Half an hour before stepping into a cage against Tommy Morrison, the famed boxer who on this June evening in 2007 could not prove for certain he was HIV-negative, John Stover was told about the rules changes.
Stover, a 340-pound full-time sheet rock worker, part-time fighter from Pine Ridge, S.D., could not grapple, could not knee, could not elbow, and could not kick. All he could do, according to Morrison's representatives, was step into a fenced-off enclosure with a man who 11 years earlier tested positive in Nevada for the life-threatening blood-born virus, strap on four-ounce gloves and punch. Well, that or not get paid.
Why did Stover suffer from less safeguards than options?
He was scheduled to meet Morrison in Camp Verde, Ariz., on the Yavapai- Apache Nation reservation, under the guise of mixed martial arts, where literally anything could -- and still can -- go. Neither fighter was required to undergo heart, blood or eye examinations prior to the bout, and the Arizona State Athletic Commission had no jurisdiction to intercede.
"It's hard for a lot people to understand that we have absolutely no control over what happens on tribal land [in regards to MMA]," said Joe Miller, executive director of the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission. "They can do what they want to. Now if it was boxing it would be a different story."
When Congress passed the Boxing Safety Reform Act of 1996 and amended it four years later as part of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, it ensured among many other things that boxing on Indian reservations would have to meet certain standards and licensing requirements. MMA does not fall under similar legislation, meaning a loophole exists that allows promoters to find willing partners for any kind of fights they please under any rules they choose.
This is how Miller became aware of Shine Fights, a Florida-based MMA promotional company which, after failing to receive licenses in Virginia and Oklahoma, partnered last Friday with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe for an eight-man, one-night tournament at the First Council Casino in Newkirk, Okla.
In mid-May, the North Carolina Boxing Authority, which also oversees MMA, pulled the plug on a Shine Fights pay-per-view event at the last minute because, the commission said, proper medical personnel were not on scene and Shine failed to provide a surety bond that would have covered the fighters' purses. It did not help that the day of the event Shine Fights was embroiled in a courtroom battle with Don King, which it lost, over the services of boxer Ricardo Mayorga, who was scheduled to appear on the card's main event. The cancellation left some managers and fighters furious, and raised concerns among regulators.
None of this helped Shine Fights when it approached the Virginia Boxing and Wrestling Program with plans to host a tournament, an antiquated event in the mold of the early UFCs won by Royce Gracie. The format was not the justification for absence of a license, according to Mary Broz-Vaughan, director of communications for Virginia's Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. Missing fight records and, again, the lack of a surety bond meant Shine's license application was incomplete. Shine Fights CEO Devin Price provided SI.com an e-mail copy of a cashier's check dated Sept. 1 made out to the "Treasurer of Virginia" for $80,000, which he claimed as proof of a surety bond. Broz-Vaughan said the state had no record of receipt.
Weeks earlier Shine Fights began exploring its options, including Oklahoma. Miller conferred with North Carolina, which told him Shine Fights was disorganized and did not file the proper paperwork -- not that it mattered since Oklahoma's regulations do not allow for tournament-style events -- but was not under suspension. So Price and Shine moved to a third venue where regulations and surety bonds wouldn't get in the way of running a MMA event under whatever rules it wanted.
The Otoe-Missouria Tribe is one of 28 federally recognized tribal lands in Oklahoma. Of those 28, only three have formed commissions to regulate combat sports, specifically boxing, as required by federal legislation. Others signed compacts with the state to regulate events when they hold boxing cards. And some, like Otoe-Missouria, have no athletic commission regulation whatsoever. The Association of Boxing Commissions Tribal Advisory Committee reached out to Otoe-Missouria, but was powerless to do anything other than offer its input -- which needs to change, said the organization's president, Tim Lueckenhoff.
"I'd like to see regulation to stop things like this commission shopping, because that's all they're doing," Lueckenhoff said. "That would be great if there was legislation to stop that, but if they don't intend to stop everything else that goes along with it, then it's worthless."
There has not been a serious effort to bring MMA under the Ali Act in large measure because Zuffa, owners and operators of the UFC, have lobbied against its inclusion on Capital Hill. In 2008, Zuffa spent $240,000 lobbying against MMA being folded into the long-discussed legislation that would create a federal boxing commission. While lobbyists for Zuffa spent much of their time educating lawmakers on changes the sport has made over the past 10 years, such as regulation on the state level, there remain instances where MMA would clearly benefit from the same type of safeguards boxing enjoys, said regulators.
"There's nothing in UFC's agenda that is designed to prevent a state athletic commission that regulates mixed mixed martial arts from not having the ability to also regulate that on tribal land," said Makan Delrahian, one of the lead lobbysits for the UFC in Washington. "This is not something that has been on our agenda, either preventing it or forcing it, on tribal lands. We only promote in [regulated] states, so it's not an issue we've had to deal with."
The crux of UFC's lobbying effort has focused on convincing Congress that federal legislation shouldn't be expanded to include MMA because the UFC acts as a league, like the NFL, and operates with a set of standards.
"There's absolutely no case for it," Delrahian said. "In boxing there's documented actions and damages and fraud and fighters being hurt."
In UFC, he said, there is not. MMA, however, is a much larger universe than the UFC, and while the sport's top promoter is vigilant in the way it operates, many are not, nor do they care to be.
Even if legislation is someday expanded to included MMA, Lueckenhoff said, his experience in boxing suggests without oversight or enforcement, much of the benefits -- and there have been some, including an identification system that has virtually ended the problem of fighters competing under aliases while under suspension -- may not materialize.
Boxing continues to run on tribal lands without commissions following safety standards in their own states. Six weeks ago in Michigan, for example, ABC members allowed fighters to compete who were under suspension. Unregulated fights regularly occur in Wyoming, which has not formed a state regulatory agency to oversee combat sports. Sanctioning organizations and commissions aren't following federal guidelines regarding championship fights. Sanctioning groups aren't following Federal Trade Commission guidelines when it comes to rating boxers or appeals processes.
"There are several things in federal law that everybody is just kind of overlooking and ignoring more or less," he said.
During his tenure as president of the ABC, Lueckenhoff said he has issued 20 letters asking the U.S. Attorney's office to bring cases against offenders. Only once was an FBI agent sent out to speak with a promoter, who was operating illegally in Wyoming.
"It just seems like it's thrown in a file cabinet and forgotten," he said.
Still, Lueckenhoff said he would gladly take some safeguards, such as preventing a promoter like Shine Fights from running unwatched or a fighter like Tommy Morrison from putting himself or his opponent at risk, over none at all.
"I'd just like to see if there is a federal law that there are minimum standards for safety concerns, medical testing, and that it be enforceable," said the head of combat sports' most powerful North American body. "If we do that and also implement unified rules or specific rules so we don't go from state to state, I think it would help the sport grow."