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MMA The “Outlaw” Sport Went To “Outlaw” States

Posted on 02/15/2011

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was not the type of event that was going to meet very well with the subtleties of regulation. As originally mapped out, it was a wild, freelance affair; no one really knew what was going to happen when, for instance, grapplers fought karate practitioners, sumo wrestlers fought judo players, ju-jitsu experts fought boxers, etc.

What is for sure is that it was combat – and as such it was likely that the administrations in the various states were going to see it as something that would fall under the authority of their respective athletic commissions.  Athletic commissions were primarily concerned with professional boxing, although some had dabbled in kick boxing and some also had an interest in wrestling (though for the most part, it was only for the sake of picking up some easy revenue). Many of the athletic commissions across the country were ad hoc organizations, with ceremonial appointments and not staffed with full-time personnel. This was especially the case in states where there was not a lot of boxing activity.

Under an organization called the Association of Boxing Commissions, a trade association without true regulatory standing, there was a little more order among commissions. There was also a lot of influence that was being exerted, as the states which were “big” for boxing tended to leave their footprint on the states that were not so big. This brought a certain amount of peer pressure, causing some athletic commissioners to emulate the policies of states they were “friendly” with, although they had no obligation to do so.

Athletic commissions were used to boxing, and as mentioned, some of them regulated kick boxing on those infrequent occasions when shows of that kind were promoted, but they were not at all ready for what the UFC was selling. None of them really took part in the regulation of point karate, grappling, shoot fighting, kung fu, judo, ju-jitsu or sumo wrestling. With bare-handed punches being permitted, along with head butts, choke holds, and other submission techniques, there was very little the UFC had that was going to fit into the sensibilities the commissions had about boxing, and even less chance that is was going to be looked kindly upon from a regulatory standpoint.

In fact, some of the athletic commissioners came out violently against the mixed martial arts contest, using words that are still heard to this day – “brutal,” “bloodbath,” a “human cockfight.” Obviously there was going to be an image problem for any commission that embraced the UFC, and there were also political considerations, since all commission members are political patronage appointees.

Rather than waste a lot of time seeking that kind of approval, Art Davie, who was stewarding the UFC through the early times, looked to states that were more “lenient.” And this meant states without athletic commissions. In 1993, not every state had an athletic commission or any other provision for the regulation of boxing. Davie found a state without an athletic commission (Colorado) that had a major city to draw from (Denver). This made it ideal among states like Wyoming, Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alabama that didn’t have commissions either. There was also a big-league venue – the McNichols Arena, home to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.

This trend continued throughout the early history of the UFC, which, at various times, parked itself in locales like Charlotte, Tulsa, Casper and Birmingham, which did not fall within the jurisdictions of a regulatory body, and even found its way into some places with weak commissions, like Puerto Rico, Mississippi, Iowa and Michigan.

Over the years, and with rule changes, the UFC overcame many of these objections in major boxing states, although the struggle likely will not be complete for quite some time. One would have to believe that 50 years from now, somewhere in a dark corner will still be calling mixed martial arts a “human cockfight.”

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