There’s something rotten in the state of… Georgia? Well, not exactly rotten, but disappointing for sure. One of the most supportive states for mixed martial arts has come to a strange impasse, and, for some reason, the hosting of MMA events in the state is set to come to a screeching halt going into 2013.

MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. In 1993, the no-rules style of fighting welcomed everyone from street thugs to lifelong martial artists, as long as they were willing to get in a cage. The intentions were right, but the sport faced a great deal of scrutiny, until some rules were gradually developed.

The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were first developed in early 2000 within the California State Athletic Commission, to both give the sport credibility in sanctioning and, most importantly, protect the fighters. They were ultimately adopted by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board later that year, giving the sport guidelines to be used at the state sanctioning level.

State athletic commissions are the regulatory bodies that keep MMA safe and credible, and one of the most important functions is approving events and individual match-ups.

In the United States alone, MMA from the amateur to the highest professional level has become a multi-million dollar industry, generating revenue for the state and local economies. Outside of the promotions, which combine revenue streams in the form of advertising, venue fees, ticket sales, food and beverage sales, and fighter payouts, an extended economy has been created, generating income for all of the employees involved in this sport’s industry.

So, what’s going on in Georgia?

Georgia has been an amazing state for the sport of MMA. American Top Team has set up a couple of shops in the state, and there are more regulated events in Georgia than in many other states. And, for the last four years, the state had an amazing Executive Director/Secretary of the Georgia State Athletic and Entertainment Commission (GAEC).

Andy Foster, the GAEC Executive Director since 2008, is a former MMA fighter with a combined professional and amateur record of 17-2. He also holds impressive records in amateur boxing and submission grappling, and has also competed in amateur kickboxing. Training in MMA since 1997, Foster was able to easily segue into promoting events, instructing students in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and eventually becoming the Head Referee of the GAEC.

In 2008, Georgia’s former Secretary of State, Karen Handel, appointed Foster as the Executive Director of the GAEC. This was great news for the GAEC, and, under such experienced leadership, the commission had no problem approving events that Foster was involved with. He was a great pioneer for MMA in Georgia, supporting the sport and allowing Georgia to grow as a credible destination for events. In 2010, with Georgia’s new Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, taking office, Foster remained in his post.

In four years, under the guidance of Foster, Georgia increased regulated events by forty percent and increased revenues by seventy percent, which led to the recruitment of Foster by California, where the athletic commission has been in a state of turmoil.

On Oct. 23, it was announced that Foster was to become the Executive Director of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), effective Nov. 7. This was great news for the CSAC, but somewhat disheartening for Georgia, considering what he had done for the state and its expanding MMA economy. The next step for Secretary Kemp would be to appoint a new Executive Director of the GAEC. Unfortunately for the GAEC and the entire boxing and MMA community of Georgia, this hasn’t happened yet.

Under much scrutiny, Kemp appointed Steve Lindsey, an Executive Director of ten different licensing commissions with the Secretary of State’s office, and Kelly Farr, Deputy Secretary of State, as the interim directors of the GAEC.

“Unfortunately, neither one has the experience the commission needs for having that position so we can continue to have competitive and safe fights in the state of Georgia,” said Vice Chairman of the GAEC Rick Thompson in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “The largest responsibility, as we see it as commissioners, for the Executive Secretary is an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the fighters and MMA and how it’s progressed over the last few years.”

Vice Chairman Thompson is no stranger to MMA. In addition to serving with the GAEC, he is a former Marine who has also trained in the sport.

“I trained in martial arts for twenty years,” explained Thompson. “I started training a couple years ago in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA when I was first appointed to the commission by Governor Perdue and again by Governor Deal. I trained under Andy Foster, the former Executive Director here. I’m very comfortable knowing the sport of MMA, but I don’t know all of the fighters. That’s a full-time job. I own my own business. We are non-paid commissioners. We can’t keep up with all the fighters. That’s the job of the Executive Director. That’s why it’s a full-time job.”

A full-time job it is. The Executive Director of any commission must know the fighters and the rules, and also have his finger on the pulse of the sport at all times. This is not just a Georgia issue. Supporting the URMMA and understanding how to keep the sport safe is an issue within every state’s regulatory body.

Keith Kizer of the Nevada State Athletic Commission is a great example. He is personally at all the major and some minor events in Nevada. He knows all the fighters and all of the rules, and he does what he can to keep the sport legitimate and safe.

Although it seems this should be a non-issue in Georgia, especially since the state has received such a huge boost in revenue from MMA, it is a major issue. Secretary Kemp has ineffectively dragged his feet on taking care of this appointment.

“As soon as we got notice from Andy Foster that he was going to California to take a position—his two weeks’ notice—we had a couple conference calls with all the commissioners,” Vice Chairman Thompson elaborated. “It was an executive session. We came up with five names, with the help of Mr. Foster, of individuals we believe would be qualified and would be fit to continue all of the hard work that Andy did.

“We sent those names to the Secretary of State. The day after we sent those names, the Secretary of State appointed Steve Lindsey, who is the Executive Director of eight other boards. He doesn’t know anything about MMA. By his own statements, he doesn’t know anything about MMA. We had a commission meeting and we told everybody we wouldn’t move forward until we have a qualified person.

“Secretary Kemp then appointed Kelly Farr, who did it for a little less than a year in 2007. Well, he’s still not qualified. He wasn’t qualified then, which is why they had to find somebody else, and that’s how we got Andy Foster in there. We still need to get somebody qualified in there, but that’s a job of the Secretary of State. So, Kemp doesn’t realize that’s what needs to happen. In many press releases, Secretary Kemp stated that he doesn’t intend to put anybody in there until after the next legislative session, which would be April or May.”

April or May? That would be a huge problem. In the last four years, Atlanta has played host to two major UFC events, and Bellator is rumored to have been planning an event there in February 2013. If this is the case, then there’s no way that Bellator could even promote such an event.

“As of now, we have no events that we can schedule past Jan. 1,” David Oblas, owner of Undisputed Productions, who runs the busy promotion Wild Bill’s Fight Night in Duluth, Ga., told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “We’re in a complete holding pattern until the Secretary of State appoints someone as the Executive Director of the Georgia Athletic Commission. And that person needs to be knowledgeable of the sport. Until somebody is in there that is knowledgeable enough to approve match-ups, they won’t approve any match permits until after Jan. 1. As of now, MMA and boxing in the state of Georgia is dead.”

Although Wild Bill’s Fight Night is a leading promotion on the regional scene, having hosted over fifty events since 2006 and hosting nine events this year alone, it is just a sampling of the MMA community in Georgia, which includes multiple American Top Team and Gracie-affiliate gyms, as well as other regional promotions.

“We’ve been huge in MMA for the last five years, hosting more events than many other states in the country—successful events,” Oblas said. “It really puts everyone in a state of confusion and worry right now. Fighters are thinking they’re never fighting in Georgia again. They’re looking to move to other states and fight in other states. Trainers who are trying to move up the amateur ranks and into the pro ranks are starting to think they’re never going to fight in their hometown again.

“It’s an income situation that affects venues here in Georgia. It affects gyms, bartenders and servers. It’s a trickle-down effect that affects a lot of people here.”

In an election year where two of the top issues were jobs and the economy, it seems absurd that Secretary Kemp is not moving very quickly on getting this issue resolved. With MMA growing so much and positively affecting the economic and employment environments of Georgia, why isn’t this a more urgent issue?

“Secretary Kemp’s problem is that he doesn’t understand MMA,” explained Vice Chairman Thompson. “This is a full-time job, and not just an administrative job. He knows that by the standards of the law all he has to do is appoint an Executive Secretary. Unfortunately, the commission does not have any role in appointing the Executive Secretary. We just have the power to vote on the different things and decide what moves forward. It’s kind of a catch-22. It would help if we had some kind of say in it, but I’m not even going to say that, if he would just work with us.

“This shouldn’t be any kind of argument between us and him. He just needs to find somebody to put in there, so we can have fights. We don’t want all these fighters, fans and promoters to be without fights, and basically do away with everything Andy Foster worked so hard for in the last four or five years to get Georgia where it is. It’s insanity.”

In addition to the lack of appointment of an Executive Director to the GAEC, Secretary Kemp has attempted to attack the integrity of the commission on another level too. In early February, Kemp proposed legislation in the form of Senate Bill 445, which altered the role of the GAEC.

“Basically, what Senate Bill 445 does is strips the GAEC of all its regulatory powers and makes it purely a licensing board under the complete control of the Secretary of State,” Thompson said. “He withdrew it, because it was going to die.”

“It’s been said that he’s attempting to do it again this year, but it will be under a different bill number. It strips the commission of its authority and its powers and makes it purely a licensing board. If the GAEC becomes just a licensing board and there’s no oversight of the matchmaking and the rules, someone’s going to die. We’ve seen it in other states, as you well know, when somebody’s not doing the job or doesn’t have tight oversight of this sport, people die.”

“We’re trying to make that point to express how important it is to leave the commission with its authority and put somebody in there who’s got the knowledge and can work on this day-to-day. Secretary Kemp is unwilling or unable to understand that.”

As Vice Chairman Thompson stated, the bill was withdrawn on Feb. 28, but Kemp’s intentions have been clearly proven through his actions, or lack thereof.

So, until Secretary Kemp makes a move on the appointment of a qualified Executive Director of the GAEC, which, for now, appears to be off the schedule until late spring of 2013, the MMA business in Georgia will come to a screeching halt, undoing a lot of the hard work, time and money that has gone into building the sport into what it is in the Peach State.

Vice Chairman Thompson does want Georgian, as well as all other, supporters of MMA to know they don’t have to stand for this.

“I’ve been in politics almost twenty years,” stated Thompson. “I understand politics, but, unfortunately, a lot of people in the MMA community don’t understand who they should contact. They don’t understand that they can contact their legislators. They can contact the Secretary of State’s office personally and really put pressure on them. Elected officials work for the constituents. All of the fighters, the fans and the promoters, they’re all constituents of the elected officials of Georgia, and it’s their voices that need to be heard.”

And, be heard, they should.

Unfortunately, for now MMA in Georgia has no immediate future. Until Secretary Kemp makes the proper, permanent appointment, everyone involved in the business is either sitting on the sidelines or forced to look for opportunities outside of the state of Georgia.

(Messages left for Secretary Brian Kemp and former director Andy Foster requesting comment for this article were not immediately returned.)

Photo: Georgia State Seal

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