- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2016

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Fighters at a gym tucked inside an old Morgantown shopping mall grab, twist and leverage each other’s limbs and heads, seeking small advantages and aiming for submission holds.

It’s the less glamorous stuff of mixed martial arts, a sport now legal in West Virginia that’s faulted at times for its violence because of its highlight-reel knockout punches and flying kicks.

West Virginia legalized MMA just last year for amateurs, though there were some unsanctioned fights before, and lawmakers had approved MMA fights by paid professionals in 2011.

On Sunday, the lawmakers begin reviewing the sport’s new regulations. They specify safety measures like prohibiting anyone under 18 from state-sanctioned fights and requiring blood tests for HIV and hepatitis even for amateurs.

“You’ve got to train smart,” Josh Fowler said amid an hour of grappling on the big blue mat at Ground Zero Fighting Systems. The gym’s 39-year-old co-owner, he plans to have his fourth amateur MMA bout in April. “If you train smart you can do this for a long time.”

Under the new rules, amateur kicks to the head are allowed. Promoters have to post bonds and provide insurance coverage for injuries. Amateurs can turn pro after four sanctioned fights, instead of eight, if they show they can compete. A doctor is required at ring or cage matches, just like the professional sport. Brain scans would be required for contestants over 40.

“I have never, thank God, seen anybody seriously hurt,” said Leon Ramsey, chairman of the State Athletic Commission that issued the regulations and sanctioned 292 amateur bouts in the past year.

A former professional fighter and trainer, he sees well-regulated MMA’s sporting promise in a state without professional teams. Smaller venues can draw crowds with affordable tickets where fighters can gain skill and experience locally and progress, he said.

The current commission has three other members: Dr. Tim Peasak, a physician; Paul Thornton, a former referee; and Tony Figaretti, a longtime boxing official.

Last year’s amendments both permitted fight cards at venues with less than 2,500 seats and legalized amateur cards.

“We’ve been banging shows out like crazy since then,” promoter Chris Smith said. He put on MMA cards in the past year around West Virginia called Ruckus in the Cage, mostly with amateurs. He said those were held before crowds ranging from about 1,000 to 2,300 people.

There were about 15 MMA cards statewide last year among 44 boxing or other fight promotions sanctioned by the State Athletic Commission, Ramsey said.

MMA’s fan popularity may have peaked a few years ago fanned by Ultimate Fighting Championship television shows, Smith said. He sees good prospects for its comeback and no shortage of fighters in West Virginia.

“I’ve been filling cards with 25 fights, no problem,” Smith said. “I could fill a card up with a whole lot more than that.”

Ramsey sees that as a reflection of homegrown character. “Your average West Virginian is tough,” he said.

The commission has also approved 166 pro boxing bouts and 690 tough man-style fights in the past year, he said.

Ramsey may have been the first native to fight in mixed martial arts, starting in 1997 in other states, posting a pro record of 6-3. For 20 years he trained other fighters. Now 55, he doesn’t do it anymore but believes martial arts is clearly positive for youths.

Amateur blood tests are to start in January, which may winnow less serious fighters, Smith said. He’s now putting together more tough man-style boxing shows where would-be fighters can sign up and compete for prizes. The new wrinkle is for kickboxing, something he said state regulators agreed to, he said.

Ground Zero has about 15 fighters, a mix of conventional boxers, kickboxers and mixed martial artists. Others train only in jiu-jitsu, which Fowler took up first 11 or 12 years ago. He has had broken toes, fingers and an ankle, but has never been knocked out or received a concussion, he said.

“There’s definitely more people participating in combat sports nowadays than there used to,” Fowler said. “The UFC is directly responsible for that increase in the last 20 years. It’s the best marketing tool you can get for about anything - minus character, fair play and sportsmanship. You’ve got to do that on your own.”

The married father of two, who has a full-time job in information technology, had his first amateur MMA bout last year. “I just wanted to prove that jiu-jitsu worked on fighters and fools,” he said.

His three wins, against a skilled fighter, a college-level wrestler and someone without particular skills, ended in chokehold submissions. “Proving jiu-jitsu works,” he said.

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