West Virginia, Mixed Martial Arts, & Cockfighting

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W.Va. House to vote on allowing mixed martial arts
Lawrence Messina, Associated Press, On Friday February 4, 2011, 4:11 pm EST

West Virginia could host mixed martial arts events under legislation passed to the state Senate by the House of Delegates on Friday.

The 55-37 vote came after an unsuccessful attempt to derail the measure, with critics decrying both the sport’s violence and the bill’s handling by lawmakers.

“Think of the blood that will flow if this bill passes,” said Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha and a lead opponent of the measure, in urging colleagues to push their red buttons to vote against it.

Supporters countered that the accompanying rules will limit rounds, set weight classes, require onsite doctors and include other steps addressing fighter safety.

Marc Ratner is a former longtime executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who is now a vice president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, which puts on these contests. In urging West Virginia lawmakers to support the measure, he cites the 1,000 or so fights he’s overseen during his tenure.

“The most serious injury has been a broken arm,” Ratner said Friday. “Sometimes it does look more violent than it is… It’s not for everybody, and I make that very, very clear.”

Mixed martial arts combines elements of karate, judo, jujitsu and kickboxing. Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, all sanction the sport except West Virginia, Connecticut, New York and Vermont, Ratner said.

Friday’s passage followed a failed, 38-60 bid Thursday to remove the mixed martial arts language. The overall bill would make the state’s Athletic Commission part of the lottery system, which would provide such resources as office space, staff and legal support.

Opponents invoked the violence of the combat sport during Thursday’s debate.

“If we legalize this, then why not legalize cockfighting and why not legalize dogfighting?” asked Delegate Joe Talbott, D-Webster. “I don’t think the people of West Virginia would think one second about what they would do if they had to vote on this bill.”

Foes also cited how the House Finance Committee was slated to review the bill, but it went instead to the full House for a vote. Supporters noted that the House Government Organization Committee took up the measure earlier in the week, and endorsed it.

“Nobody is asking anybody here to fight. Nobody is asking anybody to watch it,” said Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, during Thursday’s debate. “What this does is give the citizens an opportunity to go to an event in West Virginia, if they choose, or to watch an event on pay-per-view that’s taking place in West Virginia, if they choose.”

Ratner said Friday that pay-per-view revenues suggest the sport has a fan base in West Virginia. The state is also home to fighters who must travel elsewhere to compete, he added. Ultimate fighting has become popular among high school wrestlers, given the parallels between those two sports, he said.

“Their idols are these fighters,” Ratner said. “It’s a natural farm system.”

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