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Xplode explained: A look inside 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 second part in a three-part special report.

A fighter walking to the cage at the Xplode Fight Series event on July 11.
A fighter walking to the cage at the Xplode Fight Series event on July 11.
Raymond K. Bavaldi

Gregg Sharp was a gym owner eight years ago who caught a wave on the way up.

The fitness industry in Southern California was changing due to the influx of budget facilities like Retro Fitness and Planet Fitness. Sharp had to make a change or Escondido Sport & Fitness near San Diego would go out of business. The Long Island, N.Y., native noticed the growing popularity of the UFC and attempted to capitalize.

"I had to create a niche that made sense," Sharp said. "I really just transformed a bunch of racquetball courts into MMA areas. I put a cage inside the gym, a ring. Put in mats. It was still pretty new."

The way Sharp first got into fight promotion was way different. It was more spite than business savvy.

In the late-2000s, many of Sharp's fighters at Escondido Sport & Fitness -- or Team Xplode MMA -- competed at Gladiator Challenge, a longtime staple of the Southern California fight scene. Sharp grew tired, though, of having his athletes sell tickets only for their opponents to withdraw at the last minute, leaving them with no opponent and no pay.

"We'd sell 250 tickets and there would be no opponent there for us and there would be no refund for the fighter and I'd have 250 pissed off members of my club who paid $75 to come up and nothing happened," Sharp said. "That was an occasion, not the norm, and then it started to become a little bit more the norm."


Part 1: Viral KO video spurs investigation


So, Sharp was proactive. With a cage and other accoutrements already in his gym, he decided to throw his own MMA event as a one-off affront to Gladiator Challenge owner Tedd Williams in 2011.

"Not because I wanted to be a promoter, but I just really wanted to let Tedd know that I was pissed off," Sharp said.

The foray lost Sharp a lot of money, he said. But when he got home around 2 a.m., his phone started ringing. Messages from local coaches were coming in wondering when he'd put on his next show.

That's how Xplode Fight Series was born.

"I looked at it as a potential business," Sharp said.

XFS, unsanctioned and run on the San Pasqual Native American reservation, is now the most controversial regional MMA promotion in the country. Known for egregious mismatches, Xplode is the subject of a state investigation due to potentially unsafe practices. The California State Athletic Commission is weighing whether or not to revoke or suspend the licenses of fighters who compete at Xplode Fight Series and other unsanctioned events.

Sharp's main principle remains to make sure fights get made even when someone drops out at the 11th hour.

"Everybody who committed to fight and showed up, we figured out a way to make it happen," Sharp said of his first show. "So all of a sudden there was an option where people knew in a worst-case scenario that we would have options for them. And they would get paid."

The regularity of these last-minute replacement bouts have raised questions about the safety of Sharp's standards. Multiple fighters who have fought for Xplode Fight Series said they never had to do medicals or blood work for XFS. Sharp said that he has all of his fighters do medical exams and blood work and that his pre-fight process is similar to CSAC. Sharp also said he has a trauma doctor and ambulance on site for his events.

Casey Halstead, the head coach of 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Costa Mesa, and a former grappling coach at Reign Training Center, said he refuses to have any of his fighters compete for Xplode moving forward because of worries over fighter welfare.

"I basically told all my fighters now that if you guys go there, we're not training you anymore," Halstead said. "We're not doing it.

"As far as CT scans and all that stuff, I don't know about how important all that is. But the blood work and everything else, at the very minimum he should require people to get blood work done and he doesn't do it."

UFC fighter Mike de la Torre, who fought for Xplode twice, said he never had to do blood work. In regulated shows, blood work is done to ensure a fighter does not have any kind of transmittable diseases and medical exams show any significant injury to a fighter that would disqualify him from the contest.

"To be honest, I fought half my fights in Mexico, and I did more blood work and more medicals out there than I [did] when I fought on the reservation," he said.

Safety concerns extend far beyond blood work, though. A photo, seen here, has circulated online of a fighter being stitched up on the dirt outside the Xplode venue. Sharp said the photo is a misrepresentation of what actually happened.

"After the fight, he was waiting to be stitched by our LICENSED doctors -- not nurses that some other [sic] use, when his father's best friend, who is a very highly regarded oral surgeon, grabbed Brandon and decided to stitch him on his own without telling us," Sharp said in an e-mail. "Why he chose to do it in the dirt instead of in the ambulance I cannot tell you. It happened and that was the end of it."

***

The flat fee to host an MMA event on an Indian reservation is $4,200, according to CSAC executive officer Andy Foster. Of that total, $3,000 goes to CSAC operational costs and $600 each goes to the commission neurological fund and the boxer's pension fund.

In addition to the flat fee, promoters are responsible for paying wages and travel expenses for referees, judges, physicians and timekeepers. Foster estimates those costs to be around another $3,300 depending on where the event is held. Promoters who regulate their own shows have to pay for those officials anyway.

Promoters also must take out a $50,000 insurance policy per event under CSAC rules.

"It's just not a viable option with the dollars and cents," Sharp said of why he holds events on the reservation. "If you look at CSAC as a whole, California is the biggest market for MMA in the U.S. Why isn't there a pro show every weekend in California? It's too expensive."

Foster said CSAC is willing to be flexible with money in the best interest of fighter safety.

"On a small show for a promoter, as someone who has promoted before, I could see how $4,200 could be more than you'd want to pay," Foster said. "But it's not like we're not able to work with people.

"We're not trying to put promoters out of business or make regulatory costs unfriendly to do business. I told them this. We'd be happy to work with the promotion."

Brett Roberts, who runs CSAC-sanctioned BAMMA USA, said he has lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" promoting over the last five years and is just now figuring out how to break even. He doesn't plan on recouping what he lost for 10 years, but he stands by his choice to be regulated.

"I believe in doing things right," Roberts said. "I believe in giving fighters the opportunity to benefit their careers by holding a sanctioned fight. If you have a fighter that's willing to go the extra mile, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't I do it right?

"Unsanctioned fights is nothing more than a high school backyard brawl, except now you've taken it out of the high school and you're just having it anywhere. It's pathetic. It's hurting our sport."

Roberts usually runs shows out of casinos, which typically give events a site fee. The same goes for Gladiator Challenge, which runs events -- both sanctioned and unsanctioned -- in multiple states. Williams, who has owned Gladiator Challenger for 20 years, said sanctioning smaller shows sometimes just doesn't make sense financially.

"That would simply make that [smaller] show non-profitable," said Williams, who fought in the UFC. "If you use licensed refs and you use people that are licensed judges and people who are licensed timers, and you insure it the same way, I'm not so sure that it's done wrong in my opinion."

Gladiator Challenge has been criticized for some of the same practices as Xplode, particularly lopsided matchmaking. GC allowed a fighter named Julian Hernandez to compete twice in the same night last October. In the first fight, he was submitted by an armbar. In the second, he was submitted via punches. Both fights ended in less than 90 seconds.

Two months earlier, Hernandez fought twice on consecutive weekends for Xplode and Gladiator Challenge. He was knocked out in less than 30 seconds both times. Hernandez's record is 0-10.

Fighters with similar records can be found on every Xplode and Gladiator event. Williams said it is just a part of regional MMA. Both Sharp and Williams have said there has never been a serious injury in their respective organizations. Williams said not a single fighter has ever made an insurance claim against Gladiator Challenge.

"You're a fool as a reporter or an organization or a commission if you don't think there's going to be mismatches," Williams said. "The whole key to finding tomorrow's good talent is fishing at the lowest levels and finding them at the rawest levels. The biggest difference is knowing how to match-make, discover guys and find guys."

Williams takes pride in having had UFC fighters like Rashad Evans, Chael Sonnen, Urijah Faber and Quinton Jackson fight for his promotion early in their careers. He does not want to be associated with Xplode Fight Series and Sharp.

"They give people like us a bad name, because they're just running in a backyard somewhere and it's horrible for us, it really is," Williams said. "This is my livelihood and how I feed my family. I take pride in doing these shows right.

"The difference of giving guys fights that help grow their careers and like that yahoo does over there, giving guys fights that are just pathetic is simply just bad for the sport. There's a huge difference."

Sharp maintains, though, that he keeps a level near that of a sanctioned show. He uses referees like Cecil Peoples and Luis Cobian, who are licensed in California.

Xplode's original referee was Jason Herzog, who said he left the organization early on because he felt the matchmaking wasn't allowing him to do his job correctly.

"All I can say is that my position with them is I just want to make sure you can take care of people," Herzog said. "If there's potential for people to get seriously injured, at that point you need to look back and say, 'Am I able to do my job?' I'm not."

However, Herzog said fights at Xplode are "probably on par" with other regional shows across the country. Even sanctioned ones.

"I've seen so much of that, because this happens everywhere," Herzog said. "This happens a lot more than we think. There are fights like this happening in the Midwest. There are just a lot of those fights happening where you go, 'Why the hell was this person in here?'"

'This happens a lot more than we think. There are fights like this happening in the Midwest. There are just a lot of those fights happening where you go, 'Why the hell was this person in here?'' - Jason Herzog, referee

Not every Native American reservation show is unregulated. In California, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians invites CSAC to help regulate events held at their casino. Bellator is a frequent visitor. Michael Mazzulli, the head of the Mohegan Tribe department of regulation, was recently elected as the executive committee president of the Association of Boxing Commissions.

Haskell Alexander, the deputy gaming commissioner of Chickasaw Nation which regulates combat sports at WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, travels the country educating tribes about the importance of regulation. There are many misconceptions, he said. Alexander said if someone is injured or dies, "everyone is liable," meaning the promoter and the reservation.

"I have spoken with several tribes," Alexander said, "and they basically told me, 'Well, we allow the promoter to take care of everything. It's in their contract. He takes care of the doctors, the ambulance service. We allow him to do it.' That gives me the opportunity to basically sit down with them and let them know how the Chickasaw Nation regulates and how important it is for them to be able to regulate their own.

"This is very serious. It's a liability issue there for them."

Regarding cost, CSAC chairman John Carvelli said the commission would be willing to work with tribal governments to offset fees for promoters.

"For heaven's sake, and I mean this, if they would just invite us to do this for them, we would at some point talk to them about covering the cost," Carvelli said. "We're not a for-profit venture. We're there to keep the whole deal safe and make it better. Just help us cover our costs and we'll do that."

Carvelli said claims that CSAC is too expensive is merely an excuse.

"Promoters are going to say that," he said. "But there's absolutely no excuse for putting anybody in jeopardy. Absolutely not. There's no excuse for that. I don't care what they say about that. It's not acceptable. Somebody is going to get hurt. It's not good."

Part three of our three-part special report runs Sunday morning. The first part can be found here.