STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- If you think it's an inherent conflict of interest for the UFC to act as its own regulator when it takes its event abroad, you're right. That's according to the UFC's VP of Regulatory Affairs and former Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner, who knows from prior experience that the fox cannot be left to guard the henhouse.
"You don't want a promoter self-regulating," Ratner told me on Thursday, following a pre-fight press conference for this weekend's UFC on FUEL TV event in Stockholm, Sweden. "For us, what we've been doing is trying to grow the sport. But when I'm in charge, I still work for the promoter, so there's an inherent conflict and we're the first to admit that. But you can't grow the sport unless you do that to start with."
In other words, better self-regulation than no regulation. Or at least, that's the theory. That's how the UFC has operated in countries where there is no government oversight, but it's a business that Ratner says the UFC wants to get out of. The question is, what will replace it?
In Sweden, the UFC is lucky. There's a regulatory body already in place -- the Swedish MMA Federation -- and events here have been operating under its watchful eye for several years before the UFC decided to make the trip. The Swedish MMA community loves regulation so much, the former president of the Swedish commission -- August Wallen -- is now heading up the brand new International MMA Federation, which the UFC announced its support for just this week.
According to Wallen, the goal of the IMMAF is to "help support and to found national [MMA] federations. "If everything goes according to plan, soon every nation will have a federation like the one Sweden has, ideally with one set of rules and regulations on matters like licensing and drug testing. That's a goal that, to those of us who have seen the way state athletic commissions interact with one another here in the U.S., seems long on optimism and short on realistic hope.
Don't get me wrong, an international regulatory body is something this sport needs. After talking with Wallen and Swedish MMA Federation president George Sallfeldt, I heard a lot of the words one hopes to hear from the people behind such an organization. Words like "independent" and "autonomous," both of which Wallen applied to the IMMAF when he described it as a "democratic, non-profit" organization that enjoys, but does not require, the UFC's blessing. Nor does it need, or even particularly want, the UFC's money, Wallen said.
"We will, of course, be happy for any donations, but we cannot promise anything in return, ever. Even if you just want to sponsor, where we take money to show someone's logo -- we don't do that."
Again, that's what you'd hope he would say. It's just hard not to wonder whether it can actually work, or at least work like that.
Take the United States, for example, which is still the home base for the world's biggest MMA organization. Regulation here varies greatly from one state to the next. Just last week the Nevada State Athletic Commission came under fire for maintaining a higher acceptable standard for testosterone levels than other commissions, but showed no sign that it was interested in changing for the sake of uniformity. Some states allow therapeutic-use exemptions, while others just want you to show up on fight week with the right hormone levels, regardless of what those levels might have been three weeks earlier. Thorough out-of-competition testing is still a distant dream for most state commissions, which insist they don't have the money or power to make it happen. Some state commissions are known for sanctioning just about any match-up you could dream of. Others want combatants to have a similar number of bouts, even if the quality may differ considerably.
It's a mess, is what I'm saying, and it's a very American mess. Athletic commission oversight from one state to the next changes almost as dramatically as gun laws do, which is perhaps the way we like it. And you're telling me that an international federation with a Swedish president is going to swoop down and change all that?
To be honest, I hope so. MMA needs this. While the UFC generally does a good job of policing itself in foreign lands (just ask Chris Leben, who's been popped twice by the UFC's testing efforts in the U.K.), it's an untenable situation. When "Rampage" Jackson admitted he'd been using testosterone prior to his bout at UFC 144 in Japan, that should have alerted us to the problems of having a promoter determine what a fighter can and can't do in order to fight. State athletic commissions might grant some fighters permission to use testosterone under strict guidelines, but would those commissions have concluded that Jackson was eligible for testosterone treatments? We don't know. If not for Jackson's loose lips, we might never have known he was even on the stuff.
When Ratner says the UFC has to do something in countries that are content to do nothing about safety and regulation in MMA, he's right. And when he says the UFC needs to find a way to hand that job off to an independent entity, he's right about that too. But there's a lot more to forming a truly independent, trustworthy national commission than simply calling yourself one.
Hopefully the IMMAF knows it. And hopefully the UFC knows it, even if it might not like submitting to the yoke of yet another regulator at times, it needs to, both for its own good and the good of the sport. Because the fox that guards the henhouse might eat well for a little while, but it's not a job with much long-term security.