This past Saturday, May 19th, in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, New York, the TNT Fight Series became the first amateur MMA event to occur on New York State land in over a decade and, surprisingly, the world failed to end. The same special provision in the law that allowed the TNT Fight Series to be sanctioned where professional mixed martial arts is expressly illegal was used back in 2002. But New York authorities still made every effort to force all vestiges of MMA out of the state. Knowing this bit of history, part of my attention was at the door the entire night, expecting state police to burst in at any moment for some last-minute drama.
Fortunately, the actual result of the TNT Fight Series was an amateur event that went off without any problems beyond some things that are to be expected from a new promotion. However, there are two important pieces of information New York fans and legislators need to take away from both the positives and the negatives of the TNT production.
Local MMA is Bigger in Smaller Towns
The amount of livestock and Molsons trucks I could see out the window during the trek to Tonawanda bore a stronger resemblance to Canada than the New York State I had always been familiar with. The far northern part of New York is not only removed from the massive populace and distractions of Manhattan, but the majority of professional sporting culture that the New York/New Jersey area is known for. Buffalo has the Bills, the Sabers and local amateur and semi-professional sports.
The richness of the untapped local market was in full view at the TNT Fight Series. While the event fell short of promoters Don Lilly and Erik Herberts’ hopes of packing the venue with over a thousand people, the crowd was still very well populated. There were more fans in the seats at the TNT Fight Series than a first-time amateur promotion ever sees in northern New Jersey.
In all the talk of the economic impact that MMA can have in New York, the far northern suburbs are almost never mentioned. However, with less similar entertainment around, local MMA shows can act as a greater proportional draw up-state. Smaller towns mean a greater impact felt from each new person who shows up and spends money.
The newness of the sport in the area did lead to some problems, though. And these issues are indicative of what MMA’s future in New York needs.
Read more about logistics and officiating needs in New York after the jump
New York Officials Need More MMA-Specific Training
The promotional staff at the TNT Fight Series was decidedly above-average in their performance. Don Lilly proved a very effective marketer and matchmaker for the small show. And, despite both he and Herbert having direct connections to the local gym Victory MMA, the event treated the traveling fighters with a very even hand. TNT Fight Series hosted little in the way of home-town mismatches.
But the promotional staff don’t referee the bouts. The officiating was where both the event’s problems and the lessons that can be learned from it came in.
The provision in the law that allows for amateur MMA on New York land states that an outside sanctioning body can oversee “martial arts events.” In the case of the TNT Fight Series, the sanctioning body in question was the US Muay Thai Association. The USMTA oversaw athlete medicals, judging and refereeing the bouts, among other responsibilities handled by a sanctioning body.
In the department of refereeing, the USMTA personnel were woefully unprepared to handle mixed martial arts.
The officials clearly had Muay Thai experience only and it showed. In the most egregious example, one referee stopped a bout after a clear knockdown in what appeared, from the outside, to be the start of an 8-count. Then, after quickly realizing that there are no 8-counts in MMA, the referee restarted the bout, much to the surprise of the fighter who scored the knockdown and already began to celebrate.
Again to the credit of the promotional staff, Lilly and the USMTA members had an impromptu meeting as the fight was being called and the offending referee was taken out of the rotation for the rest of the night. Still, smaller problems in the officiating persisted.
The night was marked by a great deal of unusual resets, often when one fighter had a dominant ground position and was working towards a submission. Other times the ground game appeared to be let go without such progress being made. It wasn’t until the middle of the night that I realized the referees were resetting ground work when there was a lull in the striking. This standard for a reset is common in Muay Thai for breaking up clinches, but is completely foreign to MMA, which is supposed to be reset when fighters stop working towards specific advancement in position or offense.
The submissions scored that night were all either from guard or done with a quick maneuver off a scramble, as the referees did not allow for a methodical top control approach. The thought occurred to me that the crowd might find that more entertaining, but it’s simply not the way MMA is done in the rest of the country.
The USMTA staff wasn’t really at fault. They had officials who drew from their experience, which was primarily in Muay Thai. The only referees in New York who have an abundance of MMA experience are the ones who regularly officiate in New Jersey. Such a trek would be prohibitive for officials in the Buffalo area.
What that means for the future of New York is that any show taking place away from New York City that isn’t big enough to warrant flying in officials needs to make sure the local staff is trained specifically to referee MMA. Currently, the onus to do such training would fall on organizations like the USMTA that can sanction amateur mixed martial arts.
However, should the ban on professional MMA in New York be lifted, the State Athletic Commission will be responsible for providing extensive training before licensing officials. Professional shows pouncing on the new market can only lead to problems being experienced on a much larger scale.