I recently had a chance to catch up with ISKA President Cory Schafer and chat with him about the development of the state regulated MMA program in Alabama. Cory is certainly a busy man but took a few minutes out of his schedule to give the MMA community in the state a progress report on exactly how the sanctioning process is progressing in our state.
VJ: Mr. Schafer , thank you for agreeing to share this information on how exactly MMA is advancing in our state.
CS: No need to thank me Vicky. I’m always pleased to cooperate with our media partners. You play a crucial role in the advancement of the sport
VJ: Please tell us a little about ISKA.
CS: Our organization was founded in 1986 as the International Sport Karate Association. That was when “Full Contact Karate” aka American Style kickboxing was the major martial arts combat sport on the scene. Through the late 80’s and 90’s we sanctioned and regulated 12 seasons of ISKA Kickboxing on ESPN while building our international network. We now operate in more than 40 countries on six continents and supervise more than 20 different types of martial arts and combat sports. Obviously, here in the US our greatest activity is in the regulation of Mixed Martial Arts.
VJ: That’s amazing. Are you President over the American operation or over the entire worldwide association?
CS: I’ve been President of the Association since 1997. We work with a network of continental directors who supervise national ISKA presidents who have each built infrastructures within their country. Here in the US we operate through the leadership of state directors. My primary job is to supervise and coordinate our world-wide operation.
VJ: How did you become involved in the development of the MMA program in Alabama?
CS: I was contacted by Casey Sears, who was instrumental in helping to get an Athletic Commission formed in Alabama and is now an active member. We spoke periodically as the process progressed towards the final development of the commission and the approval of mixed martial arts as a regulated sport. When everything was set in place I was asked to attend some commission meetings in order to offer my input on the final version of the rules. Shortly after, the first promoter was licensed and the first event-permit was granted.
VJ: What has it been like working here in Alabama?
CS: In some ways it is very much like other states where I’ve been involved in the launch of a new program. Honestly, it’s exciting. I really enjoy the unique opportunity and challenge of developing a program correctly from the very start.
VJ: That being said certainly there must have been some challenges?
CS: (LOL) Of course. Adapting to change is not easy for anyone. The sport had been illegal in Alabama for a while, and before that everything was determined by the promoter. That’s not the case anymore. The state has approved a strict set of regulations and protocols that will help insure a safe and fair competition, and protect the consumer.
VJ: What do you mean exactly by “protect the consumer”?
CS: Well, an important part of combat sports regulation is to see that the good people who support the events by purchasing tickets are treated fairly. Promoters are required to clearly indicate in their advertising whether the event will feature amateur or professional bouts. All bouts have to be approved in advance by the commission or the licensed sanction body in order to help insure competitive matches.
VJ: I see. And regarding the safety protocols for fighters?
CS: Mandatory Medical Suspensions for injured athletes. Required rest periods between bouts, Fighter Health Insurance to help deal with injuries, Physician’s examinations prior to and following each bout, Paramedics, Physician’s and an ambulance on-site for every event.
VJ: And, in what way is the amateur competition different than the professional?
CS: I love amateur MMA. The fighters often compete with a level of passion that is sometimes missing in professional matches. In an effort to protect our amateur athletes, Alabama has adopted the nationally approved Unified Rules for Amateur MMA which includes shorter rounds, shin/instep pads, larger and more padded gloves, no elbow strikes, no knee strikes to the head and a limitation on certain high injury-risk submissions. Amateurs must also compete in Novice Division bouts until they’ve had three fights. This allows them to compete, develop their stand-up striking, their wrestling and their submission fighting without the threat of “ground and pound” since Novice bouts do not allow strikes to the head while the fighters are on the ground.
VJ: How have these rules affected the fights?
CS: Other than making it safer for our amateurs, they haven’t. I’ve always believed that fans buy tickets to witness the kind of drama that only combat sports can produce. As long as the matches are competitive the fans are happy. It’s not about the exact rules. In fact, more often than not, the fans don’t even realize that the amateur rules are different.
VJ: In what way has working in Alabama been unique?
CS: I’ve worked events in almost 40 US states (and more than 20 countries) – I get around. And I can honestly say that overall, I’ve found the people in Alabama to be the friendliest people in the nation. I really mean that. Regarding the regulation of the events, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised about the number and quality of really good officials that already exist here. In some states I’ve had to start at zero. In Alabama we were able to “hit the ground running” with the help of referees like Chris Mize, Ash Rivers and Luke Day. And judges like Adam Goss, Shane Alford, Steve Hester, Scott Cleland and Julie Cleland and timekeepers Lindsey Day and yourself. They have been an immeasurable asset and I hope that everyone appreciates their commitment, and the contribution that they will continue to make.
VJ: Great! Recently we had our first Pro/Am show, Sportfight X in Huntsville, AL. What was it like working directly with new athletic commission in sharing the supervision of an event?
CS: It was great. Alabama is fortunate to have people with real character serving in leadership positions. Regulating these events is far from easy. You often have to tell people things that they just don’t want to here. “We can’t approve this match because one of the fighters is on suspension”, “I’m sorry but that fighter has not passed his physical”, “No, we can’t continue with the show until the Physician returns to cage-side”, etc., etc., etc. It takes real class to handle these situations without the relationship becoming adversarial. Commission Assistant Executive Director Nick Vondereau and Chief Inspector Stan Frierson were a pleasure to work with. They “get it”. It’s not about “authority”. It’s about protecting everyone’s safety in a fair and reasonable manner.
VJ: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
CS: Yes please. To promoters; I respect your efforts and fully recognize that without you, the sport comes to a grinding halt. Both the ISKA and the State of Alabama have made available to you a thorough explanation of the requirements and responsibilities associated with your role. Please take advantage of these resources in order make your job easier and guarantee that you won’t face any last minute crisis’s that could have been otherwise avoided.
To Fighters and Trainers: Please do not support illegal events. Beyond being a felony – these event promoters are compromising your safety and denying you the courtesy, respect and dignity that you deserve. Please be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.
Thank you Cory very much for sharing your insight. Your expertise is invaluable to helping the fighters stay safe and the sport of MMA