ZEPHYRHILLS — At a small house party early Sunday, a man with anger issues kept clashing with an aspiring "ultimate fighter."
To defuse the tension, friends offered to set up a supervised fight. Like in the mixed martial arts fighting enjoyed by 19-year-old Samuel Smith of Wesley Chapel, there would be rules about where to hit and when to stop.
That orchestrated fight never happened, according to witness Jason Wansor, 27. Instead, it was a spontaneous fight in a carport around 1 a.m. that led to 27-year-old Richard Starks Jr. knocking out Smith, his blows laying the larger man onto a chair.
Bleeding near the eyes and the bridge of his nose, Smith stopped breathing after a few minutes, Wansor said. Partygoers called an ambulance to the house party at 4422 Transue Drive and tried to resuscitate him.
Smith died at a hospital, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Hours later, Starks was arrested at a Zephyrhills house where he lives with his children, wife and parents. He faces second-degree murder charges and was taken to jail.
"They did want to fight each other," Wansor said. "But to have somebody die over it is the last thing you'd ever expect."
The Sheriff's Office did not release a motive for the fight. According to Wansor, the fatal fisticuffs appeared to emerge from a few minor insults. Starks, whom his friends call "Red" after the color of his hair, didn't like Smith calling him a "ginger." He didn't like Smith taunting him for having "weak knees."
Wansor said the confrontation also may have gained momentum from the vodka and Sailor Jerry rum consumed at the gathering of about 10 people.
In 12 years of friendship, Wansor said he has never seen Starks get into a fight.
"I think he was just being a little protective," he said, "and just trying to make sure he wasn't going to get whooped."
Family members describe Starks as a passive father of two, a worker in a plastic factory in Plant City with an affinity for fixing cars. He's the middle "Ricky" between his father, Rick, and his own son, little Ricky.
But Starks also gets frustrated easily, his wife said, so he had learned to take medication and walk away when agitation builds.
"He's not a fighter," Starks' 48-year-old father, Rick, said. "He's never been a fighter."
State records show Starks Jr. was arrested in 2002 on a battery charge, and again in 2004 for violating a domestic violence injunction.
Smith's family could not be reached for comment Sunday.
According to Wansor, the witness to the fight and a recent acquaintance of Smith's, the 19-year-old was a good fighter but not aggressive, the type who liked to spar in the back yard but didn't seem to instigate fights.
Smith's Facebook page lists full-contact fighting as a sport he plays and mixed martial arts as one of his interests. It also says he attended Wiregrass Ranch High School in the class of 2010.
Experts say it's unusual for a fistfight to turn deadly. Without special training, fighters often don't strike with enough force to cause significant damage to a vital organ, according to Dr. David Ciesla, medical director of the trauma center at Tampa General Hospital.
"Sometimes there's a lucky shot," he said. But punches to the head tend to cause fractures, bruises or swelling, Ciesla said, more often than serious cerebral hemorrhages or severe concussions.
"It's really rare to hit hard enough to cause a brain injury that bad," he said.
While drinking alcohol may fuel fights, it doesn't necessarily change the threshold of injury that a body can withstand, according to Ciesla.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.