Wild West Virginia: A Look Inside a Commission
A Faulty Circuit
File Photo: Stephen Albanese/Tailstar.com
Jerry Jones arrived at Elkins High School in Elkins, W.V., this past March, mouthpiece in hand, and gave the attendant $10. A doctor listened to his lungs, took his blood pressure and put him on a scale. He was asked a series of questions: Have you ever been hospitalized? Have you ever had a concussion? Do you have any physical problems?
Jones answered: no, no and no. He was placed in a queue of dozens of men lining up to be crowned Elkins’ weekend warrior of the moment -- a trademarked Toughman in sweat-soaked 16-ounce gloves and battle-worn headgear.
Had he been truthful, he might not have been offered the chance.
“The seizures can occur at odd times,” he said. “They just come out of the blue. I had to lie to fight.”
Jones has epilepsy. This was his third Toughman event.
In the combat sports climate of West Virginia, amateur boxing is virtually non-existent; professional boxers draw only modest attention.
Instead, the state has become the single most prolific host of Toughman and Toughman-style events in the country. The two-night tournaments are supervised by the athletic commission, endorsed by promoters as safe, secure fun and reported on by local papers with the reverence afforded to organized leagues. Eleven of them took place there in 2009, admitting hundreds of fighters and thousands of spectators; eight have already transpired this year, not including the off-brand Rough ‘N Rowdy.
“Not even [Toughman creator] Art Dore puts on a bigger show than [local promoter] Jerry Thomas,” said Matt McCase, a sports and entertainment promoter in the state. “And the truth is, the audience you’re marketing that event to really wants to come and see that. It’s really hard for these people to sit and watch pro bouts. They don’t respect it so much.”
Toughman is as much entertainment as sport, with flashing lights, gyrating women and a pulsating soundtrack with a sense of humor. If a fighter is downed or mimes injury, audiences might hear Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” or the sound of a baby crying. In a 2002 Harper’s magazine piece, author Kathy Dobie described the dynamic of promoters allowing uniformed police officers in for free so they can break up fights in the crowd. Virtually anyone -- including “bar room brawlers and street fighters” solicited by Rough ‘N Rowdy advertising -- can enjoy the adrenaline of being in a ring without any of the training, ability or sacrifice.
“True amateur boxing in West Virginia is Toughman,” added McCase. “That’s all these people know and all they want to know.”
The public appetite for these contests has led to the state’s Department of Revenue to exert control over proceedings via an organizational branch. But whether crowds show up for boxing, kickboxing or the state pastime of amateur brawling, the West Virginia Athletic Commission is displaying signs that its five-member, modestly budgeted staff is falling short in monitoring the health of participants.
Sherdog.com contacted six professional boxers who competed in the state in 2008 or 2009; four described conditions that would be intolerable according to the standards of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians (AAPRP) or even the state’s own statutes. Pre- and post-fight physicals were either absent or fleeting, ignoring cuts or swelling; some were free to get their hands wrapped without the observation or approval of commission officials; another showed up for a fight with a “nasty gash” over his eyebrow that went ignored. (That same athlete suffered a cut in a separate bout: When he sought medical attention, his coach was given a butterfly bandage and told to apply it.)
“I never had to take a drug test, blood test or physical,” said one boxer. “They never took a urine test. I could’ve been on crack or cocaine. I could’ve had blood pressure through the roof. They never would have known it.”
“Every other place I’ve fought, right when you leave the ring, somebody checks you out,” said another. “I had awful swelling on the face. I was worried. My eye was just terrible. And nobody checked it. Someone else’s coach came up to me and said, ‘You need to get some aluminum on it real fast.’ It was wild.”
Because hand wraps aren’t regularly monitored, one athlete was told by a local resident that fighters could “skin” gloves -- the act of tightening the mitts closer to the knuckles to increase the chances for damage. Another fighter described having to help a commission member operate the scale for a weigh-in.
When informed by Sherdog.com that Athletic Commission Chairman Steven Allred was the listed ring official for several pro bouts in the state, ABC President Tim Lueckenhoff blanched. “It’s totally inappropriate for a commissioner to be a referee or judge in a fight,” he said. “What if you make a mistake? You’re going to have to discipline yourself.”
Allred’s brother Scott is also a listed referee for pro bouts; when Jim Frio was active on the commission, he was listed in a Morgantown show as both the commission supervisor and a fight judge. For an August 2009 contest between local favorite Tommy Karpency and the visiting Chuck Mussachio, Pete McGinley was installed as the referee despite a serious conflict of interest.
“Every time I felt like I was getting him on his heels and starting to do some damage, the ref would tell me to stop and watch my head or stop and tell him to watch his head,” Mussachio recalled. “At one point, he stopped the fight. I thought he was checking to see if Tommy was cut. But he was actually giving him a breather. He wiped the hair out of his eyes and said, ‘Continue.’”
Unknown to Mussachio at the time: the Morgantown gym where McGinley is a boxing instructor acts as an occasional training site for Karpency. Karpency has not lost any of his 15 fights in West Virginia. McGinley officiated at least six of them.
The acceptance of Toughman’s laymen and boxing’s pre-damaged might lead some into believing the state would have no problem with the callused bodies of professional mixed martial artists. Yet the House and Senate have failed to pass any one of three bills introduced prior to the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions that would allow the competition; the idea of ground strikes and chokes is enough to turn athletic commission chairman Allred’s disposition into one of barely concealed contempt.
“If I had the wherewithal and the means,” he said, “I’d like to see MMA banned in other states.”
Allred arrived on the commission in 2000, around the time MMA promoter Jamie Levine was strong-arming his way into the territory with his World Extreme Fighting brand. Never lacking in volume, Levine portrayed his show as a public execution. Appalled, former commission Chairman Rick Modesitt sponsored legislation that clarified the commission’s power over freestyle fighting events.
“It was a very emotional issue, a very intense issue, in the state at the time,” remembered Modesitt. “The taste we got, right or wrong, was MMA being portrayed as a near-death match scenario by Mr. Levine.”
Even Levine’s then-lawyer, Robert Fitzsimmons -- who later served on the athletic commission -- would later come to question his case.
“Why would we allow a brutal sport to come into our state?” he said. “It is for money? Tell me it’s better than what we have, which already has its problems. The kids fighting in MMA, if they’ve had a concussion or two or three, haven’t even begun to experience their psychological effects. Those things take time. It doesn’t even manifest itself until 10 to 20 years after a career in football.”
By 2001, there was no ambiguity left: West Virginia would not host mixed martial arts competitions. It remains only one of three states with a law specifically prohibiting the sport. Forty-three states and Washington, D.C. sanction MMA while an additional five consider it legal and permissible without athletic commission oversight. New York has submitted sanctioning as part of its 2010-11 budget; Connecticut allows bouts on Indian land.
If New York’s legislation is processed, West Virginia will become the only territory out of 51 to completely rebuke the contests.
“I hear states do it for economic reasons,” Allred said. “You get to the point where, what are you going to allow for the sake of a tax dollar? Where do we stop? I’ll wear that badge, or target, with honor.”
Allred, who was appointed to the head chair in 2003 after Modesitt resigned, has taken that distinction to extreme lengths. In 2005, he sent a Cease and Desist letter to Ernest Hiles, who was set to promote a jiu-jitsu tournament without strikes. Hiles spent $6,000 taking the matter to court, which found in Hiles’ favor and issued a temporary restraining order against the commission. Allred tried similar tactics last year against Hiles’ grappling tournament at the West Virginia Games, an addition to the event requested by the city of Charleston. Other instructors have reported receiving similar orders.
“Jiu-jitsu is big here,” Hiles said. “We even have a tournament upcoming to raise money for cancer research. It's odd that he chooses to try and shut it down so often.”
Accused of being misinformed by proponents of MMA and grappling in the state, Allred says he agreed with the criticism and attended a jiu-jitsu school to take classes. He was unwilling to name either his instructor or the name of the academy. Citing his familiarity with other instructors in the area, Hiles believes he has never trained.
If he did, the classes would have to be modified significantly: While Allred professes a “great deal of respect” for grapplers, he cannot reconcile the option of chokes in competition.
“Respiratory choke, you’re cutting a guy’s oxygen off until he’s rendered unconscious,” he said. “A vascular choke, cutting a guy’s blood supply off until he’s unconscious or dead.”
USA Judo, which has registered 30,000 combatants in that style, allows chokes in athletes as young as 13. Their insurance company has recorded no injuries as a result of the techniques.
“There have been studies done, mostly in Japan and in Europe,” said Robert S. Nishime, M.D., who is tasked with overseeing injury issues for the organization. “Individuals were choked with cardiac and pulmonary monitoring. It’s consistently shown to be a safe technique.”
Largely unsuccessful in his attempts to have jurisdiction over grappling, Allred turned his attention to the increasing buzz in West Virginia’s political halls over sanctioning MMA. Appearing before legislation in 2009 during sessions held for a House Concurrent Resolution that mandated a study of both MMA and the state’s athletic commission -- the latter a study that was never arranged -- Allred submitted a host of documentation to delegates that presented the sport as a medieval and despicable anomaly, including material prepared by New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly.
Among the paperwork was a letter from USA Boxing condemning MMA and signed by then-president Jim Millman. But Tom Virgets, Chairman of the organization that supervises amateur boxing, told Sherdog.com that Millman had never brought up the issue with the board and that USA Boxing has never issued any official statement on the topic.
“No one authorized Jim to speak on behalf of USA Boxing,” Virgets said. “We have made no official statement regarding MMA.” (Millman, who is no longer with the organization, could not be reached for comment.)
Opponents did not restrict arguments to the legislative floor. Allen Saoud, D.O., the senior ring physician for the state, told an ABC affiliate in Clarksburg that he had personally witnessed elbows and knees causing injury to combatants during his supervision of MMA events in Ohio. Bernie Profato, chairman of the Ohio State Athletic Commission, retorted that Saud was “full of crap.”
According to the state’s records, Saoud only worked amateur bouts, which disallow knees to the head and elbows.
“I went and pulled his record and there wasn’t one situation where he advised anyone needing a follow-up CAT scan,” Profato said. “The few fights he worked, I looked at them, and he never had anything where he said someone had to be off for six months because he was beaten up.”
Despite the pockmarked evidence, Allred’s arguments were effective in calling up emotional responses from delegates who have stirred reputations for being easily swayed. Before a 2009 session intended to address adding calorie information to restaurant menus, several legislators were seen enjoying free biscuits provided by a local restaurant chain; a bill intended to raise taxes on beer was broken up by beer wholesalers throwing a party for delegates. Neither bill passed.
As far as MMA is concerned, Allred believes they did the right thing.
“You can’t have a baseline,” Allred said. “You can’t take one or three years and look at it and say, ‘We didn’t have any serious injuries.’ I don’t know you can do that fairly in a comparison against boxing. I look at MMA and it really scares me to death. Knees and elbows are bone against bone. That’s extremely serious.”
Allred cites the frequency of boxing matches relative to MMA as a reason for the former’s aggressive mortality rate. In 2002, the first full year MMA was sanctioned in Nevada, 63 MMA bouts were held in the state compared to 339 boxing matches. But by 2009, boxing held 238 fights to MMA’s 163. During the same year in California, 70 boxing events took place to MMA’s 76.
Three boxers in the U.S. died in 2009 due to injuries sustained in the ring; a fourth died in Australia while sparring; Z Gorres was put into an induced coma following a subdural hematoma. There were no serious injuries reported in state-sanctioned mixed martial arts, a statistic some ringside physicians attribute to diluted striking because of the grappling element and the availability of attacks other than those directed at the head.
“I’m opposed to the sport not because I’m a boxing guy, and not because I just don’t like MMA, but because I think it’s dangerous,” Allred said. “I just find it very difficult for me to dive in to MMA, to think that it’s a safe sport, that it’s not harmful to participants.
“I truly feel that MMA is the most dangerous combative sporting event known to mankind at this point in time.”