Locked out of the cage

Published 2:39 pm Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Columbiana native Keaton Wood spars with a partner Aug. 28 at a mixed martial arts training facility in Childersburg. (Reporter Photo/Kala Bolton)

By KALA BOLTON / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA — Keaton Wood has been training in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting for almost four years, but has never participated in a fight.

If he did, he would break the law.

MMA is currently sanctioned in 45 states. Alabama is not one of them, despite the sport’s rising demand and local popularity.

“It’s kind of hard because you put all this time and effort into it and you can’t even do it,” said Wood, 18, who plans to travel to Georgia in the future to legally participate in fights.

“We tell our kids their whole lives, ‘You can be anything you want to be when you grow up,’” said Christy Isbell, Keaton’s mother. “This is what he wanted to do. Now, all of a sudden, he could go to jail if he does it.”

On April 28, 2011, Gov. Robert Bentley signed the MMA legislation, making fights without licenses, which are not currently being distributed, illegal.

The Alabama Athletic Commission (AAC), formerly the Alabama Boxing Commission, is currently working towards sanctioning MMA.

“It starts with the law being signed,” said Casey Sears, vice chairman of the AAC and chairman of its rules committee. “Once the law is signed in, it gives the authority to appoint the people on the commission.”

Sears said the commission currently has 10 chapters developed, but each has a long way to go before becoming official legislation.

The AAC must first agree on the rules, which then go to a public review process where the public receives access to the documents. A public hearing is then set up, opening the floor for comments and suggestions regarding each rule.

Rules that are agreed upon are voted on once again by the AAC before being sent to a joint committee of the House and Senate for final approval. Those that are not approved start the process over.

“It’s designed to be chapter by chapter, so you could have nine chapters that are close to finishing and one chapter that has to go all the way back through,” Sears said.

Meanwhile, the AAC’s legal staff is constantly reviewing the process.

The AAC meets “a little less than quarterly” and has been the recent target of public scrutiny. Even advocates of MMA sanctioning believe the process is drawn out.

“The commission is a good thing,” said Adam Gibbs, owner of Adam Gibbs Sports Entertainment (AGSE) and president of Excalibur Worldwide Promotions, LLC which owns the MMA promotion SportFight X. AGSE is based in Alabama, but Gibbs has continued MMA announcing and promoting elsewhere due to pending sanctions.

“In one way I’ve been an activist for it, but in another way I haven’t agreed with the way they’ve done things,” Gibbs said. “My opinion would be that they have taken too long to do what they need to do.”

Sears insisted all steps are necessary.

“Most people don’t care that that’s the process,” Sears said. “They want an MMA event, they want it now, and they don’t understand why it’s not happening any faster.”

The AAC finalized regulations for boxing in two years. According to Sears, the commission’s legal staff said it was the fastest sanctioning rules had ever been put together.

As for MMA, the committee has approved a number of regulations, including competition rules and medical requirements. On Aug. 22, each will enter the public review process.

Sears blames Alabama’s tardy action to sanction MMA on politics.

“People have to be convinced that this is out there, that people are getting hurt, and it’s worth regulating and that we do have a problem,” Sears said.

As for when the rules will be finalized, Sears had no answer.

“That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “I am out of the guessing game.”

But it is clear that MMA fans shouldn’t hold their breath.

“Everything in Alabama in terms of politics is slow cooked,” Sears said. “We do not have a microwave.”