Hammerstein Ballroom is a curious venue for mixed martial arts. The elegant 12,000 square foot space is best known for its acoustics–many a live album has been recorded there. But on a chilly Saturday evening the sounds reverberating around the ballroom with such crisp audibility are nothing like Patti asking Luther, “is it still good to you?” They’re the smacks and jingles of heavy impact on canvas and chain-link fence and the grunts and groans of men being kicked, punched and choked.
It’s a familiar soundtrack to a unique event: the first legal amateur MMA fights in New York state’s history.
The road to this evening has been long and arduously bureaucratic. Professional MMA competition is still very much illegal, and by all accounts getting these amateur bouts sanctioned was an uphill climb for Fighters Source CEO Anthony Medina, the driving force behind the event he dubbed “King of New York.”
Fighters Source is an organization dedicated to promoting standardized MMA competition. “Standardized” is their key platform: the idea that with transparent rules and regulations and high standards of training and fighter safety, MMA can shed its reputation for wanton brutality and gain the cachet of real poetry-in-motion–the type of “sweet science” label boxing enjoys even in its dying breaths. Medina and his team are businessmen by necessity but advocates at heart: “if we have to be the ones who bring New York into the modern age, that’s what we’ll do.”
It’s important that these individuals support the cause with such verve, because Fighters Source is a certified non-profit. None of its employees are paid; they all donate their time. And when probed on the slow progress of getting MMA blessed by the state’s legislative branch, they are quick to cite a “lack of credible promoters” in and around New York City.
Hearing that, I can’t help but think about Peter Storm and the Underground Combat League. Storm is clearly more profit-driven and less concerned with the “standards” that Medina and Fighters Source hold so dear. Rules in the unsanctioned UCL events are determined by the fighters and agreed upon via handshake, often minutes before the fight. Last-minute UCL dropouts are replaced on-site and ad-hoc, with little regard for matching weight or skill level. There are, famously, no EMTs present.
But in the arcane legislative environment under which New York City’s mixed martial arts crowd operates, Storm and Medina have more in common than either party might admit. They have very different toolsets. Medina has a recognized 501c with lobbying power and a national network of polished amateur fighters looking to gain exposure. Storm has a clandestine group of tough guys with gym connections and a hyper-local network of a few polished amateur fighters but mostly guys off the street looking to kick some ass in a controlled–ironically, “safe”–environment. But they both are tireless when it comes to promoting their sport. You can sense a genuine passion for mixed martial arts competition and ambition to create a brighter future for New York’s younger generation of fighters.
And they both know how to put on a good show.
Image courtesy of Justin White