Nothing is more critical in combat sports than fighter safety. Part of ensuring fighters are safe is making matches between fighters with similar skill sets.
Former boxer Pawel Wolak planned to debut as a mixed martial artist on Oct. 11 on the American Predator Fighting Championship 17 event at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Wolak, though, wasn't licensed by Illinois and is now off the show. His manager, Monte Cox, said that Wolak will probably fight on an upcoming card in Pennsylvania.
At issue is whether Wolak, who was 29-2-1 with 19 knockouts and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the world at super welterweight, is qualified to fight MMA at this stage as a professional in Illinois. He has had no amateur or pro MMA fights, but he's trained with UFC lightweight Eddie Alvarez and trained under the legendary Renzo Gracie.
Cox said that Nancy Illg, the director of the Illinois commission, told matchmaker Rich Seldal that Wolak needed more cage time and would have to fight as an amateur in MMA if he were to be licensed in Illinois. Sue Hofer, the commission's public information officer, told Yahoo Sports there is a state regulation that requires prospective MMA fighters to have five amateur bouts before being licensed as a pro.
The exception is if the fighter, according to Section 1370.460, paragraph k subsection 4 of the commission's admistrative code, can "demonstrate exceptional fighting ability, as shown by the applicant's competition and training history, in combat sports, wrestling, grappling or martial arts, as determined by the Division."
Wolak would seem to easily meet that requirement. If he were to be licensed as an amateur, it could present a dangerous situation in which he'd be facing someone who hadn't nearly had the kind of high-level experience he's had. The potential for injury would be great, exactly the thing that the Illinois commission is trying to prevent.
Alvarez, a former Bellator lightweight champion who made his UFC debut last month in Las Vegas, wrote a letter to Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission in support of Wolak's application there.
Alvarez wrote: "I spent a great deal of time sparring at one of Renzo Gracie’s satellite academies in North Jersey. During my time sparring there, I not only was able to witness the training of Pawel Wolak but was able to spar with him on several occasions. In addition to being a former world champion boxer, Mr. Wolak also wrestled in high school. During our sparring, I found him to be an extremely skilled and surprisingly well-rounded mixed martial artist."
Wolak is not a former world championship boxer, as Alvarez wrote, but was highly rated and competed against Delvin Rodriguez in a bout that was named the 2011 Fight of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Gracie, one of the sport's most respected coaches and a former UFC fighter, also wrote a letter to Pennsylvania on Wolak's behalf.
Wolak had previously been licensed as a professional in MMA in New Jersey, which is one of the strictest commissions in the country.
Wolak was licensed in New Jersey prior to Larry Hazzard Sr. returning as commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board on Sept. 22. The highly regarded Hazzard, a 2010 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and a long-time jiu-jitsu practioner, said it is ridiculous for a state to require Wolak to fight as an amateur with the kind of background he has.
Hazzard is very familiar with Wolak from his boxing days.
"Who are you going to match him up with?" Hazzard said. "Who are you going to match a seasoned professional fighter, a boxer who has an extensive background in MMA, who are you going to match him with? What young kid in the amateurs would you match him up with?
"I wasn't here in the office at the time he was licensed [as a pro MMA fighter by New Jersey] but I have certainly reviewed that situation with [commission counsel] Nick Lembo and I concur with everything he told me as it relates to Pawel having a professional license. I also have a martial arts background. I find no reason why any other state would even question the fact that this man has been licensed as a professional. And now they want to make him an amateur?"
Hofer said it was Wolak's responsibility to provide the commission the necessary information to help it make its decision.
She said the commission would not have accepted letters from Alvarez and Gracie as evidence of his qualifications to fight as a professional in MMA. Asked by Yahoo Sports if a video of one of his boxing matches as well as video of a sparring session would be sufficient, Hofer said it would depend.
"Just 30 seconds would not be enough," she said. Hofer also said Wolak never officially applied for a license. Cox said Wolak had done everything necessary to obtain a license except to provide the medicals.
Cox, who is a promoter and manager and a longtime pioneer in MMA, found the idea silly that Illinois suggested Wolak wasn't competent enough as a pro to receive a license.
He was originally going to be matched against Ron Imhoff, who had a 6-6 record and was described by Cox as "a journeyman who is a little old." The next potential opponent was Trey Cole, who was 0-1 as a pro after 12 amateur bouts.
Hazzard was insulted that Illinois was ignoring New Jersey's decision to license Wolak as a pro in MMA. He also said that he has such high respect for Gracie that if Gracie told him a fighter was ready to compete, he would believe it. Wolak has been training with Gracie for two years to prepare for his MMA debut.
"If Gracie is ready to put him in, you better believe he's ready," Hazzard said. "I would rely upon and have a bit more confidence in Gracie's opinion than I would the other individuals who are opposing his licensure. That's all I'm going to say about that, but I certainly stand behind the licensure of Pawel. He was a hell of a fighter, too. I stand behind his licensure. Nick had a discussion with me the other day about him and I agree completely that it was right to give him a license as a professional."