Last week, NBC New York cast its investigative reporting spotlight on the amateur MMA scene. What they found was a sport unregulated by the state, and from that lack of oversight and uniform standards comes a heightened level of danger to those bold enough to step into the cage. The report was not well received by promoters.
Nor should it have been.
The Last Emperors
After the four-minute segment aired and was posted to the NBC New York website, many began decrying the piece as inaccurate and negative, as it failed to point out that some promoters enforce their own high standards when it comes to safety precautions. And they really do.
Prior to this Deadspin story on fighters competing with HIV and hepatitis in New York State, only a handful of organizations screened competitors for blood-borne illnesses and pre-existing medical conditions before fights; now many do in some form.
When the New York State Athletic Commission put the word out that amateur MMA events were legal back in 2012, only the World Kickboxing Association and the International Sport Karate Association had a track record of sanctioning MMA events and staffing them with trained officials; the ISKA is no longer operating in the state, but the USMTA's Muay Boran League has become the most widely-used and experienced third-party sanctioning organization around.
Former ISKA rep Forrest Hobbick is Gladius Fights' guru on safety, and as much as possible, he's spread the gospel to other organizations in Upstate New York.
There were only four short minutes in that NBC New York news report, and those minutes contained nothing about the positive aspects of what goes on - both inside and outside the cage - to make it safe for the fighters who put their health on the line for our entertainment.
That sucks, and some promoters took to Facebook to voice their displeasure. Mike Washington of the New York Fight Exchange called it an "uneducated, biased, one-sided report." Co-promoter Tom Sconzo called it "misinformation and irresponsible journalism." Said Gladius honcho Ryan Ciotoli, "It seems like every report on the state of amateur MMA in New York is negative." "Stupid article by someone that really didn't take the time to research what he was talking about," said John Gibbons of the American Fighting Alliance.
These promoters - these emperors of Rome who must suffer the knives of unscrupulous rivals and the attacks of political barbarians at the gate - have every right to be unhappy. The NBC New York piece painted a picture using broad brush strokes, and the entire amateur scene was splattered with paint.
But the fact remains that there is still a safety issue when it comes to amateur MMA in New York, and it stretches beyond just one or two bad eggs.
"I would say most of the promotions in New York State require blood work and physicals. I am not sure what show they were referring to in New York that didn't require blood work, but one irresponsible promotion shouldn't effect the progress we made in New York," said Ciotoli. "I can say for the most part, MMA in Upstate New York is just as safe as any other state that has sanctioning bodies or state commissions."
Put down that fiddle, Ryan. I smell smoke.
Rome Is Still Burning, Folks
As of today, there have been 52 amateur MMA events in New York in 2015, which means this year will definitely beat last year's record of 54. Less than a third of those events used a viable third-party sanctioning organization to handle safety and oversight. When it came to medical screening, the training of officials, and ensuring standard precautions were in place, the folks who ran the other events handled it all on their own. Or they didn't.
Of the 52 events that have happened thus far, only 17 occurred in the New York City-Long Island area. The rest took place upstate.
Out of the 34 Upstate New York amateur MMA events, at least one third did not require their fighters to be screened for HIV and hepatitis prior to entering the cage. Of the 17 downstate events, only two did not require such screening. And this self-screening process is very much imperfect, because the problem described in this Deadspin piece IS STILL GOING ON.
Aggressive Combat Championships is great about having trained officials on hand - but not every single promotion is. Gladius Fights is great about looking out for fighter safety - but not every single promotion is. The New York Fight Exchange is great about not cutting any corners - but not every single promotion is. There are plenty of good, conscientious shows operating in the state, yet the numbers don't lie: there are too many organizations run by promoters who don't care, and when you factor in that there will be fighters who don't watch out for their own well-being, coaches who have no problem bending the truth, and a law that allows for anyone under any circumstances to put on amateur bouts, well... you have fire.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet Fire
A veteran fighter I know and trust sent me this message:
I am emailing you this picture because I am sick of the disgusting scene of amateur MMA in New York. This event took place in Schenectady, N.Y. in the middle of the ghetto. This needs to be stopped.Here's the picture:
This is from the last Next Level Fighting event, which took place in a lot in Schenectady on August 29. To fans of backyard MMA videos and underground fights, this is pretty appealing stuff. However, to those who like their cagefights to have at least some resemblance to the stuff shown on SpikeTV and pay-per-view, this is a hot mess.
Of course, as well all know, as long as the competitors at Next Level Fighting are unpaid, the show pictured above is perfectly legal under New York statute. Promoter Drew Nolan insists safety precautions are being taken, too.
"We have everything insured, everyone is up to date on medical papers, clear and ready for combat, we have an official trained ref, and experienced judges, everyone that fights at our show has gone through their own training camps." He adds, "We have a group of experienced people in their respective positions."
Nolan doesn't use any third-party sanctioning bodies to oversee his events. Why should he? "As New York MMA isn't legal yet, you do not have to have third-party sanctioning. But please trust that fighter safety is our first priority." According to him, EMTs are present, and every fighter signs a waiver and "fight contract agreement".
There have been two Next Level Fighting shows, and thus far Nolan hasn't charged any admission. They have literally been a free-for-all. Given that fact, it would be hard to pigeonhole him as a greedy promoter out to make a buck at fighters' expense.
Still, it's a cage erected in a lot, and it looks nothing like a what we expect a safe MMA event to look like. For those concerned about the state of amateur MMA in New York, therein lies the problem.
Nothing will be better than the legislature making all forms of MMA legal once and for all, and the New York State Athletic Commission setting standards and empowering certain third-party sanctioning organizations to enforce those standards. And it will happen. But until then, it's up to the promoters themselves to do the right thing - either through employing outside sanctioning or stringent self-regulation.
Many do an admirable job, and though it's banned at the pro level and unregulated at the amateur, the sport is safer here than it's ever been.
But it's important to remember that for all those who do an admirable job, many more still don't. Like it or not, Rome is still on fire.
Please don't fiddle while it burns.