Fistic Medicine: The Zach Kirk Saga Part 2

By Matt Pitt May 20, 2011
File Photo: Stephen Albanese/

Zach Kirk knew he would be facing a dangerous opponent at his May 2009 fight at the National Guard Armory in Shenandoah, Iowa. He did not know that he would be facing the entire Iowa legislature.

In April 2007, the Iowa legislature voted to de-regulate MMA. The sport would be legal -- there were not enough votes to ban MMA outright -- but the state would “get out of the regulation business.” The bill’s aim, expressed unambiguously by its leading advocate, Iowa Sen. Bill Dotzler, was to minimize the financial cost of MMA-related injuries to the state.

The UFC, as well as prominent Iowa MMA fighters and promoters, attempted to educate the Iowa legislature on the risks of unregulated MMA. They were ignored. The senators knew what they knew.

“Basically, the only thing that’s not allowed is a blow to the back of the neck or a blow to the groin,” Dotzler explained. “If you try to regulate this to make it safe, that pretty much bans the sport.”

“A serious injury will [inevitably] occur,” the senator acknowledged to a concerned MMA fan, but there was no need to fear. De-regulation would shift financial liability to “those individuals who want to profit from this barbaric sport ... they will be the ones held liable and not the state of Iowa.”

Once the legislature had safely dealt with deflecting the financial costs of the sport, no thought was given to the human costs of unregulated MMA. It was, as the UFC’s Mark Ratner stated at the time, the “most nonsensical” decision imaginable.

Two years later, when Kirk entered the ring for the last time, the state of amateur MMA in Iowa was a disgrace. Professional MMA was overseen by the state’s boxing authority, but the amateur sport was a free for all. No blood tests for HIV or Hepatitis were required. No proof of age. No proof of sobriety. No physicians ringside. No ambulance in attendance. No drug testing. Certainly no health and life insurance for the fighters. Iowa prison riots were more safely conducted.

Prior to his fight, Kirk claims he had asked the promoter, Craig McIntosh, of Torment MMA, if he was carrying insurance for the fight. Of course, McIntosh allegedly assured him. Good. It was only weeks later, laying paralyzed in a hospital bed facing wave after wave of medical bills, that Kirk discovered the truth. The insurance purchased by McIntosh covered injuries to the fans in attendance -- who might sue the promoter -- but not injuries to the fighters in the ring.

Beyond some savings, Kirk had nothing to pay his bills. Torment MMA put on a benefit event from which Kirk received a slim $1,000. After that, Kirk has not heard or received anything from the promoter. In days, Kirk went bankrupt. The rest of Kirk’s medical care costs -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- was paid for by the citizens of Iowa. The very situation predicted in 2007 by prescient Iowa Sen. James Seymor when the de-regulation bill came to a vote had come to pass.

“We may protect the state from liability,” Seymor had conceded to Dotzler and his supporters, “but I would submit to you that someone who is permanently disabled is likely to end up at the state’s cost for the rest of their lives for medical treatment. The state loses either way.”

The only possible winner was the promoter. In a situation analogous to the national economic crisis occurring at the same time, the profits associated with amateur MMA were privatized -- kept by the promoter -- while the financial costs of those risks were borne by the taxpayers. More bluntly, as a friend of Kirk’s said, “Craig wanted Zach for the show. He used Zach’s name to make money, and as soon as Zach got hurt, he didn’t give a [expletive].”

In the fall of 2009, public outrage with the disgraceful state of affairs in amateur MMA forced the Iowa legislature to reconsider MMA sanctioning and regulation. In addition to widespread awareness of Kirk’s injury, an Iowa MMA referee named Franklin DeToye wrote a graphic and disturbing letter to the state’s boxing commission, detailing the abuses he had witnessed in the world of Iowa amateur MMA. The Senate, which just two years prior had de-regulated MMA by a vote of 35-12, voted unanimously to subject amateur MMA to the same protections as professional MMA.

Current Iowa law -- signed into effect in February 2010 -- requires all Iowa MMA promoters to be state licensed. Promoters must insure their fighters are at least 18 years old and have routine communicable blood borne disease testing. A physician must be on hand for each fight, and $25,000 in health insurance and $20,000 in life insurance must be purchased for each fighter.

These protections are not a panacea. They most likely would not have protected Kirk from injury, but they will protect an uncounted multitude of amateur fighters from some of the financial costs and human toll of less grievous injuries.

As the law’s opponents argue, the financial costs to promoters and fighters are non-trivial. Some promoters -- like the Amsterdam Gentleman’s Club, which boasted “run what you brung type MMA” with no formal fighter protections -- have quit the business. The $100 fee for required blood work, and the fewer venues for amateur fighting, keeps many would-be MMA fighters away from competitions where they can hone their skills and prove their talent.

Among the supporters of the 2010 Iowa MMA law are a few unexpected names. First and foremost, the man who sponsored the bill de-regulating the sport in 2007: Sen. Dotzler. He became concerned about fighter exploitation after the son of a constituent -- according to a report in the Omaha World-Herald -- was injured in a legal-but-unregulated amateur fight. And Mcintosh, who purchased insurance to protect himself from lawsuits but not to protect his fighters, has voiced his support for the Iowa law, as noted in the same Omaha World-Herald report. Dotzler and McIntosh were contacted regarding this report. They have not responded to requests for comment.

Perhaps the most interesting supporter of state sanctioning of MMA is a young fighter named Jon “Bones” Jones. In his home state of New York, MMA needlessly exists in a wholly unregulated and often dangerous state. In a letter published in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle the night of his championship fight against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Jones listed and demolished the arguments of MMA opponents.

“MMA isn’t for everyone,” he stated. “But to call it brutal is to misunderstand the sport, its athletes and its fans. We’re not masochists, we’re college graduates, role models, Olympic champions. We have a greater safety record than the NFL and boxing, and with millions of fans, we are not going away.”

Hopefully, the New York legislature will not wait for a Zach Kirk of its own before deeming MMA fighters as fully deserving of state protection and regulation as any other athlete.

Matt Pitt is a physician with degrees in biophysics and medicine. He is board-certified in emergency medicine and has post-graduate training in head injuries and multi-system trauma. To ask a question that could be answered in a future article, e-mail him at
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