Friday, April 24, 2009

Amputee wrestler's participation in martial arts event causing controversy

From the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama:

Fighting in his first mixed martial arts event is a dream come true for Kyle Maynard (pictured). But for MMA and the state of Alabama, it’s a potential nightmare.

Maynard, a congenital amputee who was born with no elbows or knees, is scheduled to make his amateur MMA debut Saturday night at an event at the Auburn Covered Arena.

The fight is shrouded in controversy, with critics claiming Maynard’s entry demonstrates a serious need for an athletics regulatory body in Alabama and that
it also exposes the dark side of MMA, where greedy promoters cut corners and care little about potentially serious injuries to fighters.

"This could do a lot of damage to the sport and hurt a lot of people," said J.J. Cornell, whose Casca-Grossa apparel company has sponsored numerous fighters, including Maynard as a grappler and MMA light heavyweight champ Forrest Griffin. "I hate it for Kyle, because I respect the hell out of him and what he’s accomplished, but this (fight) looks like a scheme to sell tickets. There are a lot of people who are (ticked off) about this going down."

The controversy surrounding the fight has reached such a level that the event’s organizer, Maynard’s promoter David Oblas, is refusing to reveal the name of Maynard’s opponent out of fear that the fighter will be pressured into backing out. All Oblas would reveal is that the opponent is from Wisconsin and has competed in two prior MMA fights.

The debate over Maynard largely centers around one issue: whether he is a legitimate contender or the too-trusting victim of a rogue promoter.

Many in the MMA community – from fans to fighters to officials in the sport
– believe Maynard’s disability, which has left him with arms that end at the elbow and legs that end well above the knee, limit his ability to protect his head from direct blows. MMA fighters kick and punch – both while standing and when on the ground – and use a variety of martial arts and grappling techniques to incapacitate an opponent or force submission.

Critics of the fight see no way that Maynard doesn’t end up severely beaten and possibly seriously injured, which would result in tons of negative publicity for a sport that has taken great strides in recent years to shed its barbaric image.

However, Maynard, who is an accomplished wrestler, believes he has earned a shot to prove himself and said he hasn’t been pressured into the fight by Oblas or anyone else.

"There have been a ton of sinister things said about me and about this fight, and I don’t understand that," Maynard said. "I don’t know why I wouldn’t be given a shot to show what I can do. I’ve trained with some of the best in the sport for this. I can protect myself – it’s hard to explain how, but if people come and watch, they’ll see. This has gotten blown way up and I really don’t think there would be so much talk if people just came and watched me fight."

Oblas has seen him fight. He has watched Maynard train for the past two years. He said he has spoken with several legitimate fighters who have sparred with Maynard and they all say Maynard can hold his own.

"Not only do I believe Kyle won’t be injured, I believe he’ll win," Oblas said. "This guy is amazing. I know it’s tough for people to understand but just watch him. I can sleep just fine at night, because I know I’m doing right by Kyle."

To be fair, Maynard has a history of overcoming long odds and proving his detractor’s wrong.

As a high school student, Maynard – against numerous objections – coerced his way onto the school’s wrestling team. He turned in a 35-16 record and became a national inspiration. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, has released an autobiography and tours the country as a motivational speaker.

After his high school wrestling days ended in 2004, Maynard moved onto grappling tournaments in Atlanta. It was at those professional events that he met several MMA competitors and first entertained the idea of competing in the sport.

"It’s a difficult thing to explain, why I want to do this so bad," Maynard said. "I guess, ultimately, it’s to prove that I can. My goal has been to get to MMA and hold my own. I think I can do it. I know others don’t believe that, but I do."

The skepticism, though, has merit.

In addition to his limited ability to protect himself, Maynard’s striking ability also is lessened. And, should he be caught in a chokehold in which he can’t verbally surrender, there is concern that he won’t be able to demonstrate a clear tap out before sustaining serious injury.

In fact, the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission was so concerned with Maynard’s potential weaknesses that it refused to grant him a license to fight at an event in Atlanta a year and a half ago. The commission voted 4-0 to deny the license request, citing fear that Maynard couldn’t adequately defend himself.

"They succumbed to public pressure," Maynard said. "They were all ready to give me that license. The chairman (J.J. Biello) even told me that he was behind me. When public pressure built, though, they went the other way."

No matter the reason, fighting in his home state of Georgia was off the table for Maynard. So, he and Oblas settled on Auburn – for one reason.

Alabama is one of just five states in the country without any sort of athletic regulatory commission to oversee events such as MMA or boxing matches.

"It’s a free-for-all in Alabama," Cornell said.

The regulatory commissions established by other states require event organizers to guarantee specific safety measures will be in place during fights and ensure that a clear set of rules will be followed. They also mandate that the fighters are trained and that the equipment being used meets certain standards.

The only thing required for an event in Alabama is enough money to rent a venue.And Maynard and Oblas aren’t the only ones taking advantage of it.

When the New Jersey Athletic Commission refused last month to sanction a fight between former world champion boxer Ray Mercer and former MMA champ Tim
Sylvia, the fight was moved to the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center.

"Alabama continues to turn its back and act like these events aren’t happening there and that people aren’t using the lack of a commission to get away with things they couldn’t get away with anywhere else in the country," said Steve Fossum, president of the International Sport Combat Federation, one of the most respected sanctioning bodies for MMA."

Someone needs to stand up and at least force these promoters to get a legitimate sanctioning body to sanction these events. This doesn’t just hurt MMA, it hurts the state’s image in the (MMA) community. And that’s a growing community.

"Not everyone is turning its back on the problem.There is currently legislation being pushed by Sen. Del Marsh and Rep. Gerald Allen that would create a state boxing commission. Allen is also pushing an amendment to that bill that would allow the commission to govern MMA events.

"It’s something we desperately need," Allen said. "We’re missing out on so many (boxing) opportunities here because we don’t have a commission in place and we really need a way to oversee these (MMA) events. We realize the need that’s there for both boxing (and MMA)."

For his part, Maynard is all for a state commission. He believes the decision by the GAEC was an anomaly and that most informed governing bodies that watched film of him competing would clear him without hesitation.

"A sanctioning body that knows about this sport and knows what to look for, I’d be cleared without a doubt," Maynard said. "People have labeled this fight a joke without ever considering what I might be able to do. That’s not right. My goal in this fight is to prove to everyone, and myself, that I can do this. This is my dream, and I hope this is just the first step for me."