Keeping British MMA Safe

Fightland Blog

By Jake Hughes

Aside from football, beer, and greasy food, there’s nothing the British love more than a good night of fights. While our American cousins have been watching scraps closely regulated by their state athletic commissions for years, MMA contests on British soil have transpired mostly under the scrutiny of independent medical personnel hired by the promotions themselves. Over the years, many have tried to organize a unified British body for MMA mimicking the USA’s athletic commissions, but all their attempts have failed. However, a new medical scheme, SAFE MMA, has got the UK’s three biggest MMA promotions -- Cage Warriors, UCMMA and BAMMA -- on board to help improve fighter safety on these shores. Ensuring fighters undergo mandatory medicals and blood tests and implementing necessary fight suspensions, SAFE MMA is largely seen as a positive step toward MMA gaining mainstream acceptance in the UK. Following SAFE MMA’s first regulated event at UCMMA 32 on February 2, Fightland spoke to SAFE MMA board member, qualified osteopath, and MMA fighter Rosi Sexton about the aims of the project, its beginnings, and its skeptics.

How did SAFE MMA come about and who devised the project?

I was first contacted about SAFE MMA by (BAMMA Public Relations head) Izzy Carnwath, who had been talking to doctors Greg Whyte and Jack Kreindler. They developed an interest in the sport and, after talking to various people involved in MMA, became aware that in the UK there was a lack of overall regulation and standard safety measures in place for fighters. Izzy helped to bring together a group of people with an interest in improving safety in UK MMA to discuss what could be done, and the project developed from there. 

What are the aims of SAFE MMA and what will it bring to British mixed martial arts?

The aim of SAFE MMA is to provide promoters and fighters with a service that will help to improve the safety of our sport. We hope that this will also help to improve the reputation and image of our sport by proving we take fighter safety seriously. 

Why has it taken this long for a project like this to come about? 

In the UK there is no government-imposed regulation of our sport, which means we're relying on self-regulation to make developments like this happen. In many ways, this is a good thing, as it means that the changes are being driven by people inside the sport who understand and love MMA. The difficulty is that in order to make things happen, we have to get enough people from within the sport to work together. This has always been difficult, as promoters and various groups are often reluctant to put aside their differences and cooperate on a project of this scale. This has been one of the great achievements of SAFE MMA, in my view. 

Why are mandatory blood tests only now being introduced to MMA? 

Some promotions had already brought in the requirement for fighters to submit blood test results independently of SAFE MMA. The difficulty has been that in the past there have been no standards or regulations in place to encourage promoters to take this aspect of fighter safety seriously, and without a framework in place to do this, promoters may have either not understood the importance of doing so or not felt comfortable doing it themselves. 

How large is the risk/problem of blood-borne disease in MMA? Have there been any cases in the past where disease has been spread through MMA competition?

There are, to my knowledge, no documented cases where this has happened. But, for obvious reasons, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Clearly when you have two fighters, either or both of whom may be bleeding, in close physical contact, there is a risk of transmission of blood-borne diseases. HIV and hepatitis are life-changing and potentially fatal diseases, so it's important to do everything possible to minimize the risk. 

It's also important to point out that blood-borne viruses are only part of the safety package that SAFE MMA is introducing. Comprehensive fighter medicals, the recording of post-fight medical results and medical suspensions are just as important. The management of a fighter after a knock out, for example, is an important medical issue that can affect his or her long-term health and future career. 

Can you see SAFE MMA leading to the establishment of a future athletic commission for British MMA? 

SAFE MMA itself is closely focused on medical issues and fighter safety and has no ambitions to become an overall governing body. However, I think SAFE MMA will certainly be involved with any future governing body. 

This is something that is currently in development, and I hope and believe that we will see a governing body for UK MMA in place over the next few years. 

Have you faced any resistance?

I think there will always be a degree of skepticism and resistance to any new initiative or regulation, especially when it costs money. I think the degree of support that we have received from all sections of the MMA community is actually a very positive sign. Many people within the sport do care deeply about fighter safety and understand the need for something like this. 

From those who aren't yet convinced, the main complaint has been about the cost of the service. Professional fighters starting out often aren't earning a lot of money, so I can see why this might be an issue for some. SAFE MMA has done its best to make the package affordable - and are actually subsidizing some of the costs involved. I can't emphasize strongly enough that this is not a money-making venture! 

Naturally, many of the fighters and the smaller promotions are waiting to see how things develop before rushing to sign up -- which is understandable. It is up to us to prove that the system works, and this will give more people confidence in what we are doing. 

Will SAFE MMA be testing fighters for performance-enhancing drugs? If not, are there plans to?

Not at present. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs is a very big and very difficult problem. While I absolutely understand the importance of PED testing, it's not something that we're in a position to do right now. The emphasis here has to be on getting the absolute basics in place before we tackle anything else. We have to walk before we try to run. 

Check out this related story:

The British Press Loves to Ignore MMA

Fight Britannia