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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bill would end 'ultimate fights'

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Events such as “Rumble on the Rock” would become illegal if a new House bill becomes law.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Extreme-combat bouts such as "Rumble on the Rock" and other popular mixed-martial-arts events in Hawai'i are facing potential knockout legislation from state Rep. Tommy Waters.

Waters, D-51st (Waimanalo, Lanikai), has introduced a House bill calling for a ban on all forms of extreme combat.

He said he wrote the bill after attending neighborhood board meetings in Waimanalo where parents told him their children were staging "ultimate fights" after school and getting hurt. In the language of the bill, Waters says extreme combat promotes an environment that is "instilling violence in the mindset of a youth."

"These kids are looking up to these ultimate fighters and they're telling each other, 'Let's go meet in the ring and fight,'" he said Wednesday. "We should talk about (banning it), get both sides."

His proposal, however, may encounter opposition.

The proposal would restore a ban that was in place before May 2005, when Gov. Linda Lingle signed into law a Senate bill that provides an exemption for promoters staging these fights, allowing them if a set of standards is followed.

Some lawmakers see the mixed-martial-arts events as pure sport and note the revenue the state gets from facilities rentals and other sales.

Rep. Jerry Chang, D-2nd (Hilo), said he introduced a bill that aims to expand the powers of the state boxing commission so it can regulate and oversee the extreme-combat industry. He said he recognizes the need to legitimize the sport.

"It creates revenue and it's another sport," he said yesterday. "It's all over the world and it's very popular, especially in Japan. I just went to this last one ("Rumble on the Rock" at the Blaisdell) and it was a packed house. Unbelievable."

Icon Sport, previously known as Superbrawl, has staged events in Hawai'i and all over the Mainland since 1996. The promoter, T. Jay Thompson, said he has promoted hundreds of fights with none resulting in serious injury or death. He said he would put his sport's safety record up against that of high school football programs.

For years, he and co-promoter Patrick Freitas have lobbied for increased regulation and oversight for the sport, he said. Both see it as the path to legitimacy.

"I have worked for more than 10 years to put our sport in a positive light and I find this bill to certainly be unneeded," he said. "(The bill) portrays what we do inaccurately, and I would say it doesn't portray what we do. We fit within the current law, we are a martial-arts contest, we have been, and continue to be. We've been regulated by the (state) since last year and self-regulated before that."

Chris Onzuka, who along with his fraternal twin, Michael, runs Onzuka.com, a mixed-martial-arts fans and news Web site, said some of the language in Waters' bill referring to the number of deaths associated with the sport is inaccurate. He echoed Thompson's feeling that the sports needs regulation and knowledgeable management if it is to be considered legitimate.

"We want to make sure this thing is done the right way," said Onzuka, who owns and operates a Brazilian jiu jitsu academy. "The biggest thing we're worried about is that people who don't understand the sport will run it."

Before the exemption became law last year, mixed-martial-arts contests and other forms of extreme combat were technically illegal, but promoters squeezed bouts through loopholes in the law for more than a decade. Under the law the governor signed in May, promoters can get an exemption if they:

  • Supply a referee and a licensed ringside physician;

  • Guarantee safety for the fighters; and

  • Pay a $500 fee to hold the contests.

    Tickets to fights range from $30 to $350, and some events have drawn more than 7,000 people.

    Extreme-combat bouts are monitored by investigators with the Regulated Industries Complaints Office, and any violation of the exemptions in the law subjects the promoter to the possibility of a $10,000 fine per offense.

    In 2005, the first year complaints office sent investigators to every for-profit extreme-combat bout in the state, the office opened 29 investigations stemming from 29 fights.

    Some of the investigations are pending criminal prosecution or other legal action, said Jo Ann Uchida, complaints and enforcement officer for RICO, the enforcement arm of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Statistics for the amount of fines and facilities fees collected from extreme-combat promoters for the past 10 years were unavailable.

    "They (extreme-combat fights) are legal (only) if they obtain an exemption from us, they submit the request in a timely manner, and they pay the ($500) fee," she said. "As an enforcement officer, you're always interested in stronger and stronger laws, but whether that happens this session remains to be seen. This particular sport is such that the regulation is a work in progress."

    Before the law enacted last year, Uchida's office had difficulty regulating the fights, because officers could attend only the ones they knew about, she said. Further complicating matters was a clause in the old law that forced complaints office investigators to prove the bouts constituted an "unreasonably high risk of bodily injury or death." Gathering enough evidence to prove that precedent almost means someone has to die first, Uchida said, so rather than waiting for tragedy, the state moved last May to add the exemptions and remove the clause.

    Uchida says the law passed last year frees complaints office investigators to be more thorough in their enforcement and provides for better oversight.

    Icon Sport's Thompson said that although his fighters are profiled on mixed-martial-arts Web sites and television shows, and in news magazines, his fights are based on the ancient martial art of "pankration," placing him within the parameters of state law because pankration is a martial art.

    Pankration, according to the World Pankration Federation's Web site, is "designed to encompass all aspects of personal combat ... and offers athletes the opportunity to use the techniques of their disciplines in competition with athletes of other sport combat disciplines, and facilitates the enhancement of martial skills through exposure to and cross training in the variety of disciplines represented."

    Pankration was introduced in 648 B.C. during the 33rd Olympiad, according to the federation's Web site.

    Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.