Some Connecticut sports fans are ready for a fight.
Mixed martial arts — the fast-growing sport that combines punching, kicking, grappling, kneeing and elbowing, between contestants trained in a mixture of combat styles like wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu — can be seen on pay-per-view television events and on other channels, most prominently in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Oct. 23’s UFC 121, the most recent event presented by the organization, earned about 1 million pay-per-view purchases, according to the MMA website bloodyelbow.com.
West Hartford resident James Donahue, and others, would like to see it become legal for the UFC, Strikeforce and other organizations to present ultimate fighting contests at Connecticut venues and in downtown Hartford. But the current Connecticut statutes don’t permit it, according to a legal interpretation from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, although training in mixed martial arts is allowed.
“Because the current boxing Regulations prohibit the fighting techniques used in MMA, and there is no statutory authority for MMA, MMA events cannot take place in Connecticut without a legislative change,” stated Blumenthal in a Dec. 8, 2008, correspondence with State Boxing Commission Chairman James Krayeske, Jr.
In 2009, State Sen. Jonathan Harris proposed a bill that would have regulated the sport and made MMA competitions legal. Harris proposed the bill after being approached by Donahue, who he credits with interesting him in the topic.
The legislature’s Public Safety Committee discussed the bill, but it did not progress further. State Rep. Stephen Dargan, one of the committee’s co-chairs, said he wanted further information about the sport and was willing to discuss it again.
“It has grown in popularity,” said Dargan. “It’s what people want to see.”
Harris said the bill was not re-introduced this year due to a shorter legislative session in which budget issues were prioritized. Donahue said that he and others plan to ask legislators to bring it up during next year’s session.
John Danaher III, who was commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety at that time, stated in a correspondence to the committee that he recommended against approval of the bill. He wrote it was primarily due to the fiscal and operational strain it would impose on his department, which he claimed was overburdened with the responsibility of policing boxing in the state. He also stated that certain techniques allowed under MMA but not in boxing, such as striking a downed opponent, had a greater risk of harming a competitor.
The letter does not contain actual statistics, although at least two fighter deaths are allegedly linked to injuries sustained in non-UFC events: Sam Vasquez about three years ago at an event in Houston, Texas, and Michael Kirkham earlier this year at a South Carolina event. Supporters of the sport claim far more deaths can be attributed to boxing, although former professional boxer John Scully of Windsor emphasized that boxing has been around for considerably longer.
Spokespersons for the Office of the Department of Public Safety state that James Thomas, the current commissioner, shares Danaher’s position.
The current statutes do allow regulated boxing. Wrestling is also permitted under the supervision of schools or colleges.
Spokespeople for Blumenthal’s office stated that MMA events were permitted at the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos because these are located on American Indian reservations, which are considered Domestically Dependent Sovereign Nations and have their own gaming regulations.
Jim Hughes, a martial arts instructor who taught Donahue the art of Gracie Jiu-Jjitsu (a style of the art developed by the late Helio Gracie of Brazil), testified in favor of the bill. He said Connecticut was among the few states left that have not sanctioned MMA despite potential benefits such as job creation and revenues generated for the state from gate proceeds at convention centers and other venues. (Hughes studied directly under former UFC champion Royce Gracie, one of Helio’s sons.)
The sport has evolved since the first UFC event in 1993, which initially offered bouts between practitioners of different individual combat styles rather than fighters trained in more than one style. Zuffa, LLC acquired the organization about nine years ago and removed the tournament format. Weight classes and new rules were imposed and fighters trained in a mixture of techniques drawn from different fighting styles are now required to wear special four-ounce gloves with fingers that allow for grappling.
Craig Salamone, the vice president of operations and director of boxing and mixed martial arts for the Lion’s Den training facility in Middletown, argued that MMA, in which participants can signify surrender verbally or through “tapping out” and referees can stop fights, is safer than boxing. Hughes said that while boxers are repeatedly punched in the head for several rounds, MMA fighters typically grapple as well as strike for only three rounds.
New Britain resident Nick Faraone, who describes himself as a devout fan of MMA, said following the sport’s evolution has been part of the fun. He rattled off the athletic credentials of some of the participants, who include former Olympic contenders and NCAA Division I wrestling champions. “I think people should see it before judging it,” he said.
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