On September 14, I made the four-and-a-half hour drive from Queens to Syracuse. Why? Amateur mixed martial arts. Gladius Fights, a promotion in upstate New York, was promoting an event.
I grew up in California, covering Strikeforce events less than an hour from my house, and the first time I traveled further to cover an event was for Fedor Emelianenko vs. Andrei Arlovski. But this is New York. This is a state where professional MMA doesn’t exist and amateur events in the state are scarce. Discussion on the car ride, with New York City-based sambo coach Steve Koepfer, focused largely on the politics of MMA in New York and forthcoming attempts by sanctioning bodies, particularly the International Sport Karate Association (ISKA), to establish a foothold.
There are two sides to every MMA event. There’s the theater, which includes the background on fighters and human interest, matchmaking, weigh-ins, warm-ups, and the actual fight. And there’s the politics. There’s a lot to be said about politics, but I will leave that for a later article.
Prior to the event, I met with two fighters, Sam and Jackie Micale. Jackie had been anticipating making her amateur debut in the lone female bout on the Gladius Fights card. The two are fairly new to the sport, training for about six months, but they’ve made it a lifestyle. They’re in the gym six nights a week and practice grappling at home on the floor. Jackie mentioned that they were excited for their son, Damian, to start training.
There’s a public perception of MMA, associated with “violence against women” by lobbyist Connie Neal and “unchallenged sexism and misogyny” by Sen. Liz Krueger (D – Manhattan). But, as I talked to Jackie and Sam, I was struck by how bizarre these remarks sounded.
Sam, who took this fight on a week’s notice, was enthusiastic. He had won his first fight with a knockout, and hasn’t looked back since. The two are mutually supportive, encouraging each other during warm-ups. Because the fight originally separating them on the card was dropped, Jackie and Sam fought back-to-back on the event.
And then they were up.
Jackie’s fight against Hope Gillete was a scrap, more reminiscent of an alley brawl than a boxing or grappling match, complete with the horse-collar clinch. Jackie got the better of most of the exchanges throughout the fight, and it looked like she was going to take a decision, but heavy strikes in the third round gave her the win early.
In the next bout, Sam stepped into the cage against a grappler, Brandon Warne. After landing a short, sharp combination, Sam overextended on an overhand right, was taken down and submitted by rear naked choke. Sam, like many fighters experiencing their first loss, was devastated.
After the fight, Sam’s team gathered around him for support, offering reassurance. Some reminded him that this was a tough fight, that he took it on short notice, that he has nothing to be ashamed of. All those things were true. By the end of the card, Sam and I were able to talk about how proud he was of Jackie, about the sparring-heavy training that he does in the gym, and about his new focus on his jiu-jitsu.
The rest of the card (14 fights long and, even with three-minute rounds, well over four hours) was well-produced and well-contested.
A coach complained to me that his fighter’s opponent missed weight; the ISKA informed me the bout is a superheavyweight bout, and so that though James Chaplin cut to 265 pounds and his opponent weighed in at 270, it was fine. This is the only hiccup in a very professionally run show; save that a fighter with an out-of-date medical form was barred from fighting. Chaplin was finished quickly via arm-triangle choke.
Gladius Fights held four title fights, including the headliner between Dustin Bertch and Luay Ashkar. I was unclear as to why this fight was the main event. Ashkar was only in his third fight; Bertch had a respectable, but unexciting, 4-2 record. Then I watched Ashkar come out of the corner. He had head-movement, control of distance, and a quick jab. I was told after the fight that Ashkar had something like 15 kickboxing bouts, and it showed. At 2:47 in round one, Ashkar landed a spinning back kick to the ribs, ending the fight. Impressive… that’s the word.
Amateur MMA is exciting. There’s something to be said for fighters who are there not because they need the win bonus but because they want the fight. Rarely are there fights in the amateur events that wind up with three rounds of lay-and-pray. The battles focus on striking, and increase the pace of the grappling. While MMA draws criticism in New York, and the legislative battles that surround it drag on, the folks who care about the sport continue working, continue fighting. In the immediate future, there is a lot to say about the politics, but that begins with appreciation and acknowledgement of the fights in the cage, and the fighters who make them.