Ali’s Legacy Shouldn’t Apply To MMA

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Peter Roff Contributor
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Those of us old enough to remember Muhammad Ali in his prime understand how he redefined boxing. He was “The Champ” like no other, before or since. All class and all sass at the same time his flamboyant manner and irresistible charm were so compelling he may have saved his sport from oblivion.

His fights were as legendary as the man. His ability “to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” made his movements in the ring something magical to behold. Folks who didn’t follow boxing followed Ali. He loomed that large over his sport and above all others. It’s a coincidence worth noting then, as the nation prepares to say a final goodbye to this legendary sports figure, Congress is being asked to revise a piece of landmark legislation that bears his name.

In the late 80s and 90s, problems were rampant in boxing: fixed fights, manipulated rankings, and the general exploitation of fighters were so bad it almost killed the sport. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act shined a light on all that. Before it was enacted promotors could stage fights and represent fighters at the same time – something that worked well for them but not so well for the folks who actually got in the ring.

The Ali Act helped change it all by establishing specific protections for the rights and welfare of boxers, providing support to state agencies overseeing boxing, and by setting standards for integrity within the sport to help tamp down, even eliminate the corruption destroying it. From all accounts the law has worked well in what must be said, because of the rampant exploitation involved, was an exceptional situation.

The fact the Ali Act worked for boxing doesn’t mean it’s equally applicable to other sports. Congress usually makes a hash of things when it meddles in sports, one of the things the American people truly care about. Everyone has a rooting interest in something so, for every college football fan who likes the relatively new, congressionally-influenced system for picking the country’s No. 1 team there are probably 100 or more who hate it – and at the end of each season we hear about it.

Withstanding none of this Oklahoma Republican Congressman Markwayne Mullin is offering up legislation to bring Mixed Martial Arts and kickboxing under Congress’s regulatory regime.

The argument for his bill looks to be as simple as, ‘anything that looks like boxing ought to be regulated like boxing.’ Only MMA isn’t boxing, something Rep. Mullin – who in his younger days was an MMA fighter – should know.

The Ali Act was passed to return honesty and legitimacy to boxing, problems no credible person alleges exist in the world of MMA and kickboxing. The states already regulate each bout. MMA athletes have much more information, representation, and leverage today than boxers did during the Don King-era of the 1980s and 90s.

In a very real sense MMA and kickboxing are a business – and an already heavily-regulated one at that. There is no need for intramural bouts among the different leagues that have sprung up around the country and around the world to produce a single unified champion, as the Mullin bill mandates. Nor is there a need to apply to MMA and kickboxing the Ali Act’s other regulatory guidelines.

It’s a clean sport — as clean as a combat sport can be anyway — and Congress should leave it alone. Caving to the pressure being applied by trial lawyers who would like to bring tort actions against the owners of the different leagues and the labor unions that want to organize the fighters and take a share of their earnings would harm the sport and the athletes the backers of the Mullin bill say they want to protect. State regulators are doing a fine job as it is, working with the companies that organize and promote MMA and kickboxing events to ensure the interests of the athletes who participate in them and the fans are well protected.

Peter Roff, formerly a Washington analyst with United Press International is now a contributor on the One America News network.