March 23 was special, but not for any reason you might think. There was no offering from the UFC that day, and the World Series of Fighting installment airing on the NBC Sports channel was DVR-worthy at best. There were 26 minor league shows of various sizes occurring throughout the country (an exceptional number given that the average is eight), but that wasn’t it, either. No, what made the date special were the 1,500 spectators cheering at the ten fights that went down before them, 1,500 crammed into the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan for Fighters Source’s inaugural Big Apple event. It was an MMA show in the heart of enemy territory, in Indian Country, in the last great holdout in the nearly 20-year battle the sport has waged for acceptance. And from the packed venue to the fights to what it all proved, the event was a success.
It was dubbed “Kings of New York”, and it wasn’t the first amateur MMA competition in New York City (there were small tournaments at Borough of Manhattan Community College back in 1996), nor was it the first since the state acknowledged last year that those sorts of shindigs were truly legal. The Fighters Source event, however, was the most significant. In a state that has long struggled with its identity when it comes to fighting in a cage – New York banned professional MMA in 1997, inadvertently fostered an underground scene, and only recently begrudgingly allowed amateur bouts – Kings of New York was the first large-scale effort to take place in Midtown Manhattan, under the bright lights of the big city. Unlike the secret Underground Combat League shows of the past decade, or the not-so-secret TNT Fights upstate and the Aggressive Combat Championships taking place in Outer Borough high school gymnasiums, this one was right there in the center of the universe, a block from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden and a scant eight blocks from Times Square.
Kings of New York had all the trappings of a legit sanctioned show, albeit skewed slightly for the unregulated wilds of the Empire State. The referees were trained and experienced. A vascular surgeon acted as the official fight doctor, screening all the competitors before the show and tending to them if they needed it afterwards. Two fighters on the card fought at a show north of the city a mere six days before, with the kid who won his debut last week getting crushed by an 8-1 scrapper from Chicago.
Kings of New York had those quirks unique to fights shows all over. There was a vegan Hipster from a jiu-jitsu academy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tattooed and kind when he wasn’t tapping his foe out with a triangle choke that seemed to last about two minutes. There was a cornerman in a Luchador mask. There was UFC vet Seth Petruzelli in a suit doing post-fight interviews, and Shonie Carter in a kilt, coaching his young wards. There was former Cro-Mags frontman Harley Flanagan, a Renzo Gracie-trained black belt and jiu-jitsu instructor nowadays, who could hardly believe that there was a cage erected in the middle of a venue he’d performed at many times in his youth. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “I’ve fucking played here!”
Putting the event together was no walk in the park: wrangling over whether liquor could legally be served went on until the eleventh hour, while a robust fight card on Wednesday was whittled down to ten bouts come Saturday night. And as regional MMA shows go, Kings of New York carried with it more than the usual risk. Where often these events see homegrown promoters put together cards featuring local fighters to appeal to local fans, this one was the exact opposite. Fighters Source is based in Florida, and of the 20 competitors, only a few hailed from the area. There were no fathers cheering for their sons, no mothers and brothers and best friends and officemates going bananas because the young men (or women) kicking ass in the cage were people they knew and knew well. Go to any minor league MMA show anywhere and the audience is packed with spectators the fighters sold tickets to; at Kings of New York, the audience was there simply because there were MMA fights, no more, no less. An audience of 1,500 is a remarkable feat unto itself, but when the ticket buyers don’t have a vested interest in the fighters? That number is unheard of.
And therein was the significance of it all. Against harsh odds, Kings of New York went off wonderfully, and now a heretofore unknown market has been tested and gauged. Now, every promoter – local or otherwise – knows for sure how ripe New York City is when it comes to bearing the fruit of financial returns. If 1,500 showed up without knowing any of the fighters, will that attendance number double when the card heavily features reps from Tiger Schulmann’s MMA, the Renzo Gracie Academy and Team Serra/Longo? Will a promoter with local roots be able to put 5,000 asses into seats in Madison Square Garden? The answer to these questions is a resounding “Fuck yeah, probably.”
So it should be safe to assume that the floodgates have officially been opened. Fighters Source promised to return for at least five more New York City shows in 2013, and there are rumbles of other promoters planning even bigger amateur MMA events in Manhattan in the coming months. Maybe this will be the year the legislature lifts the ban on professional combative sports, maybe not, but even if it isn’t, there will soon be a ton of live MMA action to soak in on weekend nights.
You can thank Kings of New York for that.
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