N.C. Legislators Spar on Toughman, Mixed Martial Arts Fighting

June 26, 2007

Although professional boxing has taken it on the chin with declining public interest nationally, new types of organized fighting are getting attention at the North Carolina General Assembly as their popularity grows.

“Many people say it’s legalized street fighting,” said Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, whose bill would require a minimum $250,000 insurance policy on each fighter at toughman events, single-elimination tournaments of amateur boxers that often attract locals to spar in front of family and friends at small-town venues.

The debate comes as North Carolina, which is on pace to record its biggest fighting year since 2002, determines whether it wants to remain among the top dozen of so venues nationwide for holding fights.

“North Carolina is missing out on a huge opportunity to create revenues for the state by hosting these fights,” said Doug Muhle, a Raleigh real estate developer who finds sponsorships for mixed martial arts fighters who train in North Carolina so they can participate in out-of-state matches.

Mixed martial arts fights are growing, thanks to several leagues that have attracted millions of television viewers through cable and pay-per-view outlets and thousands to sold-out venues.

Fighters use a combination of martial arts, boxing and wrestling to try to defeat an opponent in a roped- of fenced-off ring, cage or some combination.

In the 1990s, when the only rules were essentially no biting or eye-gouging, several states barred the events, considering them too bloody and uncontrolled. North Carolina’s law bars similar “ultimate warrior” matches.

But supporters such as Muhle argue the sport has cleaned up its act by banning head butts and strikes to the back of the head and knee. A losing contestant in an untenable position can quit, Muhle said.

“He doesn’t have to get his face beat in,” Muhle said. “The referee, at his discretion, can stop the fight at any time.”

The leagues added judges, rounds, time limits and weight classes while developing an aggressive marketing campaign that has attracted young men as well as military personnel who learn judo, jiujitsu and like the combat-style feel of the fighting.

One league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, had 10 pay-per view events in 2006 that generated more than $200 million in customer retail revenue.

Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Anson, used a Senate bill creating a state boxing advisory panel to insert a provision that would repeal the “ultimate warrior” ban and replace with language to make clear mixed martial arts is lawful and will be regulated by the boxing authority. The bill soon could go to the full House.

The law now is “so vague that North Carolina was missing out on all of these kinds of tournaments,” Muhle said.

More than 20 states have passed laws allowing mixed martial arts fights, with several more considering them.

The state-operated North Carolina Boxing Authority, which uses Alcohol Law Enforcement agents to regulate fighting events, hasn’t taken a position on whether to permit mixed martial arts, authority leader Roger Hutchings said.

But the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which oversees ALE agents and the authority, is concerned that the extra work could stretch personnel too thin.

The authority said it already has issued 882 fighting-related licenses or permits so far this year, compared to 1,082 for all of last year. And there’s been 40 “fight nights” so far this year, compared to 53 in all of 2006.

“We can’t do more without the resources to enforce the proposed new mixed martial arts law,” said Patty McQuillan, a department spokeswoman.

But Gibson likely will have to persuade members such as Bordsen, who is focused on efforts to eliminate toughman matches but has called mixed martial arts a brutal sport as well.

Bordsen this year initially co-sponsored a bill that would have banned toughman matches, which have comprised the majority of fight nights regulated by the boxing authority since 2005.

Her bill was changed instead to raise the minimum liability insurance requirements for the events to such a level that only a few promoters, if any, would remain in the business, said Chuck Lanier of Cary, a sports marketing company owner who puts on some toughman matches.

Lanier, who spends about $1,000 for insurance at toughman events, said the matches already have several safety precautions, including 16-ounce boxing gloves and one-minute rounds.

“I think it’s a minority of people in the Legislature who are trying to position this as having a majority of people who want this outlawed,” he said.

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