Are Athletic Commissions Failing to Protect Fighters?

Was the Ohio State Athletic Commission at fault for sanctioning Pulver vs. Vazquez?

Athletic commissions could be deemed the unsung heroes of combat sports in that their sole purpose is to oversee combat sports and the safety of its fighters. It's their job to provide pre-fight medical testing, drug and steroid testing, sanctioning of any and all events within the state, and protect fighters. Unfortunately, we hear far too many stories about athletic commissions failing in their own judgment and not providing decisions that promote what their purpose actually is -- to protect fighters.

Zach Arnold over at FightOpinion makes the case that the Ohio State Athletic Commission made the wrong call in regards to sanctioning the Jens Pulver vs. Javier Vazquez bout at WEC 47 due to Pulver's lengthy streak of losses:

The truth is that Jens Pulver likely shouldn’t have been sanctioned to fight by the Ohio Athletic Commission.

The commission has taken some heat recently for not sanctioning a fight between Wes Sims and Tim Sylvia due to what they perceived as a competitive imbalance and I think it was the right call. Commissions have a tough job to do in terms of approving who can fight and who can’t fight. There are always situations where licensing certain fighters can be a gray area. Pulver was one of those fighters. Unfortunately, he has been dismantled repeatedly over his last few fights. It was sad that his quick submission of Cub Swanson wasn’t the final swan song. It seems like eons ago when that fight took place.

Arnold goes on to talk about the greedy practices of the athletic commissions, specifically targeting Nevada State Athletic Commission director Keith Kizer. He brings up the return of Tito Ortiz as a perfect example of the problems plaguing the approval process in Nevada:

When I alluded to promoters having a lot of power in booking fights that normally shouldn’t be booked, Tito Ortiz vs. Forrest Griffin was the perfect example. Ortiz facing a Top 5 Light Heavyweight in his return match? Nevada has become the rubber stamp athletic commission for promoters under Kizer’s tenure. The fight between Ortiz and Griffin wasn’t a blow out because we found out later that Griffin was fighting with a broken foot. If athletic commissions are supposedly about the safety of the fighters, then why are guys like Griffin able to make it into the cage with broken bones? It’s inexcusable. If Mark Coleman gets cut by UFC a few days after his fight due to concern that he might die in the cage, why did Nevada allow him to get licensed in the first place? Inexcusable.

In my mind, this is a very valid point that should have been addressed. And it hits at my own sentiments in the follow-up of the fight. In fact, I actually emailed Keith Kizer following the bout in regards to Forrest Griffin admitting he had a broken foot and Tito Ortiz talking about having cracked skull during post-fight interviews.

Pre-fight procedures only include a medical questionnaire, a physical exam by a doctor at weigh-in, and scans are only done in licensing procedures, not pre-fight. Therefore, it isn't unfathomable that many fighters get past these practices and fight with injuries that could ultimately be detrimental to their health.

That behavior is only a supporting argument to a bigger problem. Commissions are sanctioning fights that probably shouldn't happen. As mentioned in the article, Sylvia vs. Sims wasn't sanctioned due to a competitive imbalance, and while I don't think Pulver vs. Vazquez is a supportive argument as Pulver did lose two of the four fights to one of the best 145 pounders in Urijah Faber and a surging prospect in Josh Grispi -- it doesn't change the fact that commissions have a serious conflict of interest in terms of protecting fighters and making money.

Imagine if Alistair Overeem vs. Mark Coleman was booked in Nevada. The uproar would be rather significant in comparison to most fights, but MMA fans aren't really up in arms about approval of fights because there hasn't been a true precedence set by commissions as to what is deemed absurd. Sadly, that fight probably gets sanctioned.

What's the best course of action? Firmer restrictions? Should athletic commission decision-making bodies become separate entities? A separation of powers might actually hinder the sport if the approval group is too restrictive, but anything that would stop older fighters from becoming punch-drunk vegetables is okay in my book.

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