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The legacy and controversies surrounding Keith Kizer's reign in Nevada

Keith Kizer's nearly eight-year reign as Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission saw many changes in MMA, as well as controversies, in doing a job filled with having to make decisions on hot-button issues.

Ethan Miller

Keith Kizer, the Executive Director of the Nevada Athletic Commission for nearly eight years, had been a fixture as one of the most powerful figures in MMA and boxing since Las Vegas hosted many of the biggest fights in the world.

Kizer, who resigned from the position recently, had been the center of numerous controversies in both sports, often over judging and drug testing. But he explained his decision, which seemingly came out of nowhere, as him wanting to return to his original job of being an attorney. With the new year, and no big fights in the state until UFC 170 in late February, he said the timing was right to make the move.

"I haven't been working as an attorney for eight years," said Kizer. "When I was asked to take over the job when Marc (Ratner) left, I almost didn't do it. I'm glad I did. I don't have any regrets. But it's cool to be an attorney, to go back and do administrative law. I'm really excited to go back to the Attorney General's Office."

Kizer, 47, replaced Marc Ratner as Executive Director of the commission in May 2006, when Ratner took a job as the Vice President of Regulatory Affairs with the UFC. The major difference is that Kizer worked with Ratner and the commission as a state attorney since Nov. 1997 and was heavily involved by 1998. But after Jan. 27, his last day on the job, he will no longer have any affiliation with the commission, boxing or MMA, aside from attending some shows as a fan.

"I'll still go to fights, but I don't know that anyone should be in this type of job any longer than this," he said. "It was the perfect time... Marc had me in the wings, but there's nobody in the wings now."

Ratner noted the difficulty they may have in finding a permanent successor. With the amount of work regulating so many big fights, he thinks it would need to be a commissioner with experience from another state and strong working knowledge of both sports. He then wonders if the money will be attractive enough for the workload, and whether they'll be able to afford a moving allocation.

Ratner wasn't as surprised as many in the media were in the MMA and boxing worlds.

He noted that Kizer had applied for a job in recent years as an attorney for Henderson County, and was a finalist for the job. Kizer himself said the one thing he didn't want was to be commissioner for life, and still be in the job when he was 60. Ratner noted the pay was not commensurate for the workload and responsibility, and that after government budget cuts, Kizer had to take one furlough day off without pay per month. He also hadn't had a raise since he started.

"I'm not going to look over his or her shoulder," Kizer said of his eventual replacement. "I'm done. I'll get back to being a fan of the sport. It's someone else's turn. When Marc left, he never came and tried to tell me how to do my job, so I'd show the same respect for whoever replaces me."

There had been significant heat on Kizer stemming from the appointment of C.J. Ross as a judge for the Sept. 14 fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Canelo Alvarez. Even in the week before the fight, the assignment was questioned in the media. Ross judged the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley fight on June 9, 2012 for Bradley by a 115-113 score, as did Duane Ford, in a split decision that was roundly criticized.

Less than ten percent of the media attending had the fight for Bradley. Ross then judged Mayweather vs. Alvarez as a draw in a fight where Mayweather Jr. appeared to be a completely different level fighter than Alvarez.
Ross stepped down as a judge shortly after the Mayweather-Alvarez fight.

"That's why you have three judges," Kizer said. "The other two had the fight for the correct winner, Mayweather. After Pacquiao-Bradley, Marc came to me and said, 'Don't forget, I had (Oscar) De La Hoya vs. (Felix) Trinidad', and there was much more heat for that one."

Kizer had been criticized in recent years for denying problems with judging, such as after Bradley vs. Pacquiao, a decision that caused an uproar in boxing, as well as backing referees that made controversial calls or arguable late stoppages in MMA fights.

"Some people said `Kizer's not going to take action,' like C.J. Ross. Well, you sit her down," he said. "We had a boxing ref and we sat him down for a while. We brought him back and he's been a great ref ever since. But what you see is if fans disagree with a decision, they say the Nevada official should never work again. You see it on message boards. It's a weird attitude to have."

Two months later, came the George St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks UFC welterweight title fight. That fight more highlighted the limitations of the current MMA scoring system than was an example of bad judging. Hendricks did significantly more damage overall, and visually, since St-Pierre looked like he had just been in a horrible car wreck. Hendricks looked like he finished a morning jog when it was over. The decision looked terrible to those who either didn't see the fight or understand the nature of how fights were scored. Kizer had long been a proponent of the 10-point must scoring system.

But it was a virtual consensus of all three judges and most reporters that rounds two through five were split, Hendricks taking two and four, St-Pierre three and five. The fight came down to the judging of the first round, a close round that could have been scored either way. But Dana White, who that night said he thought Hendricks won four of the five rounds, was furious at the post-fight press conference.

"The governor needs to step in and fix the incompetence that is happening in the state of Nevada," White said. "That used to be the best commission in the world. It's absolutely, 100-percent incompetence, and it needs to stop."

Many will look at the timing of White's rant, just two months earlier, as well as a guaranteed controversy upcoming regarding Vitor Belfort, and think one or the other caused Kizer's decision. But Kizer said it was something he had looked at doing, and it had nothing to do with pressure.

Kizer did say he was disappointed in the media in general, because he didn't feel the judging of St-Pierre vs. Hendricks was controversial, as it was a close fight. In particular, he noted that some, but not all, media members who had scored the fight for St-Pierre did not mention it in their stories when talking about White's reaction.

If the Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort UFC middleweight title fight is scheduled for Las Vegas, as is planned, for either the Memorial Day weekend or the July 5 show, the subject of Belfort looking for a testosterone use exemption in a state where he failed a test in 2006 for testosterone is a guaranteed hot button issue. Belfort, who was not under contract to UFC at the time, also fought overseas during his suspension.

Making it more of a hot button issue is Kizer having said in the past that he didn't believe someone with a failed steroid test would be able to get such an exemption in Nevada. Ultimately that decision will be voted on by the five commissioners. As Executive Director, Kizer carried considerable influence, but would not have an actual vote.


Under Kizer's reign, both boxing and MMA flourished as far as the big show live event business, but he didn't want to take credit for that, noting it was the promotions involved. The biggest boxing gate ever was the recent Mayweather vs. Alvarez show and five of the 10 biggest in state history were under his reign, as were nine of the ten biggest MMA gates. Two of the four biggest UFC gates in history took place over the past two months with UFC 167 and UFC 168.

"We've also had a resurgence in kickboxing over the last year," he also noted. "I'm really proud of that as well. We might have as many kickboxing shows as MMA shows this year. It's really on the rise. Lion promotions, the group that had Cris Cyborg fight, they're running in February and will do five or six shows this year. Some other groups are doing some shows. It's never going to reach boxing or MMA levels and I think they know that, but I remember when we had one or two kickboxing shows a year."

But when asked about what he's most proud of, he cites the health and safety record during his tenure and improvements in drug testing.

"There were no ring deaths," he noted about the period. "It's health and safety first. There were very few serious injuries, and most of those that looked serious (noting Anderson Silva's ghastly looking broken leg) ended up resolved better than expected according to the medical doctors.

"We established a partnership with a drug testing company that does most of the sample collections. It was more professionally done, and it freed up the state inspectors to watch hand wraps, corner work -- a win-win situation for everyone. We established out of competition testing. We established a partnership with the WADA lab in Salt Lake City.

"I wish I had done that earlier," Kizer continued. "It's worked out so well. We didn't know it would work out as well as it did. Before, we didn't have the budget. It's been great to have this and at least it's working out well now. We went from testing two to four guys, to testing all the winners and all the main event guys, to testing everyone. The drug test failures seem to be more diuretics. Steroids seem to be down. I wish it was zero, but I think it's going down. The tests are more numerous and intense and the failures are going down. I think there's a correlation."

He also noted working with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in long-term brain study, which gave fighters access to free MRI's and MRA's.

"This hopefully not only makes the fight game safer, but makes other sports safer because of more research. It will also help outside of sports for people who suffer head injuries, like falling off ladders," Kizer said.

He noted that he established the ability to allow officials to look at instant replays of finishes before making decisions. Judges also now have television monitors placed in front of them at MMA events, although he would not take credit for that, noting it was the UFC that came up with that idea.

"I think he was pretty successful if you look at some of the issues he addressed as Executive Director," said Francisco Aguilar, the chairman of the commission. "There were great issues. Drug testing, revenue at the gate, instant replay, a lot of great accomplishments. He worked in concert well with the commissioners. A lot of times Keith was the one implementing the ideas."

Aguilar noted the enhanced drug testing used in the recent Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Bradley boxing match and the Travis Browne vs. Josh Barnett MMA fight that Kizer put together, and said he thinks such enhanced testing will end up being the norm for big fights.

"When you're in a position like Keith, you're always going to have public pressure," Aguilar said. "Not everyone will agree with what decisions you make. Not everyone will be happy. But you've got to push on. Especially when you're dealing with passionate sports enthusiasts, and boxing and MMA have very passionate fans."

Among the key jobs of the Executive Director is assigning officials, although the commission itself approves those choices, as well as maintaining a pool of officials and making sure they are well trained, handling the drug testing, handling fight night and weigh-ins, making sure the matchmaking isn't so one-sided, and making sure fighter safety isn't put in jeopardy.

From a public perspective, it appeared Kizer was involved in a personal feud with popular referee John McCarthy, which Kizer denied. McCarthy started officiating MMA in 1994 and, both in and out of the cage, was an integral part of UFC in its formative years.

In 2007, McCarthy took a job with the Canadian-based Fight Network as an announcer and analyst. Kizer felt it was a conflict of interest to both work in media and be a state licensed official. The job didn't work out. McCarthy applied to be a referee in Nevada in 2009, but was never brought back. The criticism of Kizer was using far less experienced referees for big fights when McCarthy was available. McCarthy had also been outspoken regarding Kizer in recent years, including after his resignation.

"Oh my, what a great day," McCarthy wrote when the news broke.

He criticized Kizer for not knowing combat sports and said he wouldn't even be interested in refereeing as long as Kizer was heading the commission.

"I don't know what his problem is," said Kizer. "When he resigned (in 2007), I wrote him a really nice letter. We haven't added any referees since he came back. I'm not sure why he thinks there's some sort of an issue. He's written bad stuff, said bad stuff. I'm not sure why I get criticized. We haven't added any new referees. I was never asked to get new referees. He applied, as did 200 other people. If the commission wants to add people, they can. They haven't added anyone added from outside Nevada. Some Nevada people have worked their way up from smaller cards. I never did anything to stop him from getting here. Now I hear he took a shot at Nick Lembo (of the New Jersey commission). Nick's got his own people and I'm not sure he's added anyone new. What's the difference? I don't get that. I don't get the criticism for him and from other people. Every conversation I've had with John as been a positive conversation, and now he's taking shots at Nick.

"He knew he couldn't be a referee and an announcer. He came to me and asked if I thought there was a conflict. He stopped refereeing everywhere. `I know you can't do both,' he said to me, and he was right. I wrote him a very nice letter thanking him for his service. The job didn't work out for him. He reapplied here. He did so just to get people off his back asking if he had applied, but there wasn't an opening. I think the commission will add some officials this year, and he's in the pile with everyone else."

During his tenure, Kizer also spearheaded the complete deregulation of pro wrestling in Nevada. While a fan growing up, Kizer noted that it is not a combat sport.

He also oversaw The Ultimate Fighter reality show, since every American season was taped at the UFC's Gym in Las Vegas.

"I was very happy for them," Kizer said. "When they first started, Marc was still around. We met with Lorenzo (Fertitta) and Kirk (Hendrick) and they told us about the plan. It seemed like quite a risk. The Contender didn't work out really well, but Ultimate Fighter worked out well for them. I'm glad for them. It was good to be a part of. I was a part of every season. The backlash against the show, fans saying negative things like, 'He's a TUF fighter,' or calling fans 'TUF noobs,' there's a lot of silliness there."

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