(Revised) Subcommittee Grapples With Issues in Mixed Martial Arts Industry

By Ambar Pardilla

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Reps. Bob Latta and Jan Schakowsky listen to opening remarks from four witnesses about current concerns in mixed martial arts. (Photo by Ambar Pardilla)

Although mixed martial artists meet their matches with competitors in the ring, they also have to fight against troubles with their contracts, compensation and competitive rankings, according to the testimony that one former MMA fighter told members of the Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection at a hearing on Thursday.

Randy Couture spoke in support of the proposed Muhammad Ali Expansion Act — which would revise the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to include MMA fighters while regulating contracts and creating rating systems for combat sports.

“Combative sports should be based on merit and to have a promoter also create his own title, his own rankings and then hold the athlete’s feet to the fire and force him to sign a contract if he wants to be ranked and if wants to fight for those titles and gain that notoriety, it’s too much power,” Couture said. “Someone else independent of wanting to promote and make money off that fighter should be setting those rankings and creating those titles.”

Couture was among the four witnesses who attended the hearing, titled “Perspectives on Mixed Martial Arts,” and all of them addressed their different concerns with the bill and current state of MMA, including fighters’ pay and protection from injuries.

With MMA rising in popularity and pay-per-view purchases for fights rocketing, the sport has come under scrutiny for what happens both inside and outside of the ring. The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), would officially regulate MMA and could change the business of the sport.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), who serves as chairman of the subcommittee, said that MMA champions have become celebrities. He referenced an August fight between Conor McGregor, an MMA fighter, and Floyd Mayweather Jr., a boxer, as an example of the sport’s worldwide recognition.

“Today’s MMA is far more regulated,” he said. “All 50 states permit the sport, subject to rules governing issues like banned substances, equipment requirements, round length, weight classes, and allowing referees and physicians to halt a fight to protect the competitors. In some ways MMA is regulated in a manner similar to boxing. However, there are differences.”

While there was some agreement at the hearing that MMA has been managed much as boxing, the need for the regulation that the bill proposes sparked debate among members of the subcommittee and witnesses.

Greg Sirb, executive director for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, which sanctions boxing and MMA fights in the state, testified that under current state regulations in Pennsylvania, MMA fighters are treated the same way that boxers are. Sirb said he was comfortable with how state athlete commissions and the Association of Boxing Commissions regulate fights and fighters.

Still, Sirb said, there are issues with how fighters are treated by promoters and managers.

“Generally, the MMA fighter, under federal law, is not covered when he’s dealing with his promoter or manager. He’s not covered under that section of coercive contracts,” he said.

Marc Ratner, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), expressed his disapproval of the bill, defending UFC’s management of MMA and arguing against congressional oversight over the organization of the sport.

“Make no mistake: it was the UFC and only the UFC that undertook the hard work to make MMA what it is today. It was not always so,” Ratner said. “MMA was transformed from a shunned spectacle to a respected sport because of UFC’s leadership. A key to the MMA’s success is regulation, which insures fairness, consistency and adherence to a common set of rules.”

Ratner said that federal regulation isn’t needed in MMA as state regulation has been successful already and that the problems that prompted the Muhammad Boxing Ali Act, which amended the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to combat corruption in boxing, aren’t present in MMA.

“We are proud to report that MMA is regulated by every state, with an athletic commission, and in many countries around the world,” Ratner said. “This subcommittee should understand that state regulation is real and effective.”

But Mullin, who is a former MMA fighter, challenged Ratner’s claim that MMA fighters and boxers were treated the same, citing the lack of a comprehensive ranking system for fighters to know their standing. He compared the UFC to Don King, a boxing promoter who was sued by several boxers for stealing money from them.

“When you go back and you say that boxers are treated like MMA fighters, clarify that statement. You’re talking about the health of the fighter but not the professional ranking system and not about the financial disclosures because there are distinct differences,” Mullin said. “The Ali Act is the backstop to boxers. There is no backstop for MMA fighters. It’s take it or leave it. That’s why I say the UFC has become the Don King of MMA.”

“You make a broad statement like that, you’re misleading Congress and you’re misleading the American people,” Mullin said.

The safety of MMA fighters, who are constantly hit in the head during matches, was another concern for Congress. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) expressed their worries about risks associated with the sport, especially for young fighters.

“We have known for some time that getting hit in the head is simply not good for you, but we’re learning more and more about the effects of cumulative hits to the head over time and how head trauma is particularly dangerous to children. Adults need to know the full long-term risks so they can make informed choices to participate in contact sports,” Pallone said.

According to Schakowsky, UFC offers MMA camps and classes to children as young as six years old.

“Brain injuries are a real risk for MMA fighters,” Schakowsky said. “Fighters should know the risks when they enter the ring and organizers should want to change the rules and incentives to mitigate that risk in the first place.”

Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, director of the Brain Injury Research Center in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a hospital in New York City, said she was concerned over concussions in the sport.

“There’s no amount of exposure to traumatic brain injury that can be considered safe,” she said.

Traumatic brain injury affects more than 2.7 million people each year and causes more than 150 deaths each day in the U.S., according to Dams-O’Connor.

But Couture said that the risk associated with MMA fighting isn’t his primary concern. He said that fighters are struggling to find enough fights a year to make a decent living, jeopardizing themselves in the ring because they aren’t paid well.

“I know the risks, I still love the sport. The real issue is on the business side of things,” Couture said. “I’m not told or allowed to know what I’m worth. I don’t get to negotiate for my fair share of any event that I compete in.”

Schakowsky too worried about what fighters have to do to compete.

“Negotiating power for fighters is interlinked with safety. If you only get paid when you enter the octagon, you feel pressure to fight through an injury, putting yourself at greater risk,” Schakowsky said. “UFC encourages hard hits to the head by paying out bonuses to fighters who win by knockout or a technical knockout.”

“It might make sense for good TV but it also puts fighters at greater risk for traumatic brain injury. Fighters have to secure their own health insurance and low pay may push fighters to sign on for more fights in a year than is best for their long-term health,” Schakowsky added.

Currently, Mullin’s bill has 57 co-sponsors, including Schakowsky. Schakowsky said she believed that the bill would receive “strong bipartisan support.”

She and Mullin came together Thursday because he’s a former fighter and she’s an advocate for labor rights, which “puts us on the same side,” Schakowsky said.

“There’s a reason why Congress stepped up and kept people like Don King from manipulating fighters in the boxing world,” Mullin said. “If it was good enough for boxing, then it should be good enough for other combative sports, such as MMA.”

“This legislation is about protecting the fighters and sustaining a sport that I love, which I have given blood and sweat and dedicated a tremendous amount of time to,” he added. “We want to see this sport sustainable for future generations and the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act does just that.”

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