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A Higher Power In MMA

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A bad economy that led to over 3,000 seats given away for free. Three fighters who couldn’t make weight. Another early stoppage. Another huge judging controversy. And oh yeah: swine flu.

Dana White’s head shave this week likely sliced a few more gray follicles than seven days before, and who could blame him? UFC 104 was, on paper, a great card, but when it was over he found himself answering questions about everything from the Velasquez stoppage to Lesnar pulling out of UFC 106 to “Brown Pride” to the fatties both on the card and in The Ultimate Fighter. Oh – and a Machida victory that had the Internet HOWLING in outrage, thinking Rua got screwed.

Now, there’s not a lot Dana can do about a global pandemic. But with a number of the other things swirling around, I got to thinking: these are not just Dana’s problems. They are Scott Coker’s problems. These are mixed martial arts’ problems. And if White is serious about growing the sport AND ensuring that the tainted, toxic clouds that have hovered over boxing for years never alight on MMA, it’s time to start thinking about a U.S. governing body for mixed martial arts.

Bolivian officials demonstrate a model governing body for MMA. Wait: this is their Congress? Oops.

I’m sure the UFC would like to think of themselves as the only superpower in town; their (largely successful) efforts to stifle WAMMA have been proof of that. But no matter what they do, they’ll still have to deal with a patchwork quilt of athletic commissions. As we saw this weekend, those commissions can have a severe effect on any promotion. There are a variety of advantages a properly funded and supported national governing body could provide:

-Training and recruitment of judges and referees: This is the largest benefit of a governing body – a pool of officials that can be trained to officiate and score MMA matches instead of getting the various sloppy seconds from boxing that some state athletic commissions dole out. MMA referees get slammed from all sides. White has publicly ripped Steve Mazzagatti on numerous occasions, “Big John” McCarthy is on the outs with a number of state commissions, and Yves Lavigne has looked lost in the cage multiple times this year. These are the guys that are officiating at the sport’s top tier! A governing body can establish referee training and recruitment programs and work to reform judging and MMA’s scoring system into something smart and unique as opposed to a quick-and-dirty bastardization of existing boxing rules.

-Fighter protection: Standardized fighter licensing and drug/medical suspensions from state to state are crucial for the protection of fighters.

Generally, athletic companies are strongly against the organization of their employees; one needs only to look at the various union problems sports leagues have had (and that boxing has never gotten their act together in that regard). But this doesn’t have to be full unionization of fighters: just a guarantee that guys won’t injure themselves hopping state lines to make a buck. It would protect fighters from themselves; and if it leads to an insurance program down the line, all the better.

For state governing organizations, the return for giving up power to a national board is that much of the logistical legwork tracking fighters could be taken out of their hands, meaning less work. What bureaucracy doesn’t love having less to do? Meanwhile, they could still impose state-specific requirements above and beyond what a USMMA would require.

-Lobbying power: Locally and globally, a USMMA organization could bring combined efforts to bear in lobbying officials. The two major areas where this could be a boon for mixed martial arts are in legalization in the US and in international profile. Want MMA in New York? What about in the Olympics? A unified front by a United States MMA commission – with input from all the major and regional US promotions – adds heft to MMA’s sanctioning efforts.

-Staying power: Every soccer field in the fall is filled with packs of roving children, usually inches apart from each other, flailing away at the ball and having a blast doing it. While MMA likely won’t have the same sort of massive youth pull, soccer provides a good model for getting kids involved and building a sport’s community from the ground up. I firmly believe the MLS would be dead already, instead of doing well for itself, if it wasn’t for the emphasis on getting kids into soccer in America.

Martial arts are popular with youth already for a variety of reasons: self-defense, empowerment, and the sense of achievement kids get moving through the ranks at their local karate or tae kwan do dojo. A USMMA organization could help to bring youth along into MMA, perhaps with an early focus on jiujitsu and grappling before moving into bag striking as the kids get older so that by high school they’re ready for contact. (The local high school wrestling programs would likely not complain they were getting more talented grapplers, either.)

There are probably too many political tangles to sort out to make a USMMA organization a reality. The UFC might not want it without a major voice in how it’s run, and that could turn off the other US promotions. It’s the sort of thing that works better when a sport is bigger than the promotions involved and it’s still not perfect (US Hockey and its Olympic wrangling with the NHL over the years is a prime example). Right now, US mixed martial arts is still under UFC’s majority rule. But should their lead shrink to a plurality, it might be time for Zuffa and Coker to put bottom lines aside and work together for once.

The golden goose that is MMA may have plenty of eggs left, but it’s time to start thinking long-term success as opposed to short-term profits. A US governing body for MMA would be an investment in the future of the sport.

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About Matt DeTura