On April 9, 35-year-old Felix Elochukwu Nchikwo, a Nigerian who had crossed into the United States from Canada, died after a bloody amateur mixed martial arts fight in Port Huron, Mich. As a result, the world of amateur MMA might never be the same.
The day after Nchikwo died, the Michigan House passed a bill that would for the first time place statewide requirements on fighting competitions between non-professionals. With Nchikwo’s death still fresh in their minds, legislators overwhelmingly approved the measure, 106-3. The legislation would require, among other things, promoters to hire an ambulance to be at the scene of a fight, to take out $10,000 in health insurance for each fight and to test participants for HIV and hepatitis.
State Rep. Harvey Santana has been the lead force behind the bill’s passage in the House. It has become a bit of a personal passion: Santana is a major boxing fan and recently attended an amateur MMA fight that opened his eyes to the need for greater regulation. He recalls watching a fighter get knocked in one fight, come back to fight again later that night and get knocked out again. It took two minutes to revive that fighter after the second knockout, Santana says. So he introduced a bill this session; Nchikwo’s death accelerated its passage in the House.
“It’s the wild, wild West out there. Anything goes. When you’re putting two human beings in a cage and they’re fighting, anything can happen,” Santana says. “I believe that Felix’s death was a sign, as sad and as ill-timed as it is. People understand what it’s all about.”
Michigan is just the latest state to confront the brutal reality of amateur mixed martial arts. Almost every state, with the notable exception of New York, allows and regulates professional MMA, but state oversight of amateur bouts is much more haphazard. According to the Association of Boxing Commissions, amateur MMA is either illegal or legal but without any regulation in 16 states, including Michigan. Nchikwo wasn’t the first amateur to die in a fight, though exact numbers are hard to confirm.
Most other states have decided to regulate amateur fights through their state boxing commission. But Wyoming stepped out on its own in 2012 to become the first state with a commission devoted specifically to MMA. It was partly out of a necessity -- Wyoming doesn’t have a boxing commission -- but it has set the new standard for how states oversee what is often characterized as “the fastest-growing sport in America.”
The Wyoming State Board of Mixed Martial Arts is overseen by Michael Hresko, a 20-something former fighter from Hawaii. He has authority over amateur and professional fights, and he's been tasked with implementing regulations that include some of the same provisions that Santana has proposed in Michigan -- most importantly, ensuring medical assistance for fighters. In the process, he and Gov. Matt Mead are hoping to prop up a budding industry for the state. An estimated 20 MMA events will take place in the first fully sanctioned year, and officials hope that number might grow in coming years.
It is a delicate balance, Hresko says: Too little regulation could lead to more injuries or deaths. Too much could put a financial burden on promoters and fighters, encouraging them to skirt the rules or operate outside the system altogether. But it’s a balance that states, including Michigan, have increasingly decided they must learn to find.
“The bottom line is that there is no consistency. It’s definitely a challenge,” Hresko says. “There’s a ton of room to improve.”