They were the first to adopt the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, the first to stick their necks out for MMA when for years the sport was considered akin to human cockfighting, and the first to implement a state-sanctioned amateur program. And when it came to honoring those within the industry who’ve significantly contributed to its growth, New Jersey was first as well. On Friday night, I attended the second annual New Jersey State Martial Arts Hall of Fame dinner – which honored and inducted everyone from UFC fighter Jim Miller to amateur wrestler Jordan Burroughs to the late Jeff Blatnick – and amid the gratitude and acceptance speeches and applause, one thing became apparent: when it comes to all things MMA, the Garden State really is ahead of the curve.
The list of honorees was both extensive and broad, and for all the names the average fan might recognize, there were more than a few “unsung heroes” whose work behind the scenes at events has always been essential, if invisible to the unknowing eye. There was, for example, Donnie Carolei, a New Jersey State Athletic Control Board inspector and referee…
…And there was Cardo Urso, a judge who’s often flown all over the world to sit cageside and render decisions at high-level events.
Given New Jersey’s Muay Thai proclivities, coaches, officials and fighters from that sport were honored. Also honored: Grapplers Quest promoter Brian Cimins, traditional martial artist Michael DePasquale Jr., fight photographer Tom DeFazio, and Danny “Tiger” Schulmann, whose network of almost 50 schools has helped expose thousands of gym-goers to combat sports.
All gave speeches expressing gratitude, some of them talking only briefly, some of them talking quite a lot. But if an award was to have been given for the speeches themselves, then the words of pioneering female fighter Tara LaRosa would’ve come away with the night’s top honor.
Annual awards dinners and hall of fames are commonplace in many other athletic endeavors. But despite having a strong presence here in the States for 20 years now, MMA regrettably has few. Thankfully, there’s always New Jersey, whose progressiveness extends beyond the realm of protecting fighters and safeguarding the sport, to honoring those who get those jobs done.