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« | Home | »

Rethinking UFC’s 50-state regulatory policy after recent athletic commission follies

By Zach Arnold | June 13, 2014

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UFC fighter Diego Sanchez has benefited in the past from the score cards of round-stealing-friendly judges, just like Leonard Garcia. When Sanchez was booked against Ross Pearson in Albuquerque, New Mexico last Saturday night, your mind told you that Pearson would outpoint him but your heart told you that some way, some how, Sanchez would get a decision win and all hell would break loose.

After watching Pearson dominate Sanchez for three rounds, my first thought for Sanchez was how much longer would he be allowed to fight. Retirement. Forget the possibility of winning his fight on the cards. Sanchez is a guy who simply needs to get out of the cage before he suffers any further trauma. Gilbert Melendez pounded him in Houston and Ross Pearson simply outworked him in Albuquerque.

Then came the score cards. One judge right scored the bout 30-27 in favor of Pearson. A second judge scored the fight 29-28 in favor of Sanchez. A third judge scored the fight 30-27… in favor of Sanchez. And all hell broke loose or as much hell broke loose as possible for a lower-tier Lightweight fight. The UFC vowed to treat Pearson as if he won the fight but the damage was done. The cat calls on social media, where UFC dominates trending topics, were vociferous. Between the lousy judges and cringe-worthy officiating from Raul Porrata, New Mexico did its best to cement a reputation as one of the worst athletic commissions in the United States.

Any experienced fight fan understands that the majority of athletic commissions stink. They simply are money collectors and chaperones at events. You can count on your hand the number of competent athletic commissions in the States: Pennsylvania w/ Greg Sirb, New Jersey w/ Nick Lembo, and Tennessee w/ Jeff Mullen. You can also throw in Mike Mazzulli at Mohegan Sun. That’s it.

The myth that every state should regulate combat sports

After the death of Michael Kirkham in South Carolina, I publicly stated that not every state should be allowed to regulate or sanction combat sports. States that are experienced, competent regulators should oversee a legally-classified ultrahazardous sport. The notion that every state should regulate combat sports is foolish. If the political elites don’t want to do the job right in regulating boxing or MMA, then make sure they stay on the sidelines.

However, the UFC (through Marc Ratner) has pushed a 50-state policy to get MMA regulated everywhere. For Zuffa, it’s about money and credibility. Money, because they want to run as many shows as possible with their insane events schedule. Credibility, because they want to tout in public relations that they were the ones who got regulation passed in every state. Trailblazers. Pioneers.

Now that UFC is running so many shows in so many different states with horrific regulators, they are discovering the pitfalls of their 50-state strategy. Despite the expertise that UFC brings to their live events, the promotion is encountering a lower quality of officiating and judging in states that simply aren’t prepared for prime time. New Mexico is a prime example of this in action. If the UFC ran many of their shows in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Tennessee, we wouldn’t be seeing nearly the level of regulatory ineptitude that we are currently witnessing.

The UFC wants to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be able to cherry pick venues. They love Texas because there’s no state income tax, relaxed drug testing protocols, and secrecy on business information to the press. And if you don’t think this matters, look the recent efforts by the UFC in Florida to lobby the loyalty of state politicians to pass their secrecy bill to add exemptions to the state’s open records act. Florida has a lousy reputation like Texas in terms of quality regulation. They’ve earned it. But relaxed drug testing protocols & business secrecy along with no state income tax can go a long ways. Jeff Mullen’s integrity on drug testing in Tennessee may be on the right side of history but it’s not always on the right side of the business ledger for fight promoters.

On the one hand, the UFC has their business interests at heart but those interests are meeting the reality that poor officiating is negatively impacting the company’s image with the televised fights. Competency in doing your job right is just as important as health & safety. A lot of money is on the line for fighters.

Bigger isn’t always better

Which brings us to New York. As long as Sheldon Silver is alive and in a powerful political position, there will never be MMA regulation passed in the state. Forget about it. And yet, like a dog chasing a car, the UFC gets their hopes up every year in trying to move the needle. New York is the crown jewel of the company’s 50-state athletic commission policy. If they get into New York, they can run MSG and Syracuse and Buffalo. Without MMA regulation being passed, the MMA scene in New York is the equivalent of the Wild West. In rational times, logic would dictate that the New York State Athletic Commission regulating MMA would be safer than the currently chaotic scene unfolding in the state. However, we do not live in rational times in 2014. The New York State Athletic Commission is on the ropes, figuratively and literally. Their quality of combat sports regulation is so bad that the only hope left to save the operation is having lawyer David Berlin come in and try to stabilize the administrative bleeding.

Remember, several individuals working on behalf of New York’s athletic commission were recently sued for $100 million dollars by the family of Magomed Abdusalamov. He was the boxer who took a beating at Madison Square Garden but gutted it out when the fight should have been stopped. After allegedly telling NYSAC doctors that his head hurt, Magomed was supposedly given some sort of neurological examination and told to go back home to Florida to get checked out by doctors there. When Magomed gave a urine sample to lead athletic inspector Matt Farrago, reportedly there was blood in the sample and the boxer was instructed to take a taxi to go to the hospital rather than be escorted to a medical facility via ambulance at MSG. Abdusalamov ended up in a coma and has been in rehabilitation ever since.

It’s these kinds of regulatory decisions that have life-and-death consequences. It may benefit the UFC’s bottom line to have as many states open for business but if those venues involve individuals who can’t officiate or keep the environment safe for fighters, then whatever business positives existed to begin with quickly evaporate.

It’s easy to beat up on small operations like New Mexico. However, there are plenty of big states with voluminous activity that have demonstrated an appalling lack of competence. And that incompetence flows from the front office down to the grunts who simply aren’t placed in positions to succeed at their job.

For example, look at California. California and Texas have the two busiest event schedules in the country. Given how many shows take place in the state and the volume of people working the events, you would think that the bigger states would have immediate advantages in terms of regulation quality. But you would be wrong.

I know that the Magomed Abdusalamov $100 lawsuit in New York has Sacramento scared. They don’t want to find themselves in that kind of position. The easiest way to not put yourself in that kind of position is to be a good administrator and to provide proper training & instruction to the inspectors & officials out in the field. At a recent athletic inspector training session in Southern California, Andy Foster allegedly instructed the inspectors to get in the ring/cage between rest periods so that they can look at fighters directly. The inspectors can no longer examine fighters on the ring apron. As you might imagine in boxing circles, having an extra body in the ring during a rest period is not a concept that is going over well not is it a concept that will seriously improve the ability of an athletic inspector to do their job. Besides, if you have poorly-trained inspectors working shows, it doesn’t matter whether they are inside a ring or on the ring apron during rounds. Either they know what they are doing or they don’t. If athletic inspectors aren’t being properly trained on confiscating skinned gloves or poor tape jobs, then there’s no reason for trainers or managers to worry about any repercussions from cheating. And in California, as we saw with boxing trainer/manager Rodrigo Mosquera, you can be indefinitely suspended by Sacramento and still have the Executive Officer recommend that your suspension end after five months.

Juxtapose the Executive Officer’s behavior at athletic inspector training a couple of weeks after he approved a 59-year old 200-pound woman with no amateur boxing experience versus a 300-pounder. It’s crazy for someone who is supposedly concerned about liability. The 59-year old woman had been applying for a license since 2003. The grunts on the ground are baffled by the mixed messages being sent from the front office. It’s easy to beat up on the athletic inspectors in California. Despite the fact that they are considered intermittent state employees in California, they have no union representation. The training sessions they go through every six months largely do not improve the quality of regulation at shows. At the June 1st inspector training session in Southern California, the instructors supposedly decided that they ran out of time to cover drug testing issues.

Picking the right horse with your political muscle

I have long acknowledged the UFC for doing something that other major fight promoters have not done: flexing their muscle in the business affairs of the major state athletic commissions. The problem is that some of the decisions they’ve influenced athletic commissions into making have boomeranged.

The whole anabolic steroid mess in the form of state athletic commissions giving fighters testosterone permission slips has predictably backfired in a big, big way. You didn’t need a PhD to see that coming.

Additionally, the UFC has also thrown their weight behind some interesting administrators. When Keith Kizer resigned as the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Andy Foster in California was very much favored to get the Nevada job. He would have been the UFC’s golden boy in Nevada if he had gotten the job.

On MMA regulation, Andy Foster has done a fairly decent job. MMA is what he knows and what he cares about. On boxing regulation, he has been an absolute disaster and has made some decisions that simply defy logic. A lot of his boxing decisions don’t make sense if he is so concerned about liability.

After what happened at last December’s Golden Boy event in Fantasy Springs, boxer Angel Osuna has over a million dollars in medical bills because he hit his head on a timekeeper’s table after falling outside the ropes. Since that accident, no regulatory changes have been made.

And guess who picks up the tab when a fighter like Angel Osuna gets billed an exorbitant amount of money and/or Consumer Affairs gets sued for liability? California taxpayers.

The biggest form of malpractice involving athletic commissions like California comes in the form of rubber-stamping mismatches in the name of being promoter-friendly. We’re not talking about fights featuring 10-to-1 favorites. We’re talking the approval of squash fights where the A side is favored by at least 95% over the B side. Those are the kind of mismatches where someone can get an eardrum shattered, suffer a subdural hematoma, or get stretchered out unconscious. And under Andy Foster’s tenure in California, there have plenty of boxing shows loaded with grossly hazardous mismatches.

A week ago at Fantasy Springs in Indio, California, Golden Boy ran a ShoBox event where the top two fights (both aired on television) were very competitive on paper. Francisco Santana (20-3-1) defeated Eddie Gomez (16-1) and Hugo Centeno Jr. (21-0), who was Angel Osuna’s opponent last December, beat Gerardo Ibarra (14-1).

However, the undercard was loaded with horribly lopsided fights.

If this kind of regulatory recklessness is happening in California, one can only imagine what kind of activity is being approved & regulated in other states. We all recently saw what happened in Wyoming at the RFA MMA event.

This is the kind of Russian Roulette that can get fighters hurt in a big way. And all too often, we see this kind of low quality regulation happening in many states with athletic commissions.

The UFC is happy to have as many states available to run shows in but there is a price to pay for expanding the pie by running events in venues where athletic commissions are in over their heads or apathetic about competency. It’s not so easy crafting a 50-state regulatory strategy where you can thread the fine line of a commission having a veneer of credibility sprinkled with a dose of pliant regulatory behavior that’s Best for Business. When athletic commissions like New Mexico egregiously screw up, it hurts a UFC show. When athletic commissions like Nevada actually do something right with “random” drug testing, that hurts the UFC, too. In the end, the 50-state regulatory strategy the UFC has been pursuing will backfire just as much as it will reward their bottom line.

Topics: Boxing, CSAC, MMA, Media, UFC, Zach Arnold | 7 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

7 Responses to “Rethinking UFC’s 50-state regulatory policy after recent athletic commission follies”

  1. Sammy Chavez says:

    Zach,

    I think you missed the biggest reason for a 50 state strategy and I’m surprised you jump to the “money and credibility” angles while ignoring the simplest answer. The UFC might run a show once a year on a jurisdiction like New Mexico, but they rely on the 100 other shows that happen in the state during the rest of the year to develop their future fighters. It makes perfect sense for them to pursue regulation even in a state in which they never intend to run a show because the local talent from that place needs to develop somewhere. If they wrote off a “unimportant” state like Maine, Wyoming, etc., they make it that much harder for a potential star from those locales to come their way. Yes, a truly motivated career MMA fighter would travel from their home state to fight elsewhere, but this is about the young guy who simply won’t think about competing in the earliest stage of his career if it’s too hard to contemplate.

    In the end, money and credibility are correct, just not for the reasons you state. It’s not just about direct revenue from putting on events in many states and it’s not just about ego stroking (although it’s impossible to deny these as possibilities). Take UFC to task for running their own shows in subpar regulatory environments, but don’t fault them for encouraging as much growth in the sport as possible.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      And the flip side of that argument is that there are plenty of shows in the bigger states like California and Texas with lots of prospects. I understand what you are pointing out but I struggle to understand why Nebraska or South Carolina having activity is so important.

      • Sammy Chavez says:

        You never know where a potential star is going to come from. Consider that the best-regarded MMA camp in America is in New Mexico. In prior years, it would have been in Iowa. Of the UFC’s American champions, one fight from Washington and one from Oklahoma. It’s true that anyone with serious interest and talent will eventually travel to a more serious camp in a bigger location, but the first experience that many fighters will ever get is probably no more than a couple of hours from where they live. It’s a great reason to try and broaden the potential base of fighters.

        • Jason says:

          You just hit the nail on the head. It would be stupid of the UFC (from a business standpoint) not to try and get MMA regulated in all 50 states. A majority of the MMA bloggers whine and complain that the UFC does not have the star power any more. Well how in the heck are you suppose to develop new stars if you limit your talent pool. A great fighter can come from anywhere.

  2. David Lebold says:

    Since the Diego fight I have been down a rabbit hole trying to find the Unified Rules of MMA. I realized beyond what the UFC puts on their broadcast, effective striking, grappling, aggression and octagon control I really had no idea what a judges score is based on.
    Here is what I think is right:
    The Unified Rules that are used were last updated in 2009.
    There were some changes suggested by the ABC in 2012 but were never implemented.
    Nevada judges fights on different criteria than New Jersey
    and everyone else.
    The UFC(according to rules posted on website) has different rules for scoring bouts than Nevada does.
    A fighter is rewarded for his defense, striking is to be given more weight than grappling.

    I’m still confused, the president of the ABC, Tim Lueckenoff, responded to me ” I am traveling but the unified rules are the fouls only. They are in the website.”
    Does each state/jurisdiction decide on their own scoring criteria?
    Unless we know what that is, maybe Diego actually won. What if in New Mexico fights are judged by acts the craziest? Ok I’ve went to far.
    What the hell are the rules for scoring an MMA fight?

  3. David Lebold says:

    I don’t know, a knock down strike should count for more than two light jabs but that is not what the rules actually say.
    I’ve never been one to get too worked up about decisions and judging. I got soured when I watched Hagler beat Leonard, so I know that I won’t always agree but I would like to know the rules or know how the rules are applied. How do you earn points for defense? If a fighter throws 5 punches the opponent blocks 4 is the fighter how blocked the punches up 4 to 1?

    Zane and Dallas did reply, much appreciated, still confused. I think this weekend the fights will judged under the Unified Rules est. 2009. That means: E.Effective striking is judged by determining the total number of legal strikes landed by a contestant. Defense is also part of how you earn points.

    If the rules to judge by don’t actually make common sense should we be surprised if commissions who don’t judge often get it wrong or they could get it right but we think they are wrong.

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