In New York, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has finally been made legal: with UFC 205 putting the exclamation point on what has been a long and arduous process of getting MMA fights back into Madison Square Garden, it's official. What is less appreciated, however, is the very narrow range of fights the New York State Athletic Commission will allow, and what sort of black market fight clubs may continue in the absence of more realistic regulation.
The new rules for mixed martial arts, boxing and professional wrestling may have some advances, but certainly aren't without controversy: they require a million dollar insurance policy against life-threatening brain injuries, as well as a $50,000 policy to cover other injuries. This will be the highest minimum in the country, and has already had the effect of chasing some boxing promoters out of state.
Although this large policy may help to protect the occasional Million Dollar Baby, and a $50,000 policy to cover injuries doesn't sound like a bad idea, it's not going to do much for the more mundane sort of debilitating damage that eventually catches up to many veteran fighters. While promoters may rightfully be decrying what seems to be an overcompensation in the new rules, much like the NFL, there is no denying that this is a profitable industry which makes its money at a steep cost to the people who actually perform the show.
Keeping in mind that regulation in a dangerous, taxing sport like mixed martial arts is a necessity, how will these new rules affect fighters?
Regulations in combat sports, both in and out of the ring, has been the result of a decades-long process: Big John McCarthy all but let people fight to the death way back when. The earlier stoppages from refs and doctors, implementation of rounds, weight classes and additional rules for fighter safety all came over time: after all, we still aren't too far removed from Jeff Gannon's purple and swollen face hanging over a downed Kimbo Slice in a basement that looks like it came from Grand Theft Auto 3.
While the cage at a legit promotion has become a safer environment for a fighter, however, how many of those cages in NY are above board, and how are they taken care of outside of the ring?
"Now, you haven't had any undergound shows, right," asked Ray, owner of Ray Longo's International Mixed Martial Arts gym on Long Island. He had the amateur fighters circled around him (myself being one of them), getting ready for a fight in Rahway, New Jersey back in 2010. Though none of the fighters present had at that point, at least one of the guys I trained with would later fight in underground professional shows after they left the gym.
Considering how all the MMA fight shows in NY were illegal at the time, it was quite tempting. Making MMA illegal in NY, just like the war on drugs, alcohol or prostitution, created a black market when demand wouldn't simply disappear. Like in other black markets, people moved in to fill the void and transactions get very shady, very quick. This isn't a good thing when you're putting your brain and joints on the line.
As a serious coach and promoter, Ray will kick out a fighter who's taken an underground fight while training under him. For his students like Chris Weidman, who walked in with an All American wrestling background, everyone knew he would be making a wise investment by staying away from basement fight clubs.
It's a different story for the average fighter looking to claw his way up to the top of a hyper-competitive, low-paying sport, however: paying gym fees, competition costs and travel expenses to out of state amateur fights all add up for a guy who is spending time he could be earning money in the gym (and maybe accruing hospital bills).
Even when a fighter gets above-board pro fights, they often aren't making a living wage until if and when they get signed by a top-rate promoter like Bellator or UFC. This all makes the black market a very tempting way to get a quick payout and avoid paying for flights and hotels.
Ask around the locker room long enough in any serious gym in New York, and you'll find a couple guys who have been in a couple underground fights. Keep asking, and you'll hear about the severe consequences of what happens when a shifty promoter doesn't have the right medical staff on hand to treat the sort of severe injuries likely to occur in an underground MMA show.
Not as though injuries don't occur under the best promotions with skilled doctors: After the steep decline of his chin and several successive knockouts at the end of a career of being punched in the head, it's easy to speculate Chuck Liddel could have serious challenges and require extensive medical care later in life a la Muhammad Ali.
The issues fighters face are often complicated problems, but have many workable solutions. These new regulations neglect to address the accumulation of chronic injuries, lack of bargaining power and financial realities fighters face.
Part of this problem is the nature of the fighter/promoter relationship: they are considered independent contactors, not employees. While a handful of big names like Connor McGregor or Randy Couture can argue with the boss, 99% of fighters that make it as far as UFC can be benched. Much of it, however, is imposed by the sport itself.
Taking steps to take care of fighter health after they have finished competing and trying to compensate them for, and protect them from, the unique challenges that are particular to combat sports is absolutely a good idea. It's easy to see the arguments behind legislation to protect independent contractors from a multi-billion dollar industry that has all the bargaining power in a sport that takes a high toll on those who actually perform it. In this regard, fighters need legislators and regulators to step in and protect them from being taken advantage of.
Regulations do not currently do this, however. Killing off low and mid-level competition to partially cover against the incredibly rare while not adequately addressing the more mundane and likely, however, seems more like a political move that will hurt fighters than a workable solution. This solution will not protect up and coming New York fighters from unsafe conditions at home, nor will it alter their bargaining position, nor will it address any of the myriad of concerns legislators could consider to actually help.