by Jim Genia (Full Contact Fighter)

The right man in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes it just takes the right man in the right place at the right time.  Bills legalising MMA have been approved by both the House and the Senate of the Maryland General Assembly, and once the governor signs either document, the sport will be permitted in the state best known for its crabs and Orioles baseball team.

You can thank John Rallo for that.

“It feels awesome.” says Rallo, a Baltimore resident and coach to such fighters as James “Binky” Jones and Tenyeh Dixon.  “It’s not very often that you get to be a part of making a law.  It’s been a unique experience.”  He adds: “I’m pretty excited.  It looks like it’s all the way done, an as soon as the governor signs everything then the law will be official and we can start working on rules and regulations and training refs.”

How did Rallo get the ball rolling?  “I have an uncle in government here, ” says the Renzo Gracie black belt.  “I went to him and asked him did he think that this was something that could be done as far as getting mixed martila arts legalized here.  He the put me in touch with a law firm downtown, which was Gordon & Feinblatt…  We got this all done in months.  We started talking probably towards the end of last year about this.  So when things started to move, I talked to my uncle, he put me in touch with a friend of his who’s a lawyer downtown.  I talked to the lawyer, and he started to ask questions as far as did people think this could get done?  Was there a big opposition?  As he started to go around and ask and get educated on mixed martial arts himself, he told me, “I’m really not finding lots of opposition.”  And he also surprised at the amount of people who were fans of the sport – he found out his daughter watches the UFC!

Rallo continues: “One thing led to another, and once he thought that politically things would work, we set up a meeeting with the State Athletic Commission.  We talked to Pat Pannella (the Executive Director of the State Athletic Commission).  We said, “Mr. Pannella, this is waht we’re looking at doing.  We would like to do this with your blessing.  What would you like us to do to get your support?”  We sat down, had a conversation, and he seemed to think that if we could do things the way I told him we could do things, they could come and testify on our behalf and say that mixed martial arts should be regulated.

Why did things go so smoothly? Rallo is quick to credit the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board officials who stepped up to help.  “Here’s the reasons I think everything went so smoothly,” he says.  “Number one, I had a resource like Nick Lembo (the Chief Legal Counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board).  Nick’s obviously been instrumental in getting mixed martial arts accepted thoughout the country.  He’s one of the gentlemen who’s responsible for making the Unified Rules.  I always had intentions of getting it legalized here, so Nick would always send me articles that were helpful and I would save them.  And when I started to make my in-roads here, I used that information – I put that stuff together and gave it to my lawyer.  As far as the John Hopkins study that was done on safety, Dr. [Michael] Kelly sent me an opinion letter on the safety of it through his experience as a ringside physican.  What I tried to do here was educate people before we went to these hearing and before we went to testify so that hopefully the questions would be answered before we set up in front of everybody.”

“Our lobbyist’s name was Tim Perry,” says Rallo.  “Him and Ed Hitchcock (another lobbyist) and myself, we would go down to Annapolis.  Meetings were set up with people, we would visit these people and give them the information.  We found out that, as we were talking to different senators and delegates, once we showed them what it was and showed them that it was a safe sport, there wasn’t this huge amount of resistance.” He adds: “I’m known in the community here, so my relationships – through relatives, through friends that are lobbyist, bigwigs in the unions, guys who are appointed jobs from the governor – we just tried to use my relationships to educate people and let them know this is not a bloodsport.”  Like most states legisative processes throughout the country, a bill in Maryland requires a legislative sponsor.  Rallo was fortunate enough to have two – one for the House and one for the Senate.

“Mr. Hitchcock brought Senator Conway to my academy,” he says.  “She came, watched a practice, watched some video – we watched Ring of Combat and Binky beating Ian Loveland.  She was kind of versed in boxing, so she knew the round structure and understood knockouts and all that kind of stuff.  She made one visit, and the next day I got a call from my attorney saying she wanted to sponsor the bill.  Channel 45, which is the Fox affiliate, did a story on me, on the school, on Binky and on my goal to get this legalized.  Delegate Karill Reznick – he’s a Montgomery County delegate – he heard an ad for the piece on the radio.  He called his office and said, “There’s a piece on Channel 45 about this guy trying to get mixed marital arts legalized – I want you to find that guy.  Next thing I know, I get a call from his assistant, he sets up a meeting with our attorney.  He wanted to get involved somehow, and that ‘somehow’ was the he was the sponsor of our bill on the House side.  Delegate Reznick was a gentlemen who wasn’t even on our radar, and he stepped up and said, ‘I’m a lifelong martial artist.  This stuff should be legal and I want to be the guy that helps you get it legalized.’  We really had great support from inside our political community.”

The end result of Rallo’s labor?  In the House of Delegates, [the bill] passed 117 to like 22.  On the Senate side… only like six people voted against it.”

What of amateur MMA, which has flourished in states like New Jersey and Ohio?  “Amateur athletics was a point of big contention here.  In Maryland, the State Athletic Commission regulates professional sports but not amateur…  Their concern with putting amateur here was how do we know who’s fought amateur and who’s fought pro?  How do we get these shows sanctioned?” Says Rallo: “Nick hooked me up with Paul Rosner of the USKBA.  You know that that’s the sanctioning body for New Jersey, and in my opinion, if it’s good enough for Nick in New Jersey then it’s good enough for us.

“Paul’s an active participant in helping us get this done here,” Rallo continues.  “He worked closely with us.  He came down here twice and testified.  Nick and Dr. Kelly came down here and testified.  Even the UFC sent Michael Mersch (Zuffa’s assistant general counsel) down for the Senate hearing, and Mark Ratner (Zuffa’s vice president for regulatory and government affairs) came to the House here.  The UFC was real supportive – I think probably even more supportive because they didn’t have to do an lobbying!”  Adds Rallo: “It was really cool that they still took the time…  I was really flattered that Mr. Ratner showed up because I didn’t know that Baltimore was that important to them.”  Rallo also credits the efforts of Dr. Frank Reid, a minister who testified on behalf of the sport before the legislature.

How soon until Maryland has its first MMA event?  “That is the million dollar question.  Both bills were approved and only one of them needs to be signed…  They go for the governor’s signature.  I believe he has until July to sign the bills into law.  I’ve been told that they believe our bill will get signed in April, but that’s not a definite…  I believe the law would not become official until October of 2008.  I was told by Senator Conway that you can apply for special permission to have the law go into effect immediately, but I don’t know that that’s a necessity.  Once the law is signed and everything, then we go through the rules and regulation process…  Mr. Pannella is just worried that things are done safely.  He doesn’t want guys to get hurt here.  They’ve got a good record as far as boxing and injuries go, and they want to try to keep that clean record they have.  He’s told me once it get signed, then they get it with the rules and regulations.  He’s told me that they are going to use New Jersey and the Unified Rules as their guide.”

Rallo, though, is in no rush.  “It is a political process.  And we have to take into consideration that judges and referees have to be trained…  I’m going to say… Maybe October of 2009 is when we’re going to see fights here.  But if we’ve waited this long, I can wait another year knowing it’s going to happen.”

“I went at them with facts, not opinions,” says Rallo.  “And I felt that if we put all the facts on the table, we couldn’t be denied.  So to people in the future, people in other states: get your information together.  Get your ducks in a row.”  Adds the man who helped bring MMA to a state where there was none:  “Ask for the help of your athletic commission.  Don’t go in at war with them.  If you don’t have their support, it’s never getting done.”

This article is from the “Mid-April 2008″ Full Contact Fighter magazine and was written by Jim Genia.