Back in April, New York state failed to cash in on one of the most anticipated fights in the history of mixed martial arts.
Rashad Evans and Jon Jones squared off before more than 15,000 fans at Phillips Arena in Atlanta, generating a reported $2.2 million in paid attendance. Some 70,000 reportedly tuned in on Pay Per View.
Evans, a Niagara Falls native, and Jones, who grew up in Rochester and resides in Ithaca, would have almost certainly sold out First Niagara Center. Rogers Centre, just 90 miles to the north in Toronto, once drew 55,000-plus for a UFC card.
Mixed martial arts, however, is legally sanctioned in 45 states — New York is not one of them.
Fight fans in this area, however, will finally get a taste of one of the fastest growing niche sports in the nation this weekend at the Lumber City’s Rainbow Roller Rink.
The North Tonawanda-based gym Victory MMA and Fitness will host the first legally sanctioned MMA fights in more than 10 years — dubbed the TNT Fight Series — at 7 p.m. May 19 at Rainbow Roller Rink, 101 Oliver St.
“The phone has been ringing and ringing for people that want to see the sport in New York,” said Victory co-owner Don Lilly, a City of Tonawanda native and Tonawanda High School graduate. “We’re happy to be able to put it on and help these local guys come in and fight in their hometown.”
Angelo Castricone, a representative of the United States Muay Thai Association, said as long as it’s an amateur show and it’s run through a sanctioning body, it’s legal. The USMTA is sanctioning Saturday’s event.
“No one’s really pursued it up until Don Lilly has and went to the New York State Athletic Commission, found out with the criteria is to put the show together, they contacted me as a sanctioning body and that’s basically how they’ve got to this point,” Castricone said Monday at a brief press conference inside the roller rink.
New York banned the sport in 1997, but early this year legislation aiming to legalize the sport passed the state Senate for the third time, only to be swept aside once again in the Assembly.
”Mixed Martial Arts, for professional fighters, is still illegal in New York state,” Lilly said. “We need the Senate and the Assembly and our local constituents to please step up and help us pass and get this bill — 1707A — approved.”
Castricone said that the TNT Fight Series is a prime opportunity for the sport to show itself in a
Mixed martial arts is a full contact sport which allows the use of striking and grappling techniques — including boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai, among others.
Often viewed as too barbaric, Castricone said “everybody’s hesitant” about allowing the sport. He said it was critical to get everyone on the same page and prove the sport is safe “through the sanctioning body, through the rules and regulations we do have.”
Lilly said in an amateur MMA bout, there’s no “ground-and-pound” whereby the fighter with the upper hand may take an opponent to the ground and continue to strike at his foe.
There’s a 25-page rule book that needs to be abided by in order for it to be successful.
“The rules for the pros that allow elbows are not allowed. And the rules of head kicks or knees to the head are not allowed in the amateur realm,” Lilly said. “It’s a safer, constructive way to let the amateurs prosper and work their way into the pros.”
Professional mixed martial artist and co-owner of Victory Erik Hebert said that fights such as the TNT Fight Series are a chance for politicians and lawmakers, or even casual fans, to get a live look at one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports.
Perhaps after seeing it, he mused, those pulling the strings in Albany will be more apt to sign a bill to legalize the spectacle into law.
“They need to see that it’s OK,” said Hebert, also a Tonawanda High School grad who served as an assistant coach with the North Tonawanda wrestling squad this past winter. “It’s not this brutal sport that people think it is. It’s sanctioned, it’s regulated, you have phenomenal athletes doing it. There’s tons of safety precautions, and once people get exposed to it in a positive way, instead of this negative light that tends to surround it, then yeah, I think people would definitely be open to it.”
There’s no question the sport is growing. According to Lilly, there are 3,500 licenses for USA Boxing throughout the country. In New York, there’s nearly half that number of licensed professional mixed martial artists.
“I understand not every fight I ever fight is going to be in my hometown, but to not even be allowed to do it, it makes it tough,” Herbert said. “It really does.”
Victory MMA manages 12 amateur fighters and four pros, including Herbert. But the gym, which moved from a smaller location on Broad Street in the City of Tonawanda to Sportsplex in North Tonawanda since opening in 2009, also trains more than 60 members. Victory is one of a handful of gyms that offer MMA training in the area.
“For a community or a s
tate to say that it’s not welcomed or not wanted, our business has
doubled and grown, and tripled in size in a year and a half to outfit what the sport has grown to,” Lilly said.
For now, though, professional mixed martial artists like Herbert, Evans and Jones are forced to travel elsewhere to compete. Local venues such as the Seneca Niagara Casino often host MMA events. But more often than not fighters such as Herbert travel out of state, at their own expense, to set foot in the octagon (the sport’s octagonal ring).
“I told one of my teammates in 2010, I said, ‘It’s going to get legalized this year, I know it. Don’t worry about it, we’ll be able to fight this year,’” Herbert said. “That was in 2010. I said that in 2011 and I said that this year again in 2012. I’m 0-3.”
There’s always next year.
“If you ask me next year, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I think 2013 is our year, man.’ And it will probably get shoveled again,” he said. “...How could there not be enough interest in something that would make the state millions of dollars? To not even get the shot, honestly, it’s pretty crazy.”