It’s gone now, but not forgotten, that span of time in New York where to fight like they did on TV – in the Octagon, in the UFC – was the stuff of outlaws. You could of course go to New Jersey, which was a short ride across the Hudson, or take a bus up to one of the casinos in Connecticut and do it there, where it was legal and regulated and safe. But a fight in New Jersey or Connecticut wasn’t a fight in New York, and to a New Yorker, that was all that really mattered.
That's all a thing of the past now that mixed martial arts has been legalized in New York. And in celebration, the UFC will honor the city that never sleeps with the finest display of MMA the world has ever seen: UFC 205.
But looking back, even the biggest card in history can not erase the years it took to make it here, to the pinnacle of MMA. It's the experiences of New York's local fighters, the one's who did it underground, before it was legal, that will one day be remembered as things of legend.
For Jerome Mickle, that meant a secret gathering in a mosque nestled below the 6 Train, fistfighting a kid from Brooklyn on a foam mat. No doctors, no judges, just a handful of people hooting and hollering and the promoter acting as referee. Mixed martial arts wasn’t quite legal then, but it was getting there, and it was a drag to know that New York would stubbornly remain in the Dark Ages for as long as it could.
Jerome won that night, and he went on to win so many more over the years, in rings set up in storied boxing gyms in the Bronx and in cages erected in too-loud nightclubs in Queens. Often, he was hidden from the unforgiving gaze of the athletic commission like brave Bilbo Baggins ducking an evil and bloated Smaug. But things have since changed.
In April, after years of lobbying by the UFC, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that lifted the 1997 ban on MMA, making New York the last state to legalize mixed martial arts. Now, Jerome – and others like him, who’ve fought in New York with no athletic commission oversight, for no money, and with nothing more than their passion to shield them from the stigma of doing something dubious and disreputable – can do it all safely, for a paycheck, and ultimately, for a shot at something bigger.
On November 12, the grand spectacle and pageantry of a massive UFC pay-per-view event will fill all 21,000 seats of the arena in #MadisonSquareGarden. And though this is a boon for the fans who’ve waited years to see the Octagon set up in their own backyard, it means so much more to the fighters here, as well as the sport as a whole.
MMA will, quite simply, never be the same.
New York’s underground fight scene was every bit as shady, sinister, ugly and noble as you can imagine, and for years it was the only game in town. It was here where Jerome came up. And if you had told him how the UFC’s lobbyists had convinced a few more legislators to consider lifting the ban, it would’ve been like telling a #ragingbull about the rise and fall of the stock market. He was just there to knock fools out.
But eventually, the UFC’s battle forced the State Attorney General to admit that the 1997 statute didn’t apply to amateur events, and the floodgates were opened. Anyone who so desired could organize some fights in the cage, and the athletic commission couldn’t touch them.
Thus, Brandon Medina, a fast and frenetic flyweight who trains at a jiu-jitsu academy in the Bronx with his twin brother, got to kick ass in the basement of a church on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan and in a college gymnasium in Queens, as an amateur, of course.
“Legalizing MMA makes a huge difference in the atmosphere,” he says.
In another lifetime, Brandon could’ve been wearing gang colors while defending his neighborhood against thugs, throwing knuckles in the street. But that was the path not taken, and now he’s a demon on the mats and a demon in the cage. “Instead of fighting out of state for pro, we will have chances to fight pro here in the future,” he says. “I would love to fight pro in my hometown.”
“It means I can fight, and make some money without paying to travel,” says Luis Gonzales one late night after training. In 2014, Luis knocked out an opponent in eight seconds, and has since won a belt in an organization in Queens and another belt in an organization on Long Island. He’s due to earn some greenbacks for his efforts.
Both Brandon and Luis are lucky to have avoided the shady promotions that sprouted up like toadstools when New York began allowing unsanctioned amateur MMA events. Once, a fighter upstate broke his hand in a main event, and was laughed at by the promoter when he asked about insurance coverage. Then there was that promotion that simply set up a cage in a vacant lot in Schenectady, no medical professionals in sight, just the fighters in between rounds smoking cigarettes.
“At the moment the biggest change has been seeing which promoters are willing to abide by the rules and do things the right way,” says Luis, alluding to all the regulations that must be followed under the new law, a law that shoulders the New York State Athletic Commission with responsibility for sanctioning mixed martial arts.
“Legalizing MMA in New York meant to me that now New York fighters would hopefully get the same props and respect as fighters from other states,” says Jillian DeCoursey, who, given her current win streak, is considered one of the best amateur female fighters in the New York right now – if not the best, because she has a habit of mercilessly beating jiu-jitsu black belts. Yet her status as killer elite never mattered to athletic commissions in others states, who almost uniformly made it more difficult for New Yorkers to compete in their jurisdictions because of all amateur MMA here being unsanctioned and unregulated.
“As an amateur fighting in New York it was great,” she says. “As long as you were smart and carefully picked which cards you fought on, you got to fight very close to pro rules from the start. The downside was that if you did fight in New York as an amateur, you could sometimes be unable to fight in other states without jumping through some hoops first.”
Says Jillian, “New York can finally be on the MMA map.”
Sanctioned MMA in New York means #ChrisWeidman gets to fight in front of his family and friends and legions of fans.
It means the denizens of the Irish neighborhoods on Queens Boulevard and Bainbridge Avenue can take the subway en masse to cheer on #ConorMcGregor as he bangs it out against Philadelphia’s #EddieAlvarez.
It means no more unsanctioned events where the fighters aren’t even tested for hepatitis and HIV beforehand, where the rules are nebulous and the notion of safety standards is some kind of luxury a promoter can claim he can’t afford.
It means amateur fighters being able to turn pro without carpooling up Interstate 95 or taking the bus down the Garden State Parkway (Jerome couldn’t wait – he got his pro license in Massachusetts and has a fight looming in Atlantic City).
But most of all, legalized MMA here means that no one in the world can claim the sport to be barbaric and point to New York’s ban to bolster their argument. The last lingering vestiges of unlawfulness that have dogged cagefighting since its inception have been shucked.
“It helps when you try to explain what you do to not have this cloud over the sport,” says Luis, and though he’s talking about the microcosm that is his neighborhood, his city and his state, his words encompass so much more.
Thanks to New York coming around, MMA is finally legal, here, in the capital of the world.