CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House of Representatives on Thursday kicked forward legislation that would create a state mixed martial arts commissioner to oversee and regulate the sport.
Supporters of the legislation say state regulation over professional MMA fights would result in safer fights, chase out shady event promoters, and lure bigger events to Wyoming. But some event organizers and fighters worry that such a move would devastate MMA fights in Wyoming, as already-suffering promoters would have to pay an additional fee.
Mixed martial arts allows a wide range of fighting techniques including striking, kicking and grappling. One of the fastest-growing sports in the world, the largest fights bring in thousands of spectators and millions in revenue from television and pay-per-view.
Wyoming is one of six states that have no regulatory body for mixed martial arts. But promoters and fighters estimate about 20 events are held in Wyoming annually, most of which draw crowds of several hundred people.
State lawmakers have tried five times in the past decade to resurrect the office of the state boxing commissioner, who would oversee MMA. Opposition from the boxing industry KO’d those efforts. Now, state Rep. Bryan Pedersen, R-Cheyenne, is trying to skirt those problems by only regulating MMA. The commissioner’s office would be funded by fees collected from MMA events, according to the bill.
Pedersen, who practices Brazilian jujitsu and a type of Thai kickboxing called muay thai, said he’s talked with MMA fighters in Cheyenne who complain that because Wyoming doesn’t regulate mixed martial arts, fights that they hold in the state don’t count toward their nationwide professional record.
Jerry Davis, a Cheyenne MMA trainer, said MMA regulations are sorely needed in Wyoming. Unlike other, regulated states, Davis said, fighters don’t need to test for diseases like HIV and promoters don’t have to provide insurance for the fighters, who sooner or later will get injured in a fight.
“It would make sure that some of these individuals in the past who were, for lack of a better term, shady wouldn’t be in this industry and giving it a bad name and causing harm to those individuals who are fighting,” he said.
And regulation could bring in higher-profile events as well. While the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s largest MMA promotion company, held UFC6 in Casper in 1995, the current owners don’t hold fights in states where MMA isn’t regulated.
If Wyoming were to regulate the sport, the UFC would look at holding events here, said Marc Ratner, the UFC’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs.
“We’re not going to bring a major pay-per-view there, but we can certainly do a smaller event,” he said.
T.J. Nunnaley, a professional MMA fighter from Cheyenne, said he agrees that Wyoming needs to oversee safety at mixed martial arts events in the state. During one fight, Nunnaley said he was cut under his eyelid across his tear duct. After being transported to multiple hospitals and specialists, he said, the medical bills came to $14,000 — $3,000 of which he had to pay out of pocket.
And Nunnaley’s promoter had fight insurance to offset some of the cost. Other fighters, he said, aren’t so lucky.
“They will tell the fighters, oh yeah, you’re taken care of; they go to the hospital, they get stuck with the bill, and the promoter skips town and never returns phone calls,” he said. With a commissioner, he said, “everything would be legitimate.”
At the same time, Nunnaley said, Wyoming’s small population makes it hard for MMA promoters to draw big crowds. Charging event fees could lead some promoters in Wyoming to stop holding events, he said.
Stephen Alley, an MMA promoter who has held fights in Casper since 2006, agreed. Attendance at his Casper fights has declined in recent years, he said, to the point that an additional fee would be devastating.
“If they bring in a commission, most of the people that you see operating right now, they won’t be around,” he said.
Pedersen’s legislation, House Bill 87, passed an initial vote 46-14 on Thursday. The bill must now survive three more House votes before it would head to the Senate for consideration.
Pedersen said he didn’t know whether his proposal would pass this year. He also hesitated when asked if he wanted to take part in an MMA fight himself.
“I don’t know if my wife will let me,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know if I can, on the record, say yes.”