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International MMA Federation Faces Obstacles, but It's Needed, Says Marc Ratner

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Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC VP of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner knows that self-regulation is a problem just waiting to happen, and he wants to get out of the business altogether as soon as he can. As he told me when I spoke to him for this Sports Illustrated story this week:

“You don't want a promoter self-regulating. For us, what we've been doing is trying to grow the sport. But when I'm in charge, I still work for the promoter, so there's an inherent conflict and we're the first to admit that. But you can't grow the sport unless you do that to start with.”

That’s why the former Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director seems to be hoping that the brand new International MMA Federation (IMMAF) will become the independent worldwide regulator that this sport needs. But as anyone who has observed the struggles of state athletic commissions in the U.S. already knows, it’s a big job with plenty of built-in barriers.

August Wallen -- a Swedish businessman and former president of the Swedish MMA Federation -- is the man in charge of making it happen. As president of the IMMAF, he’s the one who has to find a way to get the entire world to agree on how MMA should be regulated.

He’s got the support of the UFC, so he’s off to a good start. As he told me on Thursday, his vision for the IMMAF is of a body that will encourage the creation of national federations in every country that wants to hold MMA events, then unite them under a single standard. It’s the way every other international sport does it, he said, so why not MMA?

But when you can’t get California and Nevada to agree on an acceptable testosterone/epitestosterone ratio, what hope is there to create a United States MMA federation that holds the entire country to one standard?

“U.S. is actually, legally, a very complicated matter,” Wallen said. “There has to be a national federation. I guess you have that for all the other sports, because otherwise you couldn’t be in the Olympics. You couldn’t take part in world championships in any sport unless you had a national federation.”

Having the UFC’s backing is certainly a helpful booster. In a press release touting its support of the IMMAF, the UFC quoted CEO Lorenzo Fertitta as saying, “In order to maintain the successful growth of our sport, it is important to invest in resources that will develop and cultivate it at an amateur level. Having an umbrella organization that will oversee and help build the sport on a global level will not only provide advanced and ever-improving safety standards but will also create a unified global model to help introduce the sport to new markets. It is our hope that it will also take us one step closer to witnessing the inclusion of the sport of MMA on the Olympic programme.”

Then again, as Maggie Hendricks at Cagewriter points out, getting your sport in the Olympics isn’t as simple as starting up an international federation. It’s one thing to call yourself a worldwide regulator, and quite another to be one.

For Saturday's event in Stockholm, the Swedish MMA Federation is the regulator in charge, and they’ll be handling it much like a state athletic commission would in the U.S., according to president George Sallfeldt. The federation oversaw Friday’s weigh-ins, including the handling of Dennis Siver’s initial weigh-in mishap -- the German fighter made the 145-pound limit on his second try -- and it will handle the drug testing for this event, according to Sallfeldt, who said that “probably everybody [on the UFC on FUEL TV 2 fight card] will be tested, so that’s no different from what you see in the U.S.”

At the same time, the complaint we hear from state commissions usually has to do with funding. Where will the IMMAF draw its cash, and how will it do so without being influenced by those it’s supposed to be regulating?

“The International MMA Federation is completely independent, autonomous, democratic, and non-profit,” said Wallen. “We will, of course, be happy for any donations, but we cannot promise anything in return, ever. Even if you just want to sponsor, where we take money to show someone’s logo -- we don’t do that.”

The way Ratner sees it, any international commission should derive most of its funding through a “sanction fee” from promoters. Some might not want to pay -- or be as capable as paying as the UFC is -- but it’s the only way to keep it legitimate, said Ratner.

“If this is going to be independent, you know, we would help them, but we’re going to be under them. We’re not going to be partners with them.”

How an international commission might work and whether the idea will even get off the ground in any meaningful way remains to be seen. The IMMAF is still only weeks old, after all. According to Ratner, however, the UFC needs to get out of the self-regulation business, which means it needs a reliable, independent regulator in places like Japan and Brazil, and it needs it soon.

“I just think it’s better for the sport,” said Ratner. “With my prior years with the Nevada Athletic Commission, I can certainly do it if I have to. But I also know that there’s a fine line there when you’re the promoter, so I think this is very important. If we want to go somewhere and this federation isn’t in place, we may have to still self-regulate, but hopefully this federation will be out there. It’s going to take time, though. It’s not going to be an overnight process.”