From outside, the bar looked like any other. But beyond the dining room and through a winding hallway, a back room opened up to reveal a giant metal cage. Inside, two men grew bloody as they wrestled, punched and kicked in front of a yelling crowd.
Despite the violent combat, no state officials were on hand to protect the fighters. Nor was it necessary for promoters to hire a private, third-party officiating company — called a sanctioning body — to oversee the match. Instead, Illinois law essentially allows the sport to regulate itself.
A brutal and illegal underground activity for years, amateur mixed martial arts is now permitted in 46 states. The combination of boxing, wrestling and martial arts is growing in popularity, and there are amateur bouts almost weekly in Illinois. A recent event in Springfield drew 2,500.
Other states have moved to increase oversight and efforts to protect fighters, but Illinois has gone in the opposite direction. Last year, a change to the law eliminated a requirement that the state sign off on amateur events, and organizers are required only to notify the state of an event 20 days in advance.
The state no longer requires blood testing to verify that fighters don't have AIDS, HIV or hepatitis B. And while the revised law says events must provide protections including on-site medical staff, safety equipment and standards for striking techniques, it does not define what is acceptable or require proof of compliance.
Unlike amateur boxing, amateur mixed martial arts, or MMA, has no national organization to set safety standards.
Only one fighter in North America is believed to have died as a result of competing in the sport — he was a professional — but some Illinois trainers and fighters say amateurs' safety is being put at risk because of reduced regulation.
"This is a legitimate sport, and it deserves that attention and the people in it deserve that attention," said Alex Trujillo, owner of Midwest Training Center in Schaumburg. "You don't want to fight a guy that you don't know his blood work. You don't want to fight a guy who was picked out of the crowd."
Bruce Hertz, a doctor who works amateur and professional fights, said he is "dismayed and very disappointed" that the blood testing mandate was repealed. "It has put myself, the referee, the opposing fighter, the judges, scorekeepers, timekeepers — everyone — at risk," he said.
Some in the sport welcome a smaller state role. Rob Zbilski, a Huntley martial arts instructor and promoter, supported changing the law because, he said, the state should stick to regulating professionals. "The way they have it now is the best way it should be," he said.
Thanks to flashy marketing efforts by promoters and some safety improvements, mixed martial arts has evolved in the last 15 years or so from no-holds-barred brawling.
But mixed martial arts is still a fierce, physical activity that can leave men and women with broken noses, bruises painted across their bodies and a dazed look. Bouts are usually held in a cage, and fighters can triumph by holding their opponents into submission or knocking them unconscious.
In the absence of national oversight, states write their own rulebooks. Illinois is one of 15 states where amateur MMA is legal but largely unregulated, according to the Association of Boxing Commissions.
Nevada requires promoters of amateur bouts to be licensed and to insure fighters. In California and Pennsylvania, fighters with fewer than three bouts may not face more experienced opponents. In New Jersey, which legalized amateur mixed martial arts in 2005 and has been cited as a model, amateurs must be licensed. The same goes for Ohio. None of that is required in Illinois.
After Jake Gilski, 21, from Morris, made his amateur debut in January, he had bruises on his head from elbow hits by an opponent — the type of hit that in most states is prohibited on the amateur level. In another Illinois bout in December, a fighter was briefly knocked out after an opponent hit him in the head with a knee. Other states, including Ohio and New Jersey, explicitly prohibit knees or kicks to the head for amateurs.
"The overall concern for any commission should be health and safety first and foremost, and I have a very strong opinion that if you don't regulate it you should ban it," said Nick Lembo, legal counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board since 1995. "The same danger that's inherent in the pros is also there in the amateurs."
When Illinois legalized the sport in 2004, the law said sanctioning bodies had to oversee amateur events. In 2008 it required state approval of the bodies, but officials did not approve any until Feb. 20, 2009. Around the same time, the Illinois Athletic Commission — which supervises MMA and boxing under the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation — installed temporary administrative rules that required sanctioning bodies to conduct blood testing.
Last May, however, Rep. Rob Rita, D-Blue Island, and Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, a candidate for state treasurer, pushed through legislation that reduced regulation of amateur martial arts. The law took effect in August.
Both lawmakers said the changes — added to a bill originally about roofing laws — were intended to make it easier to hold karate tournaments for children. Attorneys for the state eliminated sanctioning and state authorization, they said, because the athletic commission wanted to clean up all the laws about combat sports.
Commission President Ron Puccillo declined to comment for this report. In a statement, IDPR spokeswoman Sue Hofer said those wider changes were necessary to "prevent unintended consequences."
The revised rules governing amateurs are four sentences long. They authorize the state to discipline event organizers who fail to notify the state 20 days in advance, and commission attorney Daniel Kelber said the panel began enforcing that provision in November. But state officials do not have to approve events or the people running them.
"If you don't pay attention or regulate it, I would assume they're not concerned about it," said Trujillo, the gym owner.
"We continue to work to mitigate the inherent danger of these sports," Hofer said in a statement.
It can be hard to tell amateur mixed martial arts bouts from professional events, as the atmosphere is usually the same: a grandiose production involving a metal cage, neon lights and loud music; round card girls in bikinis; and group tables that can cost more than $300.
But unlike amateur fights, professional MMA events are subject to regulations similar to those used for professional boxing. For example, medical evaluations and other documents must be filed with the state before and after fights.
Without state fees, amateur fights are much cheaper to organize and occur far more frequently. There were only 10 pro shows in Illinois last year.
Josh Bulak, a gym owner who manages amateurs, said allowing the people running events to operate without oversight could mean a return to the "old days when it was like the Wild, Wild West."
Eight complaints were filed in 2009 before the legal changes took effect, and four led to penalties, according to the state.
Last year, when sanctioning bodies were required, one of them — Combat Consulting — prevented 13 amateur fighters in Illinois from competing because of blood testing violations. It also canceled a Galesburg show after a doctor found phony blood work. Now testing isn't required.
Rockford gym owner Aurelio DeLaRosa said he encourages his fighters to finish quickly, minimizing risk of exposure to blood and communicable diseases. "The reason we go in and train so hard is so that we can walk into the ring and we can get that fight over with as fast as possible," DeLaRosa said.
Chris Garcia, who turned pro in January after two years as an amateur, said the repeal of blood testing surprised him. More regulation would improve safety and hold promoters accountable, he said.
"With the refs, with the blood work, with everything — there's no consistency if there's no governing body," said Garcia, 20, of Algonquin. "You get those people who aren't looking out for the safety of the athletes."
It's unclear if mixed martial arts is more dangerous than boxing. Some fighters and trainers say MMA is safer because fighters don't suffer endless punches to the head and fighters can "tap out," or voluntarily stop a fight. Little research has been done, but a 2006 study found the injury rate was similar to that of boxing and other combat sports.
"You've got a time-honored classic sport like boxing being challenged by a new and exciting sport, but we don't have long-term data on MMA and we don't have long-term follow-up," said Julian Bailes, a West Virginia University neurologist and co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, whose research helped persuade the NFL to overhaul its concussions policy.
"Big" John McCarthy, a former referee for Ultimate Fighting Championships who officiates events worldwide, said fighters' safety goes unchecked by some promoters because it costs them too much.
"There are good promoters out there that do things right, that want to have safe fights and want to have everything done right, and there are ones that don't give a damn," said McCarthy, who lives in California. "They just want to make a buck."