Amateur MMA has killed it for pro fighters in Tennessee

By: Allen Sircy (@ATOAllen)

When you think about MMA in Tennessee what comes to mind? Is it the first ever UFC in the state in 2009 that featured Martin Kampmann vs. Carlos Condit in Nashville or was it UFC 107 in Memphis that saw BJ Penn defend his lightweight title against Diego Sanchez?

Amateur MMA Overload

When I think of MMA in Tennessee I think of all the amateur shows every weekend across the state. Now that the sport has gone mainstream any promoter or gym owner who can get a cage, a venue, and enough guys who can pass a physical to fill their card puts on a show and promises it is the best card such and such town has ever seen. Tickets are always going fast and you don’t want to be left out according to Promoter X, Y, and Z.

Sure, amateur MMA has it’s place and is a necessary evil for the up and coming fighters in the state but somewhere along the line greed took over and suddenly everyone wants to promote amateur shows at the expense of the pro fighters in Tennessee.

Last month the state was host to at least 7 amateur shows. How many shows were there for pros? Surely there was a pro-am somewhere. Nope, it was all amateurs and the pros in the state continue to sit on the sidelines or look for fights out of state.

If it wasn’t for the XFC and John Prisco the state would be scrambling to find something to do this year. Jeff Mullen is a fine Commissioner and does all he can to bring professional MMA to the state but up until the XFC and UFC shows this year there has been nothing for him to do. Mullen has been actively seeking promotions to put on on pro shows in the State the past few years but ultimately his requests have fallen on deaf ears.

The Danger

The Tennessee Athletic Commission is part of the government and if it’s not profitable eventually Tennessee could pull the plug and MMA would be illegal again. Or even worse for promoters, the state takes over for the ISKA and begins sanctioning bouts and charging amateur promotions similar fees as pro shows.

If that happened there would only be a handful of promoters left, not that that is a bad thing. Technically, the Athletic Commission regulates amateur MMA anyway but it’s written into the legislation that was passed in 2008 that as long as a promoter uses a sanctioning body approved by the State (ISKA, WKA, ISCF) and pays the $50 fee within 30 days of the show the State will approve the show as long as the sanctioning body approves of the card.

The Athletic Commission is under the Commerce and Insurance wing of the State Government. And last year the department exceeded their budget by over $60,000 according to Assistant Commissioner of Commerce Steven Majchrzak in a meeting last August.

It got even bleaker when Steve Hannah, the Chairman of the Tennessee Athletic Commission stated that the direction the Commission is taking is, “to justify our existence”. What does that mean? It means the Athletic Commission has to turn a profit and make money for the State. If you read between the lines you can figure out what could happen.

Why the Problem Exists

I know what promoters say, I’ve actually worked for several promotions in Tennessee and they always go back to how it costs too much money to put on a pro show. They do actually have an legitimate excuse. To put on a pro show in the state you have to give a percentage of your gate to the State.

You must also carry higher insurance premiums and pay fight purses instead of using amateurs who fight for free. There is a $550 fee to apply for the promoter’s license as well. Plus you have to rent a venue, security, and so on and so forth. It does get expensive.

And I’m not bashing any one particular promoter or promotions. Several promotions in the state have tried to do pro-ams last year and they didn’t make money and were lucky to break even. A business is supposed to make money right?

In Kentucky HB Dick has been promoting amateur shows for several years. He does fairly well and decided to put on pro shows to give the guys who had fought for him in the past as amateurs a chance to get on a fight card as a professional. Did he make money? No, but he did right by the guys who he made money off of for years and gave them the opportunity to fight as a pro.

Some promotions offer really nice belts or trophies. Some offer the lure of a professional contract with a legit professional promotion. That’s fine but someone should step up and do something for the guys who are fighting every month or so for them.

I’ve been to shows in the past where the same fighter has fought two or three times a month. They fight an MMA fight early in the month then take a muay thai fight because their gym is doing a show and they’ve been pressured to compete because the card isn’t full. Then they fight another MMA bout a few weeks later.

Some guys have 20+ fights before even turning pro. Some guys don’t ever go pro and there’s nothing wrong with that if that isn’t what they want to do. As a fan, do you want to go to a show and see four fights, three grappling matches and two muay thai fights because a promoter couldn’t get enough fighters on his card?

And the worst part is that the promoters are encouraging these kids to stay amateur so they can continue to use them. Tennessee has embraced a culture where amateurs are put on a pedestal and pros are forgotten about and are basically irrelevant.

It’s almost like fighters from the Volunteer State are more concerned about competing in a high school football game, while guys from Florida, Georgia and California are playing in the NFL. What’s more important, a letterman’s jacket or a Super Bowl ring?

I had a matchmaker of a successful pro-am promotion outside of Tennessee tell me that he was talking to a fighter he was hoping to put on the amateur side of his upcoming card. The young man from Tennessee turned him down because he wanted to compete for a certain amateur promotion in his home state because they had really cool belts.

The matchmaker asked the fighter if he wanted to go pro one day to which the fighter replied yes. The matchmaker then told the guy to go ask the amateur promotion to use him when he was ready to go pro because he wouldn’t. It may sound a little brash but it raises a good point.

Amateur MMA vs. Pro MMA

If you are an amateur fighter you need to be concerned with your future as a potential pro fighter. If you don’t want to take it to that level that’s fine, but if you do, you need to be asking these amateur matchmakers if they are going to use you when you are ready to go pro. If they say they will, get it in writing. Don’t let them tell you that they will refer you or talk to someone for you. Make them promise to help you as a pro by using you on their cards.

They are making money off of your blood, sweat and tears; shouldn’t they be there for you when it’s time to go pro? Amateur fighters really need to wake up. Because if it’s bad for the pro fighters now just wait a few years when there are even more pros that can’t find a fight.

Amateur fighters are a dime a dozen in the state. One gets hurt and the promoter finds someone else or gets the original opponent to take a muay thai fight or grappling match and then tells their audience it’s the best card they’ve ever put together in hopes of making a lot of money for themselves, not the guy fighting.

I know a popular fighter who took a fight after the promoter begged him to be on a card last year. The fighter wound up getting injured and missed work for a few weeks then spent months chasing the promoter down to get the insurance information so he could get treated and hasn’t fought since.

Promoters are obligated to carry insurance to pay for the doctor’s bills but if a fighter gets seriously hurt and misses work for a few weeks the promoter isn’t going to pay your bills.

Recently a lot of gym owners have done amateur shows. And to no surprise their guys do really well and usually win every fight. Sure it’s smart business for the gym; make your fight team look good and get more students.

Some trainers even pony up and do pro-ams for their guys. Same result, their guys run the table and the gym and fighters look really good. And that’s really a gray area too. It’s great that there are pro fights for guys who normally wouldn’t get them, but when all of their guys are fed cupcakes and 90% of the crowd knows who is going to win it does make for a rather lackluster show.

But in the trainer’s and gym’s defense, once you go pro it is a whole new ball game and you have to have wins to get guys on the UFC’s radar. It might make for a bad fight card but I understand the reasoning for the match-ups. And after all, the favorites do have to perform and sometimes the underdogs sneak up and get the win.

Pro fighters from Tennessee are the real losers in this deal. They train just as hard as amateur fighters, if not harder, and have to sit on the sidelines while their amateur teammates fight basically anytime they want.

The abundance of ammy shows has killed the pay for pros as well. I’ve seen professionals with solid fan bases fight for a few hundred bucks just to get on a pro show. Days of fighters getting several thousand dollars for a fight in Tennessee are over unless it’s for a major promotion with television behind it.

It really is a buyer’s market for promoters right now and it’s ironic no one has really stepped up to put pro guys on a card. If fighters want to stay busy and get to the magic number of three fights to be considered for the Ultimate Fighter they have to fight for whatever a promoter will give them.

Think about it, in 15 seasons of The Ultimate Fighter how many Tennessee fighters have appeared on the show? Out of the 300+ fighters who have been on the show, excluding season 4 which featured UFC veterans, only two guys from Tennessee have been on the show. Shane Primm and Austin Lyons both made it.

I know there are guys in the Volunteer State that are just as good if not better but they can’t get on it because they don’t have enough fights or their record isn’t as good as guys from Florida or California where they fight all the time.

I get hit up all the time by pro fighters around the state asking me to help them find fights but honestly there just isn’t anything for them unless they want to go to Kentucky or Alabama to fight for peanuts.

I believe Johnathan Ivey would fight every weekend if he could but instead he waits by the phone hoping someone will fall out or get injured just so he can get a short notice fight somewhere within driving distance. Then people talk behind his back about his record when in all likelihood if he had an eight-week training camp for each fight his record would be much, much different.

The Solution

Now with all that being said, I think the fault lies with both the State and amateur promoters. There are a lot of things the State or the ISKA could do to solve the abundance of amateur events and help pro and amateur fighters:

1. Cut back on the fees for the pro shows so promoters are more inclined to do them in Tennessee.

2. Cap the number of fights an amateur can have. I think 15 to 20 is about right. Once you get that many fights it is harder to match that fighter up anyway because the ISKA isn’t going to let a guy who is 12-5 fight a guy who is 2-1. You don’t see a 26-year-old defensive lineman going against an 18-year-old offensive tackle in college football. Sure an 18-year-old could beat a 26-year-old but there needs to be some checks and balances put in to keep guys from fighting amateur forever and to create an equal playing field.

3. Limit the number of grappling matches and muay thai fights promoters put on a card. I understand some guys want to do muay thai fights to get more experience standing. There is a need for it, but promotions are abusing it just to fill out their fight cards so they have more matches for the fans. People come to see MMA fights not a bunch of thai fights and grappling matches you threw together so you could have ten fights on the show.

4. If a promotion is going to do one amateur show a month then every other show should have at least four pro fights on it. If they do a show every two months then every third show should be a pro-am.

5. The state should pick one sanctioning body and do away with promotional belts. I think the ISKA should get the nod here since they have been around the longest and let them decide who fights for the titles.

5. Amateur titles should not stick with one promotion. To fight for the light heavyweight belt you have to go to town A to fight for promotion X. To fight for the lightweight belt you have to go to town B to fight for promotion Z. After a champion is crowned let the sanctioning body determine the next challenger and let them decide where to hold the fight. It’s not fair for John Smith in Random Town, Tenn., to have been the best flyweight in his region only to not get a title shot because the belt is held in another part of the state while that champ gets fed cupcakes because his gym owner is the local promoter. The belt gets stuck in one part of the state and the champ doesn’t get tested while a more worthy contender continually gets passed over. Sure the champ should get home field advantage but do you think Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre fight in their hometown every time? Of course not, and if the champ is serious about going pro he needs to venture out and get used to traveling and cutting weight away from his local gym and away from his comfort zone.


I know I will get blasted for this article by a lot of people around the state. I know a lot of people will also agree with me. Either way it’s fine. I have thick skin and it’s not the first time I’ve been bashed for my opinion around here.

I have to admit that ATO was part of the problem and we helped contribute to the culture that I’m now speaking out against by ranking the amateurs in the state. Initially it was to give credit to the guys who worked so hard and fought for free but over time it became apparent that promoters were using it to see who could get the most ranked guys on their cards in order to sell more tickets with our seal of approval. We did rankings for the pros as well but no one seemed to care except for the guys who were ranked. From now on we will only rank the professional fighters in the state.

I’m also a little biased since I do manage professional fighters and maybe I’m completely wrong. I do enjoy amateur fights and I believe there is a place for it in the state, just not every weekend. Not every promoter is bad and out just to line his or her pockets either. There are some decent ones out there who want to help fighters and grow the sport that they love. But somewhere along the line greed or acclaim for a trainer/promoter’s gym took over and it’s ruined professional MMA in Tennessee.

The Athletic Commission carries some of the blame and I know that Mr. Mullen is aware of the problem and working to fix it as soon as possible. The amateur fighters in the state hold all the cards and could fix the problem if they just banded together and held promoters accountable. They alone could force change in the state and create a bright future for all the pros now and those to come.

This is a guest post written by Tennessee resident Allen Sircy. The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its staff.

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