WWE television returns to Kentucky tonight for Smackdown Live, so I thought now was the perfect time to publish a long-shelved column.
I even considered not writing it, out of concern of ramifications it could have for my fight team members -- pro wrestling and MMA can be petty. Ultimately, despite advancements made, Kentucky is stuck in the stone ages in some regards.
Professional wrestling is weird, but Kentucky makes it even weirder. Now, amateur MMA will enter that "weird" territory as well, depending on who you ask.
Kentucky changed the way they regulate professional wrestling, but many are worried about the ramifications the changes will have on other areas.
In November, it was revealed that the Kentucky Boxing & Wrestling Commission were making changes to the way they regulate professional wrestling in an effort to welcome WWE back to the state. For years, WWE has opted to keep their televised programs away from Lexington and Louisville, as matches had to be stopped in the event of blood -- something WWE wasn't open to doing on live television. Instead, the company opted to run Indianapolis, Nashville, Huntington and Cincinnati as opposed to the major Kentucky cities. This was all a part of Kentucky Governer Matt Bevin's "Red Tape Reduction" initiative. More than anything, it was just "red tape relocation." But let's be real, the situation in Kentucky has been a confusing one for quite some time.
Legendary Jim Cornette has been outspoken about the regulations, largely pointing the finger of blame at wrestler-turned-promoter Ian Rotten. In a clip that you can check out below, Cornette details how padding, railing, among other things have been heavily regulated.
"Ex ECW "star" Ian Rotten's IWA Mid-South promotion almost killed pro wrestling in Kentucky, with broken glass, thumb tacks, mouse traps, and the like until the state revoked his license and kicked him out. The publicity his "shows" got resulted in strict new regulations on wrestling, the sport being banned from many schools in Kentucky and all National Guard Armories in Indiana, and the bad taste left in the general public's mouth took years for Ohio Valley Wrestling to erase," Cornette would write.
Needless to say, Rotten's ultraviolent style of wrestling wasn't indicative of the rest of the world.
Kentucky's commission (formerly the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Authority) has always been a little unusual, and not always welcoming to input or questioning. A promoter, who preferred to remain unnamed, says they were told by a former official that they took pride in making it as difficult to run wrestling shows as possible. That mentality seems to be changing, but there are still some puzzling rules.
Wrestling licensing isn't unheard of, but is uncommon in this day and age. In Kentucky, if you want to train as a professional wrestler, you have to be licensed. Before you take a bump, before you do your rolls, before you lock up -- you must be licensed professional wrestler. Sort of seems to undermine the purpose of being licensed, right? This type of thing keeps a lot of promoters out of Kentucky. Some say it weeds out those who shouldn't be there, others say it restricts growth.
I voiced these concerns directly to the KBWC, which seemed to fall on deaf ears. The idea of licensing someone before they're qualified is downright dangerous, and screams "money grab."
"If you’re going to train for wrestling, we want you to be licensed so you know what you’re training for. It is very similar to having a learners permit for driving. You need to know how you’re being tested and what is required. Licensing before training is crucial," Bryan Helfenbein told me on behalf of the commission.
Does this make sense? It's okay if it doesn't to you, because it doesn't to almost anyone else outside of the commission, either. You, yes, you -- even if you've never wrestled, never practice, never even heard of wrestling, can have the same rights as John Cena and The Rock do in the state of Kentucky. That's not the issue. Most states are unregulated. That's how it should be. Pro wrestling isn't a sport, it's admittedly sports entertainment. But Kentucky is operating under the guise of creating a "safer" atmosphere. They're not.
"I disagree with it," said one person close to the KBWC speaking on a condition of anonymity. "The wrestling inspector thinks it's necessary. He's of the opinion you have to have your license number on everything you advertise. Why? I think you should have a trainee's license, which doesn't allow you to work a show."
The comparison to a learner's permit would have credence if there were a separate license for trainees. That isn't the case.
But why license at all? Why regulate at all? I couldn't believe the commission's answer.
"Pro Wrestling requires guidelines to ensure a fair and even playing field. It is a combat sport, like Boxing and MMA, and requires regulation to ensure health and safety standards," Helfenbein told me.
An even playing field? Pro Wrestling? Pro wrestlers work with each other, not against one another. Needless to say. I asked the commission to elaborate on that statement. I've performed as a pro wrestler, I've managed MMA fighters. I've covered both extensively. It's not difficult to realize the two shouldn't be regulated anywhere near the same. The KBWC stood firm.
"Like MMA and boxing, pro wrestling is a combat sport and, therefore, requires regulations and guidelines for the health and safety of those participating," said Chad Miller, KBWC Chairman. This is something former board administrator Angela Robertson had told me for years before. I tried to speak some sense. You'd be surprised to learn it didn't matter. Unless I had concocted a guaranteed way for the commission to profit without regulation, they probably aren't going to listen.
To the commission's credit, some of the "weirdness" was alleviated. The number of pertinent regulations were reduced from 18 to 13. Previously, cameramen couldn't be ringside without a license. That's been changed, somewhat.
"Previously the regulation was a lot more restrictive, photographers and cameramen could not get within the 6 ft barrier around the ring. The new regulation gives the inspector the authority to permit media to enter the 6 foot barrier," said Helfenbein.
Here lies the problem -- why was that the case anyway? The commission will tell you it's about safety. It's remarkable how quickly safety can be taken care of with a twenty-dollar bill. We were told that the commission often looked the other way when WWE came to town as it pertained to "event staff licenses." "All animals are equal, but some are more equal," the anonymous informant told Fightful.
Kentucky licensing won't be a problem for the WWE. They make sure their wrestlers are blood tested annually. The Kentucky Commission told me that they'll accept WWE's in-house blood testing, which is conducted by Aegis. The licenses themselves have been increased to $25. Wrestlers will have the ability to renew online, which is a big step. We've been told by many Ohio Valley Wrestling trainees that they were forced to drive to Frankfort to gain their licenses before bumping -- getting licensed as a wrestler before actually being one.
The blood issue became a big one in the mid-2000's. The KBWA at the time mandated that wrestling matches be halted in the event of a cut, and the wound had to be stopped. The WWE actually briefly adopted this rule for their televised matches, but abandoned it when it ruined the flow of their television program. Kentucky didn't abandon it, however, and WWE hasn't returned to TV in the state since.
See, the WWE doesn't need Kentucky. They simply run the aforementioned cities a stone's throw from Kentucky. Kentucky, however, wanted WWE. It just seems as if the commission wanted money a little bit more.
A big part of that changed in June 2015, when Rupp Arena and the KFC Yum! Center publicly took issue with some of the policies of the then-KBWA.
"The live TV events with WWE are very large and they draw a lot of people and viewers, so there's too much money involved to allow someone to stop one of the bouts," Yum! Center GM Dennis Petrullo told Insider Louisville. "It's insane. I mean, look at Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, or mixed martial arts, there's blood all over the place. And for some reason they have stopped them from coming into Kentucky because of blood in the ring."
No Monday Night Raw, no Smackdown, no pay-per-view. Only live events. This affects businesses in the area, hotels, and the arenas, of course. They want the big shows, the big crowds, the hotel stays, the restaurant visits. WWE just wanted to wait it out.
And wait it out, they did for five years. WWE will return to TV in Kentucky tonight for Smackdown Live.
Many wonder if the added Kentucky dates to the KBWC calendar will result in extra drug tests for the wrestlers. Yep, Kentucky licensing subjects pro wrestlers to random drug tests.
"I know people that are suspended indefinitely for pot," pro wrestler Michael Hayes said. "Though there's no statute for that. No precedent at all. They decided to test them more than once and that was that. Done. No license until they say. I know a guy that got hit his first time. Was supposed to be 6 months and a fine. (Tim) Gonterman pushed his meetings back and kept him from getting his license for over a year. Almost two. The rules are written so vague that (they) can test anyone at anytime. He's told people he could pop them at a McDonald's if he wanted."
Hayes is a former Ohio Valley Wrestling TV Champion, and also appeared on WWE Tough Enough. He's not to be confused with his namesake and WWE Hall of Famer Michael "P.S." Hayes. He's voiced his frustrations publicly before, but said many wrestlers and promoters in Kentucky are afraid to speak out. He's not wrong. I spoke to nearly a dozen wrestlers locally. He's the only one who was willing to go on the record.
Hayes also openly admits to using cannabis. He was wounded in an IED blast while serving in the military, losing his leg. Despite this, he became one of Kentucky's most popular and successful independent talents. Today, he says he rarely works due to the red tape surrounding the Kentucky commission.
"They made me get a doctor's note. Twice. No rules stating I should. Gonterman just decided he wanted one," said Hayes of Tim Gonterman. "It seemed like I was alone in the fight. People always acted like it was too big to deal with. When I applied for my license Tim basically treated me like I was a joke. His tone was clear that he wasn't taking me serious. Told me to get a note from the VA saying I could perform. They wrote one but used the word 'adaptive' in regards to sport and performance. Not sure if you're familiar with the term but it's used for anyone using a special device to do something. My prosthetic makes me an adapted athlete. He didn't like that word because he didn't know what it meant and made me get another one. I did but when I tried to get it to him he decided to leave the office for furlough and not give me my license. Caused me to miss the ROH/OVW tryout I originally signed up for. There's no telling how different my career would be if I had been able to make that. But no Tim didn't care.I hate telling these stories because I feel it makes me sound spiteful but it is what it is."
The Kentucky Commission hasn't responded to Fightful's inquiries in regards to drug testing, suspensions and licensing, but we were told that in relation to drug testing, the commission would likely rationalize that WWE administers their own in-house tests.
"Toughest state I know," said respected pro wrestling trainer Rip Rogers. "Used to be easier and all made more money."
There are a whole new group of concerns, however. Amateur MMA is facing an uphill battle in the state -- at least according to promoters
Major alterations have been made to amateur MMA regulations. One MMA promoter I spoke with wasn't happy about it.
"The proposed regulations as they are now will be very detrimental to MMA in KY. They will make it much more expensive to compete, especially at the amateur level. The way it's looking, all fighters and corners must be licensed 15 days before the event takes place. That means no late replacements to replace an injured fighter. If your corner man can't make it, you can't have someone else unless they were already licensed. Amateur fighters now will need blood work every 6 months just like the pros. It's also looking like an additional physical will be needed within 90 days of a fight. The fighters already get a physical the day of the event but this is in addition to that. In my opinion it's looking like it's going be a lot tougher to be an amateur fighter," said Brandon Higdon, promoter of Hardrock MMA.
Another promoter sent me a direct message that said "R.I.P. Kentucky amateur MMA."
Corner men must be licensed 15 days prior to the event. Before, this could happen the day of. Personally, I can't count the number of occasions where fighters didn't know who would corner them until the night of the event. Things happen. Life happens. The fighters aren't getting paid in amateur MMA, so coaches and corner men surely aren't. Two weeks notice is plausible for some, unlikely for many. Having to replace a corner man that night? That could throw away hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, hours on the road, and weeks of hard work.
Physicals are an excellent change, but an unfortunate cost for those who already aren't making money. This is a state where I've personally watched two 200 pound women compete in a regulated bout at a venue called "Dale's Hot Dog Stand," so you won't hear a lot of moaning about increased physicals from this side.
Blood work every six months? An inconvenience to the fighters, sure. Necessary for safety? Yes. Since blood testing has been introduced in Kentucky, there have been only three infections. That three could have been multiplied if not for the mandatory screenings. Getting some amateur fighters in the doctor's office (when some doctors don't even really know what they're supposed to be testing for) can be a pain. But hey man, those are the breaks. Better safe than herpe, right?
Funny story, one time I called a doctor's office to ask why they didn't screen the proper antigen for one of my fighters. The secretary said "astronauts don't even need that!" I was forced to kindly remind her that astronauts don't beat the brakes off of each other and bleed into one another's orfices.
At least by design.
Many fights are put together at the eleventh hour due to injuries, accidents, and quite frankly, fighters getting scared. The last few years have seen cards canceled due to number of fights promoted on the show. The KBWC said they don't see the harm.
"The goal of the new regulations is to positively impact MMA, especially in the area of safety. The new licensing regulations will make the paperwork process much easier and more streamlined. There’s been a logistical concern about getting participants through the process quickly, and the new regulations allow for that to happen. Also, Kentucky has less expensive licensing compared to other states. All-in-all, we hope to see a net gain in promotions based on the regulation changes," Helfenbein said..
There's also a double weigh in. You weigh in the night before the fight and the day of, and you can only gain 8% of your weight within 24 hours. No IVs are permitted for dehydration, and all fighters are subject to a gravity test of their urine.
"It would lead to healthier weight cuts for fighters. We’d still for the most part be fighting the same people that you would be in your original weight class. I don’t think you’d have as many people miss weight, pass out in the sauna or dealing damage to their body," fighter Adam Fritz told Bluegrass MMA.
Fighters don't seem to mind the changes, at least the devoted ones that I spoke to. As it turns out, fighters that flake in the cage usually flake when you ask for comment as well. That's likely the aim of the commission, but also a drawback for promoters. You'll always have the argument that fighters will attempt a second cut before the second weigh-in, but as they say, you can't fix stupid.
If you notice a different tone, it's for good reason -- the MMA rules, changes and regulations are done for fighter safety for the most part. The regulations in order for pro wrestling are to collect greenbacks.The commission's dealings aren't without major holes, however.
Promoters expressed to me the concern with amateur fighters being able to afford a license, travel, an additional physical, and two cases of blood work per year. Cards have to be finalized two weeks before, which is a nightmare as it pertains to amateur cards. Reimbursement seems like a natural remedy, right? I mean, so much of this has boiled down to money.
Enjoy this rabbit hole we're about to go down.
Amateurs, by definition, are 'an athlete who has never accepted money or who accepts money under restrictions specified by a regulatory body, for participating in a competition.' Quite subjective in this case.
"We do not regulate reimbursement allowances for amateur fighters," a KBWC Chairman told me. Commission member Todd Neal later cleared that up by saying "Amateurs may receive lodging and "reasonable travel." It's not defined. Very subjective."
There's really nothing preventing promoters from paying for fighters to 'stay' in a five star hotel suite and 'fly' from Cincinnati to Lexington by that standard. It's wide open. The promoters we spoke to say that generally they have personal limits that they stick to for amateur fighters based on difference.
Several other unusual issues I've experienced included being told by Robertson years ago that I required a promoter's license to inquire if any of the fighters (on the team I manage no less) wanted to compete on an upcoming card. Yes, by their standards, in order to post on social media to say "hey would anyone be interested in fighting on a hypothetical card" -- to my own team -- I'd require a license. Well, okay.
It's not all bad. I know the MMA changes are scary for promoters. Not for anything that's their fault, it's just that everyone wants to be a fighter until they weigh in or step in the cage, hear announcer Rick Toms call their names, and subsequently crap their pants and are never seen again. The MMA changes are done with good intentions, outside of the corner man rule, and the mandated two week card rule. Pro wrestling still has some work. Or no work -- just deregulate it. You know, like the rest of the country.
You're going to have issues with regulations with any commission. Kentucky is far from the worst. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to get with the times cost the cities that they represent money, and fans of professional wrestling memories.
I'll not pretend Kentucky has some deep-rooted tradition with historic WWE moments, but John Cena vs. Edge vs. Triple H was an instant classic. Eddie Guerrero winning the Intercontinental Championship. The McMahon Family vs. Shawn Michaels and 'God.' The Undertaker returning as 'The American Badass.' Chris Jericho botching Goldberg's entrance. The infamous Austin/Pillman gun angle. The Radicalz competing for the European title. Bret Hart's last WWF title defense on U.S. soil. Sting vs. DDP for the WCW title.....Triple H vs. Al Snow for the WWF title (JOKING). The state, and fans were robbed of that for years.
The irony of the situation is that the changes made to amateur mixed martial arts are largely positive and progressive -- and were done so without much push or championing from the MMA community (outside of the always hot topic of weight cutting). Pro wrestling changes have been needed, begged for and are common sense moves that the state expects the public to play dumb about.
There are fantastic people that work at the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Commission that I interact with fairly regularly. Those who want to see the sport of MMA and the business of wrestling grow. The unfortunate reality is, despite their shouts, they can't overcome that almighty dollar.
If you look at Kentucky's regulation of MMA, you see the good. You look at their regulation of wrestling? You see the greed.
This was to be the end of the feature. Long put on the shelf, I finally scheduled it for today -- as WWE returns to my beautiful state for television.
While on the shelf however, Matt Bevin didn't fail to give me more material. After a controversial January UFC fight between Joe Lauzon and Marcin Held in Arizona, the Kentucky Governer took to Twitter. In a series of angry tweets, he accused the UFC of being "rigged," before complimenting Lauzon.
That would be Kentucky Governer Bevin accusing another state of corruption, because he doesn't realize that MMA judges aren't appointed by the promotion in the United States. Instead, they're appointed by the athletic commission. Kind of like the one he helps oversee. Since the regulation of MMA, there have been no indications of fight fixing on behalf of the UFC.
Thanks for fighting the weird fight, Matt.