When Din Thomas was arrested for holding unlicensed amateur MMA matches in his gym, the world of the “smoker” was dragged out from the shadows. Though these unsanctioned fights are rarely policed, they’re generally illegal, which highlights a little-discussed challenge of being a mixed martial artist — how can you gain enough experience to turn pro if it’s impossible to compete as an amateur?
FIGHT! Magazine’s March issue hits newsstands today (pick it up at Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Walden Books), and it features an in-depth article on the history and legal status of smokers, and what’s being done to regulate amateur bouts. Check it out below, and let us know how you feel. Are you an amateur fighter struggling to find matches in your home state to build up experience? What special rules (if any) should be in place to protect fighters in amateur bouts? Should amateur fighters just man up, jump into the fire, and stop bitching about gaining experience before putting their records on the line? (Equally valid point-of-view, by the way.)
By Neal Taflinger
Someone broke the first rule of fight club, and Din Thomas wound up in jail. On October 31, 2007, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, police arrested Thomas, a 31-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, for holding illegal cage fights in his St. Lucie West training center.
Two weeks earlier, police received an anonymous tip about a so-called fight club being held on October 19 at Thomas’ American Top Team gym. Police attended the event, a smoker featuring eight of Thomas’ students, fighting in front of friends and family. The officers filed a report stating that Thomas charged approximately 150 spectators $10 each for entry to the unsanctioned amateur event, and had no medical staff on hand.
Thomas’ arrest brought widespread attention to smokers – combat sports’ not-so-dirty, not-so-little, not-so-secret dirty little secret. Unfamiliar to many casual fans, smokers are a long-standing tradition in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and mixed martial arts. These unsanctioned, often illegal fights are organized in gyms or private clubs to give young fighters experience in front of a crowd. Most smokers are held without incident, and often feature police officers as spectators or participants.
Professional prize fighting was illegal in many municipalities in the early to mid 20th century. Loopholes allowed for sparring between members of private clubs for exercise and entertainment, so promoters skirted the law by holding bouts in Eagle and Elk lodges, Knights of Columbus halls, and American Legion posts. Fighters and spectators simply joined the club and bought a ticket; authorities mostly looked the other way. These fights became known for the noxious cloud of tobacco smoke hanging over the crowd.
When Asian martial arts became popular in America after World War II, full-contact karate competitors continued the smoker tradition of their knuckle-bustin’ forebears. Over time, state lawmakers became comfortable with kickboxing, but the brutal elbows and knees of Muay Thai were considered beyond the pale. Until the sport was sanctioned, “guys did gym shows under the radar,” says famed kickboxer and trainer Jeff “Duke” Roufus.
States were hesitant to sanction no-holds-barred bouts in the early to mid-1990s, so cage fighters retreated to gyms, warehouses, pole barns, and discreet nightclubs to compete. Even now that the sport has established rigorous safety guidelines and unified rules, states are slow to legitimize it.
According to UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, 32 states regulate professional MMA and more are coming on board. But the sport is still illegal in some states and unregulated in others. Amateur matches are illegal in many more states, including some that allow pro bouts like California and Florida. These states host as many or more pro fights each year than Nevada does, but offer no structured opportunities to homegrown fighters looking for experience before taking on pro competition.
While Thomas says smokers are common in Florida, he never competed in them before turning pro, opting instead to compete in Japanese-style shoot fights. He believes that experience is essential and wants his own fighters to be tested in serious competition before jumping on pro cards. Thomas feels that the booming popularity of the sport has resulted in Florida’s professional undercards being filled with amateur quality fighters. “Guys who have no business fighting are ruining themselves early,” says Thomas, “They think they are ready to fight and they ain’t.”
Christian Smith was trying to get his fighters ready before the California State Athletic Commission stopped him. Smith, the owner of Tribull Mixed Martial Arts in San Jose, was preparing his fighters for “Winter Brawl,” a smoker scheduled to take place at his gym on December 15 when he received a cease and desist order from the CSAC.
The trainer was taken off guard; smokers are such a pervasive and permitted component of ringsport culture that gyms promote events on SmokerFights.com. Reigning UFC heavyweight champ Randy Couture’s namesake gym in Las Vegas, Xtreme Couture, offers smoker recaps and pictures on its blog. Smith and his students have attended half a dozen smokers in the Bay Area. In fact, both Smith and Thomas held smokers in their gyms without incident before authorities were notified.
Because smokers are such an integral part of fight training and negative repercussions from them are so rare, participants see them as no big deal. But boxing and athletic commissions take issue with smokers and other unsanctioned fights because they cannot guarantee that trainers and promoters are working in the best interests of fighters in terms of matchmaking, safety precautions, and medical care. But even without official oversight, Thomas and Smith stress that they took care to ensure that the fights were more than simple backyard brawls.
Thomas’ training bouts consisted of three three-minute rounds, and fighters used soft training gloves. Elbows and knees to the head were disallowed. When questioned by police, Thomas said he had no paid medical professionals on site. While this is true, there were half a dozen firefighters in the audience, a fire truck and ambulance parked outside the building, and an EMT (a student of Thomas’) working the door.
This, along with the fact that all the money collected was for a raffle and that all participants were students of the gym, is why the Florida state attorney’s office announced that it would not file formal charges against Thomas.
Now that the CSAC is cracking down on the practice, Tribull’s trainer worries that smokers will just become more secretive and more dangerous. Before, Smith said it was common for smoker participants to receive pre-fight physicals, and medical personnel were always on hand. “Now, ringside doctors could lose their licenses to practice medicine by working an unsanctioned event,” Smith says.
Smith and Thomas are left with an uncomfortable dilemma: break the law for the benefit of their students, or obey the law and risk putting inexperienced students at risk in professional fights. “I would be the first on the bandwagon to pay CSAC to hold a sanctioned event in California,” says Smith. “Unfortunately I can’t.”
Every major sport has a relationship with its amateur corollary, so one would assume that MMA promoters would have had the forethought to establish guidelines for nurturing new talent. But according to Inspector Frank Munoz, the stakeholders who worked with the CSAC to establish regulations for the professional game simply weren’t concerned with the amateur ranks. “Now we gotta go back to the drawing board,” Munoz says.
“What we’re hoping is that there will be a single national governing body,” says Marc Ratner. The UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs has no direct stake in the regulation of amateur fighting, but that’s not to say it doesn’t matter to him or his employer. Many still refer to the sport as “ultimate fighting,” and bad press about any fighter, promoter, or event reflects negatively on the UFC.
Is it possible then that Ratner would use his prior experience as Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and current clout with the UFC to help speed the process of widespread, consistent amateur sanctioning and regulation? “I will help, maybe not officially,” Ratner says. “I think it’s very important to have a structured amateur program.”
But whether this structured program would be administered by state boxing and athletic commissions or by a third party is yet to be decided. USA Boxing has a nationwide charter to sanction and regulate amateur boxing, but no such organization exists to do the same for mixed martial arts. The International Sports Combat Federation, USA Mixed Martial Arts, World Fighting Organization, Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Association, World Mixed Martial Arts Association, and World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts all offer some type of oversight and sanctioning with varying degrees of experience and expertise.
The International Sports Combat Federation, a sister organization to the International Kickboxing Federation, enjoys the broadest and deepest experience of all the MMA sanctioning bodies, and is one of the organizations responsible for sanctioning the sport in Wisconsin, where Duke Roufus trains, manages, and promotes fighters. The Milwaukee native sees amateur bouts as an integral part of a fighter’s development, as well as a way to give fans more bang for their buck. Roufus’ Gladiator promotion alternates between all-MMA and all-Muay Thai shows, and “we’ll do 10 or 11 amateur fights and 10 or 11 pro fights on the same card,” he says.
In addition to pro/am cards, Ratner says rule changes should be made to ensure that amateur fights are “more of a learning experience.” The Ohio Athletic Commission, one of only a handful of state commissions to handle the regulation of both professional and amateur MMA itself, established safety guidelines that may be adopted by other states in the next few years.
The OAC specifies that amateur competitors must use six or eight-ounce gloves (shin guards optional) and forbids elbows to the head or body as well as knees and kicks to the head. Amateur fights consist of three three-minute rounds, with 90-second breaks. Fighters must have five recorded bouts to be considered for a professional license. Ratner favors using headgear as well, but ultimately each state must decide what it feels is appropriate.
The International Sports Combat Federation approached the CSAC in summer of 2007 to discuss amateur sanctioning, but Munoz does not expect to see regulations in place until 2009. The Florida State Boxing Commission is working towards amateur sanctioning but spokesperson Sam Farkas says that change must come first through state lawmakers. “I don’t know if it’s on the legislative agenda, but it’s something we’d like to see.” Farkas says.
MMA’s transition from spectacle to sport has been a rapid one, and state bureaucracies have had difficulty keeping up with it. According to Munoz, California’s professional regulations have been used as a template by other states, and he hopes the same will be true when it finally regulates amateur fighting. But it’s still anyone’s guess what amateur MMA will look like in 2008, 2010, or beyond.
Until then, Smith and Thomas are left to make decisions about the preparation of their students. Even though no charges were filed against him, the potential hassles of organizing smokers have turned Thomas away from illicit events. Instead, he hopes the FSBC follows through on its plan to sanction beginner’s bouts so that he is able to produce shows above board. “If they do legalize amateur MMA in Florida, I may be one of the guys who starts an amateur league,” Thomas says.
Smith, though, is undaunted. He doesn’t trust that the CSAC has the sport’s best interests in mind, and will continue to attend and organize smokers until amateur MMA is sanctioned in his home state. “We will be hush-hush about it and invite only a select few that we can trust,” Smith says. A select few who will obey the first rule of fight club.