MMA fights for a bright future in South Dakota

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                                MMA fights for a bright future in South Dakota 

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                    <p>The path to regulation of mixed martial arts in South Dakota has been a winding one:<br />

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Regulation still has not arrived, but, as Terry Vandrovec from the Argus Leader reports, it is getting close.

Chris Weidman is hanging out at a neighborhood restaurant, sipping a beer while shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans. The 6-foot-2, 186-pounder works the room for an hour before reclaiming his seat.

The accessibility to the Ultimate Fighting Championship star is jarring. So is the location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

This is where Weidman comes to get medical care and to enhance his training. It's also the city where his agent, Dave Martin, is based.

On a Wednesday night, the pair is with friends and business associates from places such as Sanford Health and Poet to watch a nationally televised MMA card in Brazil featuring Ryan Bader — another UFC fighter who frequents Sioux Falls. There's an American Ethanol logo on his trunks.

There could not be a better time for the first meeting of the South Dakota Athletic Commission, a group created in March by legislative approval. A new law will regulate MMA in the state, taking South Dakota off the short list of states that doesn't sanction the sport.

Frankly, Weidman is envious — he has lobbied unsuccessfully to lift a ban on MMA in New York, his home state.

"Underground fighting is dangerous — that's when people really get hurt," said Weidman. "It needs to be sanctioned; it needs to be done the right way. And there'll be an economic impact for South Dakota, too."

While the future of MMA in this area doesn't hinge solely on the commission, its choices will be vital to the next stage of evolution for the local scene. As much as the past was largely forgettable, a foundation for the future is in place.

There are a couple of established gyms with experienced fighters and successful trainers, corporate interests have developed and some major players are aware of what the city has to offer.

And now, those involved in establishing the base are on board with the creation of the commission — they realize implementing more standards and organization could accelerate career opportunities and quality of competition.

The commission consists of five people appointed this summer by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a purposely diverse group allotted $95,000 in startup costs. It is starting to piece together things and could sanction an event by the end of this year or early next year, said Daugaard spokesman Tony Venhuizen. Several promoters are interested in creating that initial card and setting a bigger and better tone for the next chapter in the MMA saga.

Perhaps that — a smoothly run, safely contested, well-attended event — will help peel back some existing restrictions in the area. MMA events are banned in Watertown. Brookings considered doing the same, but stopped short. In Sioux Falls, a 2005 ordinance prohibits bouts in city facilities. The sport has changed considerably since then, but it might take time to prove that.

"If the state sports commission actually does set rules on this and recognizes the event, then it could change here," Sioux Falls city councilman Kenny Anderson Jr. said. "But I really doubt it."

The South Dakota Athletic Commission will oversee boxing and kickboxing in addition to MMA and looks like this: Michael Bergeron, director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance in Sioux Falls; Sturgis orthopedic surgeon Richard Little; Mike Kilmer, a longtime boxing coach and chief of internal operations at the Buffalo Chip Campground; recent law school grad, National Guard veteran and former boxer and MMA fighter Lee Lohoff of Yankton; and former state representative and senator Margaret Gillespie, a lawyer from Hudson.

The group is expected to explore broad areas such as safety, equipment and licensing along with a self-sustaining fee system in order to keep things going after the startup funds are gone.

"It's nice because once the show starts, the commission runs everything," said Chris Nelson, owner of Dakota Fighting Championships. "They bring the fighters out, they get them ready. They make sure everything's right."

Sixteen MMA events in five different North Dakota cities are scheduled between now and the end of 2014, with Fargo set to host seven. Nelson said his shows typically draw 1,500 to 3,000 fans, success enough to keep his company going into its 10th year.

Could Sioux Falls, by virtue of its MMA connections and corporate backing and improving facilities, ever host a UFC event? Martin, for one, isn't afraid to think big.

"Why can't we have a very successful promotion?" he asked. "I've got a successful management practice, and the guys love coming here. I would love to see the UFC in the state of South Dakota, and I won't bet against it."

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About time they smartened up.