Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New York MMA: Revisited

*originally published in the Dec ’04 issue of Full Contact Fighter*

Part I

The canvas is stained with blood and sweat. The exercise equipment is rusty and held together with duct tape. The place stinks of years of hard work and dedication. It’s Sunday night in a decrepit boxing gym in the South Bronx and the 60 or so spectators are getting inpatient. They’ve come from all over the city to witness what the educated would call mixed martial arts and what ignorant label as “human cockfighting”, and the show (dubbed “Ground Zero”) is now an hour and a half behind schedule. Word of mouth has brought them here, word of mouth and a desire to see some action. It’s a type of competition that’s been banned in New York State since 1997, but that ban hasn’t stopped it from evolving into a sport now accepted in most states and sanctioned by the boxing meccas of Nevada and New Jersey. Last year, kickboxing and MMA shows were inexplicably shut down all over New York – shows that had gone on unmolested for years. So what happens when the state refuses to sanction them? The fights go underground.

A fried chicken leg with a slice of white bread can be had for a dollar (hot sauce is free), and some people snack as the promoter scrambles to get more fighters. Thus far there’s a Muslim Tae Kwon Do specialist, a kickboxer from Jackson Heights, and a wrestler who just moved here from Baltimore. They wander around looking anxious and ready to scrap. The promoter, Peter Storm, originally had seven fights booked, but most of the competitors are no-shows. This leaves him high and dry. Enter: Kaream Ellington, a trained and chiseled fighter hailing from Combined Martial Arts in Queens. Ellington lives two subway stops away and has only come here to watch, but with some pro matches in New Jersey under his belt, he’s the closest thing to a local MMA stud most of these Bronx natives have ever seen. Immediately, Storm is all over him, begging him to step into the ring.

Without a sanctioning body to lay down some guidelines, the rules are really up to whoever puts on the show. But this event isn’t as much like “Fight Club” as it’s like the early days of the UFC. There are no weight classes, the time limit for each match is 15 minutes, and gloves are optional. The referee (Eddy Rolon - himself a very experienced pro-fighter from New Jersey) has insisted on mouthpieces for each competitor, although they can wear track pants, long-sleeved shirts or whatever. The first bout begins with the Storm – who’s also a judo black belt – squaring off against the kickboxer. Donning a blue gi, Storm rushes in and throws the shorter man to the canvas, then chokes him. The man on the bottom taps the ground in submission. It’s over in a minute and half, and as the referee separates the two combatants, the crowd cheers. The kickboxer is fine. He gives Storm a hug and they pat each other on the back.

The next bout lasts longer, with the wrestler going at it with a “freestyle” fighter. During a break in the action to remove someone’s unraveling handwrap, the out-of-breath combatants share a water bottle. The audience gives them a round of applause for their sportsmanship.

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