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January 12, 2012

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS: ‘Long time coming’

AXC’s Echols receives state’s first promoter’s license for MMA fights

CULLMAN —

He had to shut down his gym, Fear None, in August due to lack of fights. After putting on 13 local events, the man who lives for mixed martial arts could no longer give fans their fix of one of the country’s most popular and rising sports.

All Ray Echols has been able to do since the state technically made MMA illegal last April is wait.

But no longer.

On Wednesday, the Alabama Athletic Commission granted Echols the first state-sanctioned promoter’s license, paving the way for the CEO of American eXtreme Combat (AXC) to host Alabama’s first licensed, sanctioned MMA fights Jan. 28 at the Cullman Civic Center.

“Today is a great day for the sport of MMA in the state of Alabama,” Echols said Wednesday night. “This is a big thing in the MMA community. It’s something that’s been a long time coming.”

He’s not kidding.

Alabama finally joined almost every other state by passing MMA legislation in February of 2010. At that time, though, Echols said there was no governing body to police the brutal and dangerous sport.

In turn, the Alabama Boxing Commission was re-named the Alabama Athletic Commission so it could also oversee its growing sister sport.

Without judges, referees and rules, Echols said the state wasn’t ready to regulate matches in those early stages, meaning all MMA fights within Alabama’s borders remained unsanctioned.

According to Echols, a boiling point was reached last April when Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill stating that any promoter or attendee of an MMA match would be slapped with a Class C felony.

Promoters in cities like Huntsville, Bessemer, Florence, Anniston, Rainsville, Andalusia and even Cullman continued to advertise and hold fights this past summer, but Echols was not among them.

One of his fighters went to a show in Auburn because he really wanted to compete, even though Echols clearly informed him of the potential consequences. The illegal event didn’t end up getting busted by police, but Echols said he wouldn’t have made the same decision if it had been left up to him.

“I personally wouldn’t have because I’m not willing to take that chance,” he said. “I’m not playing Russian roulette.”

Instead of just sitting on his hands and complaining about his inability to hold fights, Echols decided to do something about it. He went to every athletic commission meeting and worked tirelessly to do whatever necessary to bring MMA back to Alabama.

“I’m just that guy that’s been in their ear, saying, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry,’” Echols said. “I sat through all the meetings with them, just waiting.”

Alabama Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Warren couldn’t help but notice the Cullman man’s persistence throughout the entire ordeal.

“Absolutely,” he said. “He attends the commission meetings and has been keeping in touch on a steady basis.”

All that hard work, both by Echols and the athletic commission, has finally paid off. The fruits of their labor will first be seen on the 28th, when Jack Whitfield and Dan Brewer headline a night full of MMA action at the Civic Center.

Whitfield, of Cullman, is AXC’s 170-pound welterweight champ, and Brewer (14-1) holds the same title at V3, an MMA company out of Tennessee.

“It’s really exciting,” Whitfield said. “We’ve been waiting for a long time for everything to get squared away. Now that it’s here, it’s real fulfilling.”

Because he couldn’t fight in the state without taking a chance at becoming a criminal, Whitfield said he’s done anything and everything possible to stay in shape since last April. At one point, he even played outside linebacker for the West Jefferson Devil Dogs, a semi-pro football team.

Whitfield’s record is 9-1, though it’s technically unofficial because all his matches took place in-state, therefore deeming them unsanctioned.

Although those fights — all were before last April — came during a gray period left by a lack of state regulations, Whitfield never considered breaking any rules or laws.

“All the venues (I’ve fought at) have been upstage, top-notch, top-of-the-line shows,” he said. “I never really fought in underground shows, where you had to worry about cops breaking down the doors and raiding the place.”

Whitfield said he is sure the fans will be happy to see fights again, but he knows none of it would be possible without Echols’ dedication.

“I can honestly tell you that he’s worked so hard on it,” he said. “He’s always on the phone, talking to the commissioners or talking to someone. He’s gotten everything together in such a short period of time.”

In addition to Whitfield and Brewer, former Alabama football player Eryk Anders will be on the fight card. He is the starting linebacker who infamously sacked Texas’ Garrett Gilbert and forced a fumble to preserve the Tide’s 2009 national championship.

Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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