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Worth the risk? Fighters explain why they compete on unsanctioned shows

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 third piece in a three-part special report.

Fighters warming up outside the Xplode Fight Series venue in July.
Fighters warming up outside the Xplode Fight Series venue in July.
Raymond K. Bavaldi

Patrick Cummins faced all the usual problems MMA fighters have trying to break into a big show. Except way worse.

Cummins was a two-time NCAA Division I wrestler at Penn State and a former member of the U.S. national team. And everyone knew it. If it was hard enough for up-and-coming prospects to get pro fights, it was nearly impossible for Cummins in Southern California two years ago with his impressive background.

Then, Gregg Sharp entered the picture. Sharp told Cummins and his manager, Ryan Parsons, that he could guarantee a fight for Cummins on his Xplode Fight Series show. Not really knowing what XFS was at the time, Cummins accepted. He didn't even want to get paid -- he took the fight for free.

"I was in a place where I needed a fight," Cummins said. "I was grateful for the fight, but it was a f*cking weird experience."

Cummins said he knew things were a little different at Xplode when he arrived and found out he'd be fighting outdoors, under what he described as a "metal overhang." Cummins said he and Parsons went to give Sharp his blood work documents and Sharp waved them off, saying he trusted them.

Part 1: Viral KO video spurs investigation
Part 2: Find out how Xplode Fight Series came to be

According to Cummins, Sharp also told Cummins to "go easy" on his opponent. Cummins said the XFS cutman told him the exact same thing. Then, he saw his opponent. Ricky Pulu, who currently holds an 0-6 professional record, certainly didn't look the part of a trained MMA fighter.

"I don't want to talk any crap on the guy, because obviously the guy came in and gave me a fight, because obviously I didn't have one," Cummins said. "But he just seemed like he didn't belong. He was just wearing board shorts like you would wear to go swimming. I really don't think he had any formal training."

The whole thing was over in just 66 seconds. Cummins took Pulu down. Pulu tried for a misguided guillotine while Cummins was in side control. When Cummins broke out of Pulu's grip, Pulu seemed to visibly give up.

Cummins, now a top-15 level UFC light heavyweight, said it was the worst fight experience of his career.

"By far the worst," he said. "I've fought in a bar. I've fought in what you would consider a small show, but it was still professional. That was definitely a different level."

Xplode Fight Series and other unsanctioned shows in California are under investigation by the state for egregious matchmaking and potentially unsafe conditions for fighters, California State Athletic Commission chairman John Carvelli told MMA Fighting. CSAC is considering revoking or suspending the licenses of fighters who compete at unsanctioned events on a case-by-case basis.

Because these cards are held on Native American reservations, they are not required to be sanctioned by the state. CSAC can only regulate reservation shows if they are explicitly invited by the tribe.

Xplode's reputation for matchmaking is well-known -- Sharp has even adopted the nickname of "Tomato Can MMA," which is branded on the XFS cage. But fighters still willingly compete there and other unsanctioned events like Gladiator Challenge.

Why? There are a numbers of reasons: it's difficult to get pro fights; big promotions look at records rather than competition level; and having medicals and blood work done are expensive.

Southern California is a hotbed for MMA with a glut of gyms stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles and out to Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the Inland Empire. But the amount of MMA promotions has dwindled over time and everyone is jockeying for the best possible match-ups for their fighters. That leaves athletes like Cummins and Mike de la Torre desperate.

"When I first started fighting, it was real difficult for me to get a fight," said de la Torre, who fought twice for Xplode and is now in the UFC. "[Xplode] was the only show at the time.

"Those are the only types you can get right now, especially when you don't have a record and you're just trying to build something out of nothing."

It's a common occurrence for a fighter to get booked against an opponent and then have that opponent drop out, sometimes at the 11th hour. With training camps not being cheap, especially for up-and-coming athletes, not having a payoff at the end can be devastating. That's one of the reasons Sharp has made it his main principle to make sure fights get filled, even in the case of a last-minute withdrawal.

"Fights are there, but guys over here in this West Coast area are very picky," said UFC fighter Joe Merritt, who has fought for Xplode and Gladiator Challenge. "And they're spoiled. They're not hungry. I'm not just talking about the West Coast. But this is the mecca of fighting. Guys get treated like royalty over here. They're spoiled."

'By far the worst. I've fought in a bar. I've fought in what you would consider a small show, but it was still professional. That was definitely a different level.' - Patrick Cummins on Xplode

Ilima MacFarlane was one of the principles in a viral video earlier this summer. Back in January, she knocked out Katie Castro in 10 seconds in vicious fashion. Castro was labeled a "soccer mom" by blogs (untrue, Sharp said) due to her appearing ill-prepared to fight. Coming into the bout, Castro was 0-2 and knocked out within 30 seconds both times.

MacFarlane said it's difficult for fighters in Southern California, especially women, to find viable fights. She believes promotions like Xplode fulfill the purpose of getting athletes in-cage reps.

"I do think that especially as an amateur that cage time is super crucial," MacFarlane said. "That's what I appreciate about Xplode...I'm terrified whenever I get in that cage. It doesn't matter who's standing across from me. Just feeling those feelings and getting through the fight is super critical if you're trying to make MMA a career for yourself."

So when fighters with dreams of making it big are told they are guaranteed to have a fight, many of them jump on it. And if it's against someone who has an 0-20 or 1-16 record, they aren't going to complain -- especially since major MMA promotions value an undefeated record over high level of competition when they're signing new athletes.

"I don't choose who goes to the Bellator shows," Sharp said. "I don't choose who goes to the UFC shows. They can bring up a guy that's 5-5. They don't. They can bring up a guy that's 12-0 that's never fought anybody. That's not my choice."

Recently, MacFarlane, who was making her pro debut on the January card, signed a contract with Bellator.

In an e-mail interview before MacFarlane signed, Bellator MMA president Scott Coker said he was "extremely disturbed" by the video. But he does not blame the athlete for unfair mismatches. He blames the promotion.

"I know that we scout talent from all over the world, and every once in a while you find a great fighter who is fighting in one of these unsanctioned organizations," Coker said. "At the end of the day this is a promoter issue, and you can't fault the fighter for attempting to make a living."

Coker also said he doesn't believe unregulated fights should count toward a fighter's record. MacFarlane is 5-0 in Xplode between amateur and pro. Her opponents have a combined record of 1-9.

MacFarlane trains at San Diego Combat Academy, one of the gyms that seem to get favorable matchmaking from Sharp. Christine Stanley of San Diego Combat Academy had two fights in Xplode and won by TKO twice. Her opponents had a combined record of 0-6. Both are listed as coming from "independent" or "freelance" gyms. Stanley has since been signed by Invicta FC. Angel Luis Cruz, a male fighter out of SDCA, has a 4-0 record in Xplode against opponents with a combined record of 0-31. SDCA's Herman Ricks is 3-0 in Xplode against opponents with a combined record of 0-23.

Team Xplode, which Sharp said he is no longer affiliated with, also has fighters who have been fed a diet of "tomato cans." Dashon Johnson was 9-0 with Xplode against opponents with a combined record of 16-66. Twelve of those 16 wins came from one man, Brady Harrison, who is 12-12. Johnson is 0-2 during his stint with the UFC. Derek Anderson, now with Bellator, went 8-0 in Xplode with one no contest. His opponents' combined record is 24-51. Clayton MacFarlane of Team Xplode is 4-0 in XFS against opponents with a combined record of 4-16.

Sharp said that a lot of the bigger mismatches have come when fighters pull out at the last minute. MacFarlane said she isn't aware of any favorable treatment.

De la Torre trained at San Diego Combat Academy before moving to The MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz. He said he specifically asked for tougher competition from Xplode. He went 1-1 in the organization.

"Their matchmaking skills are more favored to the guys they want to build up or their hometown guys," de la Torre said. "They have a lot of sketchy fights that aren't supposed to happen."

Some of those "sketchy fights" are against known gang members with criminal histories, sources said.

"Most fighters have pasts," Sharp said in an e-mail. "I am not here to judge what their life goals are. I believe that Muhammad Ali was a member of the [Nation of Islam], which at the time was considered a subversive entity detrimental to the safety of the [United States]. He didn't turn out too bad did he? I am here to give fighters the opportunity to compete. Let's be honest, there are a lot of fighters in all promotions that have sketchy pasts and current lives that are questionable."

World Series of Fighting (WSOF) executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz said he now refuses to sign any fighters from unsanctioned events, regardless of how good their record might look.

"I will not sign them at World Series of Fighting, because I know they broke the rules," Abdel-Aziz said. "If you go out there and fight a tomato can and you fought with no medicals and no MRI...I think all fighters need to follow the rules and if he's willing to go out there and break the rules, why should I give him an opportunity?"

Ricardo Feliciano, coach at Dan Henderson's Team Quest, said that he doesn't love Xplode Fight Series, but acknowledges that it's very hard for his athletes to find fights. He said Xplode's business model is based on ticket sales. Sharp gives fighters and gyms tickets to sell and they split the proceeds. Many times, that is how a fighter is paid.

"If you sell your tickets, they put you into a fight," Feliciano said. "If you say, 'Oh, I'll sell 100 tickets,' they'll find somebody for you to fight no matter who. That's what I don't like about it."

Sharp does not deny the ticket-selling model. It's actually how most regional MMA promotions run; Coker did the same thing when he was with Strikeforce, and continues to do it now with Bellator preliminary bouts. Sharp said he always refunds ticket money if he's not able to find an opponent for a fighter, which not every promoter does.

"We work with what we have," Sharp said. "So if the best that I have to bring in to fill a fight or make a fight happen last minute is a guy that's 2-5, 1-6 -- whatever the record is -- then that's what I have to do, in my opinion."

'Their matchmaking skills are more favored to the guys they want to build up or their hometown guys. They have a lot of sketchy fights that aren't supposed to happen.' - Mike de la Torre

Not every fighter is just trying to pump up his or her record. Some of them just can't afford the cost of physicals and blood work, which can run fighters up to $790, according to former UFC and Xplode fighter Sean Loeffler. And that isn't taking into account a day of work missed to go and get those things done.

Loeffler said most events that aren't the UFC pay fighters somewhere between $500 and $2,500. So an almost $800 bill plus driving time to a specific clinic set by CSAC is not necessarily cost effective.

"[A fighter is] sitting there at $950 in expenses before he makes his $1500 or $1200 to fight," Loeffler said. "That's assuming he doesn't have to pay a manager or a coach or a gym fee. Or for a new mouthpiece or a cup or something like that. These shows pay f*cking dog sh*t, dude."

Merritt said unsanctioned shows are some of the inherent risks fighters have to be willing to take in order to advance their careers. He was willing to forego things like blood work, which is done to make sure athletes don't have any transmittable diseases, in an attempt to advance his career in a difficult environment.

"At the end of the day, you put yourself at risk," he said. "You put yourself at risk when you're driving down the street. You put yourself at risk when you go to your job every day. We're all at risk. And it sucks. Somebody can go out there with AIDS and not know he has AIDS and get punched and blood can go in your mouth. Or he can have a cut and you can have a cut and you get AIDS. It's that simple. Sh*t happens."

Making it scarier for fighters is that if they are not getting blood work done themselves, then they assume their opponent isn't either.

Sharp denies that his promotion does not require medicals and blood work for fighters. He said that Xplode has similar standards to CSAC events.

Fighters have their reasons for continuing to compete in unsanctioned shows, some of them legitimate. But Brian Stann, the former UFC fighter and current FOX analyst, said it's on the coaches to make sure their athletes make the right decisions. 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Costa Mesa  coach Casey Halstead has told his fighters they're not allowed to compete at Xplode anymore or he won't train them. Feliciano is keeping his top female prospect, Ashley Yoder, in sanctioned BAMMA events, even if they don't run nearly as often.

"The way to fix that is no credible martial arts gym or trainer, if they have any ounce of integrity, should sign up any of their fighters to fight there," Stann said. "I cannot imagine [coaches are] making much money. If they think that big promoters in bigger shows are watching and value records from there, the only way they're getting in is on short notice when they really need somebody. You're faking yourself into thinking you're better than you are."

In Stann's opinion, the entire thing is "criminal."

"What takes place there is criminal and I think it needs to be exposed," he continued. "People should absolutely avoid it. And if I was looking at the promoter in his face, I'd tell him right in his eyes the same thing."

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