Mixed martial arts or ultimate fighting is becoming more and more popular across the country. And that popularity has increased scrutiny of the sport, especially in Minnesota.
Two of the more popular fighters, Sean "the shark" Sherk and Nick "the goat" Thompson, train in Minnesota. The two were part of a group of fighters practicing at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy earlier this week. The Brooklyn Center gym has everything a mixed martial artist would need. There's a boxing ring so fighters can practice their kickboxing, a heavy bag for punching practice, and a mat on the floor so the fighters can work on wrestling, jujitsu and different choke holds.
Fighters use a combination of all of these techniques to get an opponent to submit, have a referee stop the fight, or win on points.
It may seem odd to bring regulations to a sport that appears to operate on one rule: beat an opponent into submission. But there are rules; they include no eye gouging, crotch shots, biting, stomping on an opponent when he's down, or neck shots. Other than that, a fighter can box, kick, wrestle or use choke holds to defeat an opponent.
As the fighters practice, Andy Grahn is working around the gym. Grahn, program director for the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, says the sport is more than just a brutal street fight.
"Once you know the level of hard work and preparation and skill that goes into it, you'll see it in a different light," according to Grahn. "When you start to look into it and you start to think about it, you'll see it for more than just a brutal sport; you'll see it as an art form."
That art form has been under greater scrutiny over the past few years. Several Minnesota cities have banned the contests and Grahn says there was talk of an outright statewide ban if there was no oversight. Before it adjourned last month, the Legislature included a tiny provision in a larger jobs and economic budget bill requires the Minnesota Boxing Commission to regulate the sport.
Scott Ledoux, the executive director of the Boxing Commission, says fighters, trainers and managers will now have to pay a $45 annual license fee. Fighters will also have to be tested for Hepatitis B and C, HIV and will need an opthalmology exam to ensure no detached retinas.
LeDoux says the commission will pay for referees, doctors and judges for every event.
"They make a choice. Those participants say, 'I want to participate,' so how can we deny them? I just think MMA is here to stay and I think it's a very exciting sport and when it's officiated correctly, there is a lot of lack of injuries," LeDoux says.
Several fighters say they're pleased to see added safeguards like hospitalization coverage and detailed contracts. But there are some concerns. Some worry the boxing commission doesn't know enough about the sport and could ruin it. The new law requires the governor to appoint four more people with MMA knowledge to the commission. Ledoux also says there will be separate meetings for boxing and MMA events.
Others worry that lower-level fighters may not have a ring to step into. That's because promoters will have to pay a yearly $400 fee and an additional $1500 for every event. Savage Entertainment, which promotes fights in Savage, says on its latest promotional poster that they may be taxed out of existence because of the new law. The owner, Eric Aasen says the added costs will mean fewer shows.
"I'm doing about one event per month. There's no way that's going to happen now," he says. "Maybe every three or four months. It will immediately shut the pool of fighters right off."
Back at the gym, Nick Thompson says he has mixed feelings about the new rules. Thompson defies the stereotype of an ultimate fighter. He's a University of Minnesota Law School student. On the one hand, Thompson says added protections for fighters are always a good thing. But he worries that lower-level fighters may be shut out as they try to get more experience.
"For fighters who are trying to reach that next level, they need those shows to basically practice and build up their careers. So it's going to be hard for them to reach that next level at least locally," Thompson says.
The benefit for fans is that promoters will be forced to put on better shows with better fighters. The talk among fighters is that a bigger show could be scheduled at the Target Center or Xcel Arena soon. That would enable Thompson or Sherk to fight before their hometown fans. Thomson and others hope that the state's appreciation for wrestling, professional and amateur, will help fill the seats.