Michigan lawmakers take aim at underground mixed martial arts matches
Two combatants in a cage punching, kicking and wrestling the other into submission is an adrenaline rush that has captivated fans of so-called "mixed martial arts."
The full-contact power sport features a mix of fighting techniques and has exploded in the last two years in Michigan and around the country. Next Saturday fans are expected to flock to DeVos Place to see the "Best of the Best MMA Cage Fight."
Michigan, like many states, legalized professional MMA fights in 2008, setting regulations for safety and event licensing.
But a growing number of amateur events fly below the regulation radar. Held in barns and backyards, the amateur contests feature young fighters, who are unpaid, but motivated by aspirations of future fame and riches.
Some legislators and promoters say kids are being drawn into dangerous situations with the promise of hitting the big time, though no one tracks the total number of men and women participating.
"Someone is going to get killed unless we ensure some safety," said Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, sponsor of bipartisan legislation to regulate amateur MMA. "I am trying to get rid of the bad actors, who are making a lot of money off kids trying to work their way up to becoming a professional."
Paul Simpson, CEO of Ground & Pound Promotions in Ionia, is among those backing the bill. He said the legislation can weed out "unscrupulous and nefarious individuals" capitalizing on the popularity of the sport.
People are "slapping up cages in pole barns, bars and backyards" putting fighters in dangerous situations, Simpson said. Simpson and Izzy Quintanilla, a Holland MMA event coordinator organizing the Aug. 28 DeVos event, said shady promoters take shortcuts when it comes to health and safety for a bigger payout. For example, they don't hire a physician to be on site during the matches.
Just like any contact sport there are broken bones, sprains and concussions. But more serious incidents can lead to seizures, highlighting the need for physicians. Agema said the legislation would do a few things to mimic the professional rules geared toward safety, adding these requirements:
• A licensed physician in attendance at fights.
• Fighters undergo medical exams to ensure fitness, including blood tests.
• Testing for controlled substances or enhancers.
• Promoter insure fighter for medical/hospital expenses.
• Promoter is licensed to hold an event.
Just like with the professionals, a commission would be created for regulatory and licensing purposes.
"This legislation is not only for the safety of the fighter but that fighter's family because it forces promoters, for one thing, to make sure fighters have blood work done to verify they don't have communicable diseases such as hepatitis or HIV," said Simpson.
MMA fighting can be brutal and bloody. But it's illegal to pay amateurs. Some amateurs recently training at the Grand Rapids Mixed Martial Arts gym said they liked the safety proposals.
"Blood testing is a big issue with fighters because nobody wants to catch anything," said Bradley Morgan, 21, of Grand Rapids, who at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds has a 7-0 record. "I think it's cool they are trying to help us out."
Sparta's Cody Stamann, 20, described MMA fighters as "modern day gladiators."
"These are some of most elite athletes in the world and that's feeding its popularity," said Stamann, who is 12-0 in the featherweight category. "They (lawmakers) should look at how much training a fighter has had before they step in the cage because that is a safety issue, too."
The legislation doesn't regulate training but does prohibit a professional from getting in the ring with an amateur, something Simpson said some promoters might engage in to fill the fight card and draw a bigger crowd.
"We don't want to over-regulate but make sure there are safeguards for kids, including that promotes be in good standing," said Rep. Roy Schmidt, D-Grand Rapids, one of four local bill co-sponsors. "It's getting so popular we need to tighten things up. Anything can happen in some of these venues without these protections."
Schmidt, whose family has long been involved in state and local Golden Gloves tournaments, said the move to keep people from getting hurt is similar to what happened with amateur boxing.
Quintanilla said there will be up to 15 bouts at the DeVos event. He said the safety precautions lawmakers are seeking will be done for the event such as blood and drug testing and a physician present.
"This legislation is well over due because of the high probability of getting hurt and having contact with blood," said Quintanilla. "The bad promoters are cancer for the sport because they cut corners. We know who they are and this can keep them from putting kids are risk."