Critical Mass: Will The Bay State Regulate MMA?

(Aniss Alhajjajy takes Brent Reed’s back at WCF 8. Props to World Championship Fighting.)

If legislation to sanction MMA in Massachusetts passes it could be a blessing or a curse depending on whom you ask. Marc Ratner, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the UFC, says the state’s biggest venues want to host the MMA standard-bearer, and the accompanying economic benefits are music to the ears of a cash-strapped state government. But some in the local MMA community are leery of entrusting their sport to a commission that once proved little more than a nuisance that took 5% of the gate, especially now that the sport has successfully policed itself for years. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Mike Littlefield, a matchmaker and co-promoter for the Massachusetts-based Full Force Productions.

But the economic benefits of holding a large-scale MMA event in Boston are hard to ignore. A UFC-commissioned HR&A Advisors study released in November says one of the promotion’s cards in New York City would create $11.5 million in new spending, and generate more than $500,000 in tax revenue for the state. Ratner expects similar numbers for a Boston event.

The Massachusetts State Boxing Commission sanctioned mixed martial arts events from 2002 until 2005. Once lawyers discovered that the statutes surrounding boxing did not extend to MMA, they stopped regulating the sport. “We’re not going anywhere where the sport is not regulated, and that’s our goal: Wherever there’s an athletic commission, [we want] to get the sport regulated,” Ratner says. Massachusetts is one of eight states with athletic commissions who have not regulated the sport.

Just after the Massachusetts Boxing Commission released its regulatory grip on mixed martial arts in 2005, members of the local MMA community organized a meeting. “We said, ‘You know what, we’ll govern ourselves,’” says Littlefield. No paper was signed, but the promoters, school owners, and fighters in attendance agreed on some common principles: don’t sign your fighters to shows that don’t require blood work; ensure promoters stick to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts or stricter variants; and don’t do anything to draw negative attention to the sport. This doctrine has guided MMA in the state ever since.

In July of 2008, Massachusetts state senator and public safety committee chairman James Timilty again introduced an amendment to a state budget proposal to sanction professional and amateur mixed martial arts under the boxing commission. Timilty says the amendment failed because of the unorthodox way it was presented, not because of opposition to the bill itself. The bill was reintroduced during the 2009 legislative session and passed but no further action has been taken yet. The economic outlook for Massachusetts has become increasingly bleak, a fact that Timilty says has made some former opponents look at sanctioning with fresh eyes. “Leaving a revenue stream on the table doesn’t make sense at this point,” he says.

The UFC’s presence in Massachusetts could also boost attendance at already-packed local fight cards. Joe Cavallaro, founder of the World Championship Fighting promotion and manager of UFC fighter Kenny Florian, says most of the audience at the first UFC in Boston would be attending their first fight. “That gives me an opportunity to market back to those people and say, ‘You know, we’re not the UFC, but we’re the next best thing,’ ” he says. Littlefield, who also owns the Boneyard Freestyle Fighting gym, agrees that a UFC in Massachusetts would likely benefit his businesses.

But outside of one helpful commissioner, Littlefield has few fond memories of the state’s previous oversight of the sport. “We were kind of at the mercy of idiots,” he says. He recalls one rules meeting before an amateur event in which a delegate from the commission impulsively decided to require competing fighters to wear T-shirts, then reversed course when a fighter asked if he could use the garment to choke his opponent.

Some lapses were more egregious. A state-appointed referee approached Bill Mahoney, co-owner of the South Shore Sportfighting and Fitness gym, before a fight to ask why a fighter would tap when caught in an armbar. That level of ignorance concerns the gym owner. “I don’t know that the state isn’t going to hire the nephew of whoever is put in charge to hire people because he used to do Kung Fu,” Mahoney says.

Sanctioning would likely require more medical testing. Mahoney says some of his fighters have had to fork over a few thousand dollars for CT scans and MRIs when fighting out of state. The increased expense of competing, he says, could narrow the field of fighters. Cavallaro believes more stringent requirements might preclude some older fighters from competing, but ultimately, he says, “I think the guys who want to fight are going to do what they need to do to fight.”

Ratner says he doesn’t expect sanctioning to adversely impact local promoters. Timilty agrees: “Having the local clubs and participants adhere to these regulations is not onerous. They’ll still have their niche in the market.” Littlefield says that the commission might even help weed out fly-by-night promoters; Mahoney concedes state involvement might help ensure fighters get paid and prevent flagrant mismatches. “I’m not even necessarily totally opposed to a commission,” Mahoney says. “I just don’t see the reason for it. [Massachusetts MMA] right now is fine.”

Whether or not they agree with the how and why, Mahoney, Cavallaro, Ratner, Timilty, and Littlefield all expect mixed martial arts to be sanctioned in Massachusetts very soon. “I just think it’s a matter of time,” Ratner says. “When we look at our pay-per-view numbers and our Spike TV ratings, the Northeast is just a hotbed for MMA.”

And while he is wary of the officials that the commission might appoint, Littlefield is both optimistic and fatalistic about regulation. “I think sanctioning can be done, and I think it can be done in a manner that benefits everyone,” he says. “Whether I like it or not, it’s going to happen, so hopefully we can all get along.”

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