Talk about your unlikely scenarios.
For one thing, it’s a Saturday night in late February, and I, who know less about sports than any other American male — I who, pretentious wuss that I am, would normally be at home in Park Slope reading Joseph Roth essays or listening to Miles Davis CDs — am sitting with my laptop in Corona, Queens, twenty feet from an octagonal fighting cage.
For another, this is not a sports arena but the 476-seat Queens Theatre, whose offerings this season include productions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not exactly Madison Square Garden.
But fighting — specifically, mixed martial arts, or MMA — is what’s happening at the theater tonight: seven amateur bouts, here in the last state in the union where professional MMA — often called America’s fastest-growing sport — is not legal, at least at the moment. Despite some stiff, long-standing resistance, that may well change this week, which would probably be a good thing.
We’ll get to all that in a moment.
For now, though, the fighters. Some of those here tonight, in the half-full theater, fight almost like the guys I’ve seen on TV in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) professional matches, the ones I watch with guilty fascination on the treadmill at the Prospect Park YMCA — the fascination that led me here.
Others, well…what some amateur matches make clear about UFC fights is how careful the pros are in their brutality, how patiently one sizes the other up before trying to disaggregate him. By contrast, the first match here in Corona, between Arik Tahveez and Jamal Kataw, resembles a schoolyard brawl, the two young men windmilling and plowing into each other like overwound toys, seeming to swing without thinking or even looking. A young man who works for Aggressive Combat Championships (ACC), the organization sponsoring tonight’s events, tells me during one match, “When you train you learn hundreds of moves. But in the ring you use maybe five.” If that’s also true for the pros, they do a better job of hiding it.
Compared with MMA, boxing looks like a formal Elizabethan dance. Boxers are not allowed to kick or to hit below the belt, and a boxer who is knocked down has ten seconds to get himself together. Mixed martial artists, by contrast, may knee each other in the face, throw one another to the mat, and send their (bare) feet to any part of the opponent within reach. They might administer what’s known in the trade as a “guillotine,” which the good people at breakingmuscle.com define as “a choke a competitor executes by positioning himself in front of his opponent, wrapping his arm around the top of the opponent’s neck and under the chin, and applying pressure on the neck and throat. The guillotine can place a lot of pressure on the neck as well as render an opponent unconscious.” Then there’s always the spinning back kick, the spinning back fist, the superman, the rear naked choke, the hammerfist, and so on. All look extremely unpleasant.
So why am I, a genteel non-sports-fan, fascinated by this? Why am I not at home, trying to decide whether to read Yeats or go wild with a volume of William Carlos Williams? Maybe for the same reason that I followed Muhammad Ali as a kid in the 1970s when I didn’t care about baseball or football: The violence is addictive.
To hear Joyce Carol Oates tell it, boxing — and I would extend this idea to cover mixed martial arts — is not a sport. As she points out in On Boxing, you “play” football and basketball; you don’t play boxing. And most sports are, when you step back a minute, nonsensical affairs, intense competitions to determine who is best at doing something no one actually needs to do. How do you hit a home run? Knock a ball that’s five ounces and nine inches in diameter out of a four-hundred-foot park. Um, OK. What if the ball were three ounces and the park were five hundred feet? Just sayin’. There is nothing so arbitrary, though, about finding out who can take all comers; it satisfies a curiosity — a base one, I’ll admit — that reaches back at least as far as the gladiators. And, sort of like a gene passed down from the first humans, the one that even today makes us prefer a bird’s song to, say, the shriek of a bobcat, there is more than a touch of the gladiators’ outright brutality in today’s mixed martial arts.
Brutality, of course, is why some have long resisted legalizing professional MMA (as opposed to the amateur variety on display here in Corona) in New York State. For seven straight years, most recently this past February 1, the state senate has voted to legalize the sport here; the measure has died in committee every time, with the state assembly never even bringing it to a vote. In general, Republicans back legalizing MMA and Democrats don’t; one roadblock vanished recently when Speaker Sheldon Silver, a foe of legalization, resigned (in disgrace) and was replaced by Carl Heastie, a sponsor of the pro-MMA bill. (Heastie removed his name from sponsorship of all bills upon becoming Speaker.) MMA has gotten another boost from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who thinks it would be good for the state economically. Now, with professional MMA in the budget, a decision on whether to keep it there — i.e., make it legal — is imminent.
The proposed legislation would put all MMA, including amateur fights, under the supervision of the New York State Athletic Commission. Backers of the bill — the recently dethroned UFC women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey, who has testified in Albany, among them — maintain that without the regulation that legalized professional MMA would bring, New York will remain the most dangerous place in the country for mixed martial arts. Rousey has called MMA part of a “cultural revolution” that helps empower women. (Unlike in boxing, the women in MMA are as famous as the men.)
Opponents of legalization include Deborah Glick, a Democrat in the assembly, who wrote for the publication the Villager, “The notion that MMA is a sport is difficult for me, and many others, to accept. I am a big sports fan who follows several sports, including professional football. Of course people who play sports can get injured and we are learning more every day about the long-term health implications of even minor concussions. But the goal of these sports — whether it is scoring points by hitting a ball with a bat, throwing a ball through a hoop, or shooting a puck into a net — is not to punish one’s opponent but to win the match. But ‘winning’ in ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ is predicated on physically beating up one’s opponent. On that basis alone, I believe that New York State should not repeal its ban on this activity.”
Citing a study in the March 21, 2014, issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine, Glick added that “about one-third of professional MMA matches end in a knockout or a technical knockout…. This study indicates that there is a higher incidence of brain trauma in MMA than in boxing or other martial arts.”
Some think there are other reasons why legalization has not passed in the assembly. According to a July 28, 2015, Newsweek article, “MMA’s continued illegality in the Empire State centers on two of the UFC’s owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. In addition to the UFC, the Fertittas also own Station Casinos in Las Vegas. This puts them at odds with the powerful Culinary Workers Union because Station Casinos are nonunion. The Culinary Union’s parent organization is called Unite Here, which encompasses several different unions across the country. Unite Here is based in New York, where it has about 90,000 members. Obviously, this makes New York politicians more amenable to its demands. And if one of those demands is that businessmen who use nonunion labor in other states not be allowed to expand their business into your state, union-backed politicians will find a reason to agree.” (Unite Here did not respond to my emails or telephone messages.)
Unsurprisingly, Assemblywoman Glick took exception to Newsweek‘s assertion. “Unions have nothing to do with my opposition to mixed martial arts, or that of my colleagues who object to it on the basis of its being a brutal activity,” she said. “It’s only when the subject of a union in connection with mixed martial arts is raised by a reporter that we hear about the issue.
“The hardest thing in this business is not to be a hypocrite,” she went on. “But some have come out in favor of mixed martial arts even though they oppose things like bullying.”
Asked how she would respond to the idea that mixed martial arts, which she likens to “organized assault,” will take place anyway, and that it would be better to make it legal and better regulated, Glick said, “We shouldn’t encourage young people to think of this as a career path.” Mixed martial arts “should be viewed as an illegal activity. If a cockfighting ring were discovered, we would bust it up and send the organizers to prison.”
ACC, the sponsor of tonight’s fights, is a kind of family affair: One of the two co-owners is a 35-year-old former mixed martial artist, Eugene Perez, whose wife is present and whose 9-year-old daughter, Casey, sang the national anthem tonight (not badly, either) and is serving as one of the card girls. That mom’n’pop vibe aside, ACC takes its business seriously, and the announcer informs us at the start of the evening that two doctors are present and that the matches are sanctioned by the USMTA (United States Muay Thai Association), several of whose officials are here too. Those two factors — the doctors and the seal of approval from one of the four sanctioning bodies in the state — are what separate tonight’s bouts from over half of the seventy-plus amateur MMA matches that took place in New York State last year. The matches that are unsanctioned do not require prefight checkups or blood tests or that doctors be present.
And there are a couple of times tonight, here in Corona, when I’m glad there are doctors around. The first is after Sanjeev Singh takes on Josh Boneau, in a fight that lasts all of fifty-three seconds, during which Singh is flipped hard onto the canvas and subjected to an arm lock. Afterward, Singh is seated on a stool in the middle of the cage — which could be in Lebanon, for all he knows at the moment — while one of the doctors examines his eyes. Another fight, between Noah Donawa and Steve Sierra, is even faster — nineteen seconds — after which the doctor is back in the cage, examining Sierra, whose eyes have been turned to glass by a so-fast-as-to-be-invisible right hook. “The risks of MMA injuries are going to be higher than football and even boxing,” Christopher Proctor, a Santa Barbara physician with expertise in sports medicine, told me via email. “MMA is a more violent sport and will have a higher rate of injuries.” Another physician, the orthopedic specialist Nicholas E. Rose, based in Newport Beach, California, tells me that MMA represents “a unique constellation of possible injuries” and that “compared to football, the velocity at which people hit each other is less in MMA, but more repeated.” Dr. Rose added that many moves are made “with the specific intention of bending a joint in the wrong direction.”
To recap: MMA — not so good for you.
So why is it a good idea to professionalize this mayhem? Why should people be paid to treat each other in this fashion? Because, for reasons I’m not sure anyone can truly account for, humans being what we are, we’re going to do it anyway, and the better the conditions under which we knock each other out, the better the chances we’ll wake up again. We can bust up MMA matches, as Deborah Glick suggests, but by the time we ride in with our badges and guns and hitch up the horses, the damage will have been done.
One thing about MMA that is hard to miss — both in the comparatively easy-to-watch fights here in Corona and in the not-for-the-squeamish UFC matches I’ve seen on TV — is all the obviously heartfelt hugging that goes on after fights, between guys sometimes standing in pools of their own blood, guys who just got finished pounding the piss out of each other. It’s as if the fighters forgive each other — or see nothing to forgive — for having beaten each other senseless. And if MMA is brutal, no one is more brutal toward a fighter than the fighter himself, who puts his own body out there to be pounded, time after time.
But these are simply my ideas. Certainly there are others. I think of two people I talked to when I arrived at the theater. One was a middle-aged Latina who works for ACC. MMA “teaches you how to get along with others,” she told me. “How to come out from shyness…. I have a daughter, she suffers from autism, and being involved with MMA made me get my children involved. Now she’s stronger, she speaks fluently about the sport, and it made an impact on her life.”
Then again, there’s the nineteen-year-old Orlando. “I just like the sport. Yeah,” he said. When I asked why he likes MMA and not boxing, he replied, “Because I like kicking people, punching and slamming them. That’s pretty much it.”