Commentary

New York MMA: An underground story

Originally Published: February 16, 2011
By Josh Gross | ESPN.com

Funaro-Darrow www.MMA.usJames Funaro looks after his fallen opponent following an underground fight.

Contrary to public opinion, mixed martial arts can be found in New York. Unsanctioned, untaxed and unencumbered by athletic commission oversight -- so long as alcohol isn't served and fighters aren't paid -- the sport can and does happen in the city.

Since 2003, the Underground Combat League has promoted 23 cards in and around Manhattan. From gyms to warehouses to, most recently, a mosque, promoter Peter Storm, 34, has maintained a place for mixed-style fighting -- in this case the kind that harks back to UFC 1 and its "anything goes" rules -- in the only state in the country where professional MMA is illegal, rendered so after then Gov. George Pataki labeled the sport "barbaric" and urged the state legislature to outlaw it in 1997.

If it sounds similar to "Fight Club," Storm likes that impression; it helps his UCL's branding.

"But," he said, "the truth is, that's not what it is. Nobody is fighting on rooftops, throwing each other through glass. None of that stuff. It's guys who are mixed martial artists based out of New York, and what they want to do is test their skills on a level playing field where, if they feel like they can do well, they can progress."

Jonathan Rodriguez, 22, and Israel Martinez, 27, have fought for Storm several times. Self-described "nobodies" in New York's underground scene, both claim they love to fight and are fortunate to do so.

To prove their point, on Feb. 8 they stood in front of 250 Broadway, enduring wind-swept lower Manhattan at lunch hour. Massive snowdrifts from winter's megastorms were gone, but it was cold enough for unprepared pedestrians to congregate near street vendors who were selling $5 beanies.

The address wasn't random.

Inside sit the offices of Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly. He's also known as the man in Albany (where he was on this day) who determines which bills hit the assembly floor. Although vocal MMA opponents such as Democratic Assemblyman Bob Reilly object to the legalization of the sport on so-called moral and societal grounds, it's Silver who will determine the immediate fortunes of MMA, as he does everything else in the state.

Thus far, despite millions of dollars invested by Zuffa to lobby Silver's stronghold in upstate New York, despite economic impact statements that promise millions of dollars for the Empire State's coffers once the Ultimate Fighting Championship can legally run events there, the speaker has not felt the need to move.

Several weeks earlier, the UFC held a news conference at Madison Square Garden to raise awareness for its efforts. The session was aimed at convincing recently elected Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include language for the legalization of MMA in his first budget. The governor did not oblige, which is why Rodriguez, Martinez and approximately 50 other MMA die-hards rallied within the shadow of City Hall to support the Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts -- a nonpartisan group of volunteers created by Stephen Koepfer, whose mission is exactly as it sounds.

Thus far, despite millions of dollars invested by Zuffa and despite economic impact statements that promise millions of dollars for the Empire State's coffers once the UFC can legally run events there, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has not felt the need to move.

"At the press conference, when someone asked [UFC president] Dana [White] if he was frustrated and angry about this, he said he wasn't really frustrated because they don't need New York; [UFC] can make their money elsewhere," said Koepfer, better known in these circles as "Sambo" Steve. The 42-year-old, who was born and raised in Queens, said, "That's not the attitude you want to have when you're speaking for New Yorkers."

The rally -- the first of its kind -- motivated Rodriguez, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, to attend a second gathering planned for Albany this March.

"It starts here," he said. "We have to get the letters out. They have to hear our voice. If we really want it and we're really as passionate about it as we say, we're going to do anything that it takes."

"If the legislators don't know what we want," Koepfer said, "they won't vote for it."

And if they don't vote for it, nothing will change -- including events promoted by the Underground Combat League. Storm connects with fans via text messaging and social media, where information about upcoming cards is disseminated 48 hours before events. An average of three to four cards take place each year.

Jim Genia, a journalist who has covered the local New York fight scene closely since 2001, covers Underground Combat League in his forthcoming book, "Raw Combat."

"Its greatest purpose is that it was accessible," Genia said of Storm's New York City-based cards. "It provides a service to fans and fighters alike because it gives them a taste of what mixed martial arts competition is."

For some, that makes sense.

Kevin Wall, 49, grew up within earshot of Evel Knievel's motorcycles in Butte, Mont., and fights "'cause I can." Local kung fu students hoping to match their style against another martial arts style can do so in the UCL. And young prospects with aspirations of one day holding a UFC championship belt, a la underground veteran Frankie Edgar, can make their debuts here as well.

Edgar's bout in 2005 is registered as the only amateur fight of his career -- a first-round technical knockout victory via strikes against the Underground Combat League's best fighter at the time, Eric Uresk -- according to MMA.tv, which was hired by the Association of Boxing Commissions to be its official record keeper for MMA.

Results, however, aren't always traceable. The inability to track who's doing what on any given weekend is a major hazard of unsanctioned events like Storm's, said Nick Lembo, who has served as counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board since 1995.

This is one of several major differences between amateur MMA in New Jersey -- a model program since its implementation in 2005 -- and the unregulated kind in New York.

[+] EnlargePeter Storm
Anil Melwani for MMA.usPeter Storm isn't just the promoter of New York-based Underground Combat League -- he's also a fighter.

To compare neighboring states, New Jersey features 19 amateur weight categories. Underground Combat League has none. And although Storm attempts to match opponents by size and experience, he has made fights between competitors with more than a 100-pound weight differential. Kicks to the head are prohibited in New Jersey, as are elbow strikes, heel hooks and other techniques. Virtually anything goes in New York; it's up to the fighters involved to determine their rules.

Prefight and postfight medical examinations are required in New Jersey. Not so in New York, where a medical presence rarely extends beyond EMTs, who are paid by Storm.

Amateur fighters in the Garden State are also subject to blood testing for HIV and hepatitis B and C.

"I can't tell you how many [times] you have someone that has hep C or HIV or fails a drug test," Lembo said. "You're really putting everyone at risk without checking for those things."

Contestants over the age of 40 in New Jersey must submit MRI/MRA head scans, stress tests and an evaluation of blood flow through the arteries to be licensed. If they don't, or if they lose like Wall did in New Jersey and refuse to meet additional testing requirements, they won't get licensed. In New York, you can fight after your license is denied just across the Hudson River, and you don't have to pay $900 in fees for the privilege.

Storm trumpeted the safety record of his cards, suggesting that concussions and a couple of broken arms -- one of which was his; he fights, too -- are as bad as it gets.

"I think it's partially luck, it's partially the natural oversight of referees in the sport that guys don't get seriously injured," said Genia, the journalist who has attended 22 of the league's 23 events, missing just one for his wedding in Thailand.

The only thing remotely similar between amateur MMA in New York and New Jersey is a passion for the game and the lack of compensation for fighters.

"It's what I enjoy doing," Rodriguez said. "It's what gets me away from the stress of school, of work, of everyday life. It's what I'm into. I'm going to continue to do it no matter if it does become legal in New York or not."

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.