UPDATED: Mixed Martial Arts Regulations Come Under Fire

As one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, mixed martial arts regulations were discussed through testimonies by a range of experts before The Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection during a hearing last Thursday.

Notable concerns throughout the hearing were how the sport is regulated, how competitors and promoters are compensated, and what it takes to compete at a high level. Issues were also brought up such as what state regulators are doing to ensure fighters safety and how MMA could become one of America’s most popular sports.

Although each state has legalized MMA, regulations related to athlete safety, contracts, and merchandising vary between states. “Perspectives on Mixed Martial Arts” discussed the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act and how it affects the regulatory and competitive framework of the MMA industry.

The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act was introduced by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) in January 2017. It amends the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to establish definitions for “fighter,” “combat sport competition,” and “mixed martial arts.” The bill also includes individuals who fight in a professional mixed martial arts competition or other professional combat sport competitions, and the professional combat sports industry. The bill requires guidelines for mixed martial arts and other combat sport contracts, and for objective and consistent written criteria for the ratings of mixed martial arts and other combat sports, as well as applying conflict of interest provisions. This Act was cited numerous times over the hearing by various witnesses – one witness (Greg Sirb) even claimed that “every aspect of the Ali Act is implemented for the MMA fighter.”

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), chairman of the subcommittee opened the hearing by providing brief background on the sport, which began in the 1990s, with roots dating back to much earlier.

“The history of mixed martial arts goes back to Ancient Greece, when the first Olympians in the 7th Century B.C. fought,” Latta said. “Today’s MMA is far more regulated. 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.”

Mullin was the first to speak, explaining why MMA is being discussed by Congress and reminding everyone that the sport has become interstate commerce. The issue that he spent the most time expressing was the lack of merit-based ranking in MMA. He explained that using a merit-based ranking system is necessary because MMA has become an inter-state commerce that Congress has the responsibility to ensure that the ranking systems are not based on marketing value and fighter popularity.

“Right now we have ranking systems based more on market and marketing value than it is merit-based,” Mullin said. “In the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] history, we see more and more fights being not taught for title fights, but simply a trophy.”

Mullin cited recent fights in which the MMA fighters such as Henderson vs. Bisping and Mayweather vs. McGregor were not ranked by merit.

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

Witnesses during the hearing included the president of an MMA training center, a director of brain injury research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the UFC’s Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, and the Executive Director of Pennsylvania State’s Athletic Commission.

Randy Couture, President of Xtreme Couture MMA, spoke about the industry and competitive differences between MMA and professional boxing. His perspective aligned with Mullin’s in that both witnesses felt that the ranking systems in MMA were not truly merit-based as they should be.

“MMA athletes do not have an organized and respected amateur system to establish merit,” Couture said. “Unlike in boxing and kick-boxing, MMA promoters do not, and have not been required by the athletic commissions to utilize independent or objective rankings. In addition to the lack of independent rankings, MMA promoters also issue their own championship titles – and in fact, can take them away just as quickly as they award them.”

Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, Director of the Brain Injury Research Center at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, spoke to her research on traumatic brain injuries (TBI). She said that most of the research pertaining to TBI has been done on male football players, which may not be able to be generalized to other contact sports such as MMA or to women.

“An important thing that distinguishes MMA from football is that many football players never sustain a true concussion,” Dams-O’Connor said. “Whereas, inflicting a TBI with loss of consciousness is essentially the goal of MMA. MMA also involves repeated exposure to subconcussive head trauma throughout practice and competition, which essentially means that MMA fighters are at risk for both the long term [effects] associated with TBI and also the long-term risks associated with subconcussive head trauma exposure.”

Marc Ratner, the UFC Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, shared his perspective on the role of regulations of MMA, making it clear that he was the first to disagree with the others in favor of the bill. He opposed the previous witnesses opinions in claiming that applying the Muhammad Ali Act to MMA does not make sense.

“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.”

Greg Sirb, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, described his state’s current framework for the sport. He noted that he was one of the “architects” for getting both the Professional Boxing Safety Act (1996) and the Ali Act (2000) passed.

“Currently in Pennsylvania, we treat the boxer exactly the same as the MMA fighter,” Sirb said. “Every aspect of the Boxing Act, of the Ali Act, is implemented for the MMA fighter.”

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