SIOUX FALLS | Look over there: It's Chris Weidman, the reigning middleweight champion of the premier circuit in the fastest growing sport in the world — mixed martial arts.
He's hanging out at a neighborhood restaurant, sipping a beer while shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans. The 6-foot-2, 186-pounder works the room for an hour before reclaiming his seat.
The accessibility to the Ultimate Fighting Championship star is jarring. So is the location: Sioux Falls. What's more, it's not an isolated incident — more like a developing trend, the Argus Leader reported (http://argusne.ws/15PcnVT ).
This is where Weidman comes to get medical care and to enhance his training. It's also the city where his agent, Dave Martin, is based.
On a Wednesday night, the pair is with friends and business associates from places such as Sanford Health and Poet to watch a nationally televised MMA card in Brazil featuring Ryan Bader — another UFC fighter who frequents Sioux Falls. There's an American Ethanol logo on his trunks.
There could not be a better time for the first meeting of the South Dakota Athletic Commission, a group created in March by legislative approval. A new law will regulate MMA in the state, taking South Dakota off the short list of states that doesn't sanction this sport that combines striking and grappling disciplines.
Frankly, Weidman is envious — he has lobbied unsuccessfully to lift a ban on MMA in New York, his home state.
"Underground fighting is dangerous — that's when people really get hurt," said Weidman, a former All-American wrestler at NCAA Division I Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. "It needs to be sanctioned; it needs to be done the right way. And there'll be an economic impact for South Dakota, too."
While the future of MMA in this area doesn't hinge solely on the commission, its choices will be vital to the next stage of evolution for the local scene. As much as the past was largely forgettable, a foundation for the future is in place.
There are a couple of established gyms with experienced fighters and successful trainers, corporate interests have developed and some major players are aware of what the city has to offer.
And now, those involved in establishing the base are on board with the creation of the commission — they realize implementing more standards and organization could accelerate career opportunities and quality of competition.
The commission consists of five people appointed this summer by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a purposely diverse group allotted $95,000 in startup costs. It is starting to piece together things and could sanction an event by the end of this year or early next year, said Daugaard spokesman Tony Venhuizen. Several promoters are interested in creating that initial card and setting a bigger and better tone for the next chapter in the MMA saga.
Perhaps that — a smoothly run, safely contested, well-attended event — will help peel back some existing restrictions in the area. MMA events are banned in Watertown. Brookings considered doing the same, but stopped short. In Sioux Falls, a 2005 ordinance prohibits bouts in city facilities. The sport has changed considerably since then, but it might take time to prove that.
"If the state sports commission actually does set rules on this and recognizes the event, then it could change here," Sioux Falls city councilman Kenny Anderson Jr. said. "But I really doubt it."
The South Dakota Athletic Commission will oversee boxing and kickboxing in addition to MMA and looks like this: Michael Bergeron, director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance in Sioux Falls; Sturgis orthopedic surgeon Richard Little; Mike Kilmer, a longtime boxing coach and chief of internal operations at the Buffalo Chip Campground; recent law school grad, National Guard veteran and former boxer and MMA fighter Lee Lohoff of Yankton; and former state representative and senator Margaret Gillespie, a lawyer from Hudson.
Bergeron, for one, did not apply for the appointment. In fact, he initially wondered whether his inclusion was an honest mistake. Two years ago he testified in support of legislation that created a concussion protocol designed to protect young athletes. Bergeron also serves on the advisory committee for the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"We were seeking a balance of perspectives and a balance of experience and viewpoints," Venhuizen said.
The group is expected to explore broad areas such as safety, equipment and licensing along with a self-sustaining fee system in order to keep things going after the startup funds are gone.
Despite being surprised by the appointment, Bergeron isn't a stranger to MMA. He has worked with several top UFC fighters at Sanford Health. He considers those fighters to be elite athletes. There's a reason that pros in other sports — such as NBA player Mike Miller and Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings — use MMA training methods to prepare for their seasons. Of course, they're not subject to knockout blows during sparring sessions.
"There can be a level of healthy athletics in all of this," Bergeron said, "and I think the closer we get to that, the cleaner the sport becomes and the more people will appreciate it for what it should be."
For guidance on this issue, South Dakota doesn't have to look far.
The North Dakota Combative Sports Commission was created in 2005 consisting of two people — volunteers — working on behalf of secretary of state Al Jaeger. The group deals solely with professional bouts and is layered with regulations. Not only do promoters and fighters need to apply and pay for licenses, but so do trainers, judges, knockdown counters, managers, matchmakers, referees and timekeepers.
Among other requirements:
— Fighters are tested in advance of bouts for Hepatitis B and C as well as HIV every six months, at their own expense.
— Promoters are required to carry insurance and secondary injury insurance.
— An ambulance must be present.
— Three percent of gate fees go to the commission to cover expenses.
"It's nice because once the show starts, the commission runs everything," said Chris Nelson, owner of Dakota Fighting Championships. "They bring the fighters out, they get them ready. They make sure everything's right."
Sixteen MMA events in five different North Dakota cities are scheduled between now and the end of 2014, with Fargo set to host seven. Nelson said his shows typically draw 1,500 to 3,000 fans, success enough to keep his company going into its 10th year.
Nelson said that he once inquired about staging an event at the Sioux Falls Arena and didn't receive a return call. Ryan Stoddard, owner of Victory Fighting Championships in Omaha, Neb., has interest in this market, too — he put on a show in Rapid City in June and has another lined up for November.
He thinks the debut will be a tone-setter, but the ban on MMA events in city facilities could stand in the way.
Adding to the potential intrigue — and lending legitimacy — is the involvement of Sanford Health. The ever-expanding rural provider received approval from the UFC to work with its athletes and does so regularly in terms of training and treating injuries.
Brad Reeves, an orthopedic surgeon at Sanford, was at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when Weidman stunned Anderson Silva to win the UFC middleweight title in July. Reeves consulted with the 29-year-old Weidman in the locker room before the bout and cheered him on just beyond ringside.
The Sanford-UFC relationship began with the local agent Martin bringing some of his 26 MMA clients there, but it has expanded. In other words, fighters are telling their friends.
"They were doing things I would never expect any doctor to do because I'm not used to that," said Weidman, adding that New York takes pride in its level of medical care. "It was just shocking."
Not everyone is thrilled about the relationship. State representative and Sioux Falls pastor Steve Hickey is the most vocal elected opponent of MMA in South Dakota. "Sanford follows the money, so this is it," he said. "(Three-billion) dollar industry, fastest growing sport in the world."
Bergeron is of the mind that Sanford provides valuable services, too, and that fighters appreciate access to genuine expertise in matters of sports and science as opposed to the misinformation rampant at lower levels. He's come to learn that they're not bar brawlers, and they're not stupid. Weidman, for example, earned a master's degree after college at Hofstra. It's no wonder he's become a poster boy for the MMA debate in New York.
Could Sioux Falls, by virtue of its MMA connections and corporate backing and improving facilities, ever host a UFC event? Martin, for one, isn't afraid to think big.
"Why can't we have a very successful promotion?" he asked. "I've got a successful management practice, and the guys love coming here. I would love to see the UFC in the state of South Dakota, and I won't bet against it."
In the meantime, the MMA game will change just as it has in the past decade. Fighters are fitter, more experienced. Some feel this higher quality of fighter actually has made MMA safer. These men and women know what they're doing. Refs also have a better sense now for when to stop fights.
The most talked-about bout so far this year — Weidman upsetting Silva, winner of a UFC record 10 consecutive title defenses — ended no differently than a typical boxing match, the champ getting hit and wobbling before falling to the canvas. It was the first loss by knockout in Silva's 38-fight career. There was nothing gory about it.
"We've learned how to do things right," said Sioux Falls native and rising MMA star Shayna Baszler, who has 14 victories by submission among her 15-win total. "It's obviously tougher on your body than being an accountant, but I can be an accountant when I'm 50."
On the other hand, leaner, savvier combatants are capable of doing more damage, and there's a lack of information about the long-term effects on the brain. The NFL is struggling with those questions now.
To that end, Sanford is in the midst of conducting studies on brain health and football, tracking single-hit, seasonlong and career impacts. Running similar tests in MMA will be challenging due to the lack of equipment that's suitable for measuring force and reaction.
"Football players could have 50-60 subconcussive hits in a game," Bergeron said. "MMA might be something similar — I don't know. Fortunately, they tend not to fight as often as in a football season, where you're going every week."
Most state sanctioning bodies enforce a minimum wait between bouts; 60 days isn't uncommon. Bruce Hoyer, a trainer at Next Edge Academy in Sioux Falls, said that some states require a complete battery of tests — scans and cognitive — before approving a bout.
Frankly, Bergeron is perplexed by the situation. The way he sees it, his role is to help people optimize their performance while being healthy and safe. He plans to raise awareness as a member of the state commission, but he will not try to stop the sport.
"Anyone that understands the vulnerability of the human brain, it's difficult to rationalize why are you putting your brain in a situation where there's likely damage," he said. "I think football is sort of feeling that fear."
To that end, what happens as MMA becomes more mainstream? Pro fighter David Michaud is a volunteer wrestling coach in Pine Ridge and said some of the team members got into that sport as a gateway to MMA. They even ordered MMA-style trunks to wear during practice.
In those cases, the decisions won't — or shouldn't be — left up to the kids, Bergeron said. Parents need to be involved. Trainers need to be educated. Officials need to be licensed. The commission needs to implement the proper protocol, establish the line between sport and safety — not unlike boxing, hockey or football before it.
Violent physical competitions have been held throughout history, said city councilman Anderson.
MMA isn't going away here or anywhere else, but it's bound to change based on the decisions of the state commission, the response by enthusiasts and public perception.
"This is coming to a county fair near you," Hickey said. "People are going to have to deal with it at the local level from now on."