After failing to get licensed in Virginia, Shine Fights moved Friday night's mixed martial arts card
to the First Council Casino in Newkirk, Oklahoma. That casino is on land owned by the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, and therefore the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission has no authority over the event.
But while Joe Miller, director of the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission, can't stop the event, he can speak his mind about it.
"I have some major concerns with it," Miller told MMAFighting.com. "There are probably 15 or 20 events conducted a year in Oklahoma without a commission present. My number one concern is the health and safety of the fighters. There have been events where the fighters were not paid and there was no one there to ensure that they get paid. But my major concern is the health of the fighters. I know of situations where a fighter was knocked out, knocked unconcious, and allowed to fight five days later. The problem I have with that is if a fighter is knocked out, it's mandated under our rules and the Association of Boxing Commissions rules that they take a certain amount of time off. Thirty or 45 or 60 days is normal because if a fighter is knocked out there's a possibility that he has a subdural hematoma -- bleeding on the brain -- and there's the possibility that if he gets hit again there could be serious medical problems."
Shine Fights, which did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story, is planning an eight-man, one-night lightweight tournament that will not be sanctioned by the Oklahoma Commission, and Miller acknowledged that the Oklahoma Commission is powerless to do anything about it.
"In Oklahoma we have a large number of tribal trust lands," Miller said. "The state of Oklahoma has absolutely no authority to regulate on those particular pieces of land. In boxing it's a little different because federal law mandates that boxing be regulated by a commission, but mixed martial arts has no such law."
Miller said his only recourse is not to license any fighter who participates in unsanctioned MMA fights for 60 days.
"If we know a fighter who has participated in an unsanctioned fight, we won't license them for 60 days," Miller said. "It's not actually a suspension but I won't approve them for a period of 60 days."
But the 60-day provision doesn't mean much. Not every state will honor Oklahoma's decision not to license a fighter, and fighters who aren't licensed can keep fighting on unsanctioned shows on tribal land or overseas. That's exactly what MMA veteran Marcus Aurelio apparently plans to do -- Aurelio is scheduled to fight in the Shine tournament on Friday and then take on Shinya Aoki in Japan on September 25.
"If he gets knocked unconscious in this fight, there's still nothing we can do to keep him from fighting in Japan," Miller said.
Miller said he doesn't know whether Shine Fights or the tribe has taken proper precautions regarding the fighters' health and safety, and for that matter doesn't even know if the event will go on as scheduled. He wants to find out what he can about the event, but has no more authority over it than any MMA fan who goes to the casino to watch on Friday night.
"I have no idea," Miller said of what will take place Friday night. "I plan on having one of my inspectors buy a ticket."
Tribes and promoters often work together on fights that are sanctioned by either a state commission or a tribal commission, but Shine Fights and the Otoe-Missouria have chosen not to go that route, Miller said.
"I've attempted on several occasions to get them to do a compact with the state or form their own commission and they've not done so," Miller said. "They have held one or two professional boxing matches at their casino where federal law required them to have a commission, so they contracted with a tribal commission and it went well. But with MMA they don't have to so they're not going to."
Miller, a former professional boxer, said he loves MMA and worries that unsanctioned events could damage the sport's reputation and hinder its growth. He speaks from personal experience about what can happen to fighters when there's not a strong athletic commission protecting their best interests.
"I had my first pro fight in the 1970s and I thought I was going to make a certain amount of money and fight a certain opponent," Miller said. "Neither turned out to be true."
Miller said it's not his place to tell the fighters in the Shine Fights tournament whether they should participate, but he hopes they understand that they'll need to do for themselves many of the things that the Oklahoma Commission typically does for fighters in the state.
"That's something that's up to the fighter and his trainer and manager," Miller said. "But the thing I would tell him is that he won't be licensed in the state of Oklahoma for 60 days after this fight. If that doesn't impact you, then you need to ask, is this a reputable organization? Are you going to receive your money? Is there going to be a doctor at ringside? Will an ambulance be on site? Do you have a contract with them that everybody has signed that lays out exactly what will happen?"
Ultimately, Miller said, unless Congress passes a federal law protecting MMA fighters -- like the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act protects boxers -- state commissions will continue to be powerless to regulate MMA fights on tribal land.
"It's all about absence of federal law," Miller said. "I've been frustrated for several years about it, but there's nothing -- absolutely nothing -- I can do."