Jerry “The Moose” Waterson fulfilled a dream last month by stepping into the ring for his first professional mixed martial arts fight, which he won.
His passion has become his full-time job, requiring 40 hours a week of training. But it took the 24-year-old Waterson four years of punching, kicking and grappling his way through Michigan’s unregulated amateur system, where nearly anything goes and where fighters are often uninsured or could be infected with HIV or hepatitis.
“It’s like the wild, wild west. It’s crazy,” Waterson said.
Michigan is among about a dozen states in which amateur MMA fights are legal but unregulated. That could soon change, however, as even lawmakers who recoil at the sport’s brutality see the wisdom in setting ground rules.
“It is time to teach the beast some manners,” said Democratic Rep. Harvey Santana, who is sponsoring legislation that would require promoters of amateur events to get licensed annually, carry up to $10,000 in health insurance for fighters and have a physician on site for fights.
MMA has exploded in popularity since the 1990s, led by its major brand, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and giving rise to an amateur industry that serves as the sport’s minor leagues and offers fans a cheap night out or even the chance to get in the ring themselves. Combatants draw from various disciplines, including jiu jitsu, judo, boxing and wrestling, to try to knock out or subdue their opponents.
Eric Prindle, left, and Jerry Waterson train… View Full Caption
The sport’s brutality — choke holds are legal and bloodied faces are the norm — has earned MMA its share of critics, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, who once likened it to “human cockfighting.” South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently signed off on the establishment of a state commission to regulate MMA, boxing and kickboxing, despite reservations that doing so would legitimize the fights.
Michigan legalized MMA bouts in 2007, and today most states allow professional bouts. They remain illegal in Connecticut and New York, but the state Senate in New York, where amateur fights are legal, this month passed a measure to legalize and regulate the professional sport. When Michigan lawmakers legalized the sport, they stipulated that promoters must be licensed and carry insurance for fighters at pro events. But they didn’t set requirements for amateur bouts.
No one tracks all Michigan’s amateur fights, but Grand Rapids-area promoter and matchmaker Dru Gardner estimates that there 65 promoters in the state and that there are five events on any given weekend. Rob Fisk, a medic who works many of the fights, said the typical event draws from 500 to more than 2,000 spectators who plunk down $20 each to watch 20-or-so bouts.
While a pro fighter can earn $5,000 for a bout, amateur fighters earn nothing and compete for the thrill or because they harbor hopes of turning pro. In the meantime, amateurs put themselves at risk of serious injury or disease due to the lack of regulation, some lawmakers and promoters say.
Joe Battaglia, who runs a Michigan promotion company, said a fighter goes to the hospital at nearly every one of his events, and that broken noses, ribs and hands are among the most common injuries. Battaglia stopped fighting professionally after suffering a broken neck while training. Fortunately, he was insured.
By ALANNA DURKIN Associated Press