Originally Published: September 22, 2008 7:50 p.m.
PRESCOTT VALLEY - The Northern Arizona debut of Rage in the Cage in July at Tim's Toyota Center was a success.
...Not that it can't do better.
Rage in the Cage has been plenty successful for 10 years, doing upwards of 25 shows in a year. But it's about to get a boost.
On Friday, a new state law goes into effect, moving to unified rules for mixed martial arts (MMA) in Arizona - essentially, the rules utilized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The old rules frustrated both fans and fighters at the July event. Previously, elbow and knee strikes were not allowed, nor were closed-fist strikes to the head of a downed opponent.
In the case of amateur fights (14 of 20 bouts on the card in July), closed fists to the head were out altogether, even while standing.
"It threw my whole game off," said Danny Hilton, an amateur from Prescott Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/Mixed Martial Arts, after his fight on July 26.
Then again, with it being his first experience in the cage he added "It's probably a good thing I didn't get hit with a fist."
That's the "double-edged sword" as RITC promoter and promoter Roland Sarria called it. The sport gets more violent - or "physical," as Sarria says - which appeases the fans, but draws criticism from others.
"I think it's going to help me draw a larger crowd, absolutely," Sarria said. "At the end of the day, the fighter is going to be the one that loses. Some will benefit from it because it will prepare them for other shows. As a promoter, it's going to help me. But I was willing to keep it the way it was."
RITC also puts on events in other states like Texas and New Mexico where the "new" rules have been in effect for at least a couple of years. So it's not much of an adjustment for those involved.
If anything, it might make it easier on the fighters.
"We had to train more specifically for this event," said Jon Kessler, head instructor and corner man for the Prescott gym, after the July show. "It's a little hard for the guys who are kickboxers to box with open hands."
Critics argue that the law jeopardizes the safety of the fighters and could result in serious injury or even death.
It's a battle MMA promoters have had from the start. RITC Director of Operations Barry Jarrell said he and Sarria were the ones who got MMA sanctioned in Arizona in the first place to get it regulated to keep fighters safe.
"We just want to be sure that our fighters stay protected," Jarrell said. "That's important to us."
The Associated Press reported this past week that "promoters and other critics" are concerned John Montano, the Arizona Boxing Commission's executive director for 32 years, will try to regulate the sport too strictly.
Jarrell said that story came on the heels of the death of 22-year-old Phoenix Police Officer Barry Scott after an unsanctioned charity-boxing tournament at Fort McDowell Casino. He and Sarria see no problems ahead.
"Mr. Montano has been fantastic," Sarria said. "He has been very easy to work with. All you've got to do is follow the rules."
Jarrell said many of the fighters for RITC are naturally much more at risk of injury than those in events like the UFC.
"Our fighters are not fighters that fight," he said. "Some fight for a living. Most fighters in our venues have full-time jobs. They have families, they have kids. They go to work and they come and they fight."
But that just means they go the extra mile to protect them.
"At the end of the day with the referees, it's called common sense," Sarria said. "If the guy is hurt - regardless if it's open hand, elbows, whatever the case - if he's hurt, the fight's over."
The fighters weren't exactly playing patty-cake before, as demonstrated when 36-year-old Prescott native Bill Burke won by TKO after an open-handed strike in July.
Most fighters bemoaned the old regulations, but, again, Jarrell said it wasn't all that bad the way it was.
"It's a mixed bag between fighters," he said. "Some fighters love it, some fighters don't like it too much. Most fighters like it a whole lot, until they eat a few elbows. I think that might change the perspective a little bit."
Prescott's Travous Degroat - a professional - lost by disqualification in July for striking his downed opponent illegally.
"They said I was hitting him with my forearm," Degroat said after the fight. "My hand was open. Who gets disqualified from a cage match for playing to rough?"
It's far from anything-goes, but fighters like Degroat will now have a little more freedom. And that figures to make the patrons happy.
"The fans are going to love it," Jarrell said.