In May, Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren tweeted a curious comment, stating that he had been the subject of only one post-fight drug test in his Bellator career up to that point. That would mean just one test in seven fights for the promotion.

It’s a comment that raised eyebrows towards what exactly goes on in regards to an athletic commission’s oversight at Bellator’s events. For the most part, Bellator holds its events on sovereign tribal land at Native American casinos and resorts. Some events may be directly regulated by the state’s commissions, whereas others are overseen by the Association of Boxing Commissions, which is an organization that provides a framework for the undertaking of combat sports. But events on sovereign land are usually overseen by federally recognized Native American tribes that have the right to govern themselves. These Indian enterprises exist as their own sovereign nations and can work in cooperation with the U.S. government.

It can become pretty confusing trying to wrap your head around how regulation works. It all seems like too many cooks in the kitchen and is made even more confounding by the fact that not all athletic commissions (state or tribal) conduct themselves the same way in different places around the country. Various states have different ideas and practices that affect their approach to combat sports. Their work can be influenced by factors such as access to funds and the different philosophies and experience levels of the commissioners.

But back to the main point: how do these efforts pertain to drug testing Bellator’s fighters at events? It doesn’t help that the promotion isn’t going out of its way to publish the test results from the overseeing commissions, even if all fighters on certain cards are being tested and pass. For better or worse, many fans are in the dark when it comes to understanding the regulation aspect of Bellator events.

Askren’s statement had made me curious. It led me down a path to try to understand exactly what was going on. So, while attending the Bellator 96 event in Thackerville, Okla., I discussed this topic with Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney in a one-on-one interview at the post-fight press conference.

“On the first season on Spike, we had 11 shows. Four of those shows were at First Nations Indian Casino,” Rebney explained in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “Three of those four were controlled by the state athletic commissions in those states. So, like, we go to Albuquerque and we were on First Nations Casino Indian land—New Mexico State Athletic Commission oversaw our show. We were at Pechanga Resort and Casino in California, which is First Nation’s private sovereign land—California State Athletic Commission oversaw our show.

“So, it is a fallacy that is being perpetrated by folks who have an ulterior motive to say that we’re fighting on Indian land, therefore we’re not tested. The same commissions oversee our stuff when we’re in California and fight at Pechanga that oversee the UFC events when they fight at the Palm. Exactly the same commission.

“And what you’ll see is, the cable TV show, there’s typically a lot less testing than there is for a big pay-per-view show. Why? Testing costs a lot of money. Commissions are substantially underfunded. So when you come with a show that’s on Spike or you come in with an FX show, you’ll see that both Bellator and the UFC’s testing goes far down. When you have a big pay-per-view show, then the revenues going to the commission are quite large and [they] have more money to work with, therefore they’re able to test more people and therefore you typically get more positives [tests].

“We had, I think, two events over the last 13 that were on tribal land that were not subject to the same commission we would have if we were in the state. Some guys are going to show up positive, some guys are going to show up negative. We’re going to lose guys to positive tests for either recreational drugs or something else. It’s just a numbers game. We got 170 guys signed, it’s going to happen.”

In this instance, at Bellator 96, the event was held on tribal land and was not directly regulated by the state of Oklahoma. But that doesn’t mean that no oversight took place. The Director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation and longtime combat sports commissioner, Mike Mazzulli, was on hand to oversee the event. Also, Bellator boss Rebney said that every single fighter on the card took a urinalysis after the event.

This was confirmed by the Chickasaw Nation Deputy Gaming Commissioner, Haskell Alexander, who was responsible for testing fighters at the Bellator 96 event. He  confirmed that nearly half of the 26 fighters were randomly selected for drug screening after the event.

“Yes, I can verify that there was a random drug testing done,” Alexander told The MMA Corner. “Here at Chickasaw Nation—in our own jurisdiction—at every event we always do a random drug testing. Now, our championship fights, they’re automatically tested. Just to let you know, there was 10 to 12 testing done during that event at Thackerville. Now, what we will not release is the names of anyone who has tested positive, but you can always go to the fight records to pull those up.”

Rebney goes on to explain Mazzulli’s involvement.

“For example, here at Winstar, Winstar has a commission on site [that] does a very good job. [It] oversees MMA and boxing,” Rebney said. “They bring Mike Mazzulli in, who is a very highly respected commissioner who oversees everything. He acts as a consultant to them on everything that happens on the show. Everything from testing, to getting all the results from fighters, to weighing everybody in, doing all the physicals, everything, licensing of officials, et cetera, et cetera.

“We’re doing close to 30 events a year. We’re going to have some that are on First Nation’s land that aren’t overseen by typical commissions.”

For those that may not be aware of Mazzulli’s credentials, he’s one of four men that wrote the unified rules of the sport of MMA in 2001-2. He has also been involved with the Mohegan Tribal Athletic Department since 1996 and was a member of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC). So it’s not as though Bellator’s events aren’t receiving proper attention from credible officials.

The MMA Corner reached out to Mazzulli for comment on his regulatory efforts for the event.

“I help a lot of tribes form commissions. We regulate better—I feel—than 99 percent of the state commissions,” said Mazzulli. “A lot of the press and people don’t realize the regulation that goes on on reservations. Like Ben Askren stated that he’s never been tested when he has been on tribal land, which is farthest from truth because I know Haskell Alexander tested him when I was down there.

“You never hear of athletic regulation on tribal land until somebody says something negative. I was the Vice President of the ABC for six years. I’ve helped build seven or eight different commissions. I’ve helped organize on tribal land. Bjorn comes to Tampa land because the regulation is good. I put my rules and regs against any state in the union and I think I’m better than them, honestly. That’s why Bjorn likes using me too.”

Granted, at some events, like Bellator 94 in Tampa, Fla., not a single fighter was tested after the event, and criticism is due for that. But it’s only fair to point out that sometimes the complete opposite takes place and every fighter undergoes the possibility to be randomly selected for drug screening, like was done by the overseeing commission at Bellator 96.

Rebney isn’t in charge of testing, that’s the regulatory commission’s job. Some might criticize Bellator’s choice of venues on tribal land as the culprit for the perceived lax rules, but both Rebney and Mazzulli agree that it comes with the luck of the draw based on what commissions will be overseeing the event.

“It’s purely commission-based,” said Rebney. “Like here [at Bellator 96], all the fighters are going in for a piss test after the fight. Every single fighter. Seth [Petruzelli] was in after the fight, Mo [Lawal] was in after the fight. Everybody went in for a urine test after the fight.

“In California, sometimes in certain circumstances they will random test. In certain circumstances, they’ll mandate that everyone gets tested, but they [make the decision to test]. And different commissions do it differently. So it really depends on where you are and what that commission’s rules are. Some test every single guy, like we saw tonight. Some test random guys. Some just pick guys to test.”

Mazzulli’s comments back up what Rebney said in regards to how the testing selection takes place.

“The interesting thing is that it’s all depending on the commission you’re at,” said Mazzulli. “If you look at state commissions as well, some states test everybody, some test random and championship fight. It’s all depending on the commission you go to.

“Everyone assumes the tribes are doing it half-assed, and that’s definitely not the case. We have a lot more to lose. It’s hard to sue a state, but you can really go after a tribe pretty easily.”

Part of the problem in Bellator’s case against those that would deny that the appropriate steps are taken to regulate the promotion’s events is that the average fan is not going to go to the lengths to find out who is being tested and who passed or failed. If the information is not being made public and therefore isn’t published nor easily accessible, then a curious fan might believe something fishy is going on behind closed doors for Bellator’s shows and just leave it at that.

Releasing the results of drug tests after Bellator’s events in the same way that it is done for the UFC’s shows is something that Mazzulli agrees would go a long way in helping fans understand that Bellator is properly regulated, even if it’s not always a consistent process.

“I said to Haskell, ‘Have you ever thought about the idea of going public with the results of the tests?’ And he said, ‘Do you think I should?’” Mazzulli explained. “I said, ‘You absolutely should. You look at Keith Kizer from Nevada, he does that. Andy Foster from California does that. Just send a blanket statement out saying they all passed or they failed. That’s what the public wants to hear.’”

Still, Rebney holds no grudge against Askren for speaking his mind on the topic of drug testing, like Askren did with the tweet from May. As we discussed the topic, it became clear that Rebney wants his fighters to speak openly about what they think and feel.

“Askren is awesome, but that little lever in the back of their head that some people have that stops you from saying whatever you’re thinking at the moment, he doesn’t have,” explained Rebney. “I love the guy and I’ve liked him from the moment we signed him. I was the one who went out on the recruiting trips to get him signed.

“Askren says whatever he feels. That’s what makes Ben Ben. Not all of it is based on facts. Some of it is based on Ben just talking and generating comments. Some guys are like that and I don’t have any problem with it. I’ve never been one to tell guys, ‘Oh, you can’t say this, you can’t say that. Hey, shut up. Hey, we’re the speech police!’ We’re not the speech police.”

“Jon Koppenhaver. Follow his Twitter and that’s a roller-coaster ride, but I’ve never told Jon to shut up. I’ve never said, ‘Jon, don’t say that.’ I said to Jon, ‘Say what you want to say, dude.’”

Wait, Rebney has no issue with his fighters saying something that could be potentially damaging to the company? Apparently not. It’s something he doesn’t see as a big enough concern that it needs his supervision. Quite the opposite. According to Rebney, fighters being themselves and saying what they want is part of what makes the Bellator brand unique.

“It’s not my job to police what guys say. If we’re doing our job right, they’ll say what they feel,” Rebney explained. “If they’re not happy, they’ll say what they feel. I shouldn’t be the guy saying to them, ‘Hey, you can’t say this or don’t say that or that’s reflecting [on Bellator].’

“Our organization is about the fighters. The fighters are going to pull this brand along, the brand is not going to pull the fighters along. They’re going to be the stars, and you can’t create stars if the guys are policed on what they’re going to say. You can’t create stars when guys are fearful of expressing an opinion because of what the ramifications may be in terms of who they fight, what money they make, or if they get a bonus or if they don’t. That’s just not our game.”

Fans have seen plenty of examples of UFC fighters being reprimanded for saying the wrong things in interviews or through social media. Their words get them into trouble with the organization in the form of a fine or suspension. It’s an approach that Rebney acknowledges, but one his company won’t be following. He sees it as another way that Bellator is unique when compared to the competition.

“They have a different approach,” Rebney said. “Not saying their approach is wrong. They have a much different approach than we do to sponsors. They restrict the sponsors guys can have. They have a very strict policy in terms to what you can say and what you can’t. Different approach.

“I just never thought that my job should include policing the comments of fighters—individual adult males who are tough as nails and fight for a living. I believe they should be able to say what they want to say.”

In the case of Askren’s tweet from May, it seemed like a damaging statement, but ended up being something that led me towards the discovery of truth.

To say that Bellator is using Native American tribal land to get away without oversight of their fighters and events is false. Combat sports regulation is conducted differently by the various commissions around the country. Some places appear to do a more thorough job than others, but you get what comes with the territory.

Many fans would like to see the drug-test results after Bellator events and others are likely indifferent to what’s being done in regards to regulation as long as they are seeing a good show. However, releasing the results would certainly go a long way to help Bellator’s reputation with those that are without information and just assume that no credible work is being done.

In this way, Bellator could take a page from its own book in regards to how it allows its fighters to say whatever is on their mind. Bellator should speak up and be more inclined to share post-fight drug testing information.

After all, the promotion’s silence only diminishes the good work that is being done.

Photo: Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney (center) speaks to the media (Sherdog)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.