Anarchy in the U.K.

By Mick Bower Aug 22, 2011
Is Nate Marquardt being treated unfairly by MMA fans? Tell us below. | Photo: Dave Mandel

Former UFC middleweight contender Nate Marquardt’s decision to sign a multi-fight deal with the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts was met with a lukewarm reaction from MMA fans and pundits upon its announcement in late July.

In particular, there was much scoffing at Marquardt’s contribution to the press statement, which included this nugget: “They [BAMMA] are also the only fight organization in the U.K. that implements PED [performance-enhancing drug] testing. To be honest, that is one of the main reasons that we chose BAMMA.”

The problems that led to Marquardt’s UFC ouster were ironed out when the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission lifted his suspension on July 13, but the 32-year-old’s history of brushes with the authorities regarding PEDs sparked some cruel speculation. If the faceless masses of the forums are to be believed, Marquardt is heading across the pond so that he can sprinkle testosterone on his evening fish and chips and still fight without penalty. To some fans, the United Kingdom is seen as a lawless, frontier area where anything goes in MMA.

The athletic commission is an alien concept in the U.K. The idea of making a profit from organized sports took hold in the Victorian era, when crowds packed county cricket grounds to see ace batsman W.G. Grace in action. The need for uniformity and structure brought people together.

Age old pursuits like fist fighting and horse racing fell under the control of the National Sporting Club and Jockey Club, respectively, so that disputes and financial issues could be independently adjudicated. These bodies were made up of Lords and gentleman, but, over the years, they developed organically as sport transformed into big business. There is zero tradition of government involvement in the regulation of sport in the U.K.

The first true U.K. MMA shows were the Night of the Samurai events staged by Lee Hasdell in the late 1990s. As is still the case today, the only regulatory issue was convincing local government officials who issue entertainment and liquor licenses that MMA was an appropriate event.

“I had a lot of problems with the council,” Hasdell recalls to “When they got wind I was organizing mixed martial arts-style events, they came down on me like a ton of bricks. I had a lot of meetings with the police, doctors, solicitors, councilors, licensing people and bureaucrats. We all sat ’round tables and decided how we could do this. They all realized it was going to happen and they couldn’t stop it. Their biggest fear was that it would go underground.”

The city where Hasdell hoped to produce shows, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, was no stranger to edgy activities. Around the same time, a Milton Keynes venue called The Sanctuary was hosting some of the U.K.’s first legal raves.

“The city council decided they were going to do a big warehouse thing where you would have security and paramedics. It was almost like they were legitimizing an edgy activity,” says Hasdell, who saw the opportunity to bring MMA to the same venue. “The Sanctuary were up for doing this kind of fighting because, for them, it’s revenue. I had to produce a 32-page document [stating] that all fighters must be a black belt in their martial art or a recognized champion. The biggest fear the council had was that someone would turn up to the event with no training, no martial arts experience, get in there, fight and get killed. If that did happen, we could stand up in court and say the guy had a black belt. I had to vet everyone who was competing.”

It was not long before Hasdell’s fight nights outgrew the Sanctuary and moved to the city’s ice hockey arena, forcing the Milton Keynes council into a more active role.

“We managed to sell 3,000 tickets. The council were watching and they realized that they can’t stop this. Milton Keynes’ council became the experts. They knew about the paramedics, the rules and the legal requirements. When other promoters started springing up around the U.K., all the councils went running to Milton Keynes and basically carbon copied all their documentation,” Hasdell says.

In the intervening years, the sport has flourished and new shows have sprung up across the nation, but the level of regulation has remained the same. In short, it remains up to the promoter to make sure nobody gets killed. Unlike the fastidious Hasdell in the pioneer days, plenty of the new breed play fast and loose, increasing the likelihood that the first rule of U.K. fight club will be broken.

Whenever the U.K. MMA pack gathers together, one can be sure members will start swapping horror stories about the state of the game. Some are comical -- like the promoter who saw nothing wrong with barbecuing burgers next to the cage -- but most are not amusing. Heard the one about the guy who cancelled his referee because money was tight, but still employed eight ring girls? How about the guy who had a late pull-out from his 205-pound tournament and convinced a 155-pounder from the bar to step up?

The key ingredient required when putting together a safe, fair and entertaining fight card is good matchmaking. With no official records to go on, promotions have to rely on their own knowledge and any info they can pick up along the way. Some fighters are too keen for their own good, lying about their history to get into fights for which they are not ready. It is not unheard of for fighters with poor records to wipe the slate clean with a simple name change.

At the other extreme, some fighters will regularly pull out, leaving huge holes on a card. Although they may cite injury as an excuse, often the real reason is a bigger payday elsewhere. Contracts are barely worth the paper on which they are printed. This is why there is so much demand for the super journeymen, lads who will fight every day of the week if they can. With no medical suspensions to slow one down, a fighter need not let a minor inconvenience like a knockout affect his schedule. Things that most commissions would consider vital safety measures, such as MRIs, blood screens and cardiograms, are virtually unheard of.

All involved agree that something must be done, but discussions about actually doing something have thus far led nowhere. The U.K.’s preeminent MMA official, referee Marc Goddard, has worked all the top domestic shows, as well as refereeing in the UFC, and is well aware of the problems that have prevented the establishment of a sanctioning body in the U.K.

“If a governing body came along tomorrow, as far as fighters go, it can only be a good thing,” says Goddard. “Licensed fighters, licensed officials, matchmakers and promoters, fully screened fighters, MRIs, bloods, medical suspensions -- all things of that nature can only be a good thing. Only a fool would argue against it.

“What it may do is put the cat amongst the pigeons, in terms of who we have running this commission. MMA is such a niche sport, you need people from within, but then you’ve got a lot of competition against that,” Goddard explains. “Whoever you suggest, someone will object and say that they’re too close to this promotion or that promotion. So, what do we do? Get a load of people in from outside the sport who don’t know what they’re doing? We’re pretty much snookered either way.”

In the past, there have been suggestions that MMA promoters should attempt to build a relationship with the British Boxing Board of Control. UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner has been open about discussions with the BBBofC, but the UFC has mainly opted to import its own officials from the U.S. when staging events in countries with no commission. One key issue at the lower level is the BBBoC’s lack of authority. Anyone who does not have the skill, inclination or money to get a boxing license has another option.

“What do they do if they fail the medical? They just go and box unlicensed,” says Goddard. “It could be the same with MMA. ‘You know what, Fred Bloggs? Sorry, but your MRI showed an irregularity. We can’t give you a licence.’ He’ll just go and fight on an unlicensed show.”

With virtually no chance of an effective governing body being established in the U.K., any improvement must come from within. Goddard spoke with during a break at one of his refereeing and judging seminars, which are aimed at raising the level of officiating. As he tours the country, he emphasizes the need to push for minimum standards and urges a boycott of shows that compromise fighter safety. He remains cautiously optimistic.

“The good guys will rise to the top. The reputable promoters have been around for years in this country. Everybody knows who they are. They want to put on shows for the right reasons,” says Goddard. “Different shows will try to implement different measures, but as long as we’re all trying to push in the right direction, that’s the main thing. United we stand, divided we fall. If people try to work towards the same level playing field -- promoters, fighters, officials, everyone -- and try to drive the sport forward, that can only be a good thing.”

There are, undoubtedly, individuals and groups fighting the proverbial good fight. In May, England’s Cage Warriors Fighting Championship unilaterally enacted a slate of reforms, including official cutmen, hand-wrappers and even a “no fight” policy for fighters who are knocked out within a certain timeframe. The aim was clearly to enhance Cage Warriors’ position as a premium brand, and the promotion has signed a number of new media contracts since the announcement.

From a fighter’s point of view, being on the side of the progressives has benefits beyond safety. The majority of U.K. men who have stepped up to the UFC have been graduates of Cage Warriors or the Liverpool-based Olympian MMA Championships (formerly Cage Gladiators), another show which upholds high standards.

While Cage Warriors is working to bring in blood testing and MRIs for all fighters, and BAMMA has already implemented PED testing, Goddard concedes that it is in this area that self-regulation is not ideal.

“If a show was bringing in their own drug tests, obviously they would have to bring in a third party, a specialist outside contractor, a testing laboratory. They would do their tests, come back to the promoter and say, ‘He passed, he failed,’” says Goddard. “The discrepancy will come in if it was that promoter’s golden boy and they had the power to bury the evidence. You’d like to think that the credibility of the promotion wouldn’t do that, but in terms of ‘fairness,’ it’s open to abuse. Would they really want that out there?”

Of course, there is room for corruption and incompetence, but it would be foolish to assume such traits are exclusive to greedy promoters. After UFC 89 went down in Birmingham, England, the UFC suspended headliner Chris Leben for nine months when he tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Was it a lucky catch, or are the athletic commissions in North America simply not that hot? After all, these are the same sanctioning bodies responsible for appointing what some view as incompetent judges and referees MMA followers see on the big stage every so often.

They see a doctor’s note saying that three of the toughest hombres in the West cannot produce a thimble full of testosterone between them and think nothing of it and publicly back someone who thinks choking an already unconscious woman for 10 seconds is OK. In comparison, the private enterprise-driven, anarchy-in-the-U.K. model may not look so bad after all.


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