BY JENNIFER JACOBS - desmoinesregister.com
No one stopped 17-year-old Jerod Botts of Waverly from climbing into the cage for a mixed martial arts fight even though he was underage, didn't have a parent's permission and had never fought before. An experienced fighter beat him badly, leaving him with a broken nose, a cracked eye socket and vision damage.
When 20-year-old Zach Kirk of Shenandoah was paralyzed from the neck down in an amateur fight, the promoter who staged the event didn't offer to pay medical expenses " and wasn't required by law to do so.
The fist-pumping adrenaline rush and freewheeling style of combat draws young fighters despite the danger. The intoxicating swirl of bloody spectacle, thumping music and alcohol attracts crowds to bars and concert halls across Iowa.
Industry insiders, in interviews with The Des Moines Register, said they love the sport, but they believe certain practices in Iowa's amateur fight scene lead to exploitation and injuries and need to be cleaned up.
Iowa is one of 15 states with no regulation of amateur mixed martial arts fights. Amateur fighting is illegal in six states. Other states have either regulation by state officials or oversight by a third-party sanctioning body.
A bill to change Iowa's law has passed the Iowa Senate and is now before the Iowa House.
"There is a very dark side to some of these unregulated fights, "said Franklin DeToye, a mixed martial arts referee and trainer in the Quad Cities.
Some promoters let fighters into the ring even if they're impaired by alcohol or drugs, don't check IDs for birth dates, and pit lighter, rookie fighters against bigger, veteran foes. They don't require blood tests, leaving fighters vulnerable to catch a disease if an opponent with HIV or hepatitis gets cut and blood flies.
Iowa has more amateur fighters in mixed martial arts than most states because of the state's deep roots in wrestling, insiders said. Any Iowan can usually find a show at least once a week within 60 miles, they said.
Iowa doesn't regulate mixed martial arts fights if the contestants aren't paid. Iowa Labor Commissioner David Neil said some promoters pay fighters under the table " $100 to $1,500 per fight " to pretend they're amateurs to avoid following government rules. Neil has championed the drive to regulate amateur fights.
Sen. William Dotzler, D-Waterloo, who led the bill to unanimous passage in the Senate a week ago, said: "The more we expose some of the underbelly of the amateur fighting world, the more disturbing it is. There are good promoters, and there are promoters who are exploiting our youth."
The sport at its best showcases athletes skilled in boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, judo and other martial arts disciplines.
Adam Miller, a 25-year-old fighter from Cherokee, said the amateur circuit is a good way to test skills and stay fit. If fighters prove themselves, they can become professionals; even lesser-known fighters can earn $1,000 each bout, and the stars can earn hundreds of thousands in the Ultimate Fighting Championship or Strikeforce circuits.
Andrew Fichter, 21, an Iowa fighter who recently moved to New Mexico, said he was a quiet youth who never got in trouble. He got in the cage twice because "if I was ever in a situation where I needed to defend myself, I wanted to know if I was able to."
The sport at its worst is "a bunch of thugs street brawling, "said Jason Neef, who owns an online mixed martial arts data service.
Anyone can put on an amateur fight in Iowa, set whatever rules and "take any kid who saw mixed martial arts on TV and wants to fight now, "said Neef, of Kansas City. "For the safety of the fighters, it's a travesty."
Referee says some care little for fighter safety
DeToye, the referee from Davenport, said he has seen fighters under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs who were in no condition to enter the ring. In two cases, he argued with promoters to stop the youths from fighting. Both times, he was overruled, so he refused to oversee the bout. The promoters called in other referees willing to ignore the safety risks, he said.
In one case, the intoxicated fighter was badly beaten.
"The fighter was carried to a back room and left on the floor unattended, "DeToye said. "I found him there and called an ambulance. He was unconscious and choking on his own vomit from what I believed to be a concussion or worse."
In the other case, a young man with no mixed martial arts experience was matched against a professional fighter. When the rookie fighter's arm broke just seconds into the bout, "the ref didn't notice until I yelled, "DeToye said. "The crowd cheered as his arm dangled and flopped around."
A promoter in Iowa can insist an amateur fight continue, even if it's getting ugly.
DeToye said an amateur fighter was knocked unconscious twice in one night, then fought again in the next two weeks and was knocked out twice more. In professional bouts, fighters who are knocked out get a 30-day suspension to allow healing.
The lack of regulation in Iowa's amateur scene also troubles Charles Craft, a promoter who operates on the eastern side of the state.
"I'd rather do fights in Illinois, "said Craft, owner of American Combat Sports in Fort Madison. "They know what right and wrong is."
The Illinois State Boxing Commission doesn't regulate amateur events, but promoters there can choose to sanction their events with the commission. Minnesota uses official state regulators, as does Nebraska, which has tougher regulations than what Iowa is considering.
Some promoters working in Iowa already take steps to protect fighters beyond what lawmakers propose; others do little to ensure fighter safety, insiders said.
For some promoters, "it's all about action in the cage, "Craft said. "They want it as exciting, as brutal as possible, because that's what the fans want. It's bad in Iowa."
Amateur, professional fights could be regulated similarly
Iowa promoters disagree on just how much regulation is needed.
The proposed bill, Senate File 2286, would let the state take a 5 percent cut of gate receipts to pay for regulation at amateur events. It would also require promoters to carry $25,000 in health insurance per amateur fighter and $20,000 in life insurance, the same as for professional fighters. Supporters of the legislation think promoters, who make money on tickets and videos, can afford it.
"They're making a fortune on these kids, "Dotzler said. "If they're charging $25 at the door, and you've got 400 people, that's 10 grand."
Craft thinks that the health insurance coverage should be no higher than $10,000 per fighter and that life insurance is unnecessary because deaths are so rare.
Other promoters, such as John Halverson of Midwest Cage Championship in Des Moines, don't mind the insurance proposals, or the 5 percent cut.
"If that's what it takes to make the sport better, then I really don't see that as a hindrance, "he said.
Midwest Cage Championship stages shows a couple of times a month, with about four slots for amateurs and a dozen for professionals. Halverson said he has tapped the health insurance required for pro fighters just once, for a broken jaw.
Halverson sets rules to protect amateurs, such as a two-minute limit per round and a ban on any kicking.
Amateur fighters said it's not uncommon to use drugs or alcohol to loosen inhibitions and ease nerves before a bout. Even though the law doesn't call for it, Halverson requires fighters to pass an alcohol breath test.
"Let a kid fight after a couple drinks, he gets his arm or jaw broken, or worse he gets hit and goes into a coma, "Halverson said. "It's just foolish to drink. Your perception would be thrown off."
With regulation, Halverson said, "the 300-pound tough guy fighting the 150-pound guy that got dared into fighting by some of this buddies " those things aren't going to happen."