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Budgets, black eyes, bare knuckles: MMA board keeps Wyoming on combative sports map

in Government spending/News

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Seven years after creating the nation’s first Board of Mixed Martial Arts, Wyoming is still grappling to stay ahead in the evolving world of combative sports. 

“We were the first state to regulate and sanction bare-knuckle fighting,” MMA Board Chairman Bryan Pedersen said, explaining the fighting style was sanctioned in 2018. “It was legal before, but there was no regulatory body. Now, everyone’s doing it. But somebody had to be first, and I’m proud it was Wyoming.”

But, like the fighters it was created to protect, the MMA board has to roll with punches, especially when they hit below the budget belt.

Carbon extraction not only drives the state’s economy, but it attracts combative sports most active demographic — people between the ages of 18 and 25. 

“In 2015, they started capping (oil and gas) wells,” Pedersen said. “For 16 months, we didn’t have one event, because you had an exodus of fans and combatants.”

The board’s budget is funded entirely by license fees, event permits and gate-fee percentages, he explained. 

“We believe we can do our job with no additional funds from the general fund,” Pedersen said. “If this thing ever runs out of money, it auto-collapses.”

Knocking out the books

An MMA fighter, financial adviser and former state representative, Pedersen sponsored the bill to create the board in 2012. As a member of the state’s Revenue Committee at the time, however, he said he wanted to make sure the board could be self-sufficient, so he added language to the proposal that forced it to collapse if its bank account ran dry.

“I’d seen enough of people coming to the Legislature asking for money,” he recalled. “I wanted to make sure that was never this.”

Without a physical location or salaried staff, keeping the board in the black seems like it would be easy even during the slow years, but Pedersen said the devil is in the details.

“We pay the Department of Administration and Information to keep tabs on our account,” he explained. “So, during that down period when nothing was going on, we were paying them to tell us nothing was going on.”

According to information provided by the State Auditor’s Office, the board spent about $2,300 in 2016 and approximately $2,500 in 2017. 

“We nearly ran out of money,” Pedersen said. “At one point, I bought six t-shirts from the board for $2,000 just so we could pay (the Department of Administration and Information). Then, oil came back, and now, we’re having more events.”

After regulating bare-knuckle boxing in 2018, the board’s expenditures more than tripled to nearly $9,000, before dropping back to about $6,000 so far in 2019. Pedersen said after Wyoming sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting, other states followed suit, decreasing the board’s income because of a lack of events.

“We only receive income from fighters’ licenses, promoters’ licenses, event permits and 5 percent of the gate fee,” Pedersen said. “We spend our money on training for officials and our at-will employees as needed.”

The board lists two at-will employees on its website: Board Representative Nick Meeker and Jeremy Arneson, an executive assistant.

To ensure adherence to the board’s regulations, one representative is paid to attend each event. An at-will employee is also paid to attend board meetings and perform administrative duties. Since 2014, the board has permitted 28 events, most of which were MMA bouts, Pedersen said. He did not provide data for events prior to 2014.At-will employees are paid fixed rates for specific services, but not the commissioners.

“No commissioner takes compensation of any kind,” Pedersen said.

The board has also banked $10,000 to settle any disputes over contested match outcomes, he added. 

‘Above and beyond’

BYB Extreme promoter Mike Vazquez said his company presented data about bare-knuckle fighting compared to traditional boxing across the nation before finding an open ear in Wyoming.

“We went around the country showing data we collected, and the crazy thing is — everywhere we went, they agreed with us,” Vazquez said. “But, (Pedersen) and his group were really the first to act on the data.”

In a traditional boxing match, about 700 punches are thrown, more than half land and landed shots are typically to the head, he explained.

“With bare-knuckle boxing, our rounds are shorter and there’s less of them,” Vazquez said. “Our fighters don’t have gloves, so they don’t throw a lot of shots to the head.” 

During a typical bare-knuckle fight, he said less than a hundred punches are thrown, fewer connect and less than half land on the head, he said.

“Having Wyoming take that step has now let other states take the step,” Vazquez said. “We’ve seen at least five other states regulate the sport, and I’ve heard several others are in the works.”

BYB Extreme hosted a bare-knuckle event at the Cheyenne Ice and Event Center in April.

“Wyoming was great, the people were so welcoming,” Vazquez said. “We stayed at the haunted hotel there – the Plains Hotel — and the MMA Board was fantastic to work with. They went above and beyond.”

Despite the number of notches in its belt already, the board has big plans ahead, Pedersen said. 

“We have a huge drive from promoters and fighters to regulate boxing,” he said. “They want to legitimize their bouts, because if a person fights in an unsanctioned bout, it doesn’t count.”

While the MMA board regulates MMA, kick boxing and bare-knuckle boxing, traditional boxing is not currently in its purview.

“Right now, a commission is coming from Kansas and regulating a few bouts,” Pedersen said. “The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), the governing body of boxing and MMA nationwide, permits sanctioning bodies to regulate interstate.”

In order for boxers’ fights to count toward their official record, ABC requires them to be licensed by their home state, he explained.

“We don’t have licensure body,” Pedersen said. “All these guys that are out there putting in the blood, sweat and tears cannot get a license.” 

The board plans to pursue authority to issue licenses to Wyoming fighters utilizing its current funding method, which would require no additional funds from the state, he said. 

“We do this out of a passion for the sport,” Pedersen said about his service on the board. “I love Wyoming, and I’m not going anywhere. I hope to be doing this for a long time to come.”

Wild night of bare-knuckle boxing returns to Cheyenne

in News/Recreation

By Cowboy State Daily

The appearance of the great-grandson of legendary heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in the main event highlighted a wild night for bare-knuckle boxing’s return to Cheyenne on Friday.

The four-hour show also saw a 300-pound fighter crash through a unique caged ring and tumble to the floor below. Promoters declared this latest event with its eight knockouts and usual bloodshed a success. The expectation is for more of the events to be held as the long-underground sport emerges into the limelight. Up to a half dozen similar “backyard brawls” might be held in Wyoming — the only state where the sport is legal — later this year.

“It’s different. It’s just a good time all the way around,” said fan Anya Turner, 26, of Cheyenne, comparing the sport to boxing. “The energy’s definitely better. It’s a little more raw.” 

The 700 or so fans who attended “BYB Brawl 1: Brawl For It All” at the Cheyenne Ice & Event Center roared when the action grew frenetic, which was often. Tens of thousands more watched via pay-per-view.

The organizer, BYB Extreme, of Miami, Florida, unveiled its unusual “Trigon Triangle” ring, enclosed by a 7-foot-high chain-link fence and shaped like the Superman symbol. 

“It’s really to promote confrontation and therefore resolution, and keeping those results in the hands of the fighters,” said Mike Vazquez, president of BYB. Translation: Knockouts are preferred over judges’ scoring decisions.

Indeed, eight of the nine bare-knuckle fights ended in knockouts. The ninth was declared a no-contest after Josh “Dempsey” Gormley, Jack Dempsey’s great-grandson, may have accidentally stuck a finger in the left eye of Bobby Brents, who was unable to continue.

“I hit him in the head with a closed fist,” said Gormley, 45. “There was no eye poke. I’m upset about it.”

Brents charged hard at the outset and opened cuts around both of his opponent’s eyes, but Gormley fought through it.

“I’m a Dempsey. I’ve got more heart than body,” he said. 

The newest combat sport began in Wyoming because of former state representative Bryan Pedersen, a financial analyst and kickboxer who successfully sponsored legislation in 2012 creating a state mixed martial arts commission, which he chairs. Last year, the commission — at his urging — approved rules for bare-knuckle bouts. After 28 other states declined to legalize the matches, Wyoming sanctioned the sport. 

Pedersen and other supporters view it as safer than Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) because no kicking or kneeing is allowed, plus the absence of gloves leaves less skin area to be struck.

Cheyenne hosted the nation’s first event in June 2018, followed by bouts in Gillette and Casper. Bare-knuckle fighting has provided significant advertising for Wyoming, underwritten by fans watching on pay-per-view, Pedersen said. 

“They pay 19 bucks, watch the fights with their friends and they hear, ‘This is in Wyoming,’ and someone will come,” he said.

Although Mississippi and New Hampshire are toying with the sport, Wyoming still has the edge, with more fights coming. 

“Maybe another four to six events the rest of the year, based on phone calls we’re receiving,” he said.

Billy “The Kid” Martin, who grew up in Cheyenne and lives in Casper, lost by technical knockout (TKO) to Leo Pla of Parker, Colo. Martin broke his own left hand early, then Pla broke Martin’s nose, sending him to the canvas. 

“I popped right back up and then he had a really, really good body shot – right in the liver,” Martin said. “You ask any fighter: It takes one good liver shot and you can’t breathe.”

Rock Springs native Joseph Guillen lost by TKO to Joey Angelo of Las Vegas.

Guillen sat out three years, grief-stricken over the deaths of his mother, two cousins, two uncles and a friend, all within two years.

“I shut down. I just stayed in my house and quit training, quit everything. So this gave me the opportunity to get back into the ring,” he said. 

The evening included two traditional MMA fights. In a super heavyweight match, Lamar Cannady-Foster attempted a kick but Jermayne Barnes grabbed his foot and pushed him backward. Cannady-Foster’s bulky frame hit the gate and popped the latch bolt, springing it open. He fell backward and down five steps onto the concrete floor, injuring a leg. He was unable to continue so Barnes was declared the winner because he was ahead on the judges’ scorecards.

“I’m a warrior. I want to go out there and earn it,” Barnes said. “I don’t like freebies. I don’t like handouts.”

Filmmakers with the popular 2015 Netflix documentary Dawg Fight – about illegal backyard fights – shot new footage for a followup. Dada 5000, a star of the film, helped organize the Cheyenne event.

“What a great place to have it at,” he said. “And it’s far from the backyards.”

Mixed Martial Arts finds home, big-name sponsorship in Wyoming

in Recreation/Community

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Pain shot across Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor Devin Henry’s face as he disengaged a grapple Monday with one of Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s students. 

“Hang on a sec,” Henry calmly told the student. “I think I broke my finger.” 

The 42-year-old’s purple belt cut a sharp contrast against his black gi, a lightweight, two-piece garment worn by several martial arts participants, as he cradled the injury and paced the training mats.

Within minutes, he returned to his student, and the duo continued to drill a series of subdual techniques.

“It doesn’t hurt now,” Henry said. “But I’m going to be in pain tomorrow, for sure.”

The Jiu Jitsu academy’s primary coach and owner Matt Cano nodded, acknowledging his junior instructor’s tenacity.

“It’s a rough sport, and you do get hurt from time to time,” Cano said. “But we bounce right back and keep at it.”

About 30 students and instructors sparred in pairs during the night’s training session, guided by Cano’s quiet directions.

Most of the time, he was on the ground with them, explaining and demonstrating Jiu Jitsu techniques simultaneously. But occasionally, he walked among the combatants, offering praise and critiquing the students’ moves.

“Jiu Jitsu is about human intelligence over brute strength,” Cano explained. “It’s human chess. It’s all about strategy.”

Japan to Brazil to America

After learning the Japanese martial art of Jiu-Jitsu from traveling instructor Mitsuyo Maeda, Carlos Gracie started a legacy by opening his family’s first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1925, according to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu association Gracie Barra.

In the decades to follow, the Gracie family refined and adapted the fighting style until 1993, when Rorion Gracie put together the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a way to test his family’s techniques against other popular martial arts like Karate, Judo and Tai Kwan Do.

The sport exploded across the globe, and by 2006, even the U.S. Army used moves inspired by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in its Modern Army Combatives, hand-to-hand combat training.

Although backyard wrestling and bareknuckle boxing enjoyed a modicum of popularity among young fighters in Wyoming around the turn of the millennium, combat-centric training centers remained sparse around the state, Cano said.

“Growing up, I was really into watching the UFC and all that,” he recalled. “But, there weren’t any real high-quality trainers for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You got some good wrestlers around here and good boxers, but for the longest time, we didn’t have high quality trainers that strictly focused on (mixed martial arts).”


After a stint in the U.S. Army, Cano trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu throughout the Rocky Mountain region, fought in both amateur and professional MMA bouts, then decided to focus on bringing Wyoming to the forefront of the growing global martial arts trend.

“It was around 2015, and I had one more pro fight, but I always had one foot in, one foot out with teaching,” Cano said. “I wanted to spread my love for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it did — it spread like wildfire.”

Cano’s academy began with three buddies in a two-car garage. He quit his full-time job as a diesel mechanic and dedicated himself solely to the art.

“I had no income the first couple of years,” Cano explained. “I was homeless — just living in the academy.”

Nowadays, Cano’s academy is located in downtown Cheyenne with nearly 5,000 square feet of training space.

“We’ve got about 135 students here at the academy now,” he said. “That’s between our kids’ classes, advanced Jiu-Jitsu, beginning Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing classes.”

Name recognition

The academy owes its success to several factors, including the nearby U.S. Air Force base, the instructors’ determination and Cano’s passion for teaching.

But the 32-year-old coach said one of the tipping points for Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an off-the-cuff friendship with Kurt Osiender.

“We’re the first major academy in Wyoming to be sponsored by a big name,” he explained.

Osiender is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt who trained under Ralph Gracie before starting his own academy in California. Referred to as a professor in the sport, Osiender met Cano during a series of seminars. 

“I kept asking him questions about different techniques, and after awhile, we just hit it off,” Cano said. “He comes and puts on seminars here at the academy throughout the year. He loves Wyoming. He loves guns and whiskey and Frontier Days. He says it’s his kind of state.”

In a sport where training lineage can hold as much weight as the color of a combatant’s belt, having a Gracie-trained instructor sponsor your gym is a huge honor, Cano said.

“Kurt certified my brown belt in 2016,” he remembered reverently. “That was a really big deal for me. Some people use stripes on the belt to indicate degrees, but Kurt’s old school and doesn’t do stripes.”

As much the student as the teacher, Cano said despite the growth of his own academy, he’s got a long way to go.

“I’m in no hurry to get my black belt,” he said. “Kurt will give it to me when he feels I’m ready. As long as I learn something every day, that’s all that matters.”

As the academy grows, Cano said he hopes to see Wyoming earn a place on the MMA map, but until then, he plans to keep rolling with his students and sharing his love for the sport.

“Spiritually and mentally, you’re in the zone with that training partner,” Cano said. “We share blood, sweat and tears on these mats. We’re all brothers and sisters here.”

To learn more about Cheyenne Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, visit https://CheyenneBJJ.wixsite.com/cbjj

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