Parent, lawmakers clash over proposed ban on mixed martial arts fighting

John Hacker

Two state lawmakers have proposed banning mixed martial arts fighting, but a Carthage parent says those lawmakers are overreacting.

Missouri Reps. Steve Hunter, representing Carthage and northwest Jasper County, and Bryan Stephenson, representing Webb City and Joplin, introduced House Bill 2518 on March 31. The bill would change the rules in Missouri regarding boxing and wrestling to ban mixed martial arts fighting, sometimes known as “cage fighting” by children younger than 18.

Carthage parent Larry Swinehart has two boys and a girl who participate in the Garage Boys Fight Crew, a mixed martial arts cage-fighting club that meets just east of Carthage.

A recent news article by the Associated Press gained national and even international attention for the Garage Boys Fight Crew, but it also brought controversy when doctors said some of the moves used in cage fighting are dangerous to young people.

Swinehart said the AP article portrayed their group inaccurately.

“You guys came and did an article on us, the Joplin Globe came and did an article about us, no one had a problem until the reporter came from the Associated Press and submitted an article to the Washington Post and put a very, very liberal skew on it and actually lied throughout the biggest part of it.

“We were portrayed as monsters and participating in barbaric acts. That was my biggest problem, if they had simply told the story as it truly existed, it would have been no news, it would have ended with the articles in the Press and the Globe.”

Hunter introduced the bill with Stephenson as a co-sponsor.

Stephenson said he would like to hear from the Swineharts and others involved in the local group because he’s concerned about children being placed in unsafe situations. He said doctors have told him that some of the holds in mixed martial arts fighting can cause permanent damage to young joints.

“I’d be happy to meet with them,” Stephenson said. “I want to learn how they’re conducting the sport, I want to make sure that the division of children’s services is convinced that this is not child abuse and I want to make sure that there are proper regulations and safety precautions.

"I want to make sure that the holds and the moves that the young people are using are not long-term damaging."

Hunter said he shares Stephenson’s concerns.

“You watch this cage fighting on television, and that to me has gone way over the edge,” Hunter said. “If we’ve got some over-exuberent parents putting their kids in that kind of situation, and there are some, you could really cause some problems for some one who sticks their kid in there who is not as exuberant.

“I am not a person who just jumps into something to try to get the state power. I think the state and federal governments have enough power anyway.”

Swinehart said the children wear the same protective head-, hand- and groin- protection as boxers, and referees watch every match.

“What they’re seeing is the adult cage fighting from the early '80s where it was true bare knuckles and they’re punching people in the head when they’re down, which is forbidden in martial arts and they’re using elbows, which is forbidden,” Swinehart said. “They don’t today wear head protection in the adult league, but it’s required for youth. The children wear the same headgear they use in boxing.”

Swinehart said he fears driving the sport underground where there would be no safety regulation.

“There needs to be a governing board to oversee it,” Swinehart said.

"My biggest fear is that lesser people will do what was done years ago when fights were held in basements and farms out back and things of that nature," he said. "They won’t have the doctors’ physicals before the fights, there won’t be paramedics on scene, there won’t be professional referees there to over see it. It will simply be people who have no training in it and people will get hurt doing it. That’s my biggest fear.”

Stephenson and Hunter said they would be open to creating a sanctioning board for the sport as long as doctors say the sport itself is not dangerous.

“My intent is not to ban it,” Hunter said. “My intent is to make sure that it is properly sanctioned.”

Swinehart noted the Garage Boys Fight Crew is not associated with the Carthage School District or the Carthage Youth Wrestling. Some people have come to believe that the city or the school district are sponsoring the group, he said, but that’s not true.

“The school district and the wrestling clubs have nothing to do with this group,” Swinehart said. “They have nothing to do with it, no practices have ever been held at the wrestling building.”

Carthage Press