New York’s Underground Combat League
PHOTOS AND STORY BY MATTHEW KAPLOWITZ
All names were used with permission from the people involved. Some names have been altered to protect the identity of the person.
I had heard about the underground fight show in New York the moment I began to cover MMA. I had even seen a segment about it on a local news channel, but of course it only focused on the brutality of the sport and not on the real issue at hands, which was the lack of MMA being sanctioned in New York.
Finally, I earned my invite to check out one of the shows in person recently. Each show was in a different location in each of the five boroughs, and this time it happened to be in a non-descript boxing gym in an unsuspecting small neighborhood where you would never expect to find it.
A burly man with a thin goatee stopped me at the door, cutting off any peek of what was happening inside. I told him whom I was with and he told me to stay put. When a man that size tells you to not move, you do what he says. Moments later, a man came over in a green jacket and baseball cap, and invited me in. That man was Peter Storm, the owner of the Underground Combat League, and we had just set foot into his baby.
The origins of the UCL are quite humble. “Seven years ago I saw that there was a need for MMA,” Peter explained. “It wasn’t popular back then but I was familiar with the sport and I knew it was going to be big. Being a promoter and also a martial artist, I decided to put what I like to task.” Since then, Storm has put on close to 20 shows and gave many big names their first chance to put on the 4 oz. gloves, including Frankie Edgar and Bryan Vetell, and is also the subject of a documentary called “Welcome to the Underground.”
Despite there being only 50 or 60 people in the gym, the stinging odor of sweat was still present as the small audience was huddled around a 20×20 ring. A trained medical staff was on hand in case any fighters suffered an injury, so this was far from some bareknuckle street fight organization. This is the kind of show where everyone in the audience knows someone fighting or they are simply in the know, otherwise there is no way they would even be at the show. Advertising is purely word of mouth and if you don’t know someone, you are not getting in. When I asked Peter how people found out about these shows to attend, he responded, “Well, how did you find out?”
For that, I thanked Jim Genia of Full Contact Fighter, who discovered the league in 2004 purely because he knew a trainer of one of the fighters. “I paid my admission and covertly took pictures and wrote notes and then published an article about it. Storm read it and liked what I wrote and ever since, I have been getting invites.”
I missed the first two fights and they sounded exciting. The curtain opener ended when one of the fighters quit from an accidental eye-poke, and the second match ended when one of the fighters fell out of the ring during a takedown and injured his shoulder. I walked in during the third match which was a back and forth affair between two UCL veterans. As I patrolled around the ring looking for a good place to shoot, a fighter who had recognized me from Facebook stopped me.
John Beckett, a native of Staten Island, had been training MMA for about two years and had heard about the shows and was able to get hooked up to fight in one. A Columbia University graduate with a Masters in Education and Technology, John had no desire to turn pro but really enjoyed the amateur scene. This was his debut and just as he was greeting me, he jumped into the ring for his fight.
The UCL uses the unified rules we see all in other MMA shows, but in addition to that also holds matches with Submission Grappling rules and Pankration matches, which eliminates head strikes, elbows, and knees, and were the rules that John was competing in. Sadly, his match was quick as he was taken down and submitted before the first round ended. After tapping out, he looked up at the ref, asking if that was it. With his pre-fight jitters gone now, John was a disappointed by his performance, but was ready to jump back in and give it another shot.
“I was nervous but I wanted to go more all out. I definitely wanted to keep on going.” When Beckett isn’t training, he works with disabled children, and wants to stay in Education. Turning pro is not on his list of priorities, but his interest in fighting remained despite his sour debut. “I think you have to get it out and now I just want to do it again.” After saying those words, John looked up and saw his opponent. “Hold on, I’m gonna’ ask him if he wants a rematch sometime.” And with that, John darted off to see if he could find retribution or perhaps a new training partner.
After Beckett hopped out, a heavyweight named Kevin Wall was next on deck. Wearing two-toned TapouT shorts and a jaw chiseled from stone, Kevin was a former boxer and stick fighter who had worked his craft all across the world. He began to get into Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, got deeper into MMA and has since began teaching, but it is not easy to stay content when you have the itch to fight. “Teaching’s fun, but you get rusty and it becomes boring. So here I am.”
This was Wall’s third fight in the UCL and has been fighting with other amateur leagues for about a year and a half. His opponent, Xavier, seemed tentative and rightfully so. This seemed to be a mismatch just from the initial appearance, with Xavier’s self-conscious decision to wear two rashguards over his bulbous physique, while Kevin flexed his muscles and glared at the intimidated fighter across from him.