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 The drunken rowdy element has been replaced by blue and white collars fans.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."
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."
Over-saturation might be a problem that will eliminate itself.
James Porter, executive director and promoter of Indy MMA , began putting on shows in 2011. So far, they've had three shows. "The commission definitely helps the fighters. And overall the safety is much better. At the same time, I have to bring in more money to break even, after paying the fees and meeting the requirements."
Porter says that he needs to sell 1,000 to 1,200 tickets to make it worthwhile. That bottom-line has made him reconsider his previous venue, the Indiana State Fairgrounds. In fact, concerns over finances caused him to postpone a card scheduled for last June.
"We just need to get the word out. I believe the interest is there, but we just need to get a place and hope the fans will come."
For promoters, their biggest opponent is a combination of the economy and the lack of local media attention, making promoting a risky business.
Porter sees the local scene as growing but only in "fits and bursts." He says, "The way some promoters get out of the paying the sanctioning fees is to promote all amateur shows. That might be the future for some."
An uncertain future
Keith Palmer, who's been involved in combative sports for several years, promoted the first mixed martial arts show at the then-Conseco Fieldhouse in 2007. He has coached boxing and has promoted mixed martial arts in Indianapolis. He is the co-founder of Indy PAL/MMA on the city's eastside. "A few years ago you could put on a show and make some money. It's much harder today."
Palmer sees fewer promoters willing to put on professional shows because of the financial risk. But he doesn't see the state's regulations as the main reason. "We have a shortage of small, affordable venues in Indianapolis. I did my last show at the Murat, and you just can't make money there."
Palmer's concerns echo those of Porter who found the State Fairgrounds financially risky. If the cost outweighs the profit, promoters will put on fewer shows. And fewer shows will eventually mean fewer fighters. Why train for fights that might not take place?
Like Sims, Palmer sees a similar parallel with boxing: "Unfortunately, it seems the local MMA scene is going down the same road of professional boxing. Now you don't even see boxing in the Indianapolis area. It's gone."
He adds that mixed martial arts is still a relatively new sport. It has surged and has even gone mainstream. "There's always the risk of over-saturation. You can see the UFC on network and cable stations where it used to be regulated to pay-per-view."
Palmer believes that a new local superstar would further boost the interest of local fighters and fans. "Another Chris Lytle-type of fighter would increase interest. But I think the local scene is a good barometer for the direction the sport is going to go. If we lose local shows and local talent, fans will lose interest."
While it is clear that mixed martial arts has evolved from a backstreet event to a mainstream sport, the question of where it will go from here is uncertain. Anyone who attended early events saw a certain subculture--tattoos, piercings and dyed hair--that has been replaced with the largely coveted white 18-34 demographic.
What used to be subversive is now out of the shadows and into the bright lights. That change is bound to cost some fans. In some ways, mixed martial arts resembles racing that went from dirt tracks to NASCAR. The "transgressive" element that some found appealing is largely gone.
Still, local shows provide better trained athletes and safer events. But for how long? Sims' next show will be an all amateur card. "That way I can minimize the loss that comes from paying the commission their fees."
Only time will tell if this recent "marriage" between the state and mixed martial arts will eventually lead, not just to safer competitions, but to events that will produce the money that will keep the sport alive.
A few good gyms
American Top Team (44 E. Washington St., 317-641-4218)
ATT offers classes in Jiu-Jitsu, grappling, mixed martial arts, kickboxing, Capoeira and wrestling. Private sessions are also available by appointment. Like most of the local gyms, ATT caters to both those who want to compete - and those who just want the exercise.
Broad Ripple Martial Arts Academy (5145 E. 65th St., 317-251-2488)
While not exactly a mixed martial arts training facility, Broad Ripple Martial Arts Academy offers classes in karate and kickboxing. Moreover, they offer "executive" boxing for men and women who want the rigorous workout that boxing entails, without having to get punched in the nose.
Indy PAL/MMA (700 N. Sherman Drive, 317-529-4620)
Indy PAL/MMA offers boxing, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes. Training is free for kids and veterans. Adults may apply to train at discounted rates. According to their mission, "Indy
PAL MMA is the country's second Police Athletic League program devoted to teaching the dominant disciplines of Mixed Martial Arts. While Indy PAL/MMA will encourage its athletes to compete in one or more discipline, its goal is not to develop fighters but to cultivate citizens."
Integrated Fighting Academy (5301 Commerce Circle, Suite A; 317-300-1029)
The Integrated Fighting Academy is one of the premier local gyms where those serious about competing train. Founded by UFC fighter and former Purdue football player Matt Mitrione, it's home to several local professional and amateur fighters, and offers classes for men, women and children. Further, they cover all of the disciplines involved in mixed martial arts, as well as offering classes in Zumba, yoga, Pilates and self-defense.
"Lights Out" Speaks Out
Chris "Lights Out" Lytle has been the most successful and popular fighter to come out of the Indy area. Having over fifty professional fights, Lytle, 37, retired after winning his last fight against Dan Hardy last year. After an unsuccessful run for the state Senate, Lytle continues his full-time job with the Indianapolis Fire Department.
The fighter and the politician in him are evident when he begins talking about the local mixed martial arts scene. He sees the problems and offers some remedies. "What the commission is doing is nickel and diming the sport to death. My first question is, Why did the athletic commission dissolve into the gaming commission? And what do the people at the gaming commission know about the sport?"
Like many of the local promoters, he believes the new regulations will limit the amount of local professional shows. "I understand the need to clean out the bad promoters and making sure a doctor is at each fight. Okay. But what they did was reinvented the wheel. It needed tweaking, not an overhaul."
Lytle still works out and trains fighters at Integrated Fighting Academy. "A few of my fighters just had the show they were going to be on cancelled. My guess is that the promoters who still want to promote pros will go outside of the state and that's not good for young fighters trying to build their career."
Besides his background in mixed martial arts, Lytle has also fought 15 professional boxing matches and is familiar with the changes that have happened in that sport. "If the state is going to oversee MMA, then we need to get people in charge who know and understand the sport. If not, look for it to go the way of local boxing."
And that's a fate that fans and fighters don't want to see.