It has been a long, winding road, but the fight climate in West Virginia is gradually shifting toward acceptance of mixed martial arts.

Thanks to the heavy-handed presence of Zuffa LLC, as well as diligent grassroots efforts from advocates for the sport throughout the state, the bill legalizing and regulating MMA passed through the West Virginia Senate earlier this month by a vote of 23-10, leaving New York, Connecticut and Vermont as the only states with athletic commissions that do not regulate MMA.

It was not an easy sell in an environment in which Toughman competitions rule the day and some people still confuse mixed martial artists with professional wrestlers. The difference between now and previous years, when similar bills were rejected, was the amount of muscle behind the effort.

Zuffa contracted Sam Minardi, a former member of the West Virginia Athletic Commission, as full-time lobbyist to plead the sport’s case before legislature. UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner also made trips to the state to promote the cause, but much of the heavy lifting was done by Minardi.

“There’s a lot of opposition in West Virginia. Mixed martial arts has been typecast since the mid-1990s. They look at the early days -- since the first UFC event. I don’t think a lot of people realize the sport’s changed,” Minardi said. “We had an athletic commission that simply refused to open their eyes to see how much has changed, how much safer the sport has become.”

MMA’s foray into “The Mountain State” in the late 1990s was characterized by no-holds-barred brawls that etched indelible impressions in the minds of its witnesses. Such displays led to MMA events of any kind being banned completely by 2001.

“It’s unfortunate that it took so long to get it here,” Minardi said. “I was on the commission when we put a virtual ban on the sport. I know why we did it. We had some small shows that were popping up; there wasn’t a ring, there wasn’t a cage -- it was on a stage. It was great competition. The guys appeared to be pretty quality athletes. They didn’t have rules or safety measures -- that was a dangerous event.

“My opinion at the time was we needed to regulate it to make it safe,” he added. “They just wanted to put a ban on it [because] it was safer than allowing it to go on the way it was. I thought it was a temporary measure.”

The current bill only accounts for the legalization of professional MMA under the sport’s unified rules. Leaving out amateur bouts helped satisfy some of the sport’s detractors and enabled the bill to pass in a more timely fashion.

Jerry Thomas was one of those who wanted the amateur ranks excluded for the time being. Currently the owner of West Virginia Sports Promotions, he has been promoting fights in the state for the better part of 34 years. He is best recognized for his Toughman events but promotes kickboxing and boxing cards, as well. As recently as February, he spoke out against the legalization of MMA to the West Virginia Metro News, citing the “potential for serious injury,” as well as the loss of participants in the state’s other combat sports.

Thomas promoted approximately six amateur MMA events in Ohio two years ago, and he says his experience there made him initially balk at the inclusion of amateur bouts in West Virginia.

“My first thing was that I saw the potential for injury because of the level of experience the fighters had that we were getting,” he said, explaining that what he witnessed there could foreshadow dire consequences for such a transition in his home state. “Because of the large amount of amateur boxing, kickboxing and Toughman events we have here, I had some concerns about people wanting to participate in amateur MMA -- if it would have been legal -- who would not be prepared for that.”

As a self-described “boxing guy,” Thomas admits he would have have been perfectly happy had the bill not passed at all, but he seems to have softened his anti-MMA stance enough to accept the changes that will gradually take place as the sport gains a foothold.

“The first thing was my concern for safety. I’ve promoted MMA events, and I will probably end up doing some events down the road,” he said.

West Virginia Athletic Commission Chairman Steven Allred is not as eager to roll with the punches. Allred is a long-time detractor who has battled all aspects of the sport since being appointed to head chair in 2003. Even though he has taken jiu-jitsu classes and forced himself to watch live events on television, Allred still cannot condone the idea of MMA being regulated in West Virginia.

“I still hold out that it’s the most dangerous combative sporting event known to mankind. I have not changed my position on that,” he says, echoing a similar sentiment he voiced to Sherdog.com in 2010.

He has long been at odds with Butch Hiles, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt who owns an MMA academy in Charlestown, W.Va. In 2005 Allred attempted to ban a jiu-jitsu tournament promoted by Hiles, sending the instructor a Cease and Desist letter and taking the matter to court, where a ruling was issued in Hiles’ favor. It is just one tale of many in a passionate crusade.

“We literally could not run a jiu-jitsu event in West Virginia because he said chokeholds and submissions were too dangerous,” Hiles said.

According to Minardi, Hiles efforts have been key in passing the new legislation.

“We couldn’t have done it without Butch -- several others too,” he said. “If you don’t have passionate people [you can’t get it done].”

Allred’s reluctance to accept MMA means that it could still be a while before cagefighting bouts are held in West Virginia. Getting the bill signed into law is only part of the battle; the athletic commission must write the rules and regulations before it is processed again through legislature, meaning that spring 2012 is likely the earliest that a local fight card could take place. Organizations like the UFC will wait until all the proper parameters are set.

“We’re very thrilled with West Virginia becoming the 45th state,” Ratner said. “It’ll take six months for the athletic commission to be ready for it. So we just don’t walk right in -- we want them to be ready for it, too.”

Hiles believes Allred and the rest of the commission will be the greatest obstacle to getting the appropriate work done, which includes training and hiring officials and judges.

“You’re talking about a commission that wants nothing to do with MMA. I think it’s going to be a while until those things get worked out. There’s gonna be some hard feelings,” Hiles said.

It appears there already are. The presence of Minardi overwhelmed the efforts of the five-member commission, all of whom serve with no compensation while holding down full-time jobs. According to Allred, that leaves little time to impress upon legislature the dangers they believe MMA presents.

“It’s hard to fight money,” Allred said. “I work 50-60 hours a week on a day job. I certainly don’t have time to run around the legislature. I do [it] when I can; it’s just difficult at best.”

It remains unclear how an even more crowded plate will affect Allred’s status within the commission. Hiles said he heard Allred was planning on stepping down from his post. Allred counters that he has said no such thing.

“I’ve never said that to Butch Hiles. I don’t talk to Butch Hiles. You know how rumors are,” he said. “Whatever the legislature decides comes under our responsibility. I feel very happy with myself and the fact that I oppose MMA in the state. I don’t make the laws; I’m just appointed to a position. As long as I’m appointed to the commission, I’m gonna do my job -- whatever it is.”

In the past, talent like UFC veteran Dustin Hazelett, who was born in Kentucky but attended Marshall University, had to go elsewhere to find fights. Hiles estimates that there about 19 MMA facilities currently operating in West Virginia. He says that approximately 10 professional and 20-30 amateur fighters train at his gym. A successful foundation could lead to more fighters staying home, as well as the emergence of more academies throughout the state. In the long run, it could prove beneficial for all involved -- as the area’s prominent Toughman promoter was willing to concede.

“I’m an open-minded guy, and I’m a business man,” Thomas said. “I like to do things right. I like to put on quality events and deliver what people want. It’s gonna take a little while, but I think it could be a positive.”

For those who fought to bring MMA to the state, the most difficult task may be over.

“This was not an easy bill to pass,” Minardi said. “When you have the whole five-member athletic commission come out and say absolutely not, and we get it done anyway ... that’s a big victory.”

Reader comments are active below. Chime in with an opinion or thought by signing in with your Facebook, Twitter, Google or Yahoo! account.
view original article >>
Report here if this news is invalid.
From Around the Web

Related News

UFC Fight Night 63 predictions

  • 21 days ago
  • 1 views

The UFC makes its third trip to northern Virginia, this time with a top-flight featherweight clash in the headlining role. The card, however, is filled with important names, aging but loved veterans, read news >>

UFC Fight Night 63 staff picks: Three sweeps and three blowouts in Virginia

  • 21 days ago
  • 11 views

The MMAjunkie crew doesn’t agree on many things. Music, sports, what color shirt to wear cageside – our guys are all over the map. But once again, our staff picks match up pretty closely. Filed under read news >>

10 reasons to watch 10 fights at UFC Fight Night 63 in Virginia

  • 21 days ago
  • 2 views

For folks tired of reading ConorMcGregorJoseAldo.com, also known as MMAjunkie (and just about every other MMA website over the past week or two), here comes UFC Fight Night 63 to take our minds off b read news >>

UFC Fight Night: Mendes vs. Lamas Previews, Predictions, and Analysis

  • 22 days ago
  • 5 views

Bloody Elbow's analytic coverage of UFC Fight Night: Mendes vs. Lamas in Fairfax, Virginia this April 4, 2015. This April 4, 2015 the undercard barely sizzles for the Mendes vs. Lamas Fight Night on read news >>

Arizona issues 'safety recommendation' for one fighter to retire after brutal WSOF 19 loss

  • 24 days ago
  • 141 views

Twelve fighters received extended medical suspensions in the aftermath of World Series of Fighting 19, including lightweight headliners Justin Gaethje and Luis Palomino, according to information rele read news >>

UFC Fight Night 63: Who's on the Hot Seat in Virginia This Saturday?

  • 25 days ago
  • 3 views

At UFC Fight Night 63, Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas will do their best to prove they are ready to meet the winner of a highly anticipated July title bout between 145-pound champion Jose Aldo and Iri read news >>

UFC Fight Night 63 pre-fight facts: Can anyone take down Chad Mendes?

  • 24 days ago
  • 6 views

The UFC returns to Virginia with a rare Saturday-afternoon matinee at Fairfax’s Patriot Center. For more on the numbers behind the UFC’s first of four events this month, check out 55 pre-fight facts read news >>

Video: Pro FC 57 fight ends in controversial flying-knee KO, post-bout brawl

  • 25 days ago
  • 1827 views

Sunday’s Pro FC 57 event ended in dramatic fashion – with the headliner and also its aftermath.Filed under: News, UFC read news >>

UFC Fight Night 63 weigh-ins set for special time Friday in Virginia

  • 26 days ago
  • 2 views

UFC Fight Night 63 fighter weigh-ins take place Friday at a special time in Virginia, and fans can attend the event for free in addition to Thursday workout sessions with the main and co-main event f read news >>