Fighting for Legitimacy

Mixed martial arts remains illegal in New York, but the sport isn’t giving up the battle

Eric, a beefy Long Islander with legs like a running back and platinum blond hair that enhances his Jersey Shore tan, locked up with his opponent, John. It was the second fight of the night at the Underground Combat League, one of the busiest promotions putting on mixed martial arts fights in New York, where the sport is illegal.

A crowd of around 100 people were crowded into a well-lit basement gym in Manhattan (the organizers asked us not to disclose its name for legal reasons), pushed up against a chain-link cage watching the action. Wrestling mats covered the floor and heavy bags hung from the ceiling. A burly bouncer stood by the front door to make sure no one arrived uninvited.

The two fighters pressed each other against the chain-link cage, exchanging knee strikes to the abdomen. With a surge, Eric threw his opponent to the ground, mounted him, perched on his chest and began raining down blows.

“Get out of there,” screamed the opposing corner. John bucked, trying to stand up. Eric snatched his wrist and fell backward in an arm lock. The crowd roared, hoping for a finish to the bout. The arm bent up at the elbow at a grotesque angle, but John didn’t submit. He rolled out, ended up on Eric’s back and began choking him. In a flash Eric reversed him again, taking top position with 20 seconds left in the round.

“Drop bombs!” yelled Eric’s corner. An elbow to the forehead sprayed blood, leaving a crimson splotch on Eric’s bleached hair. The five-minute round ended, but the referee didn’t hear the promoter shouting “Time!” over the screams of the excited crowd. The fighters exchanged blows for another few seconds before the match was finally stopped. The woman sitting beside us groaned. “That was too much for me.”

After the match, The Observer chewed on some beef jerky that had been left on a snack table by Jim Genia, who was having his book release party alongside the day’s bouts and had invited us along. His book, Raw Combat, published by Citadel, tells the story of New York’s underground fight scene. “This stuff happens in New York, and it will continue to happen here,” Genia said. He pointed out that when the sport was legalized in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the underground circuits there all but evaporated.

Genia’s editor, Richard Ember, was also in attendance. The event was “interesting,” he said. “Although I don’t think I would like another man sitting on my face, no matter what the situation,” he added, adjusting his glasses. “And some of those punches, they looked like they were aimed at the vital organs …”

Genia’s prediction for the sport’s legalization in New York may be a little optimistic. MMA has some vehement opponents in the state, including Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who has compared the sport variously to dog fighting and prostitution. “It really is a glorification of brutality and violence,” he told a panel of fighters recently. “Many people believe that violence in the media, or any portrayal of violence, or violence itself as I think happens in mixed martial arts, in fact, makes people immune to violence and in fact promotes violence.” To some extent, mixed martial arts has been its own worst enemy. In the early days, promoters enthusiastically branded the sport as a savage, no-holds-barred spectacle of pure violence and emphasizing the gorier aspects. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the crusade against MMA in the late ’90s, dubbing it “human cockfighting,” after which 36 states banned the sport outright.

For a time, it seemed promoters were down for the count, but they pulled a slick reversal. Rather than continue promoting the sport as the most violent entertainment available, they began speaking instead about its similarity to other athletic events and working to establish a set of guidelines. In 2000, New Jersey was the first state to introduce unified rules, which prohibited things like groin strikes, hair pulling and eye gouging. Since then, the sport has been legalized in 45 states. Of the holdouts (Alaska, Wyoming, New York, Connecticut and Vermont), New York is the largest market by far, and therefore the biggest prize.

MMA does have some strong political advocates in New York, including state Sen. Kevin Parker, who holds a black belt in tang soo do. Asked to describe his fighting style, Parker kept it simple. “It’s what Chuck Norris does,” he told The Observer by phone.

In the state Senate in Albany, Parker sits next to Sen. Martin Dilan, who also happens to be a black belt in the martial arts. “We joke all the time about seeing whose style is better. I’m more of an offensive fighter; he likes to play defense.”

Over the past few years, legislation that would allow professional MMA in New York has repeatedly been passed by the state Senate. But legalization has been held up in the Assembly, where MMA has several impassioned opponents, including upstate politico Reilly. “They won’t even bring it to the floor. My thing is, let’s get the proposal out there and see where the votes fall,” Parker said.

In his latest effort, Parker presented some compelling evidence to his fellow legislators about the safety of MMA compared with more traditional contact sports. Despite the opposition of the American Medical Association and the deaths of two fighters following state-sanctioned bouts (Sam Vasquez in 2007 and Mike Kirkham in 2010), studies from Johns Hopkins and the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggest that the sport is actually safer, in terms of brain damage and fatalities, than its counterpart, boxing. And following the recent studies about brain damage in football, gridiron great Herschel Walker, who has taken up MMA, told USA Today, “People shy away from it because they think it’s a brutal, brutal sport. Guys, MMA is safer than football and boxing. And people tell me they don’t believe it. Am I not the most credible person to give you the answer to that?”

Earlier this month, the sport’s biggest promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, made its network debut on Fox after years during which it was televised only on pay-per-view. Coincidentally, it went head to head with a welterweight boxing match in Las Vegas featuring Manny Pacquiao. Proponents of MMA like Parker are eager to draw attention to the irony: In New York it’s legal to kick someone in the head during a karate match or knee someone in the face during a muay thai fight. Boxers can punch each other’s brains out and grapplers can choke each other. But combined into the modern sport of mixed martial arts, these acts are illegal.

On Nov. 15, however, the parent company of the UFC, Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC, filed a lawsuit in New York alleging that the state’s 1997 law banning MMA violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This is mixed martial arts, emphasis on the arts,” said Barry Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at New York University. “The reason these athletes are suing is because they have been prevented from their self-expression on some of the biggest stages in the nation.”

Though the sport remains illegal in New York, the state is home to some of the top fighters and trainers. Jon Jones, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, and the youngest man to hold the title, was born and raised in Endicott, N.Y. Georges St-Pierre, the organization’s welterweight champion, travels from Montreal to study Brazilian jujitsu at the Renzo Gracie Academy on West 30th Street (disclosure: this reporter also trains there). Lightweight champ Frankie Edgar studies muay thai with Phil Nurse at the Wat Gym in Tribeca.

Some see issues other than health and safety behind New York’s ban, pointing to a union dispute in Las Vegas. The owners of UFC, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, also own Station Casinos, which operates several nonunionized casinos, which Nevada’s Culinary Union is eager to organize. The union is an affiliate of Unite Here, a national labor organization that has spearheaded opposition to MMA in New York. “The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of [New York],” UFC President Dana White said at a recent press conference “because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest nonunion gaming company in the country.”

“It’s a blood feud,” said a veteran labor attorney in Las Vegas, who requested anonymity.

But Unite Here’s “Memorandum of Opposition” to the bill legalizing MMA points to “coercive contract provisions” that they see as exploitative. The Observer reached out to the organization, but has so far received no comment.

Back at the underground fight, The Observer chatted with Matthew Polly, an author who was doubling down on the book release party with the debut of his own title, Tapped Out, being published by Gotham. “It’s kind of the George Plimpton approach. What happens when a middle-age fat-ass tries to train with the elite of the MMA world? Basically I get my ass kicked.” Polly, a Rhodes scholar who dropped out of Princeton to study kung fu, was standing around in his socks on the wrestling mats. Like many, he was an adherent of the labor dispute theory. “Look, you follow the money from the unions to the politicians who are holding up this process and you’ll get your answer.”

“Why are you asking this guy? He’s only had one fight,” joked Joey Varner, head kickboxing coach at Xtreme Couture, one of the premier gyms in Las Vegas, who had trained Polly for the book and flown in to celebrate. “We sent him home crying most nights.”

We asked Varner if MMA would ever be legal in New York. “I sure hope so. You ever seen how they fix a broken orbital bone? They literally have to take part of your face off and screw your skull back together. That’s not the kind of thing you should have done without insurance.” Leagues like the UFC have insurance to cover fights and training.

“The worst thing about amateur MMA is the idiots with egos,” he added. “Of course the promoter is going to let you fight. He wants you to get knocked out, so he can have someone twitching on his highlight-reel DVD. In the pros, guys know how to protect themselves.”

In the bathroom, The Observer ran across the combatants, Eric and John. With limited resources, the Underground Combat League can’t provide a separate locker room for fighters.

The two men hugged and started chatting. Their match had been declared a draw. Each was still covered in the other’s blood. “I can’t believe you got out of that arm bar,” Eric said, shaking his head.

“It was tight, man, real tight. But I ain’t going out like that,” John replied.

“Yeah, I heard it popping, but you didn’t quit,” Eric said. “We’ll do it again someday.”