Keith Kizer doesn’t mind being a scapegoat. Truth be told, he kind of enjoys it.
As executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission ”“ the regulatory body that oversees all boxing and mixed martial arts in the so-called “Battle Born State” ”“ Kizer regularly absorbs the blame for perceived wrongdoings of every variety.
Shoddy judging? Blame Kizer, who handpicks the cageside officials. Fight stopped too soon? Not soon enough? Blame Kizer, who screens and approves the referees. Was your favorite fighter deemed unfit to compete? That was probably Kizer.
Drug testing too stringent? Not stringent enough? Testing for the wrong substances? Targeting the wrong fighters? Sure, blame Kizer for all those, too.
He’s used to it, and it certainly won’t hurt his feelings.
“I welcome criticism,” the chatty and chipper Kizer tells Fighters.com over the phone from his Las Vegas office. “None of us are above criticism. I welcome honest criticism ”“ whether it is constructive or correct or not ”“ as long as it’s honest.”
It’s not that Kizer believes he’s necessarily the correct target for such criticism, but he acknowledges that every armchair expert in the world is entitled to play the blame game — a tradition as old as sporting competition.
He is, after all, a sports fan himself. When he’s not wearing a suit and monitoring pre-fight weigh-ins, there’s a good chance he’s blowing off some steam yelling about a perceived bad call in some other sport.
“Do I think that people over-criticize the refs? Yes, but that’s part of the fun,” he says.
“In every basketball game I’ve ever gone to, every time a foul is called, half the place is yelling about how bad the referee is. That’s part of what you do as a fan. After fights, everyone agrees that the judges are horrible, but they disagree on everything else when it’s close, which I find somewhat amusing.”
That’s not to say Kizer merely shrugs off criticism ”“ he takes it seriously and continually reviews the way his office conducts its duties ”“ but he’s realistic about how his role will continue to be perceived by fans and fighters alike.
What keeps him motivated is the firm belief that his role is an essential and positive influence on mixed martial arts. He’s continually working to make the sport more sporting, for the good of everyone involved.
“I take my job very seriously,” he says. “What we’re focusing on is making the sport as safe as possible, as legitimate as possible and as competitive as possible.”
Because Nevada is the de facto home of combat sports, Kizer’s commission is a kind of litmus test for how boxing and MMA are regulated throughout the rest of North America. This makes Kizer arguably the most influential governing authority in combat sports.
Kizer admits it is a “very fortunate” position to be in, particularly for a guy who moved to Las Vegas two decades ago, fresh out of law school, mainly because the housing was affordable and the climate was more agreeable for jogging than his native Chicago.
He landed a job in Sin City with a top-flight corporate law firm, and he figured that representing large corporations in labor disputes would be the closest his career would come to real combat.
He was a fight fan, though, and had done some sparring himself, so his first big ticket purchase in Vegas (aside from a down-payment on an apartment) was a ticket to see Donovan “Razor” Ruddock pummel Greg Page.
He was hooked.
Within a year of moving to Nevada, Kizer had attended approximately 25 boxing matches, which didn’t escape the notice of the chief legal counsel for the state’s athletic commission.
He was offered a position of deputy counsel for the commission, which he gladly accepted. Then, after the 1996 departure of commission head Marc Ratner ”“ who went on to become UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs ”“ Kizer filled the vacant role to become the head of the state’s athletic commission.
He makes a point of being easily accessible to journalists (he tends to answer the phone on the first ring, too), and prides himself on him and his work being “totally transparent ”“ perhaps more transparent than necessary.”
In the role, he has been an integral part of MMA’s evolution from what many critics perceived as a barbaric bloodbath to a closely-regulated, statistically-safe sport with mainstream respectability.
Kizer is proud of that work, but knows there is more to be done.
Nearly every weekend, Kizer is behind-the-scenes at an MMA or boxing card (in the past year, he attended 29 boxing events and 16 MMA shows). He oversees weigh-ins and drug tests, and does his best to ensure that everyone involved ”“ from fighters to coaches to officials ”“ conduct themselves with honesty and integrity.
Some, of course, don’t.
Kizer says he derives no pleasure from denying a fighter a bout, nor from discovering that a urine sample contains performance enhancing drugs. He doesn’t particularly relish playing the disciplinarian, but he doesn’t shy away from it either.
“I, like most people, am very happy when people fight clean,” he says. “I’m not hoping that people will fight dirty, just so I can catch them and make a case against them. We would much prefer to have a deterrent effect. Our biggest goal is to deter the use in the first place.”
Kizer says what he does is analogous to a referee docking a point from a fighter for a dirty hit.
“When a referee takes a point away, he isn’t really taking it ”“ the fighter took that point away from himself, and the referee is merely acknowledging it. I see it the same way. We have to file a complaint against a fighter ”“ mostly for a doping violation, but not always ”“ but the fighter knew the rules.”
The way Kizer sees it, every measure his office takes ”“ from screening officials and refs to screening urine — is done to protect the fighters, protect the sport and ensure fair and exciting fights.
Both as a regulator and as a fan, Kizer believes it is important work, and he believes he’s doing a pretty good job.
So he’s more than willing to take a little blame, whether accurate or misguided. After all, he likes a good fight, and he’s not ready to tap out of the gig yet.