The Struggle for Legality, Regulation, and Safety in Youth MMA
Sixteen-year-old MMA prodigy Reshat Mati fights outside of his homestate of New York while lawmakers figure out how to regulate youth MMA
Photo by Ian Frisch
Reshat Mati's father Adrian sat atop a stack of dump-truck tires and chanted his son into a panting sweat at The Flatbush Gardens Boxing Club in Brooklyn, the first stop of his daily, two-discipline after-school training regiment. The rhythmic thumping of speed bags echoed from the adjacent room and a handful of other fighters bounced nimbly in the two boxing rings, jabbing and swinging at coaches—swooping and ducking, whooshing and grunting. Reshat glanced at the two rings numerous times. He wished he wasn't sick. He wanted to be fighting.
Mati's liver was swollen. Still recovering from Mono on a recent Thursday—"a kissing disease," Adrian groaned with raised eyebrows—the 16-year-old boxing and MMA prodigy was confined to calisthenics until his doctor approved full-contact training. Resaht, a Staten Island local of Albanian descent, has grown into a broad-shouldered, twice-broken nosed, square-jawed pubescent teenager since garnering international acclaim as a pre-teen boxing, muay thai, kickboxing and jiu-jitsu world champion—accolades that earned him the nickname The Albanian Bear.
Although well-versed in numerous disciplines, Reshat admits that boxing is his favorite. A natural striker—his nickname as a toddler was Punch Baby—Reshat's fame comes from the power and accuracy of his punches. And rightfully so: He was born into a family of boxers. Adrian learned to fight from his father in Albania before moving to Staten Island in 1986, and his oldest daughter dabbled as a pre-teen but she quickly became more interested in girly pastimes. Eventually, Reshat also showed interest in martial arts and quickly became a formidable figure, intimidating even older and more experienced fighters.
But for Reshat, as well as many young amateur fighters interested in MMA, the opportunities to legally participate in regulated bouts are almost non existent. Amateur MMA is unregulated or illegal altogether in most states, which puts it in the awkward position of being both the black sheep of mainstream sports—mainly represented by the glitzy, blood-soaked showmanship of the Ultimate Fighting Championship—as well as an increasingly popular competitive outlet for child and adult amateurs alike. Unfortunately, if an amateur wants to fight, many times it will be within the shadows of legality. As it becomes increasingly clear that MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, pressure has been put on state-specific athletic commissions to answer a question that lawmakers have been pondering for years: What do we do with MMA?
For Reshat, one of the more decorated and recognized young fighters in the country, the answer is simple: He fights in other states until his home state comes up with an answer.
In New York, professional MMA is illegal and amateur events are unregulated by the state athletic commission. Amateurs of any age may participate in these unregulated events, and many promoters of these contests use UFC standards: no head protection, thin gloves, etc. A third-party organization that specializes in a single discipline, jiu-jitsu or kickboxing for example, is able to sanction an MMA event, and has a say in the rules governing the fight. In addition, an individual promoter with no organizational affiliation is also able to sanction a fight.
"If you don't regulate amateur MMA, a new underground scene will emerge," said Steve Koepfer, Founder of Coalition to Legalize MMA in New York. "Amateur MMA is the wild west," he added, explaining that four MMA athletes have died in the U.S.—none in New York— since 2012 due to lack of proper state regulations, including medical pre-screenings that may reveal if a fighter is more susceptible to severe injury.
"Who wants to play Russian roulette with unregulated fights?" he said. "It's a no-brainer."
Reshat's father wishes bouts were legal and state-regulated—and therefore safer—rather than merely sanctioned by a third-party.
"I would do a lot more MMA fights if it was legal here in New York," said Reshat, leaning on the ropes of the boxing ring, adding that he has to travel to Virginia to participate in MMA and is lucky if he gets one fight per year.
Reshat first started competing in MMA events in Virginia when he was eight years old. In one bout, the rules were more UFC-centric instead of the safer alternative Pankration—a modified form where fighters are evaluated on a point-based system instead of damage inflicted to their opponent, where scoring is determined by properly delivered technique that forbids strikes to the head as well as takedowns that are dangerous to the neck or back.
During the match, Reshat pinned his opponent to the ground. The boy offered no resistance, but rules dictated that a knock-out is necessary to stop the fight—a standard for professional MMA. Straddling his chest, Reshat needed to hit the boy in the face in order to win. He glanced up at his father and the referee in disbelief. Did he really have to do this to win? His opponent wasn't defending himself. Wasn't that enough? They were just kids.
"Is this what you want me to do?" he wailed.
He paused for a second before striking the boy, sending his head bouncing off the mat. The judge immediately stopped the fight, awarding the win by knock-out to Reshat. But before Reshat could climb off his opponent, he started crying.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he sputtered. "I didn't want to do it. I'm sorry."
For the proceeding five years, Adrian explained, Reshat only competed in Pankration bouts. "He was shaken up," he said. "He couldn't stop crying. He didn't want to have to do that."
MMA events first started gaining attention in New York in the 1990s under the cage-fighting moniker No Holds Barred, a more raucously barbarian version of true MMA. The entire sport was outlawed in 1997. MMA activity stayed relatively quiet until 2011 when the UFC parent company Zuffa LLC sued New York State over the prohibition on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Zuffa ultimately lost the case earlier this month. But during the course of the lawsuit, in 2012, the state inadvertently admitted that a loophole made amateur MMA legal, just not regulated by the New York State Athletic Commission. Since then, even as the lawsuit persisted, self-regulated amateur events, hosted by organizations like The World Kickboxing Association, have been staged more frequently in New York, with 54 amateur MMA events held in 2014 that encompassed over 1,500 fighters—nearly double that of the previous year.
Even before this lawsuit, though, traction was also made in the state government to find a way to legally regulate MMA in some capacity. The state senate has passed the Mixed Martial Arts bill every year since 2009, but due to politics in the assembly, the bill never fully became law. In March, the senate again passed the bill and it is currently awaiting a vote in the assembly. The bill as it sits, however, is slated to regulate only professional MMA, effectively making amateur MMA illegal.
Koepfer is leading the charges to adjust the bill, saying that many lawmakers don't really understand the true implications of passing the current version.
"A lot of them haven't read the entire bill and don't know what they are passing," he said. "Even if they have read it, they don't really understand the sport."
California is the only state where youth MMA is legally regulated, with distinct rules from adult amateurs. Child participation in MMA was brought to the attention of state lawmakers when a video surfaced in 2013 of a youth MMA event where a child was struck in the head (fights in California had been unregulated for nearly 12 years at this time). Although the child in the video was not injured, it took the general public's reaction to the video to encit change on the government level.
In September 2014, a bill was passed to give the state the authority to regulate MMA. The athletic commission tapped Jon Frank and the United States Fight League (a non-profit) to help govern the sport, create regulations, and enforce standards.
"Nobody else wanted to touch it," said Frank. "That video was made to hurt us, but it came back to allow proper regulation under approval of the state."
Frank and his team were granted approval by the state to implement Pankration for youth participants.
"We are able to take away maliciousness and the ability for injuries," said Frank. "The bottom line is that they are doing it anyway. It can either be done safely, or they can do it backyard-style and risk injury, which will impact everybody. We would like to spread the rules and policies that we came up with in California. It's a very safe sport if done properly."
Another aspect of Pankration implemented by Frank is mandatory, post-fight medical screening, the results of which are logged in a database. Since Pankration started last October, and up until May 2, 2015, California has held 110 bouts and has an injury rate of less than five percent. Injuries recorded that required follow-up medical care and recovery time included: a broken arm, a broken rib, a strained thumb, a knee hyperextension, and an elbow hyperextension. Frank plans on having a comprehensive study of injuries in Pankration by a major university this summer, which could build a foundation for its expansion into other states. He is already working with organizations in Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, and Nevada to create regulatory standards for kids in MMA.
According to a 2009 study by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, 28 percent of football players between the ages of five and 14 were injured in either practice or a game—roughly seven times that seen in the United States Fight League's data for Pankration in California. "Limiting hits to the head [is important] because padding, or even a helmet for that matter, won't necessarily prevent concussion," said Dr. Michael O'Brien, Director of the Sports Concussion Clinic: Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children's Hospital.
He added that children experience different injury patterns than adults because of anatomical differences, such as growth plates at the base of the femur. In youth MMA, additional padding and modified rules, such as those seen in Pankration, may help combat orthopedic injury. "If [the] five percent [injury rate in California] is consistent and verified, that adds up pretty well against collision sports," said O'Brien, who is also an Instructor of Orthopedics at Harvard Medical School. The lynchpin for the sport now, he explained, is concrete medical data. "Kids need to be able to make informed consent, and you need rates of injury to make that," he added. "If [MMA] turns out not to be unusually [higher] than other sports, then it's not unsafe to keep pursuing this sport."
At dinner after leaving Flatbush Gardens Boxing, Reshat Mati ordered chicken kebab and french fries. "He hates vegetables—a normal kid," Adrian said. Since coming of age, various opportunities in boxing and MMA have been thrown onto Reshat's plate. Recently, the UFC approached him to sign a contract to go professional as soon as he turned 18. He turned down the offer.
"I wouldn't be able to box," he said. "I would only be allowed to do MMA."
On the boxing side of things, he has also been approached by Jay-Z's management company Roc Nation Sports, but Reshat would rather continue fighting as an amateur to preserve his eligibility for the 2020 Olympics (he missed the age cut-off for the 2016 games by a few months). At this rate, he would be a favorite, hoping to enter as a welterweight at 152 pounds, bulking up from his current weight of 135. He has never been knocked out in a match and has beaten fighters a few years his senior and a weight-class or two heavier.
It was 8:30 p.m. and Reshat was late for his next training session. After forcing down the last of his chicken—"You need the protein," Adrian reminded him—we made our way to Bars Kickboxing Gym in Sheepshead Bay. Reshat quickly changed and made his rounds to give daps to his friends. He embraced many of them, grabbing their shoulders and smiling. After warming up, he practiced striking with his coach. This is where his true power came out—ruh! ruh! and shoo! shoo! with every thrusting jab and swinging hook—a full torso worth of weight bolting through his arms and into his fists—the raw power that fuels his reputation. Between exercises, Reshat gave pointers to other kids. "His passion is with small kids—always," said Adrian, adding that Reshat wants to go to college for business so he can eventually open a youth boxing academy.
For now, Reshat plans to focus on boxing and martial arts. Whether he'll be fighting in MMA bouts in the future is unknown. Travel to California is stretching the family's budget, and it has become increasingly difficult to find a match for Reshat in Virginia. But as Reshat unwrapped his knuckles in the locker room at Bars, joking and giving advice to his classmates, he seemed content with what he has right now in New York: the exhausting training schedule, the camaraderie of his fellow fighters, the partnership with his father, and the hope that the rules will someday change.