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MMA in Indy: The state of the cage 

click to enlarge An MMA bout at 8 Second Saloon. - KERRY JESSUP
  • An MMA bout at 8 Second Saloon.
  • Kerry Jessup

June 15, 2012: Tonight, Tremors, the bar in the back of 8 Seconds Saloon, becomes the warm-up room for mixed martial arts fighters. As fans trickle into the Saloon, young men stretch, shadowbox, punch mitts and mingle among friends and coaches. Others sit at a table while a doctor takes their blood pressure.

Zach Jenkins, 24, wears a Hooters t-shirt and bounces from foot to foot, then ducks, bobs and weaves. Tattoos reach from his shoulder to his hands. His orange hair almost glows in the semi-dark surroundings. He pauses, smiles, and tells us, "Make sure you stick around for my fight. I do all kinds of crazy shit to get the crowd into it."

Jenkins is a local veteran with over 35 fights, amateur and professional combined. He remembers a time when rules and regulations were minimal. "People didn't worry about weight divisions and all of that. I remember guys fighting two or three times a night."

In some ways, Jenkins - with his showmanship, flamboyance and attitude - is a throwback to those earlier mixed martial arts events. Not that all of those aspects are gone, but they're no longer the norm.

No sport has evolved more in the past twenty years than mixed martial arts. What started out as a sport one step away from being illegal has gone mainstream. No-holds barred cage fighting - with few rules or regulations - has become, well, an art.

Gone are the barroom brawlers who just liked to fight without getting arrested. Today's fighters, especially the top-level ones, are finely conditioned athletes who train in boxing, wrestling, Maui Tai and jujitsu. MMA is now broadcast on network television.

The rise in popularity can be seen locally, as more gyms sprout up and more local fighters make the big time in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), the major leagues of MMA. Audiences are more knowledgeable and more sober. The drunken rowdy element has been replaced by blue and white collars fans.

With increased fan interest comes increased attention. Enter the Indiana Gaming Commission . Beginning in July 2009, the commission began regulating professional mixed martial arts as it did boxing.

Enter bureaucrats, stage right

Andy Means, director of the Athletic Division of the Indiana State Gaming Commission, believes the change was needed. "Most states now regulate mixed martial arts. In fact, the UFC won't even hold an event in a state without regulations."

That move opened the door for a UFC card in 2010; another one was scheduled for this September, but was moved to Minnesota.

Why the need for regulation? Well, anyone who has seen tapes of the sport in its embryonic days knows the answer - safety for the participants. In the past, weight classes were a luxury and fighters often fought several times in one night. And don't even think about blood tests in an often bloody sport.

Means says that the fighters are the ones who benefit the most. "It's not just the safety and health of the fighters; some were not getting paid what they were promised."

Moreover, according to Means, in 2011 64 MMA events were held in Indiana, placing the state sixth in the country.

Ron "The Savage" Carter, 34, shadow boxes while awaiting his June 15 fight at the 8 Seconds Saloon. At, 6"6' Carter towers over most of the people stretching, talking, and warming up. Carter, who works fulltime as a car salesman in Clarksville, Ind., remembers the "unregulated" days.

"Man, it was the wild, wild west," he says. "You didn't know who you were fighting, if he was a pro or amateur. You could get knocked out and go somewhere the next day and fight."

Under state regulations, a fighter who is knocked out receives a minimum of a 30-day suspension. Also, the state requires that promoters insure the fighters on their shows, in case they are injured in the cage.

"A few fights back I broke both bones in my leg. I didn't have to pay anything." He laughs, throws a few punches at an invisible target. "Now, I'm back and ready to go."

Breaking even

Of course, what's good for the fighters might not always be good for the promoters. When the state stepped in, many smaller promotions died a quick death. "We set a fee on each event," says Means, "based on the size event. Also, there's a 5% ticket tax."

Scott Sims is the president of The Legends of Fighting Championship (LFC), the largest and most established mixed martial arts promotion in Indiana, bringing fights to Indianapolis since 2005.

The LFC has featured a number of fighters who have gone on to fight on a world-class level. Fighters such as Chris Lytle, Matt Mitrione, Dustin Neace, and Dave Herman competed in the LFC cage before moving on to the UFC. "We are the springboard in the Midwest for fighters hitting the big time."

But nurturing local talent comes at a cost. And, according to Sims, since the state began overseeing the sport, the cost for promoters is becoming prohibitive. "Before the commission stepped in, we made anywhere between $7,500 to $15,000 a show. Since then, we've made no more than $5,000. In our last show [June 15], we broke even."

He adds, "For the Gaming Commission it's no risk. They come in and take their fees, regardless of how much I take in or have to pay out."

He argues that small promotions are at a huge disadvantage. "People don't realize that big promotions like the UFC don't have to rely on gate receipts. They can give out comp tickets to make the crowd look bigger, because that's not their total take. Where they make their profits are from pay per view buys and sponsorships."

Sims sees the advantages for the fighters. "I just wish that the commission could be as much for the promoter as they are for the fighter."

He cites an example from his last card. "I had two guys who signed contracts and pulled out the week of the show. I asked the commission if they could then suspend the fighters. Their response was that their hands were tied since neither fighter had a state license." He laughed in disbelief: "Both are licensed nationally!"

"Look," Sims says, "the Indiana Gaming Commission is going to do to mixed martial arts what it did to local boxing. When was the last time you saw a pro boxing show in Indy?"

Sims realizes that the economy and previous market saturation have also hurt the professional shows. "The first ten shows we did at 8 Seconds Saloon were over capacity. Our last show drew around 700."

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