Ultimate fighting banned in Webster
2011 death led to outlawing in Watertown
April 28, 2012|JEFF BAHR | email@example.com
The drive to ban ultimate fighting in Watertown and Webster began with a 2011 death in Watertown.
Webster city officials say that banning the sport didn't become an issue in Webster until Watertown voters banned the sport in June 2011.
Justin Jaton, 26, died after suffering injuries outside a Watertown bar in March 2011. Jerrin Stulken, a mixed martial arts trainer, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated assault and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
It was after that death that Watertown residents started talking about an ordinance to ban ultimate fighting, also known as mixed martial arts.
“That's what really got the conversation started in Watertown,” said Nancy York, who was a Watertown City Council member at the time.
After enough petitions were received to put the question on the ballot, Watertown voters approved an initiated ordinance.
A similar ordinance was passed on April 10 by Webster residents.
The events in Watertown got Webster residents interested in doing the same thing, said Webster Mayor Mike Grosek.
“It was not an issue here at all until that,” Grosek said.
“That's absolutely correct,” said Webster City Councilman Morgan Dorsett.
But South Dakota law gives voters the opportunity to make laws, and the majority did not appreciate this type of entertainment in town, Grosek said. The ordinance banning ultimate fighting passed 311 to 192.
Before mixed martial arts was banned from the city, the Webster Armory hosted four mixed martial arts events. Three of them were presented by Fury Ultimate Cage Fighting, which is based in Watertown. The final one was March 31.
Michael Alama, the president of Fury Ultimate Cage Fighting, did not like the election results in Webster. He is “very displeased with the outcome when their hometown hero, Brock Lesnar, was the heavyweight champion of the UFC,” Alama said, referring to Ultimate Fighting Championships.
Alama plans to bring the issue back to the voters of Watertown in November. This summer, he will begin gathering signatures to place an initiated ordinance on the election ballot.
“I think that it's absolutely absurd to ban a legal business,” Alama said.
The Rev. John Hisel, pastor of United Methodist Church in Webster, was one of the leaders of the effort to outlaw MMA in Webster.
The group feels vindicated, he said.
“I often refer to what happened as a slam dunk for the citizens of Webster, who kind of had to wrestle government away from the City Council.”
Members of the group objected to the fights. But they also weren’t happy that a special malt liquor license was granted to sell beer during the matches, he said.
“It is something we just didn't feel we needed in our town,” Hisel said. “That Armory has always been a place of celebrating — life and sporting events and graduations. We felt it was reducing it to something that we could not be proud of.”
Someone, Hisel noted, said that MMA is “just a sidestep from a regular street fight, except it's in a cage.” Supporters of the ban feel the activity is brutal and there's “nothing nice about it. We didn't want our children to be exposed to it,” he said.
Alama said a cage is the safest spot to house the competitors.
“If you put them in a boxing ring, they can fall through the ropes. Not only can they injure themselves, but they can injure anybody that's sitting around ringside,” he said.
How does Alama feel about having his sport compared to a street fight?
“I respond that in a street fight people die all the time. To date, no one has ever died in the cage, anywhere.”
Alama said Fury Ultimate Cage Fighting didn't have a problem in Webster. He has also brought shows to Mitchell, Brookings, Sturgis and Sioux City, Iowa.
Before Jaton died, MMA fights had been taking place in Watertown without much notice, York said.
But after the incident, Watertown Mayor Gary Williams received lots of calls from people saying, “we've got to do something about this,” York said.
York also heard from a lot of her constituents. When you're serving “in a City Council chair, you have to listen to what people are asking you to do,” she said.
After 17 years on the Watertown City Council, York didn’t run last summer.
“But it really didn't have anything to do with this issue,” she said. “I'd made that decision before.”
Jason Ehresmann, owner and promoter of South Dakota Total Combat, said many people don't understand the sport yet.
“A lot of guys around here don't train, so it does kind of come off as bar brawling,” he said.
How a show comes off depends a lot on the promoter, Ehresmann said.