The Association of Boxing Commissions recently suspended an entire fight card’s worth of athletes – 20 in total – who competed in a bare-knuckle boxing event that the ABC has said was “unsanctioned.” However, the promotion involved and an independent regulatory body disagree with that categorization and subsequent suspensions.
The event in question, “BKFC Fight Night: Montana” took place Oct. 9 at First Interstate Arena in Billings, Mont., and it featured MMA notables of yesteryear Joe Riggs and Melvin Guillard in the main event.
According to ABC president Mike Mazzulli, the event was unlicensed and held without the oversight of a state commission, nor did it receive proper clearance from state government.
“The fights in Montana were not regulated by the State of Montana,” Mazzulli recently told MMA Junkie.
For this reason, the ABC suspended each combatant 60 days. The suspensions were first publicized by management agency Fight Mixer Management.
The State of Montana has an athletic commission, but it doesn’t function to regulate combat sports. The Montana Department of Labor & Industry includes athletic oversight, but only for amateur and collegiate events.
Given that there was no state commission available, BKFC hired the International Sport Karate Association to serve as regulator. ISKA is a longtime international sanctioning body for combat sports, which works closely with the ABC in various capacities, including at Bellator events.
Per Mazzulli, ISKA can function as a standalone commission, as it often does in numerous national and international territories that do not have governmental combat sports oversight. However, ISKA needed permission from the state government to do so, which Mazzulli asserts ISKA did not receive.
“ISKA is in good standing with the ABC,” Mazzulli said. “They regulate a lot of amateur MMA throughout the country. What happens is the state commission authorizes them to regulate for them. For example, in New York, ISKA is a regulatory body for MMA up there. They’re so busy that the State of New York has invested in ISKA with Cory Schafer, the president, and decided to give them the ability to regulate amateurs for them. But in Montana that was not the case.”
Mazzulli said the Kansas Athletic Commission on multiple occasions volunteered to serve as the regulatory body in Montana, but BKFC and president David Feldman declined that offer.
“There was an ABC commission that contacted (BKFC) numerous times to say that they would go up there and regulate the event,” Mazzulli said. “That was the State of Kansas. (BKFC) did not take them up on it. They decided to ride with ISKA. ISKA was not granted the ability to regulate that by the State of Montana, so therefore all of these fighters fought in an unsanctioned fight.”
BKFC president Dave Feldman
BKFC president David Feldman and matchmaker Nate Shook offered a starkly different perspective when contacted by MMA Junkie. While Feldman admitted that Kansas offered to oversee the BKFC Montana event, he believed that point was moot since ISKA had proper governmental permission, thus an ABC regulator wasn’t needed. According to Feldman, BKFC and ISKA were granted permission by the state.
“I know Mike made a statement that the ISKA wasn’t legal there or licensed there, but ISKA did receive approval from the department of licensing in Montana to be able to sanction that fight, so we sanctioned that fight through ISKA,” Feldman told MMA Junkie. “It’s going to he said, she said, right? But at the end of the day, we didn’t have to have any sanctioning there, kind of like what the UFC does when they go overseas and they don’t have sanctioning bodies, and they kind of self-regulate. That’s what we could’ve done. Instead, we went one step further and had the ISKA regulate the event.”
What perhaps puzzled Feldman most about the suspensions was what he perceives to be inconsistencies between the sanctions handed to his fighters and those of other combat sports events in Montana, a state which, according to combat sports database Tapology, has hosted 19 other fight cards in 2021 to date.
“I don’t want to overstep and say anything bad,” Feldman said. “I want a great working relationship with Mike Mazzulli. That’s what I’m pushing for. But at the end of the day, I don’t even know if he had the authority to suspend these guys. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But what I’m trying to say is that there were other professional combat sporting events in the State of Montana from mixed martial arts to two bare-knuckle fights that happened in the State of Montana where the fighters did not get suspended. But they did get suspended for our event. That’s a big question mark in my mind.”
ISKA weighs in
ISKA president Cory Schafer works closely with the ABC on numerous matters and told MMA Junkie he respects the unified governing body and Mazzulli and finds their function important. However, Schafer thinks ISKA and BKFC went above and beyond to ensure a safely and professionally regulated event took place with permission from the state government.
“(ISKA director) Tom Sconzo called the department of state for Montana,” Schafer said. “That’s where he got the information that, although they have an athletic division, it’s for the supervision of the NCAA, amateur sports and collegiate sports. They have no combat sports division. He explained to them who the ISKA is, what we do, where we’re from, showed them our website – boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
“They said, ‘Wow. Great. We look forward to the event. We hope it’s successful. We hope everything is great. Good luck.’ That came from a representative of the department of state. Again, the promotion was under no obligation. But we tried to go above and beyond and make sure there was no issue with the government.”
Schafer estimates that approximately 90 percent of boxing events listed in the ABC’s official online record keeper, BoxRec, are not sanctioned. Schafer said he’s a supporter of the ABC, but he too, like the BKFC brass, is confused by the suspensions.
“I’d like to see the ABC have stronger power and authority,” Schafer said. “I think that would be a good thing, but in this case it was a little odd. The athletes that fought on what Mr. Mazzulli is calling an unsanctioned fight, well, they joined the 90 percent of other boxers that boxed that same weekend in Italy, France, and Turkey and whatever, who also boxed on what I guess they would have to consider an unsanctioned event. I would like some clarity on that.”
‘We run toward regulation’
Joe Riggs checks on Melvin Guillard after knocking him out at BKFC Montana.
While BKFC and ISKA officials are puzzled by the ABC’s decision, Mazzulli reiterated to MMA Junkie that neither he nor the sanctioning body he runs have a bias toward bare-knuckle fighting, rather he simply wants proper regulation and oversight. This is the same sentiment Mazzulli shared in a ABC statement following the death of seasoned combat sports veteran Justin Thornton in October. Thornton died after he sustained injuries during 19-second faceplant knockout at BKFC 19 in August.
Feldman, however, doesn’t think his promotion strays from the procedures and protocols of a normal event overseen by the ABC. Safety is a top priority, according to the BKFC president – and this instance he said did not deviate from that approach.
“We’re in a stage right now where we’re considered the fastest-growing combat sports promotion in the world,” Feldman said. “We’re trying to open up regulation everywhere in the country. We’re not going to cut corners. We ran toward regulations for 10 years. I ran toward it. I would never run away from regulation. We want to be regulated. We want to get approval. We want other states to regulate it and approve it. We run toward regulation. There was no way we were trying to negate regulation.”
BKFC holds its next event Dec. 9 in Tampa, Fla., which will have the oversight of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, a sanctioning body that is part of the ABC. Fighters who fought on the Montana show will be eligible to return to competition Dec. 8.