Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good Intentions Don't Save Lives: Another Death In Amateur Combat Sports

Sadly, there has been another death in the world of amateur combat sports. 

I have commented often in this blog regarding the medieval level of regulation in amateur MMA nationally; that unlike our sport's professional counterpart, our amateur athletes are severely neglected by our state, tribal and third party regulating bodies. This neglect on rare and tragic occasions can lead to death. While the tragic passing of 24 year old Dennis Munson, Jr. subsequent to his debut amateur fight may have happened in a kickboxing ring, the multitude of avoidable errors that set the stage for his premature passing are not uncommon in the world of amateur Mixed Martial Arts. In Milwaukee, like amateur MMA in New York and a multitude of other states, kickboxing is unregulated* by the state athletic commission.

From John Diedrich's story - Milwaukee Kickboxer Dennis Munson Jr.'s Dies Following Cascade of Errors By Fight Officials - in Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel, we see the familiar ground often laid at amateur MMA events:
So on the night Munson stepped into the ring for the first time, there was no state commissioner or inspectors and no second ringside doctor. Munson and the other kickboxers had not received full physicals by a doctor...
On the night Munson died, the officials failed to intervene at key moments as he exhibited what a dozen independent experts who reviewed a video of the fight say were obvious signs of distress. Several said the fight should have been stopped. 
Even after Munson collapsed, care was delayed by a disagreement over treatment, hang-ups exiting the building and confusion about ambulance care. Skilled paramedics were waved off and Munson was taken to a nearby regular hospital, instead of Milwaukee's Level One trauma center.
Scott Joffe, one of the event's promoters is quoted in Diedrich's story as saying:
"I think everyone did what they could at the time for Dennis....This is just a tragic situation," Joffe said. "Everything we do is done with fighter safety in mind. He looked like an exhausted fighter."
Yes, it is horribly tragic. No promoter wants blood on his hands and Joffe will certainly have to live with the albatross of this death weighing on his shoulders for a lifetime; as will Munson's opponent. Nevertheless, it seems from this report, that contrary to Joffe's intentions, not everything was done with fighter safety in mind. One of the real unspoken tragedies in unregulated amateur combat sports is the phrase "we do everything with fighter safety in mind." This is clearly not the case. As a coach, ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) trained MMA official and advocate for regulated amateur combat sport, I consistently hear promoters of unregulated events claim that all is being done for fighter safety. To put it bluntly: horseshit.

Here is a very well done breakdown of the fight by top industry experts:

I have been to unregulated events (MMA and kickboxing) with no doctor present; where fighter inspection is minimal or non-existent; where blood work is not required; where there is no pre or post fight physical by a physician; where referees oversee their own fighters in the ring; where judges judge their own fighters in the ring; where medical staff is not ringside when bouts begin; where layers of dirt from street shoes gather in the ring resulting in horrid post takedown skin burns; where fighters step on water bottles left in the cage; where fighters are allowed to use gloves not provided or inspected by the promoter; where a referee prompts a fighter who has just been KO's to stand up; where chokes have been held too long; where rules are blatantly broken by fighters with no response from event officials; where kickboxing officials attempt to regulate MMA without knowledge of the rules; where medical staff was not cageside at the time of injuries; blatantly uneven mis-matches are allowed to go on; and on and on and on. In all these cases promoters will routinely...even proudly...claim that everything they do is in the best interest of fighter safety. These examples are not from hidden "underground" fights. These are all from events "regulated" by third part bodies.

In New York, as noted by journalist Jim Genia in a recent article for Deadspin - "HIV, Hepatitis C, And More: New York's Amateur MMA Scene is a Disaster" - the risks our amateur combat athletes face is not limited to death in the ring or cage.

Don't get me wrong. There are many people doing all the right things for our amateur athletes. But, there are just many doing all the wrong things. The irony is that all promoters claim to be doing the right things and acting in the interest of fighter safety. Consequently, any coach who intends to put a fighter in an unregulated bout must assume promoters are not; and better do his research. Make sure what needs to be done is being done for your fighters. Are promoters intentionally cutting corners? Maybe yes, maybe no. Are they acting out of ignorance believing that they are doing all they can? In some cases yes. However, in the end it does not matter because the result is the same. And in the case of Dennis Munson, Jr., all the right intentions did not save his life. As the old saying goes: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

In July of 2012 I wrote about the death of amateur MMA fighter Dustin Jenson subsequent to an unregulated South Dakota MMA bout (see: Will the Dustin Jenson Tragedy Teach Us Something). Again, Jenson's death was completely avoidable in my estimation. Yet, multiple errors coupled with extremely poor judgement, led to the premature death of a young fighter. Like Joffe with Munson, the promoter of Jenson's fight may have felt he was doing the right things with regard to the safety of the fighters. He was not...and he happened to be Jenson's coach.

Then, less than three months later, tragedy struck again (see: Amateur MMA: When Will We Come Out From The dark Ages). Tyrone Mims was cut down in his prime subsequent to his amateur MMA debut. This time in South Carolina. The second such death in the state since MMA was legalized. In all fairness, South Carolina's State Athletic Commission was regulating these two tragic bouts. However, we may need to be asking ourselves if we are doing enough.

Just weeks after writing my 2013 editorial regarding the growing national concern over amateur MMA regulation, another fighter was cut down in his prime after his debut bout. Felix Elochukwu Nchikwo died subsequent to competing in an unregulated amateur MMA bout in Michigan. According to news reports, there was no pre-fight physical required and there was no cageside doctor or ambulance present.

The bottom line is this: About half of our state athletic commissions regulate amateur MMA. Of those, many have a hands off policy and farm out their responsibilities to third party sanctioning bodies with little, if any oversight as to the quality of regulation offered by their proxy. This is absolutely unacceptable. Professional MMA, with the exception of New York, is strictly regulated by every state athletic commission. Yet, if we were to look at the numbers, MMA like every other sport has many more amateur than professional fighters. I don't know of any formal study, but my guess is that amateur MMA fighters outnumber professionals at least by 10:1. To neglect the safety of these men and women is criminal.

I am tired of writing these editorials and hearing about the deaths that prompt them. Let's get it together and protect our fighters. We need a national policy. Someone step up and do the right thing.

Stephen Koepfer
Founder, Coalition to legalize MMA in New York

*For the purposes of this editorial "unregulated" is intended to mean lack of regulation and oversight by a state athletic commission.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fighters Source National Tournament Finals in NYC

I had the pleasure of sitting cageside to live tweet the Fighters Source National MMA Tournament Finals at the MMA World Expo in NYC yesterday. Overall it was a great show. How great was it? Check out my tweets, it will be like you were there! Ok, maybe not, but it is still pretty cool.

To learn more about Fighters Source, check out my interview with their CEO Anthony Medina and visit

5th annual MMA World Expo at Javits Center - New York News

This weekend saw the fifth annual MMA World Expo in NYC. Check out Fox News' report:

5th annual MMA World Expo at Javits Center - New York News

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fighters Source® Comes Back to NYC For Their National Tournament Finals

On May 23rd, 2013 Fighters Source® made their fist appearance on the New York amateur MMA scene with their Kings of New York event at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I was pleased to be able to cover the event last year and interview Fighters Source® CEO Anthony Medina leading up to their debut New York show. Over a year has gone by and much has changed. Since that time Fighters Source® has gone national with a well reviewed amateur MMA tournament that culminates with a final event at the 2014 MMA World Expo on July 26th at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.

On June 21st, leading up to the national tournament finals, Fighters Source® joined forces with New York's Golden MMA to host a regional qualifier here in New York City. Check out veteran Journalist Jim Genia's story on the New York regional event.

With only 6 days to go before the Fighters Source® national tournament finals and their third appearance in New York City, I once again have the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Medina about what's in store and how the brand has evolved over the last year.

NYMMANOW:  It has been a year since the Fighters Source® debut in NYC at the Hammerstein Ballroom; which I also covered for NYMMANOW. Please tell us what has gone on with Fighters Source® during that time. What has changed since last year?

MEDINA:  Our complete business model has changed.  We have become a league instead of a single promotion.  The difference between a league and a single promotion is everything.  A single promotion has only their network and database to recruit talent.  A league uses the joint databases of multiple promotions to discover national talent.  A single promotion markets individual fighters. Fighters get injured, grow old, or retire for personal reasons. Their marketing momentum stops right there, then they must be reignited for their next start.  A league markets a team; teams which are consistent, and can be followed by generations. It is true that the athletes of each team may change, but the team itself remains. The marketing continues to multiply season after season.  Single promotion matches are handpicked by a matchmaker. Fans never know when their favorite athlete will compete next.  They are also in the dark as to who he/she will fight next. This is difficult for converting casual fans to avid fans.  A league runs a season and schedule.  Fans know when their fighter/teams compete next. They also know who they will be fighting, and where the event takes place. This makes tracking and predicting, simple for the fans. Single promotion Champions of a single promotion hold their title until a matchmaker gives them an opponent that can beat them.  A league, by implementing a season, athletes must start from scratch each year. For an athlete to become a three time champ, he/she must work his/her way to the title three separate seasons. This creates true champions, and legends. Single promotions are never ending, at first this may sound like a good thing, but it can get stagnant. With a league, fans enjoy the excitement of a fresh start, the anticipation of a finale, and the time off for their other interests. To put it simple, single promotions flood the market.

NYMMANOW: As you know, amateur MMA is fast becoming a national issue regarding fighter's health, safety and oversight. Fighters Source® hosts events in several states including New York. Unlike professional MMA, only about half of state athletic commissions in the United States oversee amateur MMA; some quite poorly, others quite well. What have you learned about the amateur MMA scene in America during your travels? How did you choose the locations for each branch of the national tournament?

MEDINA:  Each branch was chosen by the various team owners throughout the country that wanted to be a part of the Fighters Source® League. Fighters Source® qualified 8 promotions from around the country and invited them to participate in our Inaugural year as a League.  As far as the first question, where should I start, LOL! Unlike most promoters, that are bounded by their local territory, I have had the unique opportunity to experience various different state and foreign athletic commissions each with various rules and regulations.  States are not uniform in their operations when it comes to amateur MMA.

NYMMANOW: As you know, MMA in New York is a controversial topic with professional still banned and amateur unregulated by the NY Athletic Commission. How have you gone about overseeing sanctioning in your New York events and how has it different from other states? Your first time out here was regulated by the MMA Ki Federation (KICK International). Most recently you used ISKA. How will the Fighters Source® finals at the World MMA Expo be regulated?

MEDINA:  There is very little difference.  We use 3rd party sanctioning bodies as we have done with our other events in New York and Florida. The only difference is how scrutinized MMA is in New York.  Since our last show in New York at the Hammerstein, over 30 amateur sanctioned, accredited shows have been put on, and I would like to think that Fighters Source® played a big part in leading by example about how important sanctioned fights are for the safety of everyone involved.

NYMMANOW: I personally love the state team format in this tournament and think it has great potential for growth. Can you speak to how the idea of a national tournament with state teams arose and any lessons you may have learned along the way?

MEDINA:  It arose right after our New York show.  We saw there was a larger need to include other promotions to put forward the absolute best US Team.  We took the old IFL (International Fight League) model and adopted it to the amateur side of MMA, which seems to have blossomed under those ideals.  Almost like the NCAA National Wrestling Tournament consisting of different schools from different states, and them having national Champions from each weight class.  I have learned that the United States is very fragmented in the various rules and regulations for MMA among the various states.  It is our hope to have nationally unified MMA rules for not only athletes but for promotions as well.

NYMMANOW: Teaming up with Paul Paone and the World MMA Expo is a fantastic opportunity. How did this come about?

MEDINA:  It's funny that you ask.  My partner, Adam Meyers, CFO of Fighter Source®, and I, were visiting the Hammerstein to investigate throwing another event at that location, and Paul was also looking to also possibly hold the Expo at the Hammerstein.  At the end of our site visit, Paul, Adam and I sat in the hotel lobby and spoke of the benefits for both companies for the Fighters Source® 2014 Nationals being the main event for the Expo.  We are very happy to be a part of the MMA World Expo and look forward to our next one.

NYMMANOW: What's next for Fighters Source® after the Expo. I know you have taken teams overseas in the past. Any plans to take the winners of the finals to represent the U.S. abroad?

MEDINA:  The winners of the Nationals will move on to represent the United States in London at the World Challenge in September.  The World Challenge Finals will conclude the 2014 season.

NYMMANOW: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Any final thoughts?

MEDINA:  This past season has been such a great experience.  We have met a lot of different people, different cultures, from various different states.  We were able to experience events in snow, in rain, in heat, indoor events, outdoor events, etc., and it was all great.  The common bond was Mixed Martial Arts.  We look forward to the rest of this season and for the seasons to come. We, as a League, will continue to work toward legalization of Pro-MMA in New York, and the inclusion of MMA in to the Olympics. Thank you to NYMMANOW for this interview, and we will see you at the Nationals!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Sport

I recently posted this on Facebook and it generated some solid discussion. So, I figured it was worth posting here as well. Please feel free to add your comments.

I have come to point (a while ago actually) where I have stopped following and for the most part caring about "mainstream" MMA (UFC, Bellator, etc). It just does not excite me any longer. Of course there are a few fighters I care about enough to follow, but generally I just won't go out of my way.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart longing for the "good old days," there is just too much MMA now. I feel the market is close to over-saturated (if it is not already); impersonal. I sincerely miss the days where I knew all the fighters by name, cared about their development and progression; the feeling that I knew them as people. These days there are just too many to follow, know about or care about. Each new guy is the next P4P sensation and he is just as quickly forgotten. No personalities to invest in.

Honestly, it is the amateurs and lower level pros where I still feel like a true MMA fan; where I can know the guys (sometimes personally) and follow their progression. These are the guys and gals with awesome stories, drive & personalities - people I can invest my time and energy into following. It is in the amateur ranks where I feel most excited and engaged; like I felt back in the day when the sport was new. It still feels like a personal experience.

This is why I care so much for getting amateur MMA properly regulated. These are the folks fighting simply for the love of it, but neglected by our state. To me, regulation of amateur MMA is way more critical than pro in NY. It affects vastly more people. I love this sport and it is with the up and coming guys where I see the same love, passion and self sacrifice...just to fight for free. Amateurs may not bring in big money to our state, but these guys are the bedrock of our sport. They are who keep the sport exciting for me. They are the folks who still make me feel like a true fan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Small Step Towards Amateur MMA Regulation in NY

Today, Senator Joseph Griffo's bill which calls for the regulation of amateur MMA in New York passed the Senate. Having read the bill, I think it is a positive step forward, however has definite room for improvement if the opportunity to amend future versions of the legislation arises*. Nevertheless, it is a strong signal to our Assembly legislators that the issue of amateur MMA needs to be addressed. But, the Assembly has not moved on Professional MMA, and it will likely stagnate on this as well. The NYS legislative calendar ends tomorrow.

The issue of amateur MMA regulation has snowballed in recent years. With New York State's 2012 admission that amateur MMA is legal and unregulated in New York, our community has blossomed. In 2013, there were 47 amateur MMA events in NY; nearly double that of 2012. But, this is not without problems. In his recent Deadspin article, Jim Genia recently detailed significant medical concerns that come with the rise of amateur MMA in NY.

I have commented in the past about the dangers of unregulated amateur MMA.

April, 2013: Concerns over Amateur MMA Regulation Going National

August, 2012: Amateur MMA: When Will We Come Out of the Dark Ages

July, 2012: Will the Dustin Jenson Tragedy Teach Us Something?

Check out Zach Arnold's Fight Opinion op-ed on the assets and deficits of state-by-state commission regulation of MMA. Anyone considering the issues facing potential NY State Athletic Commission regulation of MMA needs to read Zach's piece and consider the issues he raises.

*Look for my upcoming commentary on the NY amateur MMA legislation that just passed through the Senate

Speaking at Columbia University's Sports Management Course on NY MMA

Yesterday MMA Journalist Jim Genia, fighter Hassan Hope and I spent the evening talking NY MMA with the students of Columbia University's Graduate Program in Sports Management. The program has established a course tasked with exploring and presenting solutions to NY long held ban on MMA. Here is my commentary on the course itself.

Big thanks to Carla Varriale and the students of Columbia for having us!