Four months after the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission legalized professional mixed martial arts fights in the state, the state's first bout will be held Saturday in Pittsburgh, when the premier of the Ultimate Cage Fighting Challenge, Rumble on the Rivers, comes to Mellon Arena. It is the first of four UCFC events scheduled for the Pittsburgh area and will boast eight matches, including one featuring former Steelers lineman Carlton Haselrig.
"This sport was made for Pittsburgh; it was made for western PA," Haselrig said. "It's grittiness, physical, fast-paced and in your face. I'm excited to come back to Pittsburgh and compete in front of the fans who once watched me play football or wrestle."
Despite Haselrig's and the state's enthusiasm for what many call the fastest-growing sport in America, the history of mixed martial arts, or MMA, has been controversial. It is a mixture of wrestling, kick boxing, judo and a variety of other martial arts. U.S. Sen. John McCain once called the sport a "human cockfight."
Pennsylvania, though, was one of the last states to approve the sport. More than three-fourths of the states allow professional MMA fights, and the commission gave its unanimous approval in February.
"The rules have changed dramatically over the past couple of years," said Greg Shirb, executive director of the State Athletic Commission. "They adopted unified weight classes, unified gloves and outlawed some of the strikes from the knee to the head. When the unified rules were passed by all commissions, it was time to adopt it."
The last major hurdle for MMA is the state of New York. Having fights in Madison Square Garden is a dream of many involved in MMA, and it appears they will soon get their wish. Legislation to legalize the sport was defeated in 2008 but has passed the initial hurdles this year. It is expected to pass a final vote in the New York Legislature within six months, much to the dismay of Assemblyman Bob Reilly, a chief opponent.
"It is a violent sport," Reilly said. "It is very dangerous to the fighters time and time again. Promoters hide injuries. On May 26, a man named Zack Kirk was paralyzed in a fight. Once he was paralyzed lying on his back, his opponent pounded on his head four or five times. He has no health insurance. Who pays for him?"
Doctors are unsure if Kirk, 20, will ever walk again.
"We are trying to stop bullying in schools, domestic violence, young people with guns, street gangs, but we are going to put in this kind of activity?" Reilly asked.
He also said there have been 13 or 14 deaths in the sport, but others challenge that number.
Eric Hilber, a retired MMA fighter and operator of the Pittsburgh Fight Club, said the sport has gone a long way since his day and is no more violent than any other high school sport.
"Everyone pretty much treats us like a karate school," Hilber said. "Everything is done with safety first. It's rough to wrestle and to kick box, but ultimate fighting is not any tougher than any other high school sport. And I keep a tighter lid on it than high schools."
Haselrig, who is 3-1 in his two years of fighting, said there is more of a chance of injury in football than in MMA.
"Football has lots of high-speed collisions," he said. "People are getting hit without seeing where it's coming from. In this, you should see where it's coming from. It's an opportunity to stand in front of another man, and there is no trickiness."
Still Standing Productions is the company behind the Rumble on the Rivers and was the first company to be awarded an MMA promoter's license in the state. Tiffany Porter-Holtzman, the owner of the company and a Pittsburgh native, believes this area will instantly embrace the sport. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, what she calls the Michael Jordan of MMA, is the largest and most popular division of the sport, but it opted to pass on having an event in the area. Porter-Holtzman believes that is a mistake, and the UCFC will take advantage of the opportunity.
"Pittsburgh should expect a grand evening, a grand production," Porter-Holtzman said. "Real fights ... it will be as close to a Vegas show in Pittsburgh as you can get."