Free-for-all combat sport often free of regulations

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By NATE JENKINS

Associated Press Writer

(AP) — One after another they landed on the young fighter's head — short, punishing blows from an opponent who straddled him on the ground like an animal over injured prey.

The young man began to lose the ability to defend himself — but the punches didn't stop. The raucous crowd turned nervous.

Finally, the referee stopped the fight, but it seemed too late. The young fighter lay nearly motionless, his head bloodied and tilted to the side, resting on the mat.

After a few minutes he was helped to his feet and stumbled to a metal chair in the audience. There, his treatment consisted of being wiped down with a towel and what appeared to be a plastic glove filled with water. Ten minutes later he still had trouble walking.

"It's like illegal, legal action," Omaha resident and college football player Jeff Souder said about amateur mixed-martial arts fighting a couple hours before he stepped into the ring at the same event. "If there wasn't a ref, I'd really think 'Why's this sport legal?' "

The event was promoted by the Omaha Fight Club of Nebraska, but held 1 1/2 miles inside the Iowa border.

The reason is as blunt as a right hook: Nebraska has rules governing the sport, Iowa doesn't.

The same juxtaposition exists all across the country, leaving a patchwork of rules, and sometimes a total lack of them, for the violent sport that left a man dead in Houston in December. Sam Vasquez, 35, of Houston, died in a hospice some six weeks after losing consciousness during a bout and having a seizure.

Officials who oversee the sport that combines judo, boxing, karate, Muay Thai, kickboxing, tae kwon do, jiujitsu and wrestling say they are taken aback by the wildly varying regulations from state to state.

And as the number of mixed-martial arts fights increases along with the popularity of the sport, they say it's just a matter of time before tragedy forces all states to regulate the brutal matches.

At least 14 states don't regulate amateur mixed-martial arts fights — according to a survey by the Association of Boxing Commissioners, whose members include state boxing commissions across the country. Some states responded to the survey by just noting whether amateur fighting is legal, not whether it's regulated, suggesting that the exact number of states that don't regulate amateur fights is likely higher.

The mishmash of rules from state to state also applies to professional fights, though more states regulate them. Pro bouts aren't regulated in at least seven states, according to the survey.

The lack of uniform regulations, especially for amateurs, is a sharp contrast to boxing. All amateur boxing bouts in the country are regulated by a national organization, USA Boxing, with rules ranging from ringside physicians to pre-and-post bout physical exams.

In states like Nebraska, where amateur mixed-martial arts fights are regulated, the regulations are often on par or exceed boxing regulations. In Nebraska, for example, mixed-martial arts amateurs must have physical exams, blood tests for viruses like AIDS, health and life insurance, and both doctors and ambulances onsite at fights that are overseen by licensed referees.

But in states that don't regulate mixed-martial arts, it can be hard to tell the difference between a mixed-martial arts bout and a bar brawl.

Tim Bazer, the owner of Omaha Fight Club, takes some precautions when putting on an event in Iowa even though there are no laws that require it.

Fighters at his events must take blood tests to make sure they don't have viruses like HIV, for example. His referee is an emergency medical technician.

But absent are things such as onsite ambulances, which are required in states that regulate amateurs.

"They're going to have a major injury and their face is going to be plastered everywhere because they didn't regulate appropriately," Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissioners and administrator of the Missouri Office of Athletics.

In Missouri, the state regulates only professional fights, but groups that must be licensed by the state regulate amateurs.

At another recent amateur event in Iowa, Iowa Athletic Commissioner Dave Neil said a mentally challenged 21-year-old with the reading skills of a fifth grader was drawn out of a bar crowd and into a mixed-martial arts ring.

He got knocked out shortly after getting in the ring.

"He was taken advantage of," Neil said.

But it was all legal, said Neil, who described the appeal of mixed-martial arts this way: "People pay good money to watch other people beat the hell out of each other."

Still, Neil isn't pushing for regulations because "people in Iowa don't want state tax dollars used" for mixed-martial arts. He doesn't believe it is a sport.

"If people are convinced it's a sport we ought to regulate it...if they don't think it's a sport, ban it."

"That's a horrible argument," Lueckenhoff said. "It's a sport and we need to regulate it."

States that don't regulate are targeted by out-of-state promoters who often skirt the rules to keep the amateur status, said Josef Mason, director of the Colorado State Boxing Commission.

A common ploy is to pay fighters, but under the guise of covering their expenses so they can keep the amateur, regulation-free status, he said.

One trick is to pay fighters a "travel fee" of several hundred dollars even though a fighter maybe just had to walk across the street to fight, he said.

Before Nebraska's regulations took effect in September, "fly-by-night" promoters from Wyoming and other states swooped into Nebraska and used Nebraska fighters to make a quick buck in virtually unregulated events, said Wally Jernigan, director of the Nebraska Athletic Commission.

During that rule-free period in Nebraska this summer, Mel Griggs, police chief in Gering, attended a mixed-martial arts event in town.

Griggs said a man was kicked in the face at the event and began to slip into unconsciousness while standing. Griggs, who has refereed boxing matches, said he was shocked at what happened next.

"Any referee would have stopped the bout, but he was going to let it continue."

Griggs got out of his seat and stopped the fight himself. The city later banned mixed-martial arts altogether.

Bazer, the Omaha fighter and fight-club owner, says he plans on taking his events back to Nebraska. But for now, the new state regulations make the decision to go to a state where there are none easy.

"It's kind of hard to follow through with what they want," Bazer said of the Nebraska rules. "It's a headache for all the fighters."