JOPLIN, Mo. -- Two lawmakers are seeking to ban mixed martial arts competitions for children, after The Associated Press reported last month that Missouri appears to be the only state where youth matches are legal.
The sport, also known as cage fighting, is a blend of martial arts styles made popular by cable television's Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Republican state Reps. Bryan Stevenson of Webb City and Steve Hunter of Joplin are sponsoring the measure.
"I think it borders on child abuse. I just don't think it's appropriate behavior at all," Stevenson said.
He said that while he has never attended a youth fight, he has seen video clips.
But a mixed martial arts trainer who is trying to organize a national youth league warned that bans will just drive an increasingly popular sport underground.
Nathan Orand, owner of a Tulsa, Okla., fighting studio whose young students have fought in Missouri, also defended the children's version as having safety rules and protective gear that make it no more dangerous than such established children's sports as wrestling.
Stevenson said he believes mixed martial arts is brutal and more dangerous for children than other sports, including wrestling. He also said he already had been alarmed by reports of youth competitions in southwest Missouri before the AP report.
State laws vary widely on amateur and professional mixed martial arts, or MMA for short, and there is no central organization for the youth sport. But five state boxing commissioners, who regulate combat sports in most states, and three MMA national sanctioning bodies said they were not aware of any state outside Missouri where it is legal for children to compete.
Stevenson and Hunter filed their bill just ahead of an April 1 deadline, meaning it has a steep challenge to pass before the legislative session ends in mid-May.
Stevenson said doctors told him that maneuvers used in mixed martial arts to "submit" or beat an opponent can cause permanent damage to children and young teens by putting pressure on joints that are still developing.
Orand said his startup youth MMA league, called Freestyle Combat League, is adding new safety rules on top of ones already in place to make sure joints and bones aren't damage.
Youth MMA as Orand teaches it in Tulsa requires padded head gear, shin guards, groin protectors and gloves. It also bars elbows and any strikes to the head of an opponent who is on the ground.
For the new league, Orand said he is adding chest and stomach protectors for fighters under 14 and a rule allowing referees to stop a match if they see the danger of a joint injury.
He's also taking away the cage, the chain-link fence that typically surrounds the fighting area. Orand and other MMA supporters say the cage is safer for fighters than the ropes of a boxing ring, but Orand said youth matches will be fought only on wrestling mats.
"One of the main concerns I've run into is the fact that it's in a cage. It can look brutal at first glance. In the interests of the youth sport, we're taking it out of the cage," he said.