Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The 2015 Guide to MMA in New York


If 2015 ends up being anything like 2014, then the New York MMA scene is going to be rich, vibrant and full of growth... and there will be about one thousand mainstream reporters, podcasters, radio broadcasters, TV producers and Columbia University School of Journalism students reaching out to me for some insight on it. So here is a handy-dandy guide to the scene, complete with info on the efforts to get pro MMA legalized, the key players in government, the promoters who've carved out their respective niches, and even some fighters to keep an eye on. Because what kind of journalist would I be if I didn't keep you informed? (Answer: a crappy one.)

Getting theBan on Pro MMA Lifted - The Legislature

Pretty much all the lobbying done to change the 1997 law banning pro MMA has been funded by the folks at the UFC, and though the overarching theme for the past few years has been "close, but no cigar", there's no indication that efforts are waning. Lobbyists will continue lobbying, press conferences will be held, and affable fighters will be flown in to shake hands with various state senators and assemblymen. Since 2014 was an election year, some legislative seats have changed hands, but in terms of supporters and detractors, not much is different other than the retirement of a couple of the sport's allies - which means that, barring something big upsetting the status quo (see "The UFC's Lawsuit" below), 2015 could see the Senate again approving an MMA bill while the Assembly does nothing.

Here are some key political players in the fight:

  • Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver - As the man who directs legislative traffic in the Assembly, Speaker Silver catches a lot of flack for not allowing any MMA bills to get a floor vote. But it's not like Speaker Silver is treating MMA any different than other issues; for a bill to get to the floor, it needs sufficient support in the closed-door Democratic conference that meets to determine the agenda, and the support just isn't there. You can blame Speaker Silver for being shady and seemingly under constant investigation, but you can't blame him for that.
  • Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle - In terms of legislative mojo, you couldn't ask for a better sponsor of the MMA bill, as Majority Leader Morelle wields a lot of clout. But while he's all for sanctioned MMA in the state, the importance of the issue in the grand scheme of things is a factor. Ultimately, while pro cagefights in New York are a big deal to you and me, it's a "small potatoes" issue for the folks up in Albany, hence the bill somehow finding its way to the backburner year after year.
  • Senator Liz Krueger - When Assemblyman Bob Reilly retired, the MMA in New York movement lost its most outspoken opponent. But Senator Krueger has kept up the fight in the Senate - a fight she has been losing year after year, but a fight she's kept up with nonetheless.
  • Senator Joseph Griffo - Though the ban on pro MMA has been the focus of all the noteworthy legislative skirmishes, Senator Griffo took notice of the vast unregulated amateur MMA wilds of the state and made efforts to do something about it. At the very end of the 2014 legislative session, he managed to pass a bill through the Senate that would give the athletic commission the power to sanction amateur iterations of the sport. While it was too late for a concurrent bill to pass through the Assembly last year (thereby giving the governor a bill to sign and turn into law), it will be worth keeping an eye on Senator Griffo this year to see if he replicates the feat earlier in the session this time around. If he does, and the Assembly follows suit, the 50+ amateur fight shows that go down annually in the state could theoretically be whittled done to nothing.

Getting the Ban on Pro MMA Lifted - The UFC's Lawsuit

The UFC filed their lawsuit against the State Attorney General in 2011, and while things like motions, rulings and discovery have dragged things out, it's likely a resolution will be coming very, very soon. Just as in a fight in the cage, it's impossible to know for sure what the outcome will be until the final blow is struck and the referee waves his arms in the air, but there's a strong likelihood that the UFC will win - which, in this case, could be a written stipulation that a third-party sanctioning organization could be used to sanction pro MMA events. If that happens, then one of two things will occur (or maybe both will occur, who knows):

  • The UFC will stage an event at Madison Square Garden and it will be sanctioned by the World Kickboxing Association, which has a lengthy track record of sanctioning fights in the state; or,
  • The UFC will hold that written stipulation aloft and threaten to do a show, and that will be the stick that encourages the legislature to act once and for all and lift the ban. Why would that force the legislature to act? Because a UFC at MSG sanctioned by anyone but the athletic commission means no taxes on gate and pay-per-view buys, and it would be stupid to let that "free" money fly right out the window. No, if the lawsuit results in a means for the UFC to circumvent the law, you can bet the law would then be changed with a quickness.

If the UFC wins the lawsuit, what are the chances that the legislature would change the law to sew up that third-party sanctioning loophole and retain the ban? Slim. Remember: the ban is still in place largely because of indifference among the legislators. Some care enough to sponsor the MMA bill, some care enough to block it in informal conferences, but most don't know what their constituents think about the issue either way so they haven't taken a hard stance. A movement to change the law - either for MMA or against it - would bring the matter squarely into the public eye, and open debate is likely the sport's best friend.

A change in the status quo is coming soon, and it's coming thanks to the lawsuit.

The Amateur MMA Scene

An unintended side effect of the lawsuit was the State Attorney General conceding that the ban didn't apply to amateur MMA, so New York has seen dramatic growth in its amateur fight scene, with over 50 such events happening here in 2014. Of course, since these events are completely unregulated by the New York State Athletic Commission, that has created some problems - like fights happening where the competitors have HIV and Hepatitis, events with no insurance, and promoters acting shady. Still, it's been a boon for fighters looking to get experience and fans looking to watch them throw down. And, as time has shown us, not all MMA promotions are created equal. Some do a pretty damn good job.

Here are few of the more notable ones that have been putting out shows in New York. One caveat: Since New York City is my area of operations and I eschew driving too far, this list is definitely Big Apple-centric, and probably excludes some decent organizations cranking out shows elsewhere in the state. For example, Gladius Fights out of Syracuse has a great reputation, but driving four and a half hours to watch an MMA event... sorry, no can do.

  • Aggressive Combat Championships - They've come a long way from the days of holding shows in a high school gymnasium in the Bronx (now they do them in the gym at York College in Queens), and because they crank out about five events a year, Aggressive has become a well-oiled machine in terms of how smoothly they run. They've also provided a solid platform for a number of fighters and teams to get their first taste of combat and hone their craft. If I had to compare Aggressive to a major MMA promotion, then I'd say they're the Shooto of New York City. 
  • New York Fight Exchange - NYFE is a top-notch organization that's been holding events in a nightclub in Queens, and the fight teams represented at them tend towards those with UFC fighters on them, like Long Island MMA (with Dennis Bermudez and Ryan LaFlare) or Bellmore Kickboxing (with Gian Villante and Chris Wade). In terms of comparing them to a major MMA promotion, NYFE is like John Lewis' old World Fighting Alliance.
  • Victory Combat Sports - Victory does their thing in Manhattan, with their most recent installment a momentous one that went down at Madison Square Garden. While their events aren't spectacles per se, they're pretty polished "affairs" - the kind of show you'd take clients to if you were an investment banker or ad executive. Major MMA promotion comparison: PRIDE when it came to the United States.
  • Fighters Source - Based out of Florida, FS is an organization that pits teams comprised of fighters from different areas against each other, with the best of the best taking on a similar "best of the best" team overseas at the end of the season. For example, 2014 saw a team of New York City-based fighters more or less get its ass kicked by scrappers from Miami, Chicago and even Syracuse (yes, a Gladius Fights veteran). The victors from there went on to fight in the United Kingdom (where Team USA smashed Team UK, so hooray, I guess). Thus far, FS has done shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a rec center in Queens and the Javits Center. Major MMA promotion comparison: the International Fight League, only much cooler.
  • Others promotions of note - On Long Island, MMA Platinum Gloves has been consistently putting out shows and would be worth checking out if you're out there. Out in Brooklyn, Take It To The Top has been doing their thing, and in Queens, Extreme Cagefighting has been slipping some MMA bouts into their predominantly kickboxing bout-heavy cards.  

What Happened to the Underground Fight Scene?

Since it's no longer a secret that amateur MMA is legal, the whole "underground" thing is a bit of a misnomer, so if you want to go to a UCL or Manup Standup, all the info is there on Facebook for the world to see. The events still go on to a certain extent, but because there are now a multitude of outlets for fighters to get their feet wet, the demand for them has greatly decreased. In other words, if you have a burning desire to see two fighters go at it literally inches from your face in a 100% unregulated bout, you better do it sooner rather than later.

The World Kickboxing Association

By some strange twist of fate, the 1997 law banning pro MMA ("combative sports" actually) carved out an exception for the World Karate Association, and since the World Kickboxing Association was originally the World Karate Association, that has meant that it's been okay for the WKA to sanction amateur and pro kickboxing events in New York State for years. It also meant that when the state started allowing amateur MMA, the WKA was first in the door as the "go to" third-party organization for promotions downstate.

Because of their years of experience sanctioning shows, the WKA's apparatus is robust, and the closest approximation to a real athletic commission that New York has ever seen at MMA shows. This has made them the obvious choice if and when the UFC wins their lawsuit and can use a third-party to put on shows. Also, thanks to the 1997 statute and a subsequent Alcohol Beverage Control law, the only fight shows where alcohol is allowed to be served are ones sanctioned by the WKA. The state doesn't always enforce this law, but it's an important tidbit for promoters to keep in mind in regards to risk exposure.

What happens when the legislature empowers the athletic commission to oversee MMA bouts? It's possible that there will be no place for the WKA in New York, but another theory is that might not be the case. Since the NYSAC is woefully unprepared and understaffed when it comes to shouldering responsibility for MMA sanctioning, it's possible that once the law changes, the responsibility would be farmed out to the WKA, which, after all, does have a solid track record of doing that very thing in New York. It's hard to predict which way the political winds will blow when the time comes, but it's something to keep in mind.

Local Teams and Fighters to Watch

No matter what has or hasn't been going on in New York for the last 20 years, the state has still contributed greatly to the MMA scene as a whole. Long Islander Matt Serra brought home a UFC belt back in the day, Chris Weidman dethroned the legendary Anderson Silva, and Uriah Hall, Lyman Good and others have made damn sure that Empire State has been well-represented in the sport. But it's the wise gardener who monitors the fruit as it ripens on the vine, so in that spirit, here are some local teams and fighters it would be smart to keep an eye on:

  • Long Island MMA - The aforementioned LIMMA is the home of UFC fighters Bermudez and LaFlare, so it almost goes without saying that they've elevated the training level of the team to the point where even the amateur fighters are amazingly badass. The team has tasted championship glory in multiple weight classes, and it's only a matter of time before the pro ranks are flooded with killer LIMMA representatives.
  • East West MMA - Another tough team based out of Long Island, East West MMA fields a lot of top-notch competitors in local shows. They should be making waves in the pro scene sooner rather than later.
  • Jenna Serio - She fought twice as an amateur and once as a pro, and already the Tiger Schulmann-trained Serio has made an impression as a scrapper with a ton of upside. She's slated to compete at Ring of Combat 50 at the end of the month, and if she wins big - which she usually does - you can bet there's a trip into the Invicta FC or even UFC cage waiting somewhere down the line.
  • Josh Mayville - He went all the way in the Fighters Source tournament, and won impressively (and pretty violently) each time. Yeah, Mayville is the real deal, so pay attention when he fights.
  • Kat Morales - The best amateur female fighter in New York City by virtue of her ace ground game and Aggressive Combat Championship title, Morales has taken on and beaten all comers in the MMA realm, and right now it's hard to imagine anyone in her weight class defeating her.
  • Paul Grant - A product of Justin Garcia's Jungle Gym, Grant employed a tight, near-flawless ground game to wrest the NYFE bantamweight title from the incumbent Mike Kuhn. Based on that performance, and the performances that got him that title shot in the first place, I can see Grant making a definitive mark on the Northeast's 135-pound pro division.

Well, there you have it, the 2015 guide to MMA in New York. I think I've covered all the bases... for now at least. Any questions?

No comments: