CSAC Moves to Regulate MMA Gyms, ‘Smokers’

Grey Areas

By Jason Probst Jan 6, 2011
As MMA continues to grow, California, like many states, is still coming to grips with how to protect fighters through regulation. Gym licensing, formal tryouts to obtain professional licenses and a nascent amateur system are among the efforts being made to fill the void.

However, that void is precisely where many fighters operated before 2006, when the state legally sanctioned the sport, and it lingers to this day in the form of underground “smokers” and unlicensed fights. Roughly defined and with expectedly hazy guidelines, a smoker is essentially any unsanctioned combat competition which fits the definition of what should be a state-sanctioned fight, particularly if admission is charged.

With new gyms and promotions materializing en masse and MMA business booming, California is attempting to steer the bull by the horns and get the sport on track. Four years into its legalization, there are still loose ends to be addressed, and the California State Athletic Commission is tackling the challenge on numerous fronts.

MMA gyms are now being solicited for a $100 annual licensing fee, a move the CSAC believes will help legitimize gyms and give the state leverage should these facilities hold unregulated events. It is also intended to help aspiring fighters recognize which facilities are state-sanctioned.

“The licensing fee is now mandatory, but we’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you have to pay this or else.’ One of the things we believe it will cut down on are smokers,” CSAC inspector Sarah Waklee said at the commission’s Dec. 2 meeting. “We know people say they can go underground, but we have a lot of people who e-mail us anonymously about smokers. We’re hoping by having gym licenses that the gym will feel more empowered. We know a fighter will feel more empowered if it’s licensed. And there’s a lot more we can help the gym with.”

In early 2011, CSAC officials will begin a statewide push to publicize the licensing drive, with gyms given 60 to 90 days to comply. With licensing, gyms will also be required to report any knockouts which occur during training.

Aspiring fighters are currently required to undergo testing procedures overseen by the CSAC, for both professional matches and those under the state’s officially sanctioned amateur vehicle, the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization.

To compete in CAMO, a fighter must pay a total of $115 in licensing fees, which includes registration, as well as a physical and blood work. Headed by former EliteXC officials Jeremy Lappen and J.T. Steele, CAMO has come under fire from critics over the fees, as well as the fact that all participants are required to wear CAMO-issued rash guards. The CSAC contends the fees are justified in order to fund operating expenses and assorted costs of the amateur program.

Amateur fighters in California can currently become professionals in two different ways: either go through the CAMO system or participate in an in-person evaluation at a CSAC-led tryout. In the latter, applicants are evaluated on their knowledge of rules, fitness level and other factors.

“We try to get their background, amateur career and workout information to see if the athlete is serious about turning pro,” said Waklee. “We evaluate quite a few people a year. Very few people we see are just flat-out failures. Most often, it’s a case of telling them, ‘Call us in 90 days, after you’ve worked on your cardio or learned the fundamentals of MMA.’”

With regulation a constant work in progress, it is different world from what MMA was in the Golden State just a few years ago. And with that different world come the obligations and expectations of mainstream sport, for better or for worse.

An Act of Rebellion

Raised in West Sacramento, Jeff Jones lived in a one-bedroom trailer with five other teens by the time he graduated high school. Jones had the occasional street fight interspersed with partying binges, but things changed when he was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“Jiu-jitsu saved my life,” Jones told Sherdog.com.

A former high school wrestler and small-college football player, Jones found BJJ and MMA a natural fit. He became hooked and started training full-time. He competed in his first smoker at the age of 19 and compiled a record of 2-1-1 on the underground circuit.

“I’d show up to fight. There’s no weigh-ins or doctor. They’d rent out a warehouse. Guys would do crazy things to their gloves,” the now 27-year-old Jones said. “I knew one dude who’d put his in a saltwater fish tank for two weeks, then stuffed them underneath his four-by-four truck, and they felt like tire tread. They were hard and could cut you bad.”

For Jones, smokers were simply opportunities to compete. He never knew who he would be fighting, and the conditions and pay were dubious, but the chance to fight a live opponent was lure enough. MMA was still illegal in California at the time, so fighting was an act of rebellion unto itself.

The events, Jones explains, were conducted largely in secret by organizers who shunned publicity. Aside from a small group of fighters, handlers, family and friends, few knew of the scene. Smokers served strictly as a proving ground to see how one measured up against the competition.

Locations were arranged only a few weeks in advance. Interested fighters were told that their purses would be based on how much gambling action they generated among attendees. Jones said his largest purse was $100, with fellow competitors sometimes earning less, or nothing, from event organizers who viewed the fighters as expendable product.

“There was no official purse. It was more like you were just some scumbag and you get what you get,” Jones said. “Take it or leave it.”

The sport began to take root in California, albeit at a snail’s pace, and MMA crept out of the shadows in 2006. The standard elements of today’s fighting events -- doctors, regulated weigh-ins, pre-fight testing -- were slow to materialize, especially since events were initially held on Indian reservations, where state laws did not apply.

Today’s “unified rules” are designed to protect fighters, largely from themselves. Someone wired to fight professionally has many reasons to accept a match and precious few to decline one, particularly if doing so cannot be done discreetly.

Whether taking matches with dubious conditions attached or failing to disclose serious injuries, fighters need a third party in place to protect them. The CSAC seeks to become that third party, but the fight game still has many grey areas.

Grey Areas

Chris David made much of his living in grey areas. Since the lower weight classes simply did not offer opportunities when David turned pro in 2003, the natural 135-pounder was relegated to mismatched fights that would not be sanctioned by today’s commissions.

Today, David corners fighters at the professional and amateur levels, as well as competing himself. He has also refereed at underground smokers in California, in what he calls “gym versus gym” events, taking part to protect competitors -- especially those who could not protect themselves.

“As long as the safety of the fighter is the main reason for something, I’m strongly in favor of it,” said David. “I’ve fought without insurance. I’ve cornered CAMO guys who, talent-wise, are like entry-level pros in Gladiator Challenger or Rebel Fighter. For the most part, with CAMO, you have guys who are getting blood work, a physical, paying to get licensed. They’re actually more serious than someone who would just fight in a smoker.”

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