Legislator hopes to make mixed martial arts safer in Washington

Without state regulation, amateurs may keep stepping up at the last minute in fights that can only be called mismatches. It's just a matter of time before someone dies, critics say.

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A 2009 mixed martial arts fight in Shoreline.

Without state regulation, amateurs may keep stepping up at the last minute in fights that can only be called mismatches. It's just a matter of time before someone dies, critics say.

Fight promoter Brian Halquist told the legislators about about going to an amateur mixed martial arts tournament in a Tacoma bar four years ago. One fighter didn't show up. Some guy got recruited from the crowd to fill in the spot — and got creamed.

"And it's legal in this state," the Tacoma-based boxing and mixed martial arts fight promoter told the Washington House's Business and Financial Services Committee last month.

For the upcoming legislature, the safety of the increasingly popular mixed martial arts events could be an issue. Although lawmakers have a record of ignoring bills to create stronger regulation, there is support among a substantial segment of those involved with the fights to create state regulation.

Professional mixed martial arts fights follow national-level safety rules. But almost anythings goes in amateur bouts in Washington. Each promoter sets his own safety rules. So, numerous safety features are optional: pre-fight physicals, an ambulance, on-site doctors, blood tests for hepatitis, even ensuring fighters are evenly matched in size and experience. 

"It's a matter of time in that someone will die in an unregulated amateur MMA fight in this state," Halquist told the committee.

"We're seeing more and more fly-by-night operations," said state Rep. Tami Green, D-Tacoma.

For years, Green has regularly introduced a bill in the legislature to regulate amateur MMA bouts — prompted by a request fom the Washington Department of Licensing and her son's interest in the  sport. Annually, that bill dies. One year, the bill died because a legislator did not like its name. Another year, it got stalled in a debate on the legal liability of a bout's physician. One year, it just got lost in the shuffle of higher-priorities and never made it to a floor vote.

Green plans to introduce the bill again for the upcoming session. Much of the state's MMA world has indicated that it backs an amateur-MMA-safety law, and Green — possessing a black belt in Taekwondo — hopes that support will get a bill through this time.

"We have a lot of rogue people making up their own rules," said Susan Colard, a Washington Department of Licensing official.

Every few weeks, professional boxing and MMA  bouts are held at Tacoma's Emerald Casino. No one has a comprehensive handle on Washington's amateur bouts, other than they are numerous and popular.

Nationwide, two professional fighters are known to have died from brain hemorrhages  caused by MMA bouts  — 2007 in Texas and 2010 in South Carolina. No one tracks amateur MMA injuries across the nation, including whether any deaths were caused. 

Today in Washington, an amateur fighter can suffer a concussion one day and still be legally allowed to fight the next day. Meanwhile, national professional rules by the Ultimate Fight Championship and Strike Force organizations require a minimum of seven days between bouts. 

So is mixed martial arts as nasty as it looks? Evidence either way is spotty. Authoritative research is rare and incomplete.

Johns Hopkin University's medical school has published the only academic study done so far in a 2006 edition of the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. It looked at Nevada's professional bouts from 2001 to 2004.

The study concluded pro mixed martial artists suffered almost 29 injuries per 100 two-man fights, roughly the same as boxing's toll. Almost half of the mixed martial arts injuries were facial cuts. Nevada's mixed martial arts fights had roughly half of the knockout rate, 6.4 percent to 11.3 percent, as the state's boxing matches. That's because much of a mixed martial arts match is wrestling, which has a very low injury rate, the study said. In Nevada, the refs stopped fights and declared winners in almost 40 percent of the matches. Another 30 percent ended by tapping out, where the losing fighter can give up by slapping his palm on skin or mat three times.

Winning can also be by a knockout or a judging panel's point tally. The referee or losing fighter can end the match when the winner has his opponent in an unbreakable and sometimes injury-risking hold.

"The safety of mixed martial arts is in its diversity. If a guy is not a good striker, he can take it to the ground, and vice versa. Because of the nature of mixed martial arts, there are many different phases the fight can go to. Unlike boxing, where the objective is to pound the other guy," said John Amtmann, a professor of occupational safety and health at Montana Tech, in an interview three years ago. He is an avid MMA fan and occasional amateur fighter.

In simple layman's terms, a bout can be divided into three main categories of fighting: standing, which is primarily boxing and kicking; takedown, which is knocking, flipping or grappling an opponent to the mat; grappling, which is wrestling with hundreds of holds and moves with leverage being a big factor.

During the legislative hearing, Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor and a Business and Financial Service Committee member, asked, "Have there been a series of accidents in amateur fights? ... Is there a real problem [or] just the anticipation of a problem?"

Frank Wright, general manager of the Emerald Casino, told the committee that since many amateur bout organizers don't touch bases with the state, "we don't know if there is a problem. Those injured in unsanctioned bouts don't tell anyone and just got to the hospital."

Committee chairman Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, and Green said concerns exist about overkill with too many state regulations for amateur bouts. "We're not trying to grow the government's footprint," Green said.

If an amateur MMA-safety bill is passed, it will allow promoters to save money with mixed pro-am tournaments where a full fight card would include some amateur fights, where no prize would have have to be paid, fight promoter Halquist said. "Still, fighter safety is the most important thing," he said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8