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Breaking: Congress to hold hearing on MMA ahead of Ali Act vote

A Congressional Committee has scheduled a deep dive into the sport as it evaluates pending legislation to expand the Muhammad Ali Act to combat sports.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin
Rep. Markwayne Mullin

Congress is taking a deeper dive into the sport of Mixed Martial Arts next week with a hearing on Capitol Hill.

The Energy and Commerce Committee announced today that “Mixed Martial Arts: Issues and Perspectives” will take place December 8th and feature the testimony of expert witnesses in the field of mixed martial arts. The list of speakers will be announced Tuesday and is by invitation only. The event will live stream online here.

The hearing, hosted by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, indicates a request for information ahead of a committee vote on the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act. The bill’s main sponsor, Representative Markwayne Mullin, a Republican from Oklahoma’s 2nd congressional district and a former mixed martial artist, is a member of the committee holding the hearing. His office says the hearing won’t focus on the legislation directly but will help educate committee members about the sport as a whole.

“While the purpose of the hearing is to teach the committee and the general public about MMA, I am looking forward to informing them about a sport that I want to see succeed and grow, but first and foremost we have to take care of the fighters,” Mullin said in a statement to Bloody Elbow. “This base knowledge for everyone will be instrumental in taking a closer look at the issues that MMA fighters are currently experiencing.”

If signed into law, H.R. 5365, the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, would alter the sport of mixed martial arts by creating a federal regulatory scheme, similar to the one that governs boxing. Some of its notable provisions include: outlawing coercive contracts lasting more than a year, requiring promoters give fighters back promotional rights after a year, banning promoters from having a financial stake in the management of fighters and the creation of an independent sanctioning body to establish rankings and titles. The bill grants fighters a private right of action to sue promoters for violations as well as a federal cause of action that carries penalties up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail.

The bill also requires that promoters disclose earnings to fighters. That financial knowledge is currently lacking in the sport and could help fighters negotiate fair market value. The UFC is a private company with closed books.

Proponents hope the bill will level the playing field between powerful promoters like the UFC and fighters. Opponents say the independent ranking system would change the fabric and feel of the sport and force the adoption of a confusing and frustrating system with too many belts and titles, similar to boxing.

UFC officials have hired a private firm to actively lobby against the bill and public records demonstrate the organization has spent upwards of $300,000 on lobbying- efforts.

The Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA) is one of the forces behind the legislation. It says the bill’s passage is one of the pillars of its agenda. The Association, which counts more than 300 past and current fighters across multiple promotions as members, has invested considerable lobbying efforts. According to the MMAFA, its members who have spoken with politicians, include: Nate Quarry, Jon Fitch, Carlos Newton, Chris Wilson, Anthony Lapsley, Pete Spratt, Vinicius Queiroz, John Howard, Brandon Vera and others.

Last August, former UFC champions Randy Couture and Cung Le spoke in support of the bill at the Association of Boxing Commissions Convention in Las Vegas. MMAFA spokesmanRob Maysey, the lawyer spearheading the antitrust suit against the UFC, said this about the upcoming hearing, “The Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association announced last year its intention to have the Muhammad Ali Act Expansion Act enacted to cover all professional combat sports. We are proud that this bill is now pending and the fighters voices will be heard. This bill will greatly improve the economic conditions and welfare of all fighters, and provides much needed leverage to the athletes.”

The original Muhammad Ali Act was signed into law on May 26, 2000 but has faced criticism from boxing insiders for its lack of enforcement. State attorney generals are charged with following up on complaints but many boxing officials, including the President of the ABC, Mike Mazzulli, claim they rarely respond.

The new reform bill was introduced into the House on the 20th anniversary of the original bill, May 26, 2016. From there it was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce as well as the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Last September the bill was also referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

If the bill passes the committee stage, it will face a vote in the House. If it passes the House, it will need to pass the Senate before being signed into law by the President of the United States.

The bill’s co-sponsors include Republicans Larry Bucshon (Indiana’s 8th district), Peter King (New York’s 2nd district), Jason Smith (Missouri’s 8th district), and Jeff Denham (California’s 10th district) and two Democrats; Joseph Kennedy (Massachusetts’ 4th district) and Mark Takano (California’s 41st district).