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Minn. cities grapple with mixed-martial arts fighting

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Warming up
Matt Parker warms up for a mixed-martial arts fight in a makeshift locker room at Stars and Strikes Entertainment Center in Wyoming, Minn. Saturday, April 2, 2011. Parker was competing in Tour of Duty 3, a MMA event that was moved from Forest Lake to Wyoming after a Forest Lake ordinance prohibited the event to take place in the city.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The blows kept coming, brutal and frequent.

Inside the octagon cage, Matt Parker — all of 137 pounds and sporting a Mohawk — took strike after strike to the face from his opponent's hands and feet.

But by the third and final round, the 30-year-old warehouse worker from Forest Lake was confident he was up on points and could lose only by knockout. Near the end of the fight, as the other fighter attempted a take down, Parker threw his left arm around the man's neck and cinched it like a noose. "Finish it!" someone yelled. "Parker, finish it!"

The chokehold — known as the guillotine — caused his foe to pass out, and the referee signaled Parker's win. It was his first mixed-martial arts competitive fight.

"I was just going to pull until his head came off," Parker said with a grin, after emerging from the cage with bruises under his eyes.

The octagon cage is where a scrappy unknown like Parker can become a hometown hero.

  SPORT GROWING IN POPULARITY

Just about every weekend, there's a state-sanctioned mixed-martial arts fight taking place at a sports bar, hotel, or nightclub somewhere in Minnesota. Some 1,850 professional and amateur fighters are now licensed to brawl in the sport critics have derided as "human cockfighting." Last year, the events outnumbered boxing matches 6 to 1.

But fight promoters are learning that a handful of local communities have outlawed the fast-growing sport. Among them is Forest Lake, a northern Twin Cities suburb where a four-year-old ordinance prohibits the fights.

The local laws were passed before the state stepped in to regulate the events and implement new measures to better ensure fighter safety.

Fans say the restrictions fail to recognize just how much fight nights have changed.

Forest Lake's law against mixed-martial arts sent event organizers scrambling to find a new home for their fights Saturday night.

The show did go on — five miles away, at the Stars and Strikes entertainment complex in the small town of Wyoming. Families were moonlight bowling just steps from a banquet hall with chandeliers.

The room was quickly transformed into a makeshift coliseum, where hundreds of fans, including young beer-drinking men and women — and some moms and dads — packed themselves around the cage.

All of the contenders are young, unpaid amateurs who simply love to fight. Jake Ostrowski of Milltown, Wis., brought down his opponent in 10 seconds.

"Went in, measured him out, threw a spinning back fist, rocked him, threw another one, right cross, he was done," Ostrowski said in a play-by-play. "Knocked him right out. He stiffened up and fell, right to the ground. I kept going through him, until a ref pushed me off."

The fights — a mix of boxing, kicking, wrestling and martial arts moves — can be bloody, bodily harm that hasn't gone unnoticed.

CITIES CRACK DOWN OVER LACK OF REGULATION

With that in mind, at least a half-dozen Minnesota cities, from Red Wing to Fridley, began in 2005 to restrict or ban ultimate fighting. The term comes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is the elite U.S. league for mixed-martial arts, similar to what the NFL is to football.

Back then, cities were concerned about the sport's lack of regulation — and fan violence that spilled into the parking lots. In one case, a man was beaten so badly after a fight that he ended up in a coma.

Police departments were also trying to put an end to organized brawls involving high school students who gathered in parks and garages to imitate what they saw on pay-per-view TV. Officials in northern Twin Cities suburbs worried about escalating violence.

"It was a case of a few kids saying, 'There's going to be a fight,' down in a certain place, and people showing up," recalled Forest Lake City Council member Susan Young. "At that time, it wasn't regulated. There weren't a lot of things known about it. And it was just, 'We can kick your butt one way or another.'"

But in 2007, the state boxing commission expanded its role to include oversight of MMA, and later changed its name to the Minnesota Combative Sports Commission. Most states in the country sanction professional MMA events. In Minnesota, the only fights not sanctioned by the commission are at casinos and Indian reservations. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, however, has its own commission.

  SPORT HAS EVOLVED, SUPPORTERS SAY

Since Minnesota and other states began regulating mixed-martial arts, the sport has evolved, fight promoter Tony Grygelko said.

"It went from a backyard-brawl type of event to a total mainstream, fastest-growing sport in the world," Grygelko. "It's well-sanctioned, well-regulated."

He said local laws prohibiting MMA are outdated.

"I can't really fault the cities for passing the laws in 2006 [or] 2007, but what I can fault the cities for not staying up to code," Grygelko said.

The state's combative sports commission is in charge of licensing fighters and promoters, training referees, and reviewing the athletes' records to make sure the matches are as even as possible. Fighters must undergo physicals before the event. Inspectors in the locker rooms monitor the wrapping of the fighters' hands, to make sure they aren't sneaking in foreign objects.

Doctors are always cage side during the fights. They include Dr. Gene Stringer, of Stillwater, who monitors fights throughout Minnesota.

From a fight table next to the octagon, Stringer checks fighters as they leave the cage and tests them for concussions, and inspects serious gashes. His wife Christie is his medical assistant.

"One night, on two people, we did 130 stitches," Christie Stringer said. "That was a rough night." 

There's indeed a level of risk with any striking sport, said RD Brown, executive director of the combative sports commission. Brown, who has experience in boxing and martial arts, believes MMA is safer than boxing, in part because knockouts automatically signal a victory. A referee also will end a fight if a contender can no longer defend himself.

"There's no standing eight count in MMA," Brown said.

The mild-mannered Brown, a retired nonprofit executive, has visited with city officials in Eagan and Burnsville, to explain the regulations intended to protect fighters and the public. But Brown said he's not there to fight.

"I won't go to battle with the city," he said. "I'm more than willing to go before the City Council and talk to them. If they don't want to listen, that's fine. That's their right."

This year, the state is on track to see 60-plus events — nearly double the number three years ago. The demand is so great that the commission can't keep pace with requests from fight promoters to support and staff their events. 

The Forest Lake City Council has invited Brown to its regular meeting on Monday, and will consider changing or repealing its ordinance.

NO PAYOFF FOR FOREST LAKE, COUNCILOR SAYS  

But council member Susan Young said she's not so sure that she wants to welcome MMA into her community. She worries that the city will need more police officers and other resources to handle crowds that become unruly after the fights.

The city doesn't have its own liquor tax, so it wouldn't see a financial benefit from hosting any fights, Young said.

"People are saying, 'Susan, why aren't you really for this and excited about it?' " Young said. "And it's like, 'So, what's in it for me? What's in it for the city?' There is no money that goes to the city. Zero, zilch, nada."

But Young can't ignore that MMA followers are everywhere, including City Hall. Forest Lake's mayor, Chris Johnson, said he's hosted a few pay-per-view parties at his house over the years, and considers himself a fan.