Md. Debut For Mixed Martial Arts

Sport Bows Next Month At 1st Mariner Arena

August 28, 2009|By Childs Walker and Kevin Van Valkenburg | Childs Walker and Kevin Van Valkenburg,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Flying knees, heavy punches and elaborate limb twisting have made mixed martial arts one of the nation's fastest-growing sports attractions, but Maryland has steered clear of the spectacle - until now.

The state's first sanctioned mixed martial arts card, made up mostly of local fighters, is scheduled for Oct. 24 at 1st Mariner Arena, according to Patrick Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission. The event will be the culmination of a long battle by local trainers and fans to gain acceptance.

The sport's sometimes bloody bouts have raised controversy because of their violent nature. But the spectacular knockouts and exotic fighting techniques have also led to explosive popularity. Ultimate Fighting Championship, the popular face of the sport, has drawn sellouts at arenas across the country, and more than 1.7 million households paid $55 a pop to view its July 11 show.

"Everybody wants to be involved. Everybody is excited," said John Rallo, the Canton gym owner who spearheaded the sanctioning effort and will promote the first event. "To be able to bring an event to 1st Mariner, I mean, Bruce Springsteen is about to play there. So to put on an event in the same place, that's pretty exciting. When I'm able to reach out and actually touch it, that will be something."

Maryland's first professional event - Shogun Fights - will be put on by Rallo, who for years has urged the state to approve mixed martial arts.

Maryland became the 35th state to legalize and sanction mixed martial arts competition last year, but it wasn't until July that the athletic commission agreed to accept dates for shows. It needed time to establish rules and medical protocol and to train referees.

These days, mixed martial arts is highly regulated and accepted in most states (though some, including New York, still don't sanction it). The sport endured its first death from fight-related injuries in late 2007, but advocates argue that it's less deadly than boxing because fighters absorb many fewer blows to the head.

The Maryland State Athletic Commission requires that every contestant be licensed, and to be licensed, they must undergo several medical examinations, including neurological, physical and ophthalmological. There are nine different weight classes, ranging from flyweight (125 pounds) to super heavyweight (upward of 265 pounds) and contestants must fight in a regulation ring with video monitors. They must also submit evidence they are HIV- negative, and do not have hepatitis B or C.

"Our goal from the beginning is the safety of the MMA contestants," Pannella said. "What we wanted to do is get this right from the start."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the influential pastor of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he will attend the event and encourage parishioners to do the same. "It's a positive activity," he said. "The people who participate tend to be in excellent shape, most are very disciplined and most are very personable."

Reid, 58, trains in Brazilian jiu jitsu, a key component of the sport, and watches major events with his son. He hopes that Baltimore will eventually compete for big shows put on by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and bring thousands of fans streaming to the Inner Harbor.

"This event is very important because of the word 'first,' " he said of the Oct. 24 show. "At the same time, you open the door to making greater history. With the casino coming in and the hotels, maybe we can make Baltimore a place to come for these events."

The Shogun Fights card will be headlined by local school teacher Binky Jones, a Brazilian jiu jitsu specialist who trains and is an instructor at Rallo's Ground Control Academy. Tickets go on sale Friday.

Rallo said fighters will be paid for appearing and that winners will receive larger shares of purses than losers. He hopes to hand out bonuses for best fight of the night and other categories (a common practice for UFC and other national promotions).

Rallo said he picked Oct. 24 because it happened to be a bye week for the Ravens.

"I'm a season ticket holder myself, so I didn't want people to have to choose," Rallo said.

Although Rallo credits the acceptance of mixed martial arts in Maryland to many people, it's hard to imagine it would have happened without him. He hired lawyers to argue for the sport, and talked doctors, officials and fighters from other states into testifying in front of committees in Annapolis.

"He really led the effort," Pannella said. "When the General Assembly first looked at the issue, they were neutral."

Rallo answered questions from elected officials and eventually helped convince the General Assembly that modern mixed martial arts competitions bore almost no resemblance to the sport dubbed "human cockfighting" by Arizona Sen. John McCain during its infancy in the mid-1990s.

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