I grew up in Hawaii and was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu at age 12 when my dad signed me up for classes at the Relson Gracie Academy. I got serious about it when I went to college in Colorado and met Renzo Gracie prodigy Amal Easton. In July of 2012, at 28, I was appointed by the governor of Wyoming to be the country’s newest, and youngest, combat sports commissioner.
In order for any mixed martial arts fight to count, a state or tribal regulatory commission must deem it valid. Last year, Wyoming passed legislation to create an athletic commission focused on MMA. Before that, MMA was legal but unregulated. This meant anyone could put a cage in a parking lot and sell tickets. Other states used to suspend fighters for simply competing in Wyoming, and justifiably so. Unsanctioned MMA is rough: no blood testing, no ringside doctors, no medical insurance -- I could go on and on. Five of the eight total deaths that have occurred during MMA’s lifespan have happened during unsanctioned events.
The biggest MMA communities are where the Brazilians are, and Brazilians generally move to warm places. So, if you live in a flyover state, you probably don’t have access to a high-profile jiu-jitsu or Muay Thai academy. But states like Wyoming don’t have major sports teams either, and that doesn’t stop locals from following and participating in those sports. The advance of technology has allowed Anderson Silva to be just as accessible as LeBron James. It's the bottom of the MMA iceberg you don’t see — an army of 20-year-olds watching instructional videos and dying for a fight.
Not everyone enters MMA with the aim of becoming a UFC champion. At the heart of any sport are the daily competitors – those people who use it as an outlet. They do it to add value and culture to their lives. It gives the life of a coal miner in small-town Wyoming different layers and meaning. Competing in front of his family is a big deal. This is where MMA really matters, visible for what it is, at its most raw form. It doesn’t look as nice out here in the Square States, but that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be nice; it just has to be safe.
When the Fertitta brothers and Dana White turned the UFC around more than a decade ago, they talked famously about “running towards regulation.” At the time, the public viewed MMA as a blood sport. In order for the sport to gain trust and acceptance, it would have to go the way of boxing, meaning regulation by state and tribal governments. New Jersey and Nevada’s boxing commissions were first to regulate MMA, and the Unified Rules of MMA were written.
Since then, 47 other states have taken a stab at regulating the sport. The most commonly known problem with these commissions is that they usually assign boxing judges, notorious for being unable to score the ground-portion of an MMA bout. Dana White is so tired of dealing with this that he adorned the Ultimate Fighter gym with a sign that reads, “Never leave it in the hands of the judges.”
The first thing I did as Wyoming Combat Sports commissioner/executive director was license independent officials with Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA experience. Not boxers, not karate-folk, but people from MMA. It's shocking how many people feel comfortable regulating a sport they have never participated in. Easy fix.
The real problem with state regulation is that states are not advocates of MMA. The people in charge of voting on MMA policy are most often bureaucrats and political appointees, and they all have different perceptions about amateurs. The result is zero consistency at the bottom rungs of the sport. If a state is scared of MMA, they set up licensing requirements that are too expensive for small promotions. The states that only oversee professional bouts do so out of sheer distaste for the amateur scene or because their sluggish, expensive, and outdated athletic commissions can’t make it work financially.
At the same time, if the UFC decides to bless your state with an event, you’re set. Colorado made $62,000 from UFC 150. But, smaller states can’t rely on the UFC. Some commissions have even tried to tax the pay-per-view revenue of the UFC. In 2011, 64% of the Oklahoma Athletic Commission’s total revenue came from a pay-per-view tax. They simply could not figure out how to survive financially without it, so they put their burden on the sport’s most successful business: Someone in my state watched your event on TV? Pay my small athletic commission. Makes sense.
MMA should stand on its own. I keep hearing that only lowlifes operate MMA promotions in small markets, but this is only true if the regulatory body is unable to effectively create standards in that area. The first sanctioned event in Wyoming was in a farm town of 7000 people. The promoter, who works at a hospital, started an LLC to offer a venue for local talent. He made 15 grand that night on tickets and drinks. Every kid in that town was there. So was a doctor and three EMTs. The fighters were so stoked to have competed in fights that actually counted that when the event was over, I couldn’t tell who’d won and who’d lost.
With a little work, it’s easy for a promoter to cover state fees, as long they are appropriate for the given market (I’m looking at you, Texas, with your $30,000 surety bond requirement). My commission only netted $500 from that first event, but I don’t need any more than that to stay solvent. I gave up my physical office. My faxes are converted to .PDF files. I am not burdening a young sport with state retirement programs and Windows97. My agency infrastructure consists of a Google Voice number, a bunch of GoPro cameras, and a laptop.
So the challenge is as much about perception as it is about modernizing the regulatory process. Amateur MMA needs a marketing team. Perception of a sport is defined by its lowest and most unglamorous expression, and most people in this country still hate on minor-league MMA. Nobody at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas needs convincing, but the general manager of the local fairgrounds sure does. So do local cops, who try to require an obnoxious amount of officers at events while charging $65 an hour for each one. It feels like MMA is getting profiled in these red states, I swear.
Commissions need to start acting more like league organizers than police departments. I am confident that MMA is a safe sport. The weekend warrior coal miner might not have the most technical armbar, but he trains hard, and he deserves to participate no matter where he lives. State governments should bend toward that athlete out of good faith that the sport is legitimate. Unfortunately, these bureaucrats are not down for the cause.