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Viral KO video spurs state investigation into unsanctioned MMA events in California

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For two months, MMA Fighting has conducted dozens of interviews with fighters, managers, promoters, coaches and others connected to unsanctioned mixed martial arts shows in California, particularly Xplode Fight Series. Below is the first piece in a three-part special report.

The Xplode Fight Series event on July 11.
The Xplode Fight Series event on July 11.
Raymond K. Bavaldi

The viral video of a violent knockout has spurred the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) to launch an investigation into unsanctioned events like the controversial Xplode Fight Series, MMA Fighting has learned.

CSAC is considering sanctions against fighters who compete in these unregulated, Native American reservation shows, and is also investigating whether or not some promoters are committing criminal acts, according to chairman John Carvelli.

"We have a lot of authority over our licensees and if we feel like they're engaging in unsafe activities, we will look at that license very closely," Carvelli told MMA Fighting.

Carvelli said CSAC would consider suspending -- or even revoking -- the licenses of athletes who fight for promotions like Xplode Fight Series and Gladiator Challenge on a "case-by-case basis."

Promoters can skirt state regulation by holding shows on Native American reservations, which are out of CSAC's jurisdiction if the state commission is not specifically invited to sanction the show. XFS, in particular, has become known for egregious mismatches, including a January women's bout featuring a vicious KO of a seemingly untrained competitor.

Ilima MacFarlane brutally knocked Katie Castro out cold in just 10 seconds and the video went viral, appearing on ESPN and garnering nearly one million views on the XFS YouTube page -- not just because of the visceral nature of the finish, but because Castro looked ill-prepared for a fight in her attire and skill level.

Websites have dubbed Castro a "soccer mom" because of her appearance, but Xplode owner Gregg Sharp is adamant she is not that and he believes the "soccer mom" moniker is what has caused all the fuss. Sharp told MMA Fighting that he is considering legal action against BJPenn.com, the website that originally used that terminology, as well as whoever tipped BJPenn.com off to the video.

"We're looked at under a microscope," Sharp said. "If my promotion was going on in Idaho, no one would care. It's definitely true. The only reason this video made it to the surface is because somebody had a hard-on for me. That's it."

MacFarlane was making her pro debut in the Jan. 17 fight and Castro came in 0-3, so the matchup didn't look bad on paper. However, all of Castro's losses have come by TKO in under 30 seconds, according to Sherdog's Fight Finder. Sharp said Castro was a last-minute fill-in.

"The quality of the fight turned out to be poor and unfortunately we're in the position we're in now," Sharp said. "If that fight ended in a rear-naked choke in 42 seconds, this wouldn't be the same case.

"Katie's not a great fighter, but she's a street fighter. She's far from a soccer mom. The reason why this has gone viral is because of that word. If they put 'Street fighter loses to MMA fighter,' this thing gets 12 hits on YouTube."

Xplode Fight Series runs its events almost exclusively on the San Pasqual Indian Reservation in Valley Center, Calif., about 45 minutes north of San Diego. XFS doesn't run out of an arena or a casino, but the backyard of an Indian family under a metal overhang.

The tribe as a whole does not support Xplode Fight Series in any way, according to San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians chairman Allen Lawson.

"They have a right to do that on their land," Lawson said. "But it is not sponsored by the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians. And it is not condoned by the tribe, either. It's an individual family that's doing that -- not us. It's on the reservation, but it's not sponsored by us. We have nothing to do with it."

'We've come a long way from barnyard fights and all these crazy backyard fights. Our sport is so much better than that. We are athletes and I think we should hold ourselves to another standard.' - Jessica Penne

Jessica Penne, a UFC women's strawweight top contender, attended the event in January to support a friend competing. She said she was "shocked" at what she saw.

"We've come a long way from barnyard fights and all these crazy backyard fights," Penne said. "Our sport is so much better than that. We are athletes and I think we should hold ourselves to another standard. By supporting that kind of show, I think it holds us back. We deserve to fight in better organizations than that, in better venues than that, get paid better than that. People that continue to fight in these organizations, it's just devaluing us."

The MacFarlane-Castro fight was hardly an aberration. XFS has become infamous for pitting trained athletes against foes that are winless and seemingly unprepared. The latter are typically announced as coming from "independent" or "freelance" gyms. Sharp has even embraced the bad press, putting the nickname "Tomato Can MMA" on the cage. "Tomato can" is an idiom for a fighter deemed an easy opponent or guaranteed win. Sharp said he plans on "turning a negative into a positive" by using it as a brand and selling T-shirts with the phrase.

Xplode, which holds pro and amateur fights on the same cards, regularly features competitors with records like 0-20, 0-15 and 1-16. Most lose by knockout or submission within one or two minutes of the first round. Some of the fight videos, which get posted on the promotion's YouTube page, show clear mismatches that could be deemed dangerous.

Sharp declined to make Castro available for an interview for this story.

"The problem is that Katie Castro is not someone, in my opinion, that can handle these types of things well," Sharp said. "She's not. Is she an Ivy League grad? Of course not. Is she a younger person that's getting through life? Absolutely."

Sharp said he'll no longer allow Castro to fight for XFS.

"Whether Katie got knocked out viciously or not, Katie is done after that fight," Sharp said. "She's just not getting better. She's not taking it serious. And eventually, yes, something could really seriously happen to her short of the knockout that happened."

MacFarlane has since signed with Bellator MMA. Her coach at San Diego Combat Academy's Team Hurricane Awesome, Manolo Hernandez, refused to allow MacFarlane to speak with MMA Fighting after repeated attempts, but Bellator made her available for comment.

In the interview, MacFarlane said she faced seemingly untrained opponents before as an amateur with Xplode, but did not pre-judge them, because she feels like that would have been a dangerous mistake.

"These girls look really tough," MacFarlane said. "Yeah, while they might not have technical training, they're still going to go out there and try to kill me. There are still fighters out there who have that same skill set. They might not be super technical, but they're scrappy and they're tough and they're strong. I didn't look at Katie like that. I looked at it like, 'This could end up going either way.' That's just how MMA is anyway. It doesn't matter who you're standing across from. MMA is a crazy sport where you can get hit with one clean hit. They can throw a haymaker and you can be knocked out."

MacFarlane, 25, said her lone regret about the entire saga is that the video on the XFS YouTube page made her look "like an asshole," because it showed her smiling right after the KO. MacFarlane said in reality that she went back to her corner after the blow and was "visibly upset" until referee Luis Cobian came over.

"He's like, 'It's not your fault. She signed up for this. She has done this before,'" MacFarlane said. "There might be people who call themselves fighters who, yeah, they don't train, but they think that they can fight. Or they think they can step in the ring with a couple street fights under their belt or something. He's like, 'Don't feel bad. She knew what she was doing and she's done this before.'"

Xplode uses Cobian and Cecil Peoples, two CSAC-licensed referees, as officials. CSAC frowns upon its referees working unregulated events.

Cobian did not return a message for comment. Peoples said XFS is comparable to other events its size.

"It's not any less safe," Peoples said. "[Sharp] has doctors there, there's an ambulance there. I don't think there have been any serious injuries that I know of. I've never seen anyone taken away in the ambulance."

Asked about blatant mismatches, Peoples said there are mismatches in other shows, too, and he preferred not to comment on that specifically.

"You know what kind of shows Gregg puts, I know what kind of shows Gregg puts," Peoples said. "He's working hard to get the shows better, to make everything work right. And I'm there to make sure that nobody gets hurt out of reason.

"If it was a mismatch or something, I'm there to make sure that things don't get out of hand. That's what I do."

Many San Diego Combat Academy fighters compete for Xplode Fight Series and several have been on the receiving end of favorable matchups on paper. MacFarlane is 5-0 in Xplode between her pro and amateur fights. Her opponents' combined record is 1-9.

Hernandez said in a statement that Castro was a last-minute replacement in January and weighed significantly more than MacFarlane. He said he's grateful to Sharp for making the fight happen on short notice. Sharp said he wasn't comfortable releasing the name of MacFarlane's original opponent, because she had a "legitimate" reason for withdrawing.

"XFS is a safe and well-run promotion and we appreciate them for being able to hold events consistently for all fighters," said Hernandez, whose team is most known for producing UFC fighter Liz Carmouche. "It's not a glamorous venue by any means, but they have given fighters a chance for the last four years here in San Diego and they should be appreciated for that."

'You know what kind of shows Gregg puts, I know what kind of shows Gregg puts. He's working hard to get the shows better, to make everything work right. And I'm there to make sure that nobody gets hurt out of reason.' - Cecil Peoples

Sharp maintains that his shows don't differ much from sanctioned ones across the country.

"There are plenty of 3-22 guys out there fighting in CSAC all the time," he said. "There are plenty of 1-9 guys. There are tons of 2-12 guys in all athletic commissions. They're out there. It's the way it is. That's just regional MMA."

The California State Athletic Commission does not seem to agree. Carvelli said CSAC is currently looking into whether or not people like Sharp are committing criminal acts by trotting out apparently untrained competitors and fostering potentially unsafe practices.

"We have to investigate all those things," Carvelli said. "We don't have enough information yet to really look at ways to limit this as much as possible. The investigation is there now. We're meeting with folks on that, trying to get information on that.

"Sometimes what I'm wondering is what these fighters are being told. I think you do have to look into it and, assuming they're fully informed, they're experienced and they're choosing to fight on here, then we're more than willing to look at disciplinary action, frankly to protect them and to protect their opponents."

Part two of our three-part special report runs Saturday morning.