I have had the honor to get to know BJJ black belt and MMA trainer Butch Hiles over the last year so it is no surprise to me that he is helping spearhead the first sanctioned mixed martial arts event in West Virginia’s history.
For years jiu-jitsu was also banned in the state so it makes it that much more amazing that an actual MMA event will be held. Valley Fight League will host “VFL 34: The Beginning” on January 7, 2012, at the Williamson Field House in Williamson, W.V. This event is made up of all professional fights with some big names in the works as well as several area pros.
Butch took some time out this past week to discuss the significance of this first pro mixed martial arts event in West Virginia, his involvement with the UFC in helping make this happen, the long process of getting MMA legalized in West Virginia as well as some of the problems promoters still face.
VFL 34 will be the first MMA event in the history of West Virginia, what are your thoughts on this finally happening?
Everyone in WV is very excited, including myself, and we cannot wait to show our fans what real MMA is all about. “VFL – The Beginning” is the first sanctioned MMA event in the history of W.V., which means our state athletic commission will be involved for the first time. This means a lot is riding on this event and there will be a lot of challenges and issues that I am sure they will face. However, it should help forge the way for the other shows that are coming to W.V. as well.
How did you first get involved with Zuffa and the push to get MMA legalized in West Virginia?
MMA has officially been banned in W.V. since 2001 and throughout the years a lot of people tried to bring it back but failed, including myself. However, in 2011, Zuffa (parent company of the UFC) hired a great lobbyist by the name of Sam Minardi to help them finally get MMA legal in W.V. again. He’s a local guy who even served on our state athletic commission in the past, so he was a perfect fit for the job.
I was added to this team because of my past efforts to make Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legal in W.V. and because of my knowledge and connections in the MMA scene both locally and abroad. I helped with the grass roots efforts, such as getting knowledgeable MMA fans and practitioners to talk to their delegates and senators, as well as personally meeting with dozens of senators in hopes to educate them on the bill and the sport. Believe me, this is the short version of what all went on because it was a long and difficult process but in the end some hard work and dedication by everyone involved got the bill passed and got MMA legal in W.V. again.
After successfully getting MMA in W.V. legal again, Zuffa invited me, my wife, Mr. Minardi, Leon Ramsey and many of the people at my gym, Butch Hiles BJJ and MMA, to the UFC in Pittsburgh, Penn. They treated us like kings and we got an all-access pass to anything that went on at the UFC, which included being able to view all the amazing behind the scenes things that no one ever gets to see. We viewed the production truck, the locker rooms during the fights, walked out with fighters, talked to their staff and met everyone that was there. It was amazing and they are truly class acts. I will forever be thankful for that and it was an amazing experience that will be hard to top. I wish everyone knew how hard the guys at the UFC work and how much they give back to their fans; because if they did I don’t think they would ever say a negative thing about them. They are truly amazing.
What were some of the early struggles you came across?
As far as the bill passing, the hardest thing is getting the people who vote to even understand what you are talking about. Most of the senators are unfamiliar with MMA and when they hear that the fighters fight in a cage, go for choke holds and try to punch and kick one another they are appalled and confused right from the get go. So, at that point, you are fighting an uphill battle and many times the actual facts don’t matter. In reality, you cannot change everyone’s mind and some people vote solely on party lines, which means they will not even consider the legitimate facts. Frankly, working with everyone on the MMA bill was a crash course into real politics for me and I see things a lot differently than I once did. However, it all worked out in the end so I thank all of the senators that took the time to meet with me and consider the issue on what they truly felt was right or wrong. I will always respect them for that.
As a gym owner and trainer of MMA fighters it’s always been rough going to other states and building up the right fan base because of the great distances we have to travel. A fighter really needs to sell tickets and be someone that people want to watch in order for a promoter to put them on a card that is 3-6 hours away, so we had to make adjustments and get what we could get. Many times we were offered fights because the promoters thought their hometown hero could beat one of our guys, and even though we won nearly all of those fights it’s still not a position anyone of us enjoyed being in. Hopefully, we will all see the fruits of our labor pay off now that we can actually do MMA in our own state.
Throughout the process what was your main motivation in seeing this project through?
I felt I could make a difference and I was in a position where I could actually do something positive for W.V., so if I didn’t try to make MMA legal here, and I didn’t do the right things for everyone involved, then I would not be happy with myself. I never live my life with regrets and I never want to look back and wish I had did something that I could have done. So, in the end, I always felt it was the right thing to do and that was my sole purpose in working so hard. I literally took time out of my life and my family’s life to try and do something positive that many people will not even know that I did or was a part of. However, I will always know that I helped do something very important for the MMA community and the state of W.V. and that’s good enough for me.
Ironically, I always knew making MMA legal in W.V. could hurt my business as a gym owner because of all of the fake gyms that would pop up and immediately claim that they train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. In fact, it’s already happened in my hometown of Charleston, W.V. and it’s continued to happen across the state. I constantly run into people, see emails, or even posts on the Internet where other people claim to be the ones who made MMA legal in W.V. or that they did this or that in hopes to capitalize on people wanting to train MMA. However, I never put that into serious consideration when facing all the challenges and hard work over the years. I always wanted to do the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do and I feel all of the other stuff will eventually work its self out. It always does.
In the end, I feel I have a solid reputation in the community and the state of W.V. and I will let that speak for itself. There will always be people who don’t like you and there will always be other gyms that say negative things about you in hopes to gain new members. However, you need to rise above all that and let people judge you on your reputation and what you can actually do for them as a practitioner in the sport. I respect all the legit gyms and people in our sport and W.V. is lucky to have some amazing BJJ and MMA gyms. In fact, there are many true pioneers here that no one knows about yet. Hopefully, that will change and everyone across the country will start seeing the amazing talent that is all across our state and at several different gyms. I’d give a shout out to each one of these gyms but I’m afraid I’ll miss someone and I don’t want to upset anyone, so I will just say that nearly every big city in W.V. has a great gym. Definitely do your research and train with one of these great places if you get a chance.
I understand that after the bill was passed and things were ready to go there were still some key issues that would prevent a promotion from putting on a show?
Unfortunately, there are many issues that still will prevent people from putting on MMA shows in W.V. Everyone needs to understand that MMA was made illegal in W.V. by our state athletic commission. That same athletic commission is still in control and they have made it no secret that they still do not want MMA here in W.V. Even though the W.V. state athletic commission has to go by the unified rules of MMA they can still make many state rules and regulations that keep the majority of shows from happening.
For example, the state of W.V. is the only state in the country that requires promoters to have two 6×6 video screens at the fights if there are less that 3500 people and four 6×6 video screens if there are more than 3500. W.V. has outrageous insurance and bond requirements for promoters, they require a venue of no less than 2500 people and make it a requirement that you have no less than 10 professional fights. Amateur MMA is also not legal in W.V. and there are many more ridiculous rules that a promoter has to deal with. Frankly, all these rules are put in place to out-price the event for nearly all promoters in the sport. They are making it clear that they still do not want MMA here and they will do anything possible to keep it out, even making up the most insane rules that any state has ever seen.
We are still working on these rules and we hope to get many of them changed. I was involved in some meetings last week and have some more meetings at the state capitol in the upcoming weeks. I look for at least a few more things to change and hope that we continue to make progress this year and next.
As a mentor, a gym owner and a practitioner of martial arts, what does this mean to not only you but your students and your supporters?
Making MMA legal in W.V. has been a battle that we have been fighting since 2001 and it’s an ongoing process. No one is thrilled with what is going on in our state, and continues to go on, but it’s something we have dealt with for a decade now. I constantly run into people at MMA shows who are unaware of my involvement with the MMA bill in W.V., that think that these rules are something we chose to pass. I just want to let everyone know that we all haven’t stopped working on everything and we are not happy with what the commission continues to do. The same people who got MMA legal here are still there fighting every day and one day we will get everything fixed the way that we all want it to be.
All that being said, I think everyone should think about all the progress that has been made in 2011. It’s been huge and the major battle has been won. These other issues are small compared to that one, and we will continue to work hard to get everything set in place correctly. I am also definitely thankful for all the hard work my friends did from all around our state, because without the emails, calls, signed petitions and much more, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We still have work to do but those same people should stop and enjoy what we do have right now because without them none of this would be possible.
What has been your role with Valley Fight League and how are you handling the demands of being the first of what will be many events in West Virginia?
Dozens of fight promotions have called me and many want me involved at different levels of their shows. I think the reason is they know I was involved with the rules from the start and have a solid grasp on what needs to be done. I also have connections with local fighters, fans and have a very large gym filled with people who do MMA and love MMA. There are also certain promotions that carry more weight than others and I hope that I get to work with them all at some level.
Valley Fight League, owned by Lionell Royer, has been doing boxing shows in W.V. for several years and has done dozens of MMA shows in Pennsylvania. He called and asked me about the rules, to see if doing a show was feasible. Once he realized he could do a show, he obviously wanted our fighters involved and they were excited to fight. On a personal level, I also wanted to make sure that the first show in W.V. was a success and keeps our commission happy. Obviously, I would hate to see all the hard work we have done in the past get ruined and so would all of the people I worked with. So, I am making sure the proper officials are on board, competitive fighters, and a good show is done. This is Lionell’s show, however, and he needs the credit. He is just as concerned that all of the proper steps are taken to make this show a success on multiple levels, and I am sure he will work very hard to do the best show that he can do.
This is a historic event and we are all excited to be a part of it because it’s a culmination of all our hard work. However, I also want to make everyone aware that there are going to be a lot of great events in our state and we hope to be a part of them as well. Greg Kalikas, and the NAAFS out of Ohio, also have a historic event coming to W.V. and there are a lot of other shows already on the books for the coming months. We are extremely lucky to have all of this going on right now and I am extremely lucky to have good friends in all of these organizations. Therefore, I look forward to working with many of them at different levels and being part of all these great shows. We have truly come a long way, since passing the MMA bill earlier this year and I look forward to seeing all of the great things that happen in 2012.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to support all of these shows. Everyone in the state of W.V. wanted MMA and now that it is here we have to go out and show our support. I specifically remember being at the state capitol last year and telling them about the economic impact MMA would have in W.V. and having our commission and other individuals say that this was completely untrue. They also said that they honestly believed that no one in the state of W.V. cared about MMA or wanted to see it. I want to prove them wrong. I want each and every one of these shows to be packed so we can show them that we were right all along and MMA is here to stay. So, again, if you are even remotely close to this show or any other show make sure you show your support for MMA.
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