Mixed martial arts isn’t legal in New York. This is sad and bewildering for those of us who love the sport and dream of one day seeing a major MMA event in Madison Square Garden. While that may not happen any time soon, that doesn’t mean you can’t see some MMA action in the Empire State, even if it’s on shaky legal ground.
Last night I went to my first underground MMA show, which I was clued into by some of the people I train with. When I say underground, I mean it wasn’t advertised to the public. The event was held in a gym in Queens, and brought fighters from all over the five boroughs. If you’re wondering what it’s like to watch a guy from the Bronx and a guy from Queens go at it in front of a crowd of about 150 people, let me just tell you that it is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
It’s a different experience, obviously, than going to a sanctioned fight at an arena. For one thing, the crowd sat on chairs that were placed atop the wrestling mats surrounding the ring. A DJ played music between bouts. At one point a beat cop walked in looking for someone in charge and, when he found them, apparently got a satisfactory explanation because he turned and walked out.
When I first heard about these fights I didn’t know what to expect. I pictured scenes from movies where a group of men gather in warehouse, shouting at the fighters while shaking sweaty fistfuls of cash in the air. It wasn’t like that. The crowd was mostly men from the participating gyms, but also featured some wives, girlfriends, and even mothers.
The biggest difference was the strange intimacy of the setting. The gym was small enough that when someone’s cell phone went off right near the beginning of one bout, everybody heard it. The size of the gym, combined with the fact that almost everybody knew somebody who was fighting, made it feel more personal when the punches started flying. People were on their feet right away, shouting like they were back in high school and watching a fight in the cafeteria.
The fighters were admittedly not quite ready for the big time, but they also didn’t seem like that was their goal. They were just guys who enjoyed training and fighting and physical competition and who wanted to test themselves.
Afterwards, I really started thinking about why MMA isn’t legal in New York. It’s obviously happening anyway, and does anyone think that keeping it “underground” is making it safer? It seemed like the organizers of this event did a good job of taking the necessary precautions (fights were stopped when they should have been, proper gear was used), but was there a ringside doctor? If so, what kind of doctor can you get to come to an illegal fighting event?
I’m not saying that just because an illegal activity happens frequently it should be legalized. That logic falls apart very quickly. But if people want to engage in behaviors that are dangerous because they feel the risk is a) acceptable, and b) part of the allure, then I can’t see why the government should keep them from it.
Last night’s event wasn’t some human cockfight or Kimbo Slice backyard brawl. It was every bit as sporting and (in the Marquis of Queensbury sense of the word) gentlemanly as any other athletic competition. It’s nice to see that with the right people in charge, that’s what MMA looks like, even if it isn’t entirely legal.
Now all we need is to move it out of the gyms and into the Garden. It can’t happen soon enough for me.