The mark of any mainstream sport is the bifurcation of its amateur and professional ranks. How many of us remember Adrian Peterson rushing for almost 2,000 yards as a true freshman at the University of Oklahoma, a feat he is currently on track to complete for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings? Tiger Woods cleaned up on golf’s amateur circuit before hitting a record under par at his first major championship victory at the Masters in 1997. Amateur sports allow fans to see the growth and maturation of their favorite athletes. It is a rich tradition that in theory allows athletes to hone their skills absent the economic minutia of professional sports.
Mixed martial arts wants to be considered a mainstream sport. Even its combat sports sibling, boxing, has lauded amateur competitions such as the Golden Gloves and the Olympics. Because of this, many think amateur MMA is a worthy endeavor. The view of amateur MMA is that it affords up-and-coming fighters the same benefits of typical amateur competition: more rules, greater margin for error, increased parity and an overall better environment to hone one’s craft. Closer examination of the rules and how the events are in practice, however, reveals that amateur MMA is a costly endeavor for the fighters involved.
Like professional MMA, there is no nationwide governing body that regulates amateur MMA. Unlike professional MMA, however, a unified rules system for amateur events has not gained major traction. Individual state athletic commissions are the arbiters on how MMA is run within their jurisdictions. Some states have their own rules, some states have adopted the Association of Boxing Commissions’ amateur MMA rules and some states have exercised zero oversight.
For the states that have adopted the ABC’s amateur MMA rules, there are notable differences in how amateur and professional competitions differ. The ABC’s amateur MMA rules prohibit the following, which are allowed in under the unified rules of professional MMA: elbow strikes of any kind, heel kicks to the kidney, neck crank submissions, knees to the head, heel hooks and toe holds. ABC’s amateur rules also separate amateur fighters into “Novice” and “Advanced” divisions. A “novice” fighter is a competitor with less than three verifiable fights, while an “advanced” amateur fighter is deemed having had at least three verifiable bouts. The rules are the same for both novice and advanced fighters with one major exception: novice fighters are not allowed to strike the head of a grounded opponent. Lastly, the rules add a cruiser heavyweight division between light heavyweight and heavyweight.
Although the increased amount of restrictions found in the ABC’s rules may make amateur MMA seem safe, the reality is anything but. Outside of the few states that have adopted the ABC’s rules, the regulation of amateur MMA remains a murky subject. While boxing is regulated by the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, amateur MMA has no such federal oversight. Many states hold unregulated amateur MMA events, and this where the true danger of the sport lies.
Unlike the highest level of professional MMA competition found in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, amateur MMA does in fact have notable serious injuries and deaths. The most troubling aspect of these tragedies is that at least some level of culpability results from the inadequate level of fight regulation. Take the untimely death of amateur fighter Dustin Jenson. He was fighting at Ring Wars 74 in South Dakota on May 18. Jenson was submitted by triangle choke in his fight and seemed to be fine until he suffered a seizure backstage. Medical personnel determined that he had increased pressure on his brain and put him in a medically induced coma. Jenson was declared brain dead one week later and taken off life support. Autopsy results revealed that Jenson died from blunt force trauma but with “no conclusive evidence the injury was sustained in the fight.”
Although autopsy results were inconclusive on whether Jenson’s death was directly attributable to his fight, there is little argument that the lack of oversight made matters worse. Dean Schrempp, a South Dakota state legislator, believes greater oversight would have saved Jenson’s life. Schrempp recalled that Jenson “fought four times in less than four months and was knocked out less than three months prior to his last fight.” According to Schrempp, “a commission would have restricted his participation because of that fighting history.”
South Dakota, where Jenson’s fatal fight occurred, is one of the few states that lack an athletic commission to oversee MMA fights. With no federal regulation, oversight of amateur events in states without athletic commissions is essentially left to the promoter’s wishes. While professional MMA conducted in states with athletic commissions requires pre-fight testing and ringside physicians, amateur MMA competitions in places like South Dakota do not have any legal or legislative requirement to do so.
The best example of the differences between the level of oversight in amateur and professional MMA is the handling of Thiago Alves before his fight at UFC 111. Alves, a former UFC welterweight title contender, was scheduled to fight Jon Fitch on March 27, 2010. With the fight taking place in New Jersey, a state with one of the most reputable athletic commissions, a pre-fight CT scan was conducted. On March 24, the scan showed that Alves had an arterial abnormality in his brain. Doctors stated that Alves could have a potentially fatal aneurism if he suffered trauma to the head. Alves was pulled from the card, his brain abnormality was treated and he continues to fight.
Alves’ pre-UFC 111 screening was exceptional even at the professional MMA level, but the reality is that increased competent regulation, not less, was the reason for the pre-fight CT scan. States, as well as the federal government, are clearly cash-strapped and there is not a large vocal contingent demanding increased standards in the sport. Amateur MMA fighters, like their professional counterparts, are putting an increased amount of risk on the line but in a less safe environment. Instead of sacrificing a paycheck for a better environment to hone their craft, the inverse has occurred.
Until better state or federal regulation is enacted, those considering amateur MMA are faced with untenable choice of gravitating towards fighting in areas with robust state athletic commissions or attempting to shoot straight into professional MMA, where the stakes for everyone are raised.
Jeffrey Aris is an attorney at the global law firm Hogan Lovells and is experienced in matters relating to the business of MMA. This article does not provide legal advice, and any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of his law firm.