Political fight keeps mixed martial arts out of Georgia

by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:


ATLANTA - It's been called the fastest growing sport in the world, and mixed martial arts fights have taken hold in Georgia.

But a political decision to fill a vacancy on the board that oversees the sport has become its biggest fight yet.

"This is a combat sport, people's safety is on the line," said fight manager Megan Swartzlander.

The secretary of Georgia's Athletic and Entertainment Commission decides whether fighters are evenly matched and if opponents will have a fair fight.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp appointed his deputy secretary, Kelly Farr, to handle the job, vacated when the previous secretary was recruited away by the state of California.

"Because we're so critical about how we match, we're the only state that's not had a fighter die in the ring in a sanctioned fight," said Georgia Commission Chairman Don Geary, who is critical of Farr.

"He doesn't have the skills that we require, and we're not going to compromise," added Geary, saying fighters, like John Quieroz, will be in danger.

"Most people go to work in the morning, they work in front of a computer. We go to the gym and we hit each other, and we make each other better," said Quieroz.

But he and his colleagues worry the impasse between the Secretary of State and the commission threatens to kill the mixed martial arts industry in Georgia.

"That's what you do every day, that's your love, and then you're told that you're not going to be able to show off that work? I really hope they get somebody in there that's experienced, and resolve everything," said Quieroz.

But Kemp said he will not re-visit the appointment issue until after the upcoming legislative session, saying he placed Farr in the role as a cost-saving measure.

"I'm fully confident he has the ability to do the job, he's done it before," said Kemp, who told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer, he didn't want to appoint someone new, and then have to fire them if the legislature forces more budget cuts.

"We're ready to support the commission. If they choose not to work with us, then that's something I can't control," said Kemp.

Critics say Kemp's decision will not save money, but cost Georgia's economy.

"People will lose their jobs, gyms will close," said Swartzlander, who worries about the hundreds of athletes, gym owners, trainers, and promoters.

"They would go to other states, they would have to shut down or they would have to find some other means of employment," she added.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has said it will only sponsor events in states with a functioning commission.

If Georgia's commission refuses to approve fights with Farr's decisions, UFC has indicated it would no longer host events in Georgia, events that routinely fill hotel rooms and restaurants. Even the 70 to 100 local events each year could be knocked out.

"When you look at total impact to the community and not just directly to the coffers? It's millions ... millions," said Geary.

Farr appeared frustrated at Tuesday's commission meeting, butting heads with commissioners several times.

"I don't know what ya'll want from me or need from me to convince you I'm qualified to do the job, but I feel I am," Farr told the commissioners.

They voted to approve a temporary fix for one month, allowing the American Boxing Commission to approve the fighter matches.

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