State Readies for First Martial Arts Fight After Ban Lifted
By Jordan Robertson, The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO—Mixed martial arts cage fighting debuted in the United States in the early 1990s, drawing huge pay-per-view audiences as a renegade blood sport with few rules and the tantalizing prospect of gory injuries, even death, in every match.
Commonly known as Ultimate Fighting, after its biggest promoter, the sport soon drew the ire of politicians like U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who famously called the events “human cockfighting” and successfully lobbied for their removal from television.
Bans followed in many states, and by the end of the decade, the full-contact blend of street brawling and martial arts was forced underground.
Now, the sport that traces its roots to ancient Greece and was popularized by Brazilian jiujitsu fighters has undergone an image makeover and states are taking a hard second look.
Since 2001, promoters have won regulatory approval in at least 20 states, including Nevada, New Jersey, Texas and Florida. They tout strict new safety rules, multimillion dollar ticket sales and pay-per-view contracts for major events in legal states.
Perhaps the most closely watched developments have taken place here in California.
Long considered a bellwether state for mixed martial arts because of its large fan base, California became the latest to approve the sport on Dec. 28, when the state athletics commission lifted a ban on fights outside American Indian lands, ending a five-year regulatory battle.
The first legal fight is planned for March 10 in San Jose and will include former Ultimate Fighting champion Frank Shamrock, possibly the biggest name in the sport. Thirty or so others are expected for later this year.
Regulators and promoters say safe, sanctioned fights here could persuade other states to drop their bans, said Armando Garcia, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission.
“As California goes, so will MMA,” he said. “If we do it properly, you’re going to have a completely different image to the sport. If we screw it up, well, then we’re going to have some problems. But I don’t plan on doing that.”
Even during the ban, there were three or four mixed martial arts fights each weekend in California. They were held in bars, barns and warehouses, often billed as no-holds-barred slugfests, with eye-gouging, hair-pulling and groin hits that are prohibited in sanctioned events, Garcia said.
“You can’t just let it go and be done in John’s barn or in a casino where it’s unsupervised,” he said. “You have to take it over and implement proper rules.”
But not every state is buying it.
The sport is not regulated in at least 21 states including Illinois, Missouri and Connecticut.
Mixed martial arts events are banned in New York state under a 1997 law. Fighters and promoters face fines of $10,000, and felony charges for repeat offenses, said Hugo Spindola, general counsel for the New York State Athletic Commission.
The commission has no immediate plans to sanction the sport because it’s unclear how many injuries actually take place without mandatory federal and state reporting requirements, Spindola said.
“We’re not convinced yet of this sport’s safety,” he said. “Until you can really prove these tactics don’t have long-term effects or aren’t more dangerous than existing sports, I don’t really know how much further it
can go in New York.”
There has been at least one reported death in a mixed martial arts event. Douglas Dedge, 31, of Florida died of serious brain injuries in 1998 after a fight in the Ukraine. But supporters argue there are far more every year
in other combat sports, like boxing.
Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White said the company aggressively courted regulation as a way to change the sport’s outlaw image after the company changed ownership in 2001. It even hired a lobbyist in California to shepherd the process through state government.
“Instead of running from the regulation, we ran toward it,” he said. “‘What can we do to make this a legitimate sport and make you guys feel comfortable with this?'”
Tom Call, a columnist for the MMA Weekly online news site, said California’s approval is a milestone in the sport’s move toward legitimacy.
“This says to other states that California has really looked at the data and has gotten past the human cockfighting image and considers this a sport,” Call said.
Shamrock, 33, who stopped fighting full-time in 1999 after winning five UFC middleweight world titles, said there is more money and prestige now in the sport. He stands to make up to $250,000 on the March 10 fight alone.
“The political firestorm that we experienced in the 1990s had died down because there’s more important issues to tackle,” he said. “Fighting in a cage is not a big deal anymore.”
The sport is also creating a new breed of young fighters who have grown bored with traditional contact sports such as wrestling and boxing and have fallen in love with the faster pace and more realistic combat of mixed martial arts.
Gilbert Melendez, 23, of Daly City, grew up watching Ultimate Fighting Championship events and quit his college wrestling team in 2001 to fight full-time, against his mother’s wishes.
Melendez, who is scheduled to fight on the March 10 undercard, has since compiled a 10-0 record including 9 knockouts in fights around the country and in Japan. His mother still refuses to watch.
“It’s an addictive sport,” he said recently while working out at a gym in San Francisco. “It’s the best high ever when you win a fight. It feels like you’ve been in a real street fight. There’s no feeling like it.”