MMA promoters Billy Donovan and Vanessa Higdon (standing at left) aired their complaints to members of the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Commission at their meeting on August 15 in Frankfort | Photo by Joe Sonka

Three mixed martial arts promoters are calling foul on the state agency that regulates the sport in Kentucky, accusing officials of violating their own regulations in an arbitrary manner when disqualifying some of their fighters at the last minute, hurting their events and businesses.

Officials with the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Commission (KBWC) and its Medical Advisory Panel declined interviews with Insider Louisville on the charges made by the MMA promoters, and executive director Cindy Stinnett did not reply to emailed questions on the subject.

But in a sometimes-heated meeting of the KBWC two weeks ago, these promoters went back and forth on their complaints with the commissioners, saying that some fighters were disqualified as little as a week before their events and required to obtain an expensive MRI and neurological exam because they were at least 35 years old, whereas other fighters of the same age and a history of being knocked out faced no such requirement.

Additionally, the promoters asserted that while the commission’s Medical Advisory Panel had the authority under state regulations to pull such fighters and require additional testing, these decisions were instead being made alone by Dr. Tad Seifert, the chairman of the panel who also serves on the KBWC board.

While acknowledging the possibility of some “inconsistencies” related to fighters being pulled from events, Seifert defended the commission’s new push for neurological testing on aging fighters as being in the interest of their safety, citing studies showing that they are at greater risk of dementia and other states with those same requirements.

New Boards, New Rules

The KBWC was created by Gov. Matt Bevin’s executive order in May 2016, which abolished the previous regulatory body named the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Authority. In addition to protecting the safety of participants, Bevin stated in his order that this new commission would have a more “focused vision on unleashing the regulatory and market conditions necessary to attract world-class professional athletic events to Kentucky.”

The governor has credited this new commission with cutting regulations as part of his “Red Tape Reduction” initiative to spur businesses, citing the elimination of the “blood rule” in wrestling regulations as the reason that World Wrestling Entertainment has returned its live televised events to the state, which bring in large attendance and revenue.

Bevin’s order also abolished and recreated the Medical Advisory Panel, made up of physicians who provide guidance on fighter safety to the commission. Former Gov. Steve Beshear never appointed any members to the previous panel that was created in 2008, but Bevin appointed four members in June 2016 and named Seifert — a well-known specialist in traumatic brain injuries — as its chairman, who was previously appointed to the five-member KBWC board.

However, according to documents obtained by Insider Louisville from the KBWC through an open records request, this Medical Advisory Panel may have met only a single time in the last two years. The commission only provided the minutes of one meeting in March 2017, which mentioned that its previous meeting was in July 2016.

Under state regulations for the KBWC, a boxer, kickboxer or mixed martial artist must submit to the commission a basic physical completed by a physician within 90 days of a bout, in addition to an on-site physical exam the day of the fight.

Dr. Tad Seifert, KBWC member, chairman of the KBWC’s Medical Advisory Panel, and nationally renown specialist on traumatic brain injuries

However, even if that fighter is approved for a bout by the commission, the regulation also requires the Medical Advisory Panel to give “individual consideration” to fighters considered high risk, including those at least 35 years old or those who have had many fights or knockouts in their career. The regulation adds that the panel “may order further medical testing” if the evidence before it is inconclusive, and it must report any recommendation to the commission within 45 days of being referred an application.

At the KBWC meeting on Aug. 15 in Frankfort, three MMA promoters confronted the commissioners and executive director with their complaints about not just older fighters being pulled for additional testing just before events on an inconsistent basis, but that Seifert alone — and not the panel — was making such decisions.

Ian Lawler — an MMA fighter from Somerset, as well as a gym owner and a matchmaker with MMA promoter Adversity Combat Series, owned by his wife, Teresa — led off the public comments portion of the meeting, which turned into a contentious back and forth between the promoters and Seifert.

Noting that he and other MMA promoters were in attendance to find out the premise for the rise in “last-minute requirements for MRIs” based on age requirements, Lawler said that one of his 37-year-old fighters approved to fight seven weeks ago by the commission had just been required to have an MRI and exam by a neurologist in order to fight in the event he’s been heavily promoting that was only 10 days away.

“Why, less than 10 days from showtime, are we just now being told that he needs an MRI to compete?” asked Lawler.

Seifert replied that 48 percent of state commissions indicated in a 2014 survey that they required neurological examinations, adding “this is something that, arguably, we should have done a few years previous … but now we’re there, and that’s what we’re going to start requiring.”

“The way that the regulations have been written are that the Medical Advisory Panel has the discretion to ask for further testing in high-risk fighters, which we consider 35 and above,” said Seifert. “It’s been just very recently that we’ve started to streamline that toward a mandate of requiring neurological evaluation and imaging.”

Lawler countered that “I was also put under the impression that it wasn’t the Medical Advisory Panel, as the KAR regulation states, it was one individual making those calls.”

Seifert replied “it’s the Medical Advisory Panel or a member thereof,” which led to Lawler and other promoters in the room to protest “it does not say that.”

An Insider review of the regulation shows no specific mention of one member of the panel being empowered to make that decision for the body. Seifert and Stinnett both declined to take an interview and questions on this aspect of the state regulation, in addition to other complaints brought forward by the promoters.

Ian Lawler of Adversity Combat Series

Lawler went on to mention several other examples of fighters being pulled from his wife’s card for additional testing at the last minute, saying that this also happened to promoter Billy Donovan of Premier MMA Championship in northern Kentucky and Vanessa Higdon of Hardrock MMA, who were both in attendance at the meeting. He added that this was especially difficult for amateur fighters who are not getting paid, but have to spend “$800 to $900 on a lower end to get an MRI done, and then they have to turn around and take that MRI to get a licensed neurologist to give him a physical examination.”

Seifert replied that it is Lawler’s role to put on a fight, but “that’s not my role.”

“My role is to ensure the safety of the fighter,” he continued. “And as long as I sit on this commission, that’s what I’m going to do … This is new here, but it’s not new (across the country). I appreciate your comments, but it’s going to continue.”

Later, Seifert read from what he said was a 2018 study on traumatic brain injuries, saying that there is a 50 percent higher risk of dementia for those that occur at age 35 or above, and an 80 percent risk for those aged 40 and above.

“There are 100 studies like this,” said Seifert. “It is very, very clear. The science is unquestionably clear.”

Black and White (and Gray)

Donovan and Higdon then stood up and said it was not so much the additional testing that they objected to, but the inconsistency in which this was applied by Seifert. The two promoters peppered the commissioners with examples of such inconsistencies, saying they’ve recently had fighters over 35 who had recently been knocked out approved with no additional testing, while a 35-year-old on the same card who had never been knocked out was scratched at the last minute.

“Make it black and white,” said Donovan. “I shouldn’t have to, (Lawler) shouldn’t have to, Vanessa shouldn’t have to have a fight on the card, and then the week of that fight be told ‘well, this fighter needs extensive medicals, however, this one doesn’t,’ yet they fall under the same realm. This makes no sense.”

Seifert replied that “if there were inconsistencies” in this new policy, they aim to eliminate them.

“I realize there may have been some inconsistencies, as any new mandate is going to have some new inconsistencies as it gets implemented,” said Seifert. “As we go forward, anybody that is over the age of 35 is going to require a scan — an MRI or a CT scan — and is going to require a neurological evaluation. That’s about as plain as I can make it.”

Donovan and Lawler then pressed Seifert on his adherence to the state regulations, as far as the Medical Advisory Panel requiring such testing of fighters and not just one member of the panel — all while the attorney for the KBWC interrupted multiple times to say that guest are only supposed to give their public comment and not have a question-and-answer session with the commissioners.

“Doesn’t the regulation state that the Medical Advisory (Panel) would review them, not one person?” asked Donovan. “So what we’ve been doing this whole entire time is against your regulations. You’re declining fighters that haven’t gone through the process that they’re due according to regulation … I’m asking a question and I would like an answer to that.”

Seifert answered that the focus is on the health and safety of fighters. An increasingly frustrated Donovan again asked “but why is it up to one person and not the board?” to which the also frustrated Seifert slowly replied: “Health. And. Safety.”

“Why are you guys not following your own regulations?” asked Lawler. “Let’s put it that way. Let’s put it in black and white.”

Seifert calmly replied: “We’ve definitely heard your comments, and they have been noted. And we thank you for the comments.”

But the promoters were not finished, as Donovan noted that both he and Higdon “are very lucky that we’re in areas that are right across a bridge from another state,” suggesting that Kentucky’s loss in MMA events and tax revenue would be other state’s gain.

“I think that the numbers will show this board that MMA in Kentucky has declined tremendously over the last couple of years,” said Donovan. “And what you’re going to see is a large decline thanks to things like this … And if this is what’s happening, I think that Vanessa’s already shown she is willing to go somewhere else. I’m absolutely willing to go somewhere else.”

After Higdon said that her next MMA event is in Dayton, Seifert replied that Ohio requires imaging and a neurological exam, too. He also mentioned that states like California, New York and Nevada require MRIs regardless of the age of the fighter.

According to a database of state regulations complied by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, less than half of states have some form of requirement for fighters to receive an MRI, CT scan or neurological examination, and among those that do, the standards vary widely.

While some states like require an MRI for fighters at any age — at various time intervals — others only require such tests once they reach 35 or 40. In some states, such testing is mandatory, while others give the commission some degree of discretion on when they can require them.

In June, the Courier Journal reported that Kentucky, like most states, does not explicitly require that boxers or MMA fighters be trained before a bout, have the sponsorship of a gym, or submit an EKG result. The issue flared up after the fatal heart attack of 37-year-old MMA fighter Donshay White shortly after his defeat in a match last summer. He reportedly had not trained for the bout and had high blood pressure.

As Seifert mentioned, Ohio does require all fighters over the age of 35 to submit both an MRI and neurological exam. To that, Donovan replied: “And you know what’s good about Ohio, is it’s in black and white. There’s no gray area.”

“Well, we’re very black and white now, as I stated,” said Seifert.

Asked by Donovan, “so it starts now, becoming black and white?” Seifert replied, “as black and white as I can make it.”

Lawler told the commissioners that “the worse this gets, the less we’re going to see people wanting to compete,” adding that while people will continue training at his gym, they will no longer participate in MMA events, causing the sport to dry up in the state.

“Don’t cut y’all’s noses off to spite your face, please,” Lawler told the board before it moved on to other business.

‘Arbitrary and Capricious’

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners also took a brief comment from Austin Price — an attorney for the Lawlers, who warned that the Medical Advisory Panel may have violated the state regulation by allowing just one of its members to pull fighters from their event in Somerset that was scheduled for the following weekend.

KBWC executive director Cindy Stinnett and KBWC Medical Advisory Panel chairman Tad Seifert | Photo by Joe Sonka

“I know what you said about the safety, but also we’ve got to comply with the rules, so everybody knows we’re playing on a level playing field,” said Price. “So I’m asking that these fights go on that were pulled for additional medical screenings.”

The general counsel for the KBWC told Price that he would call him at some point after the meeting to discuss that possibility.

Darlene Price — Austin’s wife, who also works at his firm — added that “there’s a reason (Ultimate Fighting Championship) doesn’t come to Kentucky. And it’s this kind of stuff. Short notice, hassles … You’re costing the state of Kentucky literally millions of dollars in revenue by not bringing these shows here. And they’re not coming here because — I’ve heard them say it — of this board.”

Lawler then told the commissioners that even small UFC shows average $2.5 million to $5 million in revenue, which the state gets 6 percent of in taxes.

Darlene mentioned that state statutes prohibit “arbitrary and capricious” actions without due notice taken by state agencies, telling the commission’s attorney to take special note of that “when you’re making these decisions and you’re pulling thousands of dollars out of these gentlemen’s pockets.”

Austin Price added that even if the additional medical tests are reasonable, their timing is the biggest concern, as “you got to have time to get those done. To pull them like that is completely unfair, especially when the regulations weren’t complied with.”

Asked on Wednesday if the KBWC attorney ever contacted them about the request to allow the Lawlers’ pulled fighters to compete in their event, Darlene Price said that he did call them, but the commission did not comply with their request. She also suggested that unnamed members or former members of the commission may be benefiting from the actions of the KBWC, related to competitors of the MMA promoters.

The five-member KBWC currently only has four sitting members: Seifert, vice chairman Thomas Gift, Louisville attorney Jason Paul Smith — appointed by Bevin in late June — and K. Gail Russell, the interim secretary of the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet who serves in an ex officio capacity due to her position.

The chairman of the KBWC since its creation via Bevin’s executive order in 2016 was Chad Miller, who resigned at some point this summer. According to the Kentucky Secretary of State’s archive of business records, Miller registered a business called Gladiator Sports Network on May 31.

According to the Courier Journal, Gladiator Sports Network is the parent company for Top Knotch Boxing and Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), and Miller is now a partner in that company.

Top Knotch Boxing is a company created last year by ARGI Financial Group CEO Joe Reeves, which has helped promote two large boxing events in 2017 and 2018 with former boxing champion Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Promotions. Bevin himself was heavily involved in promoting these events, stating in May of last year that his administration “worked hard in recent months to cut red tape and remove unnecessary bureaucracy hampering the industry.”

Ohio Valley Wrestling is the largest regional wrestling league, holding dozens of events throughout the state each year.

At one point in the KBWC meeting two weeks ago, Donovan asserted that Seifert told an MMA fighter based in Nashville that he had to receive a neurological exam at his office in Louisville, instead of a doctor closer to him. Seifert did not respond to that accusation.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]