A collective roar of thousands forces you to open your eyes to a sea of unfamiliar faces. Hands clenched and knuckles tightened, you center yourself and realize this is the moment you've waited a lifetime for.
Beads of sweat slowly trickle down your forehead as you stand in the middle of all the chaos, underneath the bright lights and endless banners. The raucous crowd is quickly drowned out and replaced by the sound of your own heart beating rapidly against your chest.
You look up and see another individual standing across from you. The unflinching look of determination in his eyes is without question a facade to hide the same excitement as you.
Out of the corner of your eye, a uniformed individual steps in between you and your opponent and asks, “Are you ready?”
A simple nod of the head is the final hurdle needed to continue a lifelong march toward glory as a fighter in the UFC, the mecca of MMA competition.
But not so fast—this isn’t where your story begins.
Nearly every fighter that puts on a pair of four-ounce gloves dreams of one day competing on the big stage in front of a sold-out arena. But like all sports, athletes are expected to progress through several levels before ascending to the professional ranks.
The endless grind for an MMA hopeful typically begins at the amateur ranks, which is where the hideous underbelly of the "world’s fastest growing sport" unfortunately can be seen. Amateur fighters seeking glory are often coaxed into participating in unsanctioned events by ordinary individuals feigning as legitimate promoters.
Sadly, all that is really needed to create an unsanctioned event is a ring/cage, several risk-takers and an audience.
Yours truly attended one of these MMA "smokers," a term coined for exhibition bouts and unsanctioned events in combat sports. This amateur event was held behind a local Hooters establishment in Huntsville, Ala.
The actual participants in the event were either signed up on the spot, or had heard there would be an open opportunity to fight through the social-networking grapevine and showed up to compete.
There weren’t any pre-fight medical screening for drugs or diseases. A fighter could have been competing with HIV, Hepatitis or another ailment, and no one would have ever known.
All of the matches were created on site after a quick weigh-in on a bathroom scale to determine which fighters were close enough in weight to compete against one another.
Some fighters were puffing on cigarettes before stepping into the cage, others polishing off trays of buffalo wings.
There were several gashes, along with some minor cuts and bruises, but luckily, no one died that night.
Tragically, the same can’t be said for the Amateur Fighting Club (AFC).
Following a TKO loss at an AFC event back in April 2013, 35-year-old Felix Pablo Elochukwu collapsed and was taken to the emergency room, where he was later pronounced dead. The event was held in the state of Michigan, where amateur MMA continues to go unregulated.
According to MMAFighting.com, Michigan state Rep. Harvey Santana, who continues to work diligently on a bill to regulate amateur MMA, admitted to attending one of these smokers. At this particular event, Santana saw one fighter get beaten badly, only to come out and compete again a couple of bouts later.
The Association of Boxing Commissions, which is the combination of various state fighting commissions, suggested that members ban amateur fighters from Michigan due to a fear of spreading illness. Bernie Profato, Executive Director of the Ohio State Athletic Commission, told The Associated Press that he warns fighters they won’t be allowed to compete in Ohio if they fight in Michigan.
While Michigan may be the centerpiece of unregulated amateur MMA, smokers continue to crop up all over the United States, including the state of Ohio. Mr. Profato may be fighting the good fight, but it takes only a quick online search to see that his own state is already being overrun by these kinds of events.
People openly break the law when there’s no fear of getting caught. The fact that smoker promoters are now bold enough to advertise their events so openly is an indictment to state athletic commissions.
But it’s not only promoters throwing together illegal events.
Gym owners in some states have also entered the business. Some have even gone as far as moving into bigger gyms to hold crowds and host events, which are typically disguised as other sports to deflect suspicion. It has become a common occurrence to see MMA gyms hosting “kickboxing” and “muay thai” smokers.
No doubt many of you are wondering, what’s the big deal? Who cares if some local gym throws together an exhibition event? It’s not like it has any effect on sanctioned events, right?
To truly grasp the significance of the situation, one must first understand everything a sanctioned event entails.
You have to have licensed corners and state-appointed referees and judges. An insurance plan needs to be in place for every fighter competing on the card. Emergency medical personnel and an ambulance must be present at every event. Typically, a member from the commission attends the event to make sure everything is in place and running smoothly.
Without state regulation, smokers aren’t obligated to have any of these things in place, and they don’t pay the state-tax fee required for running events.
Exhibition bouts also aren’t recorded, which makes a sanctioned matchmaker’s job twice as hard. Amateur fighters are usually paired against fighters with similar experience, but this is an impossible feat for any matchmaker to accomplish when fighters are willfully participating in exhibition events every weekend.
There is also an increased risk of injury. What if a fighter suffers a concussion or a different injury in a smoker prior to competing in a sanctioned event? If unaware of the pre-existing injury, the promotion running the sanctioned event would end up paying the insurance on it even though it occurred elsewhere.
Sadly, this isn’t just some overnight problem that crept into existence. The battle against smokers has been raging for years.
Former UFC lightweight contender Din Thomas was arrested in Florida back in 2007 for running an unsanctioned event at his gym. After receiving an anonymous tip, police attended the event, which featured several of Thomas’ students competing in front of friends and family.
This was during a time when amateur MMA events were illegal in the state of Florida. In speaking with Fight! Magazine, Thomas’ reason for running a smoker echoes a commonly shared mentality by others involved in these events:
“Guys who have no business fighting are ruining themselves early. They think they are ready to fight and they ain’t,” said Thomas, speaking to the experience fighters can gain through these exhibitions.
But while experience is certainly important in the development of a fighter, what happens when a rush for that experience puts a fighter’s life in jeopardy?
Smokers are nothing more than a glorified version of the movie Fight Club, which does little to progress the image of MMA. If anything, they only validate the opinions of uneducated fans opining that the sport is nothing more than “street fighting.”
The only difference between an unsanctioned event and a group of kids fighting on the playgrounds is that the former takes place indoors. Call it what you want—smokers, exhibition bouts, open amateurs—when there are no safety measures or guidelines in place, fighting ceases to be a sport.
Is an exhibition bout worth contracting a life-altering disease that would put an abrupt end to any hope you have of becoming a professional fighter?
Or perhaps you have an existing condition that requires immediate medical attention. It’s a proven fact that pre-fight medical screenings save lives, often catching pre-existing maladies that would otherwise go undetected.
In 2010, a CAT scan revealed an irregularity in a cerebral artery of welterweight contender Thiago Alves. The Brazilian was scheduled to compete a few days after the mandatory checkup, and a crisis was likely averted thanks to the findings in the screening.
Less than a year ago, Time Warner Cable News ran a story on local amateur fighter Stephen Elsenbeck, who learned he had testicular cancer from a pre-fight checkup.
MMA is a sport that must lean heavily on rules and guidelines to ensure the safety of its combatants. Experience should come from live sparring and regulated amateur events, not behind a local food establishment or in glorified fight clubs.
The sport deserves better than that. Fighters deserve better than that. Hell, fans deserve better than that.
The onus lies squarely on the shoulders of state athletic commissions that allow events like these to take place right under their nose. Unfortunately, a gray area involving admission rates makes going after smokers particularly tough. It is illegal to host and sell tickets at unsanctioned events, but participants tend to bypass this law by accepting donations instead of establishing the cost of general admission.
But that doesn't mean commissions can remain idle. They can’t just sit around all day pointing the finger at Michigan. Like the authorities in Thomas’ case, they need actually attend these events undercover to weed out the higher-level organizers.
Perhaps Rep. Santana put it best when speaking with MLive.com's Jonathan Oosting: “There are fights like this every weekend. What are you going to do? Wait for victim number two?”