Enthralled, I look on as Garrett Holeve ensnares his opponent in a rear naked choke. Calm and collected, he tightens his grip. Unable to escape, David Steffan reluctantly taps him twice on the leg, signaling defeat. He is swiftly freed. Thundering applause follows, which fails to drown out the cries of Holeve’s coach and father as he crashes into the Octagon and raises up his son for all to see. After a triumphant parade around the arena, the atmosphere softens and the winner is declared, though in this fight both participants were in a way victorious.
For Holeve and Steffan, the journey to the Octagon was a long and arduous one. Just five minutes prior to their originally scheduled fight on 3rd August 2013 – and several months after each fighter began a strenuous training regime – an official of the state of Florida issued, to the dismay of the both parties, a cease and desist order. The reason? Messrs Holeve and Steffan both suffer from a disability: down syndrome and cerebral palsy respectively.
After only partial success in their District Court challenge concerning the notice, Holeve and Steffan decided to look elsewhere and in November 2014 the two were finally able to compete in a sanctioned fight in Missouri. In this post, I will examine whether the same would, could or should be possible in the United Kingdom.
The Precarious Position of UK MMA
Today, in the US, MMA is highly regulated. Athletics Commissions govern the competitions and most states have adopted the Unified Rules of MMA, standardising fighting rules and creating a tightly woven tapestry of regulation which has been draped over competitors; ensuring safety, security and lending greater legitimacy to the sport.
In the UK, the difference is stark. Ben Sigler over at Law in Sport has written extensively about the de-regulated nature of UK MMA. For the purpose of this post a summary will suffice. While the Licensing Act (Descriptions of Entertainment) (Amendment) Order 2013 extended ‘regulated entertainment’ to include sports which ‘combin[e] boxing or wrestling with one or more martial arts’, there is no unified regulator. The rules of each fight depend largely on the individual promoter. Nobody is required to sanction specific fights and there are no universal rules or formal oversight.
Holeve v. Steffan in the UK?
The Guardian have produced a fantastic mini-documentary about the Holeve/Steffan fight and it is clear that both individuals wanted nothing more than to be treated the same way as their fellow Americans. In the US, being treated as such entails undergoing medical assessments, sanctioning processes and jumping through a number of other legal hoops. In the United Kingdom, to be treated like any other fighter is to enter a dangerously de-regulated world. To fight is to risk more than just safety, but also to throw into question the legitimacy of MMA as a whole. So fragile is mixed martial arts in the United Kingdom that one large civil or criminal suit could cripple the hard work of promoters across the nation who have done so much to bring the sport into the mainstream.
Another question mark exists over whether a promoter would be likely to support a fight like Garret v. Holeve in the UK, without the safety-net provided by an independent regulator. Rejections like these could lead to challenges based on human rights. The UK is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPD), Article 30 of which asserts that states must ‘promote participation … in mainstream sporting activities’. When coupled with the UK’s own Equality Act 2010, section 21 of which requires that ‘reasonable adjustments’ be made to accommodate those with disabilities, a lawyer acting on behalf of a disabled fighter could put forth a strong case that a refusal to accommodate them would amount to discrimination.
The situation becomes a Catch-22 when coupled with the lack of standardised regulation. Taking boxing as an example: the British Boxing Board of Control provide a blanket regulatory system for boxers in the United Kingdom, giving advice and providing medics at professional boxing matches. After the 1991 title fight between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson, the latter suffered severe brain damage as a result of the BBBC’s failure to provide oxygen and resuscitation facilities at the ring-side. In Watson v. British Boxing Board of Control the Court of Appeal found that they had significant authority, which was relied upon by promoters and boxers alike. As such Watson was entitled to claim damages.
Without such a board regulating MMA, acting as a liability safety-net and capable of providing specialist, ring-side medical care it is difficult to see how a disabled fighter could enjoy the same right to participate as his or her fellow citizen, which could lead to the human rights challenges aforementioned. On the other hand, if a fight did take place and disaster struck the survival of UK MMA as a whole could be thrown into doubt and whoever promoted the fight would be liable for damages or even prosecution.
Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that ‘[t]he office of the Sovereign … consists [of] the procuration of the safety of the people’. As such, one could assert that it is the role of the state to protect those most in need, even if it means depriving the Holeve and Steffans of the world of a modicum of liberty. However, to do as Florida did and order that disabled fighters cease and desist would be to sweep the problem unceremoniously under the rug.
Both Holeve and Steffan live for MMA. The former has set up his own fighting foundation, which helps train other vulnerable individuals in the art of self-defence. Competitive sports are also a testament to individual liberty. As such, though the primary goal of the sovereign state may be to protect its citizenry, in the modern world it must do so not by paternalistic mollycoddling, but by going the extra mile to promote and support disabled athletes. This is made abundantly clear by the UNCPD (above).
The state could do this by encouraging the establishment of the MMA equivalent of the BBBC, perhaps even placing both on a statutory footing. Efforts must also and are being made on this front by two non-profit organisations – Safe MMA (SMMA) and UK MMA Federation (UKMMAF). The former now provide fighters with ‘fighter passports’, guaranteeing pre and post-fight medical check ups, among other benefits. The latter shadow sanctioned their first internationally broadcasted MMA competition on 6th December 2014. All of this suggests that a solid regulatory foundation is being laid, from which adjustments can and must be made to accommodate all in the future.
The above developments are also coupled with a recent story run by the charity Scope on a 17-year-old fighter called Jack – believed to be the first in the UK with a disability, with high hopes of competing in the near future. By way of conclusion, while we must all accept that humans are not born into physical equality, we should not opt for the path of least resistance in attempting to provide everyone with a fair bite of the cherry. I leave the reader with the words of Jack who puts the case against his own naysayers best when he asserts that:
[c]erebral palsy has given me the determination to never give up … I may never get to the point where I am a champion [but] I’m gonna give it my best try. It would mean I’ve made it, it would mean I’ve proved everyone wrong – everyone that’s said I can’t