UGBG (UnderGround Blog Guest Blogger) Jim Genia has been writing professionally in the field since 2001, and is the author of the nonfiction book Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts (Citadel Press, 2011).
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This was supposed to be a busy week for Northeast mixed martial arts. Thursday night would feature the Urban Conflict Championship, which was returning after a year-long hiatus with a card chock full of Bellator and WEC vets, while Saturday night would have another installment of the Cage Fury Fighting Championship in Atlantic City.
But something went wrong in the time between the fighters signing their contracts and getting their necessary paperwork into the athletic commission, and now the UCC has been cancelled. They say it’s not easy being a fighter, what with the rigors of training and competing and having someone punch you in the face. The hardships fighters go through, however, are only part of the story. As Chris Sblendorio – the man behind the UCC – can attest to, promoting a successful event is akin to erecting a house of cards.
Thursday night’s show at the Teaneck Armory Arena was to be the UCC’s fifth, and with an area of operations that has seen events go down at venues in Jersey City and Morristown, the organization has staked a claim on the Northern New Jersey MMA scene that no one has dared challenge. Past events have had future UFC competitors like Dave Branch, John Cholish and Jimmie Rivera kicking ass and taking names, and with the cage set up just a hop, skip and a jump from New York City, it’s been perfect for fans and fighters alike who hail from the Big Apple (compared to the Atlantic City staples CFFC and Ring of Combat, which require a two-hour drive to see).
After UCC 4, it was fourteen months before UCC 5 hit the calendar, and when it did, June 8 was the day. But a somewhat dramatic change in New Jersey’s liquor laws threw a monkey wrench in those works. Suddenly, it was no longer viable for a major sponsor to ply their wares at the show.
“We postponed the show originally from June 8th due to some logistical issues with a major sponsor of the event and it would have been very difficult to pull the event off that night,” said Sblendorio, who worked with New Jersey State Athletic Control Board honcho Nick Lembo to get a new date for UCC 5. It was rescheduled for June 28.
Of course, with the change came a new set of deadlines for when medical paperwork must be submitted to the commission. And therein came the gust of wind that proved to be the demise of the UCC 5 house of cards.
“What happened yesterday was just pure unprofessionalism and miscommunication,” said Sblendorio on the deadline and the numerous fighters who failed, for various reasons, to get their paperwork in order. “A lot of these fighters sent in their medicals prior to the deadline and they were given instructions on short notice to make amends on their medicals, which they either chose to not follow or not be cognizant of the deadline at hand. Nick Lembo said it best to me yesterday: ‘What's the point of having deadlines if you give extensions?’ He is absolutely correct.”
As any promoter outside of the UFC and Bellator will tell you, success hinges upon ticket sales – a nebulous kind of calculus where popular fighters make the equation work with all the fans they bring in. Take away those big draws and you’re left with a losing proposition.
Said Sblendorio of the roster that went from nine planned bout to only five, “With the fight card, we took too many losses for our draw that evening from the fighters that were knocked off, and as a business decision we decided to cancel the show rather than put on a subpar show, which we don't do.”
The medical paperwork required to be licensed to compete in a professional MMA bout is more or less standard wherever there’s athletic commission oversight, and the list of necessary and up-to-date tests includes eyes exams, screenings for Hepatitis and HIV, pregnancy tests (for women, obviously) – the works. Upon whose shoulders does the responsibility rest to get that done?
“Ultimately I think it’s the fighter’s responsibility once he takes the fight to get his medical licensing in,” said Lembo. “But it’s in the best interests of the promotion to make sure it gets done as well.”
“The NJSACB is the best commission in the country in terms of professional MMA,” said CFFC general manager Arias Garcia Jr. “Their number one concern is fighter's safety. They require a lot of paperwork and medical testing in order for a fighter to compete.” He added, “To ensure this paperwork is complete and submitted on time, CFFC relies on its own staff to follow up on fighters and managers.”
Sometimes the dangling carrot of a paycheck may not be enough to motivate a fighter; to address that, CFFC also takes the “stick” approach.
“The CFFC has added clauses in our contacts urging fighters to get medicals submitted and cleared at least ten days before an event or face a financial penalty,” said Garcia. “So far it has been working fine but sometimes things are just out of everyone’s control. An MRI can come back showing something questionable and the fighter will have to go back and get clearance. Sometimes the fighter won't get cleared and that's just the nature of the business.”
What of the fighters who had their paperwork in in time for the ill-fated UCC event?
“We were notified yesterday by the NJSACB and a few camps that the UCC event wasn't going to happen,” said Garcia. “We talked to the UCC in an attempt to salvage some of the fights. Talks are still ongoing.” As of this writing, two bouts have transferred to the Saturday night CFFC card.
“I hope that none of the fighters who completed their medical requirements lose their fights,” said Lembo.
Will this cancellation affect the future of the UCC in terms of how the NJSACB treats it? Said Lembo, “That’s determined on a case by case basis, and the medical issues present on this show were not their fault.”
So does this spell the end of the North Jersey promotion? Although certainly a blow to their reputation as a never-fail organization, it doesn’t have to be the end. In its decade of existence, Ring of Combat has seen the forced cancellation of two of their shows (once due to a snowstorm, once due to a strike that shut down the casinos), while an earlier incarnation of CFFC imploded due to financial reasons after giving us the debut of Kimbo Slice. The UCC can survive.
“I'll be going over some strategy with our team over the next few days,” said Sblendorio. “Most likely, if we do come back, it will be sometime in September or October, and it will be one of the best shows New Jersey has ever seen.”
And that’s the thing about houses of cards: no matter what, they can be rebuilt – and be even more impressive than before.