The Michigan House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would regulate mixed martial arts in the state and could affect Canadian fighters.
Michigan's State Senate needs to approve the Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Regulatory Act before it becomes law. The act would then create an advisory commission to oversee amateur MMA.
"It's about time. It's long overdue," said State Representative Harvey Santana (D-Det.), who tabled the bill. "I expect this to fly through the senate and receive the governor's signature."
If approved by the senate, the changes could deter Ontario athletes from crossing the board to fight.
Albert Mady, who owns Mady's Karate in Windsor, Ont., across from Detroit, has been involved in combat sports for 45 years. He's been taking fighters to Michigan to compete since the 1980s.
Mady said that since Ontario began regulating MMA matches in 2011, the strict regulations have meant not many events take place within the province. Ontario also lacks amateur divisions, like those that exist in boxing.
"Fewer shows, and no amateur events, push fighters across the border to Michigan," Mady said.
Mady said he has pulled fighters he trains from matches in Michigan because he felt the fight wasn't fair.
An amendment to make it a felony to have a professional MMA fighter in the ring with an amateur also passed in the house Wednesday.
A Canadian amateur MMA fighter died Saturday in Michigan.
Felix Nchikwo, 35, who fights under the name Felix Pablo Elochukwu, of Hamilton, Ont., died in hospital after an unregulated Amateur Fighting League MMA bout in Port Huron, Mich., just across the St. Clair River from Sarnia, Ont.
Nchikwo trained out of Joslin's Martial Arts in Hamilton.
The Nigerian-born fighter, who, according to U.S. authorities, was in Canada on a student visa, lasted three rounds in the ring.
The event was hosted by the Amateur Fighting Club. AFC founder Aron Anglebrandt said he "cannot wait" for the state to regulate amateur MMA.
"We welcome it because all of these small-time shows, they put on shows that don't have insurance, they don't have the proper [paramedics] and they don't have the proper number of referees," he said. "They won't be able to withstand the amount of money it's going to take to put on a show, while we're going to be able to."
Santana said Nchikwo "didn't die in vain."
"I knew, unfortunately, something like this was going to happen," Santana said. "I have been to several mixed martial arts events and saw how poorly they are run."
Trainer Peter Zahran of Combat Central in Windsor, Ont., knew Elochukwu.
"I've seen Felix before and I am friends with his coach. This was a very tragic event. We're still dealing with the situation," he said.
The St. Clair County medical examiner in Michigan said the exact cause of Nchikwo's death won't be known for at least six weeks but did say the cause it wasn't from the fight, in terms of violence.
The medical examiner said there was no evidence Nchikwo died from any traumatic injury resulting from the fight and that no significant trauma was found.
The bill that passed Wednesday also requires fighters be tested for HIV and hepatitis and pass pre-fight screening. It also makes promoters pay licensing fees and cover some medical costs for injured competitors.
"Right now, there are no pre-fight medical check-ups, no blood pressure tests," Santana said. "We don't know, quite frankly, if a week ago or two weeks ago [Nchikwo] got knocked out or suffered a concussion. What were the mitigating circumstances? What we do know is that his death will be uncertain.
"There's a whole lot of stuff in [the bill] that we never had before and that everyone will now have to abide by."
Zahran said he is "all for strict safety regulations, especially at the amateur level."
All three permitted professional combative sports in Ontario, including mixed martial arts, boxing and kickboxing, are regulated under the Athletics Control Act and Amendments. The act adopted the State of New Jersey rules for the conduct of professional mixed martial arts events in Ontario. The New Jersey rules are the most widely used in North America, according to Ontario's Ministry of Consumer Services.
"Events need to be sanctioned and regulated by a government authority, there's no question about it. Unfortunately not all coaches and event promoters think like me," Zahran said.