JOPLIN, Mo. – Legislators are seeking to ban mixed martial arts competitions — sometimes called "cage fighting" — among children in Missouri, which appears to be the only state where youth matches are allowed.
The sport is a blend of martial arts styles made popular by cable television's "Ultimate Fighting Championship." Republican state Reps. Bryan Stevenson of Webb City and Steve Hunter of Joplin introduced the measure Monday, days after an Associated Press report about the practice.
"I think it borders on child abuse. I just don't think it's appropriate behavior at all," said Stevenson, adding that he has never attended a youth fight but has seen video clips.
A trainer in mixed martial arts who is trying to organize a national youth league warned that bans will just drive an increasingly popular sport underground.
Nathan Orand, owner of a fighting studio in Tulsa, Okla., whose young students have fought in Missouri, also defended the kids' version as having safety rules and protective gear that make it no more dangerous than more established children's sports such as wrestling.
Stevenson said he believes mixed martial arts is brutal and more dangerous for kids than other sports. He also said he was already alarmed by reports of youth competitions in southwest Missouri before the AP report.
Missouri law allows sanctioning bodies to permit youth fights. It is a misdemeanor in many states for children to participate, while a few states have no regulations.
Stevenson said doctors told him maneuvers used in mixed martial arts can cause permanent damage in children by putting pressure on still-developing joints.
Orand said his startup youth MMA league, called Freestyle Combat League, is adding new safety rules on top of ones already in place to make sure joints and bones aren't damaged.
Youth MMA, as Orand teaches it in Tulsa, requires padded head gear, shin guards, groin protectors and gloves. It also bars elbows and any strikes to the head of an opponent who is on the ground.
For the new league, Orand said he is adding chest and stomach protectors for fighters younger than 14 and a rule allowing referees to stop a match if they see the danger of a joint injury.
He's also taking away the cage, the chain-link fence that typically surrounds the fighting area.
Orand and other MMA supporters say the cage is safer for fighters than the ropes of a boxing ring, but Orand said youth matches will be fought only on wrestling mats.
"One of the main concerns I've run into is the fact that it's in a cage. It can look brutal at first glance. In the interests of the youth sport, we're taking it out of the cage," he said.