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Can Arizona force WSOF's Eric Regan into retirement?

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Lucas Noonan, WSOF

Tucked within the state-issued medical suspension report for last Saturday's World Series of Fighting 19 show, the Arizona Boxing & MMA Commission (ABMC) left a curious note for local fighter Eric Regan. A 31-year-old veteran of the southwestern scene, Regan suffered a dramatic and violent head kick loss to Matthew Frincu in his WSOF debut, one which left Regan slumped against the cage wall for several seconds after referee Ryan Brueggeman intervened.

It was a scary scene, and it marked Regan's eighth loss over his nine contests since 2011. Now the ABMC has seen enough. The commission subsequently placed Regan on indefinite suspension, along with issuing a rarely, if ever, seen "safety recommendation" for him to "stop competing" -- effectively placing Regan into a sort of state-mandated early retirement, regardless of the fighter's wishes.

"I haven't done it before and I haven't seen it done before," ABMC executive director Matthew Valenzuela told MMAFighting.com. "But I think we need to, as regulators, enforce some things, make some recommendations, and make him seek doctor visits and treatments.

"If a doctor clears him for certain things, I know they're trying to make him go through concussion testing. My position here when I took it on a year ago was that I'm here to improve the industry and help it out, not to make it worse. So it's something I know I'll probably take flak on, or whatever, but at least somebody will give me a call if he fights anywhere. They'll hopefully look at what the suspension is and ask about it. That way I can at least let them know."

The recommendation is, for now, only that -- a recommendation. But when paired with the indefinite suspension, which only the ABMC has the jurisdiction to lift, it creates a tricky and somewhat unprecedented situation for Regan (15-25) to navigate if he wants to fight again, particularly with Valenzuela vowing not to allow Regan to compete in Arizona again.

As concussion and head trauma awareness rises throughout sports, Regan's suspension now becomes a fascinating case study moving forward. How far is too far? Regan isn't a Koscheck or Leben-level name by any means, but even on a smaller scale, should state commissions be granted the task of, in effect, protecting fighters from themselves? Regan's case is unique, simply because the welterweight doesn't fit the classic stereotype of an athlete who needs to be forced away from the table.

Over the course of nine years and 40 professional fights, Regan has never failed a drug test nor broken a state rule. He isn't too old, he isn't severely injured, and his hard losses haven't made him particularly chinny. On the contrary, counting this past Saturday night, Regan has only been knocked out four times as a professional. His bouts regularly end in the judges' hands, and that's a fact made more impressive by his strength of schedule, which is collectively far greater than that of most journeymen on the regional scene -- each of Regan's five most recent losses have come against foes who previously cut their teeth in the UFC, Bellator, or WSOF.

At a glance, the numbers seem to indicate that Regan is, A) consistently fighting high-caliber opposition and, B) at the very least, staying vaguely competitive -- both of which cast the commission's recommendation in a strange light. After all, it's not as if he's getting steamrolled by scrubs.

But, Valenzuela argues, it's Regan's style more so than anything else that tells the whole story.

Fittingly nicknamed "The Iron Prince," Regan is notorious for possessing the type of concrete chin that would make Roy Nelson blush. Having witnessed it firsthand several times myself, the welterweight's disregard for getting struck in the face regularly leads to wild, tempestuous brawls, which makes for good local entertainment on a Friday night, but means that even during those decision losses, significant head trauma remains Regan's symbiotic dance partner.

"We have observed him fighting in competitions for a few years now," says Dr. Ken Ota, one of the four physicians on the ABMC roster. "What we decided was, as a recommendation, for him to consider putting fighting to the side because of the number of head traumas that he's had over the years.

"What we want him to do is to be evaluated by a concussion specialist, to be able to objectively evaluate him with validated tests that will examine him in his post-concussion state. Because in these concussions, there are certain changes that can occur that aren't readily apparent to the naked eye. They can be very subtle changes, and these subtle changes over time can build up into something that can be quite significant in terms of how one functions in their daily life."

"It's fun to see (him fight)," adds Valenzuela. "But not fun to witness the aftereffects, as a regulator. I think it's fun for the fans, but when you know the insight of what's going on, it's a little tough to swallow."

The ‘barroom brawler' trope is one that's been around as long as combat sports itself, though only within the past decade have we seen a rise in concern for the long-term health of such athletes. Jamie Varner, an ex-UFC lightweight who existed on the upper-tier of that fringe for a majority of his career, recently revealed on The MMA Hour that his retirement at age 30 was fueled by the revelation that he already had suffered more than 30 concussions over 11 years of competition, causing untold damages to his brain.

Varner's ability to let go is commendable, though still a rare sight in the ultra-competitive world of professional fighting. And Regan doesn't share his same concerns.

"The commission's had it out for me for years," says Regan. "They've always felt that I was -- they were scared I was going to die in the ring because I didn't really care, like I'd previously not tapped to a choke. They've felt for a long time that I might die in the ring, so they've kind of had it out for me for a long time.

"I'm upset, especially because it's basically opinion. It's not even objective opinion. It's how they feel about it, that they're going to take it away from me. Instead of going in and seeing someone who's going to make an objective medical opinion, I have to worry about how they feel about things, what they're afraid might happen. They're reacting with a bias, and they really want to take it away before I even have a chance to show them I have the abilities. That's just the way it's always been."

It's the subjectiveness of the commission's ruling that irks Regan the most. The state is trying to take this away from him, he says, not because of some worrisome knockout streak or some blotchy CT scan, but because of the ABMC's own self-imposed speculation and worries. "I'm getting A's in college right now, so I'm doing fine in school," Regan explains. "My memory is fine. Obviously that should be considered with anybody involved in fighting, but I'm good. I don't really have any problems.

"They've always had a bias against me. I don't know. They feel I have a lack of self-preservation. That's just the way it's always been."

A part-time drywall worker who attends Phoenix College, Regan celebrates his thirty-second birthday on Friday and he vows that he's going to fight again before the year is over. If he does, it likely won't be in Arizona, Valenzuela says, and it certainly won't be without a litany of medical tests conducted to ensure that Regan is free from severe early-onset concussion damage, regardless of whether Regan likes it or not.

Irrespective of how the situation plays out, Valenzuela's decision opens a broader debate about the responsibilities of state commissions and the dominion they have over fighters' careers; namely, whether commissions can (or should) be able to play a parental role in deciding when too much damage is enough. Obviously the likelihood of the ABMC or other similar commissions ordering an established name like Josh Koscheck or Diego Sanchez to retire is slim. But should they be able to do the same for low-level fighters, individuals who will never make it much farther than their own regional scene and are only causing themselves mental troubles 10 or 15 years down the line?

It's a tough question without an obvious answer, though Valenzuela hopes his ruling will serve as a tipping point for other commissioners to start thinking about things in the same way. In his eyes, the state's nudge to retirement may not ultimately be popular with everyone, but when no one else is there to tell fighters no, "sometimes you've just got to pull the plug on some of these guys and make them think."

"It's on a case by case basis. There's fighters fighting who shouldn't be fighting, and we've got to stop it," Valenzuela says. "As a matter of fact, there's a lot of guys from Mexico coming over here for boxing. They come over here, they get a Top Rank $3,000 paycheck, now they think they're $3,000 worth of fighting. And they're not. They're just an opponent to get beat. I'm constantly telling guys, ‘No, you're not going to fight. Look at your record. You're fighting guys who are 8-0, 10-0, 11-0, and you're getting knocked out. So no, you've got to fight somebody your caliber. You're not a top quality caliber fighter.' I just had one yesterday. So I'm not just doing it to one guy. I'm doing it to a lot of guys.

"You don't get a lot of nods for doing the right thing, so there's going to be a lot of controversy. Hopefully not. But again, it's my job to protect these guys from themselves. The state doesn't need that record of guys being carried out on stretchers or possibly dying in the cage or the ring. I'm trying to eliminate any possibilities of that."