LANSING, Mich. — Jerry “The Moose” Waterson fulfilled a dream last month by stepping into the ring for his first professional mixed martial arts fight, which he won.
His passion has become his full-time job, requiring 40 hours a week of training. But it took the 24-year-old Waterson four years of punching, kicking and grappling his way through Michigan's unregulated amateur system, where nearly anything goes and where fighters are often uninsured or could be infected with HIV or hepatitis.
“It's like the wild, wild west. It's crazy,” Waterson said.
Michigan is among about a dozen states in which amateur MMA fights are legal but unregulated. That could soon change, however, as even lawmakers who recoil at the sport's brutality see the wisdom in setting ground rules.
“It is time to teach the beast some manners,” said Democratic Rep. Harvey Santana, who is sponsoring legislation that would require promoters of amateur events to get licensed annually, carry up to $10,000 in health insurance for fighters and have a physician on site for fights.
MMA has exploded in popularity since the 1990s, led by its major brand, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and giving rise to an amateur industry that serves as the sport's minor leagues and offers fans a cheap night out or even the chance to get in the ring themselves. Combatants draw from various disciplines, including jiu jitsu, judo, boxing and wrestling, to try to knock out or subdue their opponents.
The sport's brutality — choke holds are legal and bloodied faces are the norm — has earned MMA its share of critics, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, who once likened it to “human cockfighting.” South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently signed off on the establishment of a state commission to regulate MMA, boxing and kickboxing, despite reservations that doing so would legitimize the fights.
Michigan legalized MMA bouts in 2007, and today most states allow professional bouts. They remain illegal in Connecticut and New York, but the state Senate in New York, where amateur fights are legal, this month passed a measure to legalize and regulate the professional sport. When Michigan lawmakers legalized the sport, they stipulated that promoters must be licensed and carry insurance for fighters at pro events. But they didn't set requirements for amateur bouts.
No one tracks all Michigan's amateur fights, but Grand Rapids-area promoter and matchmaker Dru Gardner estimates that there 65 promoters in the state and that there are five events on any given weekend. Rob Fisk, a medic who works many of the fights, said the typical event draws from 500 to more than 2,000 spectators who plunk down $20 each to watch 20-or-so bouts.
While a pro fighter can earn $5,000 for a bout, amateur fighters earn nothing and compete for the thrill or because they harbor hopes of turning pro. In the meantime, amateurs put themselves at risk of serious injury or disease due to the lack of regulation, some lawmakers and promoters say.
Joe Battaglia, who runs a Michigan promotion company, said a fighter goes to the hospital at nearly every one of his events, and that broken noses, ribs and hands are among the most common injuries. Battaglia stopped fighting professionally after suffering a broken neck while training. Fortunately, he was insured.
Many promoters don't provide insurance and many fighters don't have their own, said Al Low, who co-owns the Fight Club Proving Ground gym with Battaglia. Amir Khillah, a pro fighter from Michigan, said he broke his arm in three places in his first bout in 2006. The promoter didn't carry insurance, so Khillah said he made himself a cast out of shin guards and duct tape. His arm is now crooked.
Lawmakers, fighters and promoters also point to a lack of pre-match blood testing, which puts combatants at risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis and other illnesses. The Association of Boxing Commissions, which is made up of the various state fighting commissions, has recommended that members ban amateur MMA fighters from Michigan, for fear of disease. And Bernie Profato, who heads the Ohio Athletic Commission, said he warns fighters that they won't be allowed to compete in Ohio if they fight in Michigan, for fear of spreading disease.
The lack of regulation means Michigan amateurs sometimes can't be protected from themselves. While the Association of Boxing Commissions keeps a database of fighters who have been suspended due to injury, a recent knockout or bad blood work, Michigan promoters aren't required to report to it.
“I know a guy who has been knocked out five times in the last year,” said Gardner, the promoter. Someone getting knocked out that often “is a serious liability for the entire sport.”
Last year, a 26-year-old South Dakota amateur fighter died a week after a bout from head injuries. Police said there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that the injury was suffered in the event.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's spokesman, Kurt Weiss, said in an email that Snyder supports making mixed martial arts safer and that the governor “will continue to work with the Legislature to find the right approach to ensure that any new regulation will be self-supporting and that need for public health and safety is addressed.”
The promoters and amateur fighters calling for regulating the amateur fights made clear that it's for a love of the sport.
Low said many of the young fighters who have taken up MMA at his gym learn discipline, confidence and self-worth.
“I've seen kids coming in here heavy set, out of shape with their heads down and you could barely hear them talk,” Low said. “Two years later, they are acting like they are Muhammad Ali.”