Fighter safety. It’s always one of the points that MMA fighters, fans, promoters, announcers and virtually anyone associated with the sport wants to make a top priority. But what happens when fighter safety takes a back seat to the all-mighty dollar and ignorance?

If you want to see a small snippet of what that looks like, just take a travel to the “Land of Lincoln” and take a gander at the state of amateur MMA in Illinois.

The sport is a land of mixed emotions as far as fighter safety and regulation of the sport goes. The state itself has been in a constant state of flux it seems for years now as bad publicity and high taxes seem to be the norm.

This feeling has been transferred to the sport of MMA. There have been a number of stories to emerge from amateur MMA that display the shocking lack of regulation and safety for competitors at the amateur level.

You might ask why I care about the state of amateur MMA in Illinois?

Because I am an amateur fighter in Illinois. The lack of safety has been a concern not only for myself, but others as well.

The first story I’ll share is the most recent. At a Fire Extreme MMA event in Illinois a few weeks ago, a 53-year-old fan was picked out of the crowd to compete in a MMA match. Most MMA fans have seen the video, taped by Stephan Bonnar, where the older man miraculously pulls off a win.

Now once you move past the feel-good portion of the story, just examine the idea of a random fan walking through the door being allowed to compete on an hour’s notice. Do you see college students running onto the field to catch passes during a game? Or a fan coming onto the court to set up a pick-and-roll play in college basketball?

Yes, many fans will think it’s cool that an 53-year-old was able to beat a younger fighter, but it’s actions like this that will be a lightning rod for those who want to draw negative attention to the sport.

If the promoter needed a last-minute replacement, they should’ve looked through the locker rooms at the event. I’ve participated in a number of events as a fighter and cornerman where a promoter needed a last-second replacement for a fighter who couldn’t get cleared. None of them ever pulled a random fan or even had the thought cross their mind.

But if you can move on from that feel-good story, allow me to illustrate a very different story that won’t warm the heart or soothe the soul.

Jeff Dunbar was just a fighter looking for a way out of a bad situation during his bout. Caught with his opponent latched onto his back attempting to secure a choke, Dunbar fell forward and spiked his head off the canvas.

Suffering from an apparent head injury, Dunbar was rushed to a nearby medical facility. He awoke without feeling in his legs and barely any in his arms. Dunbar hadn’t suffered any damage to his head, but had dislocated two vertebrae, effectively crushing his spine in the process.

Matters took a turn for the worse when Dunbar’s lung collapsed and he was forced to use a machine in order to breathe. He remained relegated to his bed while he continued to deal with a litany of hospital bills and health complications.

One of the major complications on the fight promotion’s end was the lack of an insurance policy for the fight. In a Chicago Tribune article, the family of Dunbar had stated that weeks after the event they were still waiting to hear from the promoter.

It’s not even the dangers once the fighters enter the cage. Amateur MMA fighters in Illinois are not currently required to take blood tests or complete a physical. The only “medical screening” a fighter goes through is a two-minute evaluation by the cageside physician a few hours prior to the event. This includes checking for broken bones, testing blood pressure levels and pulse rate.

The amount of blood during bouts is relatively low given that elbows and knees to the head aren’t allowed at the amateur level. But blood contamination is an epidemic just waiting to happen for fighters who aren’t required to test.

I don’t pretend to be an authority figure on the situation for amateur MMA right now, so I chose to speak with someone from “the other side.”

I was able to talk to an ABC-approved trainer for officials, Rob Hinds, who is also a professional referee and judge.

Hinds spoke about the need to not only create regulations for health screenings, but also the need to enforce them.

“My contention is that the Athletic Commissions and other regulating bodies should both require and enforce items such as physicals, blood/urine tests, etc. at all levels of competition. Whether the promoter or fighter is responsible for the cost is irrelevant. As long as it’s required and enforced, that’s what matters,” Hinds said.

I can echo that sentiment that cost is not an issue. As a fighter, I’d be more than happy to help front some of the costs for blood tests as long as the other side agreed as well. There are even local blood donation centers and plasma centers that test your blood on the first donation.

Of course, MMA is still a money-making business, and promoters are in the game to make money, a fact that Hinds believes contributes to the lack of regulation for fighter safety.

“It’s not a question of financial struggle. It’s a question of willingness to do the right thing for the athletes regardless of whether it’s required or not,” Hinds stated. “This is not entirely the promoters’ responsibility; it’s the responsibility of the State to do their homework, put rules and regulations in place that make sense, and most importantly monitor and hold those accountable who do not follow well-clarified requirements.”

Once again I concur with Hinds’ statements about the State needing to help promoters and fighters. As of now, there’s no regulating body for Amateur MMA, as most of the legislation has been drafted by officials with boxing backgrounds and boxing interests.

If there was any doubt, MMA fans should check out a list of rule changes that make it more difficult for promoters to make money in addition to making some questionable rule changes. Perhaps the most perplexing of these changes for fighters is the idea of removing head kicks and neck cranks.

“This ‘proposal’ is riddled with boxing jargon and terminology which either has absolutely nothing to do with MMA, or doesn’t properly translate to MMA. This proposal is also without educated research or true knowledge of MMA,” Hinds said.

He last remarked about the lack of knowledge concerning the officials who are attempting to change the sport.

“The proposal was not written by anyone with any expertise, much less extensive MMA experience,” Hinds declared.

Some fans might be quick to argue that fighters know the dangers that go with performing in a combat sport such as MMA, but they should notice the word “sport” in this sentence. Sports have rules set in place to ensure athletes safety within the game and provide help for competitors in both proactive and reactive manners.

With major sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL taking a better look at competitor safety (especially with concussions), let’s hope the state of Illinois pulls its head out of the sand and finally focuses on keeping MMA fighters in the gym and out of the hospital.

Photo: Jeff Dunbar lies in a hospital bed (Apocalypse MMA)

  • Instructor Caldwell

    That was a great and needed article! Thanks for being on the side of saftey and making the sport better. Now if we can make this a collective movement, that would be great -Educate to Elevate the Sport!!!

  • Michael

    Thank you, Kyle and MMA Corner, for a solid article on the state of Amyy MMA in Illinois. You could not have found a better expert on the subject than Rob Hinds. Aside from being one of the country’s best MMA officials, Rob has spent his career advocating for the best safety and training practices in pro and ammy MMA. It’s astonishing that in a State like Illinois, with a wealth of pros like Rob and many interested fighters, officials, and fans, that the State continues to be an embarassment nationally with respect to MMA regulation. Efforts at regulating ammy MMA, and creating a state of the art regulation program for MMA in Illinois, have been scuttled by promotoers and individuals at the level of the Illinois Athletic Commission, who care more about business profits than fighter safety. Until there are changes at the IAC, Illinois will continue to be a leader…in the race to the bottom of the barrel in MMA. See also :

    • Teressa

      Great article. I have a great concern for the safety of our MMA fighters in IL. My son is one of those MMA fighers who is at risk every time he goes into the ring. I, too, cannot believe that our State continues to do nothing to protect the fighters and cares more about putting money in the promoters pockets. It just goes to show how crooked our State is from the top all the way down. All that is of importance is money. Never mind those of us who are out there doing the hard work, busting our butts. The promoters wallets just keep getting fatter and fatter…..The IAC needs to make some big changes and put policies in place that will take care of our guys who are in the ring making those big bucks!!!!!

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