The measure is on its way to a final vote in the House.

Hawaii legislators hope to attract the multibillion-dollar mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship to the state by creating a new Combat Sports Commission this legislative session with the belief that it will provide legitimacy to the industry through stringent oversight of all future mixed martial arts events. 

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Senate Bill 1027 would create the new commission under the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. The idea is that the commission would have stricter regulations than the state’s current Mixed Martial Arts Program.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who introduced the bill, said the formation of the commission will encourage fighting promotions like the UFC to come to Hawaii.

Inouye said Hawaii will benefit if this commission is set up and pointed to the global appeal that MMA has at the moment. 

“There are so many different combat styles,” Inouye said. “It is very active on television right now. Events are scheduled throughout the country and throughout the world.”

“Hawaii should be able to support bringing in events like this for the population that enjoys watching martial arts,” she said.

Neal Blaisdell Arena outside.  27 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Lawmakers want to create a new sports commission in the hope that it would attract fighting promotions like the UFC. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

Combat sports commissions regulate competition to guarantee safety and fairness. Commissions issue licenses to and regulate the conduct of contestants, judges, coaches and promoters, as well as perform tests to make sure illicit substances are not being used by contestants. 

“We have never been able to host any event,” Inouye said. “They don’t want to come here because there is no commission set up, and in the country, commissions are set up in most of all the states.” 

Bellator MMA, a smaller mixed martial arts promotion organization, has hosted events at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center that drew crowds large enough for the Legislature to take notice of the potential revenue stream that combat sports can provide the state.

The formation of the Combat Sports Commission would not guarantee that UFC or other big promotional organizations will bring their events to Hawaii. Other than the lack of a large sporting venue, there is currently nothing stopping the UFC from hosting an event in Hawaii. 

James Skizewski, the Mixed Martial Arts program’s executive officer, told House lawmakers during a recent hearing that according to his conversations with event providers and event promoters, the UFC’s absence in Hawaii is related to venues, not the configurations of a commission.

SB 1027 passed the House Finance Committee on March 29 and is facing a final vote in the House in the coming weeks.

The state began regulating MMA after a 2005 state auditor’s report documented that a 14-year-old boy was matched in a fight in Hawaii against a 32-year-old man.

Angela Melody Young testified against the bill citing the violence and injuries that are involved with combat sports. 

“What I am envisioning is like ‘Hunger Games,’” Young said. “They’re like killing each other, just beating each other up.” 

DCCA Director Nadine Ando also opposed the bill.

How much the commission could cost is not yet known. SB 1027 proposes to use money collected through license fees and taxes on ticket sales to fund the Combat Sports Commission.

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If enacted, the commission would consist of five members appointed by the governor. At least one of those members would need to have experience competing in combat sports. The DCCA would still oversee the accounting aspects of the Combat Sports Commission, but any regulatory responsibilities would belong to the commission. The commission members would need to be appointed by the governor.

Walt Carvalho, an experienced combat sports coach and cutman from Hilo, testified in support of SB 1027 at the House Finance Committee hearing. He said he flew in for the hearing because it was important to him. 

“We have UFC fighters that live here in Hawaii and have never been able to perform in front of their own crowd,” Carvalho said.  

Carvalho also took some time to criticize the state’s current Mixed Martial Arts Program for not reinvesting money into the sport and for not having the experience to understand the intricacies of combat sports and what is needed to regulate them properly. 

Money that is currently collected through the Mixed Martial Arts Program is placed in a compliance fund and is not reinvested in the sport, or in any explicit way furthering mixed martial arts in the state, according to the DCCA.

“You have to know what you are doing,” Carvalho said. “You can’t teach math if you’re a science teacher.” 

Carvalho said the commission should focus on establishing a foundation with smaller promotion companies, though, until it can build up to an event as large as one typically presented by the UFC.

“The UFC is not a joke. Dana White is not a joke,” Carvalho said, referencing the UFC president.

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