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.”