Mullin, former fighter, pushes to regulate MMA
Former Oklahoma State University wrestler Randy Couture pulled no punches as he painted a bleak picture of the business practices behind mixed martial arts Thursday while testifying on Capitol Hill in favor of a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin.
“Coercive contractual practices” have crippled the sport, he said, including clauses “that prevent champions from ever becoming freely marketable” and “secret discretionary payments” that keep athletes “subservient and silent.”
As leagues like Ultimate Fighting Champion profit exorbitantly, “mid-tier and lower-tier fighters are struggling. They can’t fight enough times in a year to make a living,” Couture said.
The fighter spoke to the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection as it considers House Resolution 44. The bill is the latest effort by Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter with a 3-0 record in the Xtreme Fighting League, to extend boxing regulations to MMA.
“There is a reason why Congress stepped up and kept people like Don King from manipulating fighters in the boxing world,” Mullin, R-Westville, said. “If it was good enough for boxing, then it should be good enough for other combat sports, such as MMA.”
Marc Ratner opposes those efforts. He is UFC’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs.
The “conflicts, cronyism and corruption” that led to boxing reforms do not exist in MMA, he said. The sport once derided by Sen. John McCain as “human cockfighting” has become respected due to existing state regulations and UFC’s ingenuity, he told House members.
“A very small minority of fighters have urged this committee to enact legislation because of some perceived unfairness. The contrary is true,” Ratner testified. “The UFC is the undisputed leader in how it supports athletes and promotes athlete health and performance.”
Ratner said boxing and MMA “are entirely different” and should not be regulated similarly. Because sports reporters rank UFC fighters, rankings drive “merit-based competitive matchmaking decisions,” according to Ratner.
On this point, he and Mullin verbally sparred for several minutes.
“Do they serve at the will of the UFC?” Mullin asked, referring to the commission of sports writers.
“No, they’re independent,” Ratner responded.
“They serve at the will of the UFC. UFC reserves the right to remove anybody off that commission that they choose,” Mullin retorted. When Ratner said he could not speak to that because it’s not his area of expertise, Mullin told him, “It’s true. The answer to that is: true.”
Mullin and Couture say the UFC and other MMA promoters create so-called championship fights arbitrarily and avoid accurate rankings, damaging MMA’s credibility. Ratner defended the practice, saying, “We put on the fights that fans want to see.”
In 2000, Congress passed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act after concluding states were not properly protecting boxers physically or financially or ensuring the integrity of the sport. Because boxing is granted a permanent reprieve from state laws that prohibited violence, the government should instead regulate the sport more stringently, Congress reasoned.
The Ali Act requires ratings criteria be objective and spelled out, that promoters give state commissions copies of all agreements and disclose how much money they, the promoters, are making from fights.
Mullin’s legislation, HR 44, would expand those reforms to mixed martial arts. It has 53 co-sponsors — 28 Republicans and 25 Democrats — including two fellow Oklahomans: Reps. Tom Cole and Frank Lucas.
“We’ve got another year to get this done,” Mullin said in an interview after the hearing, calling the bill’s odds of passage “pretty good.”
The Ali Act is not without its critics, many of whom consider it to be well-meaning but rendered ineffective by loopholes. Some requirements are ignored while others are dependent on piecemeal state regulatory structures, critics say.
“The Ali Act has been very hard to enforce,” said Greg Sirb, a longtime executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and an architect of the Ali Act.
The committee also heard from Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, a brain injury researcher. She took no positions on the legislation but warned about the devastating health effects of MMA knockouts, especially in children.
“In MMA, there is a lot of competition that involves technique and skill that has nothing to do with incurring head trauma,” she said. “A lot of the sport would be preserved, even if knockouts became no longer an acceptable component of the sport.”
Mickey Gail, left, fights Randy Brown of Jamaica, during a middleweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 217 on Saturday in New York. Brown won the fight.