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NY amateurs hope legalizing pro MMA will help them, too

Bret Jaspers
Tom Grinnell (left) and Glenn Mix got at it in the first official fight at an April MMA event at Magic City in Binghamton.

Screaming fans crowded Magic City Music Hall in Binghamton one night in April to cheer on their favorite fighter at an amateur mixed martial arts match. It was hard to tell who was more invested: the fighter, or their families. 

Dillon Yarka of Steuben County won the title fight that night. He was excited about the legalization of professional mixed martial arts, or MMA, which passed the New York legislature in March after a nearly 20-year ban. The New York State Athletic Commission released draft rules last month for the sport. Once the final rules take effect in September, professional MMA companies like UFC and Bellator can put on events in the state. 

Yarka hopes regulated fights can help him and other amateur fighters get the attention of those larger promotion companies. But he knows there’s a big gap between amateur fights and professional ones. "Someone like me isn't just gonna jump right into UFC. I mean unless they pick me. Which is tough," Yarka said.

Some people in the business say with outfits like UFC and Bellator being so dominant, it might be harder for new, struggling fighters to make the transition from amateur to professional. Cost, for example, can be a big factor. With professional legalization comes more extensive rules, insurance, and pre-fight testing for amateurs. Those higher standards will likely cost an amateur fighter more money.

Erik Gillette owns 5 Element MMA in Elmira. He put on the Magic City event through his promotion company, Art of Combat. Gillette said legalization is good for fighters who are already professional, but not so good for amateurs. He thinks if bigger promotion companies like UFC push out local events, and if New York regulates the sport more closely, amateur fighters will not compete as much.

"They need the small shows. They need [the] smaller venues so we can keep developing our young fighters," Gillette said.

Right now, there are no state rules for amateur MMA fights. Though it is not yet mandated by New York State, Gillette had his fighters provide clean blood results, including tests for HIV and hepatitis. Gillette also required his fighters to be drug tested and to stay off caffeine on fight day. Fighters got a doctor’s exam before and after the fight, he said.

But legalizing MMA will make blood testing a requirement, as opposed to an choice.

The state Athletic Commission's proposed rules would make promoters have insurance policies worth up to $1 million, so they could cover a serious brain injury. An insurance policy of this kind will likely be a steep investment for small companies.

Across the border in Pennsylvania, amateur and professional MMA fighting has been legal for two years.

Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, said regulating MMA events has improved the sport.

"These kids, you know, don’t wanna have the shin pads on. They just want to go out and kill each other," he said. "It’s my job to make sure it’s regulated."

Sirb developed rules that help determine a fighter’s experience level, so fighters can be matched more evenly and avoid injury. If a fighter is registered as an "advanced amateur" in Pennsylvania, it means he or she has fought in at least three matches. In that case, some rules can be waived: fighters don’t have to wear shin guards and can use punches that are usually illegal in amateur bouts. 

Back in New York, fighter Dillon Yarka said it would be great to have a "middle man," some kind of level in between amateur and UFC.

Whether or not New York will develop a middle level, similar to Pennsylvania, the life of an amateur MMA fighter in New York will certainly change.