Thursday, August 28, 2014

The View From Upstate, Part 1 - An Interview With Cory Schafer of the ISKA


New York is a big state. So big, actually, that to drive from Montauk – the state’s eastern-most point – to Buffalo would require about nine hours and a ton of coffee. The state’s great size is why, when talking to a native New Yorker, the geographical parlance of the conversation will include references to “the city” (i.e., New York City), “out on the island” (i.e., Long Island), and “upstate” – a catchall for anything north of the Big Apple. And a glance at the map will tell you that the area encompassed by the word “upstate” is huge.

In 2012, when the Zuffa vs. New York State lawsuit forced the Attorney General to admit that amateur MMA was legal, that huge area was suddenly awash with aspiring promoters and hastily-erected cages. But who would regulate them? Who would oversee the goings-on in and around the cage, making sure events were staffed by trained officials and guided by codified rules? Not the New York State Athletic Commission – the law banning pro MMA also prevents the Commission from playing a role in amateur versions of the sport. No, for the folks upstate, the void created by the influx of fight shows was filled by a third-party sanctioning organization. Overseeing amateur MMA was, for the most part, handled by Cory Schafer’s International Sport Karate Association (ISKA).

Enter: The ISKA

Don’t let the name fool you. The ISKA, which has been around since the mid-1980s, has long handled more than just fighters in foam booties throwing kicks at each other. In fact, their regulatory game is so experienced and respected, they’ve been used by such organizations as King of the Cage and Tuff-n-Nuff, with Schafer himself working with Bellator and Strikeforce to dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s”.

When the amateur scene exploded in New York, Schafer wasted no time in whipping up a proposal for rules, and he appointed Forrest Hobbick as his point man in the state.

Says Schafer on those early days, “At the time, I believe Forrest said there were about 18 promoters doing events. And there were some real issues – things like lack of regulation and lack of protocols. So we went to work on developing an infrastructure specific for New York, getting officials, judges, timekeepers, scorekeepers, referees -properly trained with an Association of Boxing Commissions-approved MMA course because we really wanted to know that every single official that worked had been in attendance at an ABC-approved program. We went in and did that.”

The ISKA wasn’t alone. Downstate, the World Kickboxing Association was making similar strides. “We weren’t the only ones,” says Schager.” The WKA, headed by Brian Crenshaw, was really trying to do the same thing. And I was really very pleased, and somewhat pleasantly surprised, by the response of the promoters. They saw the value of being properly independently regulated. Between us and the WKA, in just a few short months, I think the number was 14 of the 18 promoters were being fully, independently regulated. And that occurred without a state mandate. Honestly, that’s remarkable.”

The first event the ISKA sanctioned in New York was Gladius Fights 5, which took place in Rochester on Juney 29, 2013.


Schafer freely acknowledges that Hobbick did much of the ISKA’s heavy lifting in the state. “The more challenging job was going to be in Forrest’s hands,” he says, “which was to motivate all our potential officials to be properly trained and to find ways to get the promoters to recognize the value of being independently regulated. Part of the challenge is it means saying ‘no’ to the promoters. ‘No, we can’t approve of these two fighters in your main event.’ ‘No, we can’t allow these two fighters to fight, he doesn’t have bloodwork.’ ‘No, you can’t have elbows to the head or knees to the head.’ Promoters don’t like to hear ‘no’, particularly if it’s going to affect their bottom line.”

It would be na├»ve to assume that everyone who wanted to put together a fight show also wanted to go the extra mile and pay for all the bells and whistles of third-party sanctioning. Says Schafer, “Promoters – people who saw financial opportunity – started to do events. Not unlike in dozens of others states where we’ve worked, they were doing events, but it’s what we call ‘the Wild, Wild West’. There were not necessarily doctors [present], no insurance, not necessarily having paramedics, no ambulances on site, no oversight on the approval of fight cards – so you have guys 200 pounds fighting guys who are 170, guys who are 10-1 fighting guys who are 1-10. Even the best promoters, their agenda is ‘butts in seats, make fights happen no matter what’. And without independent regulation, you know what? They’re going to make decisions that serve their agenda first.”

“And I don’t say that as an indictment of promoters,” he adds. “That’s just the reality of the situation. They’re promoters. They can rationalize or justify [by saying] ‘Oh, we’ll have the referee watch closely… etcetera, etcetera.’”

Instances of faux-sanctioning arose as well. “There were other promoters who tried to make it look like they were doing it,” says Schafer. “They would create their own sanctioning organization – which is like having the fox watch the henhouse. If it’s not true independent regulation, if it’s the guy’s buddy basically doing the job, or the promoter himself putting on another hat, when the rubber hits the road and the main event fighter is 20 pounds overweight… that promoter is going to find some way to justify it because that main event fighter sold 200 seats.”

Senator Joe Griffo’s Amateur MMA Bill

“Having done this in a lot of states, I recognize the value of working with the state government to make all of this official,” says Schafer. “At the time, the state government’s position was ‘We have no position.’ I wrote a proposal similar to proposal’s I’d wrote before, and honestly, I like the state’s involvement because it levels the playing field. In a lot of states where there are multiple sanctioning organizations, the less reputable ones will try to earn business by lowering the bar. Whereas the ISKA and the WKA may say ‘no’ to this match of a guy who’s 10-1 versus a guy who is 1-10. Another sanctioning body might come along and say, ‘Oh, we’d allow that.’ Or, ‘We’d allow him to fight if he doesn’t have bloodwork.’ That’s how the lower-level sanctioning bodies that lack credibility will try to earn business. The state can stop that by saying, ‘We determine the rules. These are the rules for the state. And we only approve sanctioning bodies that will hold to that line.’”

“Additionally, I encourage the state to randomly send out inspectors to see if the sanctioning body is holding the promoter accountable. This gives the state what they want, which is to have only safe and fair events regulated by credible sanctioning organizations, promoted by credible promoters, at the lowest possible cost. And lowest possible cost for the state is important because they have to be properly funded, and it’s important because the promoters can only bear so much burden in terms of expense and still be profitable. When promoters are not profitable, the whole process falls apart – they stop producing events, fighters don’t get opportunities. When fighters don’t think they’re going to be fighting, they don’t train; when they don’t train, they don’t pay their gym bills. Now the gyms are starting to have trouble staying open, etcetera. I’ve seen it all fall apart that way.”

“So I provided a proposal to Senator Griffo, very similar to ones I’ve done in other states, on how to correctly build this relationship between the promoters, the sanctioning organizations, and the state, in a cost-effective way to guarantee the results we want – which is safe, fair, successful events. We’re proceeding and things are going well.”

In mid-June Senator Griffo’s bill, S4877 – which put the regulation of amateur MMA firmly in the hands of the New York State Athletic Commission – passed through the Senate. It was too late for the bill to become law, as the sun was setting on the legislative session and the Assembly wasn’t going to touch it, but the gesture was clear: the Powers That Be in Albany were aware of issue of regulating the sport, and a change was inevitable.

But also clear was the state’s intention of not utilizing any third-party sanctioning organizations to get the job done. And if the state wasn’t going to make using them a requirement, why should a promoter bother using them now?

“Everything was going really well,” says Schafer. “Then the state comes out with their plan, and their plan is to regulate it directly. Again, the proposal looked very similar to what I wrote, they just changed out the one aspect that there won’t be sanctioning bodies involved. Now, I’ve seen this happen in other states, and it is what it is. The government is the one that decides, I understand that. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is if you’re going to come out with a statement like that, you better be prepared right then to take over. ‘Cause otherwise, what is going to happen is that everything that’s been accomplished is going to kind of crumble away because the promoters have now found a reason to say, ‘Why should I bring in and pay for these sanctioning bodies? Building a relationship with them is irrelevant because the state’s going to take over anyway. So in the meantime, I can just save some money. I’ve seen how they’ve done this, I’ll try to talk to the officials directly...,’ and everything starts caving in.”

“I’m not blaming Senator Griffo,” says Schafer. “He believes he’s acting in a way that benefits the state. I don’t think there’s any harmful intent. This is a result of his action, though. I mean, I’m a big believer in if you announce you’re going to implement a plan, you better be able to quickly implement that plan.”

“If you look at these proposals written by the state, you can tell they are well-intended, but often written by people with no practical experience… I’ve seen states take over and just kill the industry. Not intending to, but unless you’re working with the guys who’ve had their boots in the dirt and done this before, it’s very easy to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this,’ not knowing that that just can’t work. If the state’s going to come out and say they’re going to do something, they need to be ready to do it. Otherwise, everything goes back to where it was.”

Exit: The ISKA

A number of promotions, including the aforementioned Gladius Fights, have turned to self-regulation. Some are better at it than others. Meanwhile, Hobbick has resigned from the ISKA, citing a need to spend more time with his family. The ISKA’s future as a third-party sanctioning organization in New York is murky.
“Does the ISKA plan to re-launch?” says Schafer. “It wouldn’t be that hard, but you put business where there’s a demand for it. If there’s not going to be a demand for it because the state is at some point going to take over, and the promoters are not seeing the value, then to what end do we decide to continue?” He adds, “Is New York State really going to follow up on their bill to regulate directly, and on what timeline will they do it, and is there a way in-between that time to get the promoters to accomplish what we already accomplished once? Honestly, that’s just a tough sell.”

The ISKA has been in the fight sanctioning business for decades, and for sure will continue to operate in other jurisdictions. Schafer himself will be at Bellator’s upcoming event at the Mohegan Sun on September 5, doing his thing. As usual, it’s just the whole New York MMA issue that continues to be a mess.

For that, Schafer shares some words of wisdom.

“This sport is about the fighters – first and foremost, 167%. And then, second to that, it’s about the promoters. They’re the ones making the sport happen. Without the promoters finding a way to make it profitable, the sport comes to a grinding halt. The sanctioning organization is critically important because these sports have to be regulated properly. But that’s a long third.”

He adds, “I always say to myself, ‘Okay, how do I serve the best interest of the fighters, how do I help the promoters be successful, and how can we as regulators fulfill our functions of safety, fairness and protecting the consumer?’ Those three things have to work together.”

Too bad that whole “working together” thing doesn’t look to be happening in New York anytime soon.

Next up in The View From Upstate, Part 2: Forrest Hobbick has seen some shit. And he’s not happy about it.

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