Extended Battle Ends with MMA Regulation in West Virginia

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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.”

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