Combat Sport in the Spotlight
By Joseph Popiolkowski , Staff Writer
The rising popularity of mixed martial arts - also known by more brutish aliases such as"extreme fighting" - has states scrambling to regulate a sport termed a human chess match by supporters and sheer violence by critics.
Mixed martial arts features bouts between two trained athletes who use a combination of martial arts holds, chops and kicks, grappling, wrestling and boxing to garner a victory through knockout or submission. Fighters battle for three, five-minute rounds with championship bouts lasting for five, five-minute rounds.
Mixed martial arts has existed since the early 1990s but only since 1996 has it followed a set of unified rules, according to Tim Lueckenhoff, national president of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) and an administrator with the Missouri Boxing Commission . "Before then, there were very few rules that protected the participants from serious injury," he said.
Some states are harnessing the sport's popularity to generate tax revenue, while virtually the same number have taken a "not in my backyard" stance.
Mixed martial arts is a legal, regulated sport in at least19 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington.
The top sanctioned mixed martial-arts events in Nevada, which allows and regulates the sport, have drawn more than 10,000 in paid attendance and gross sales that stretch well into seven figures, according to the Nevada State Athletic Commission .
"Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country," said Lueckenhoff. "State and tribal commissions are racing to make sure they can regulate it, because it's another revenue source for them."
As of July 1, all mixed martial-arts shows in Georgia require approval by a state-licensed sanctioning authority, according to Tom Mishou, an administrator with the Georgia Boxing Commission .
The sport is not regulated in at least 21 states: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. These states have banned mixed marital arts, have left regulation up to local communities or have taken no action.
The six states that do not have athletic commissions - Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming - either allow local communities to make the call or defer to Nevada or New Jersey, the most respected regulatory commissions in the country. The athletic commissions in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Vermont didn't respond to inquiries about their policies.
To the dismay of mixed martial-arts supporters, some states have outlawed the sport as part of bans on the more grueling "Toughman" competitions, which pit novice fighters against each other in one-minute elimination barroom brawls for nominal prizes.
State liability, the fighters' safety and the negative impact of violence on children are the main reasons boxing is the only regulated combat sport in Illinois, said state Rep.Angelo "Skip" Saviano. His 2004 law effectively outlaws Toughman slugfests.
Professional mixed martial arts were banned in Missouri in 1996 by legislation stemming from a 1995 fight in neighboring Kansas where a contender died and a chiropractor had been the ringside doctor. That fatality occurred in a Toughman contest, but legislators in the Show Me State lumped mixed martial arts into the ban.
"At that time MMA (mixed martial arts) was relatively new, and there was some confusion among the Legislature on the difference between MMA and Toughman," said Lueckenhoff, who favors strictly regulated mixed martial arts but said states that allow Toughman risk everything Saviano fears.
The ABC's membership is encouraged to disown Toughman and its imitators and most have, Lueckenhoff said. At least 24 states have come out with explicit bans on Toughman. However, promoters are known to skirt the bans by exploiting loopholes instatute language by claiming that they're hosting amateur events or by holding them on sovereign tribal reservations.
New York won a permanent injunction against Adoreable Promotions, a major Toughman promoter, to prevent the organization from holding events in the state without first being sanctioned by the office,Hugo B. Spindola, general counsel for the New York State Athletic Commission, said in an email message.
"The problem with Toughman is these guys are coming in off the street and you don't know anything about their background. You don't know if they've been trained or picked up off a barstool somewhere," Lueckenhoff said .
The media also has, by and large, failed to distinguish between Toughman and mixed martial arts. This has led to guilt by association and consistent publicity headaches for Nevada-based Zuffa, LLC, which owns the registered trademark for the term "ultimate fighting championship," the premier brand and so-called "NFL" of mixed martial arts.
The Boston Herald was forced in early June to publish a correction after a series of articles wrongly implied an "ultimate fighting" event was at the center of a controversy that erupted over a denied permit in the Bay State.
The media isn't doing its homework on this increasingly popular sport, and the general populace is still largely uneducated about it, said Zuffa's president, Dana White.
"Every day that we come in to this office, we're chasing people out there trying to use our ID," he said. "We've been out there working hard for the last four and a half years to wash away all the myths and misconceptions about UFC (ultimate fighting championship) and mixed martial arts."
The solution is to advise the media and state athletic commissions on how UFC is making the sport as safe as it can be, White said. He emphasized that "ultimate fighting" follows a set of unified rules and complies fully with all state requirements including, but not limited to, pre-fight physicals, weigh-ins, weight classes and fighter background checks.
"We run toward regulation. This is a real sport, and it should be regulated. Anyone else who is putting on an event that isn't safe and regulated isn't part of the same sport I am," White said.
The states that allow mixed martial arts can be proactive by hiring and training more referees and judges, White said. Zuffa has set up exhibitions for state regulators to view and judge for themselves. They'll be at the ABC's annual convention in late July.
The New Hampshire and North Dakota athletic commissions are both exploring the possibility of opening their states to mixed martial arts matches.
Saviano of Illinois said he has received overtures from Zuffa and, while he has reservations, would be open to a demonstration. "If they could prove it was a safe sport, a legitimate sport and came from some organized association we would be willing to take another look at it," Saviano said.