Butch Hiles on Helping Legalize MMA in West Virginia: "It Sure Wasn't Easy"

Sean SmithAnalyst IJune 4, 2011

Butch Hiles is a gym owner in Charleston, W. Va. But, as you are about to find out if you weren't aware of him already, Hiles is much more than just your average gym owner.

Bleacher Report recently had the pleasure of speaking with Hiles, owner of Butch Hiles Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA, about his influence on mixed martial arts (MMA) sanctioning in West Virginia and some major events that have been happening and will be happening at his gym.

A leader in the push to legalize MMA in West Virginia, Hiles spoke about the toughest roadblocks he faced in trying to convince legislature to change their views on MMA.

"I would say [the toughest part was] having your voice heard," Hiles said. "Everybody wants MMA to be legal, but it's really hard to try to figure out the way to go about doing it. It sure wasn't easy because you've got to try to meet with the legislatures and things you're not usually accustomed to doing.

"Luckily, we had really good lobbyist, Sam Minardi, and some really good people on board to help out."

"The unfortunate thing is there are just some people that don't like MMA," Hiles said "Most of our senators are obviously older, so some of them don't like combat sports, period. In fact, that was kind of what I was told by several of the guys.

"We would come in and say MMA is safer than boxing and safer than Toughman, and they would say, 'If that's your argument, we don't really care because we don't like boxing, either, and if was up to us that would be illegal as well.' So, that's not something you really want to hear, because unfortunately those guys make the decisions.

"But luckily, the majority won out and there was only a few guys that said stuff like that and I think the most of them did their jobs correctly and actually studied the facts and heard both sides.

"Once the true facts are presented and they actually pay attention to them, then obviously the correct thing wins out and it did win out."

West Virginia became the 45th state to sanction MMA. Since Alaska and Wyoming do not have athletic commissions, that means only New York, Connecticut and Vermont remain as states that do not regulate the sport.

Hiles has been leading this uphill battle for quite some time now. In 2005, West Virginia Athletic Commission Chairman Steven Allred prevented Hiles from holding a jiu-jitsu tournament because he felt submissions and choke-holds were too dangerous.

Now knowing that the athletic commission had been so strongly against jiu-jitsu competitions, it is easy to see why it has taken so long for the state to come around to the idea of legalizing MMA.

With this long battle now won, Hiles can finally look back at what he has helped accomplish for MMA in West Virginia with pride and rightly so.

"It is a big deal because that's something that we've struggled with since 2000-2001, whenever they first made [MMA] illegal. Obviously, it's probably the biggest thing that I've ever been a part of as far as my martial arts career goes and really anything that I've done for the state."

But what caused the change in opinion that West Virginian legislature held for so long? Hiles points to a recent seminar at his gym with MMA legend Wanderlei Silva as a major factor in helping to sway the government officials.

"We were trying to get MMA legal and I wanted to bring somebody in that people would respond well to and that would get some attention, and Wanderlei [Silva] was that guy without a doubt," Hiles said.

"We had about 200 people show up to the seminar alone. We also did a couple other events later at night and there was another 1,200 or so people there. So, altogether we were looking at around 1,500-2,000 people that showed up for these events that we put on and that brought the media out, and that brought the attention right at the right time.

"When you've got 2,000 people coming out to see a guy that does something that everybody respects and likes, I think that speaks volumes."

"Ultimately, I think that's what it showed them and I think it really did help us push that bill through because they could no longer argue, which they tried to argue, that there wouldn't be an economic impact," Hiles said. "As soon as they say that, we have 2,000 people show up just to see a guy, not even an event. That kind of shut that argument down."

Just because MMA is now legalized in West Virginia doesn't mean Hiles plans to slow things down at his gym any time soon. Already, Hiles has planned to bring in former UFC champion Jens Pulver to his gym for a seminar and special screening of Pulver's recent documentary.

"[The film] kind of dug deeper into his whole life," Hiles said. "He was an abused child and it was a pretty awful childhood. People are watching this screening of what happened in his childhood and they're being emotionally touched by what happened to him.

"It's a really important project and I felt like I could make this something bigger than something just for the gym. I wanted to do something for our whole community. We're doing a one-night-only screening in Charleston, W. Va., of the documentary.

"It's a 700-seat theater, so I got an opportunity to invite a lot of people. We reached out to all the local programs that have at risk youth and high schools and a lot of local places that could really impact the community and try to get the right target audience there."

With the recent legalization of MMA and the legends that he has been bringing in for seminars, Hiles has built a ton of momentum around his gym. Nonetheless, Hiles plans to continue with his recent success by spreading it to the community.

"You can't be happy with what you already accomplished," said Hiles. "I feel like, as a local gym in West Virginia, we've accomplished a lot. There's always going to be things that we can do to improve upon and this upcoming [event with Pulver] is something that I can do for the community, and that's really something that I want to start gearing our gym towards.

"I want everybody at our gym and everybody that trains there to represent our community and our state as a whole and continue to go out there and help everybody that I can."

To that extent, Hiles' goals for his gym reach much farther that simply teaching MMA to his students. Hiles hopes to not only impress a positive impact on his gym's members, but he wishes to help the entire community.

"That's what I'm more proud of than anything else," said Hiles. "If we can get a couple guys off the street or help a couple guys out that normally wouldn't have been helped, then we've accomplished our goal.

"When I started this whole thing and chose to have a gym, my No. 1 goal was to help as many people as I can in whatever that was. Obviously that was jiu-jitsu and MMA, but it grew and now I have the opportunity to help people in different ways on a much larger scale."


Click here for more information on the upcoming event with Jens Pulver, which will take place on June 11 in Charleston, W.Va.

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