle fight that sent Thornton to the ground. “It didn’t feel good and we were worried. I heard later they had to get him out on a stretcher. It’s demoralizing to see one of your friends hurt like that.”

As for what is next, Atkins will serve as a pallbearer at the funeral. He said he may host a fundraiser for Thornton at Andrew’s. 

“Most everyone there has seen Justin around. Most of my customers know who he is,” Atkins said. “His best friends all hang out there too. He was friends with a lot of people. He befriended anyone. He had many many friends, people can only wish to have half the friends he had.”