WASHINGTON — It can be brutal. It can be dangerous.
And, for the time being, it appears the sport that involves both striking and catch-as-catch-can wrestling holds is here to stay in Iowa, with little change in regulations.
This month marks the 17th anniversary of the first officially sanctioned mixed martial arts event in Iowa.
However, there are no ongoing state or federal efforts for more legislation, and — perhaps due to Iowa’s deep tradition in wrestling — MMA events appear to be exploding in popularity.
Remarkably, there has only been one life-threatening injury — a May 2009 fight in Shenandoah, in which a 20-year-old man, Zach Kirk, was paralyzed after breaking his neck in the opening seconds of a sanctioned fight.
Yet even he didn’t blame the sport. In news reports at the time, he called MMA fighting “a real safe sport.”
Nationwide, there have been no deaths of professional MMA fighters before 2007, and only two since then — one in Texas in 2007 and another in South Carolina in 2010.
Last year, a fighter died at an unregulated, amateur MMA fight in Michigan, which doesn’t regulate amateur bouts. That prompted a state lawmaker there to push to regulate them, but so far the move has fallen short of passage.
As in most states, amateur and professional MMA events are sanctioned and regulated in Iowa by a state athletic commission. It also is governed by state law — Chapter 90A, which spells out everything from definitions, licensing and registration requirements to fighting rules and conditions.
It also sets a minimum age for MMA fighters at 18 years old.
But Iowa Athletic Commission (IAC) Executive Director Joe Walsh isn’t sure that’s enough. He told The Gazette he wants to expand training for referees, increase the commission’s authority and crack down on performance-enhancing drugs in the sport, which right now only are detected in pre-fight physicals.
Not all these changes would necessarily require legislation, he added.
Walsh said he believes MMA events are especially popular in Iowa and the Midwest in general. He estimated Iowa hosts about 45 MMA events per year, which he said is higher than comparable states.
“I do think it’s more popular in Iowa than other states. It’s certainly overtaken boxing here, which has not happened in every state. It’s very popular in the Midwest in states with wrestling backgrounds, that’s for sure.
“I think Americans have always loved combat sports, and this (MMA) is replacing boxing as the primary combat sport because the younger demographic is more into it. It’s much faster-paced and there’s more of an adrenaline rush,” Walsh said.
Walsh said Iowa is on pace to see the sport approach ever-higher levels of popularity. He points to the Bellator MMA event this past October at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, which he said helped put the state on the map for more prestigious shows.
The IAC is trying to get an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight to the state, he said.
Unregulated MMA fights aren’t legal in Iowa, but theoretically they could happen.
“It’s a very dangerous sport — even in regulated contests, injuries can happen,” he said. “It’s less likely in regulated contests.”
Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro and Kathleen Uehling, an attorney for Iowa Workforce Development, said they are unaware of any MMA-related legislation in the state Legislature. A spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad said the same.
“We keep a pretty close eye on the Legislature, but there’s nothing out there right now,” Mauro said. “That’s not to say it can’t happen, but we have heard nothing.”
Iowa’s congressional delegation has no appetite for more regulation of MMA fighting. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, said the state code seems to be enough for now.
“This type of regulation is historically a power reserved to the states, and in my view it’s a state law issue. And there’s already the existing chapter of the Iowa Code,” Braley said.
]“So I would expect the Legislature to take any necessary further action to deal with what is a very popular sport in Iowa.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hasn’t considered the issue and is unaware of any federal MMA legislation in Congress.“I’ve seen (MMA) on TV ads, but I’ve never viewed a whole match. It does look pretty brutal to me,” Grassley said. “But whether it should be regulated more at this point, it’s too early to say.”