Once, boxing provided a path to propel young, struggling New Yorkers to new lives, allowing them to capitalize on skills that served them in the streets. These days, mixed martial arts is increasingly fulfilling that role, offering discipline and martial arts philosophy alongside the sometimes brutal consequences of the sport.
But so far it's illegal in New York to make money from such a career choice.
The state Legislature ended its most recent session without legalizing the sport, which has been banned here since 1997. It is regulated in 45 other states (not including tribal reservations), New Jersey among them.
Today in New York, fighters are faced with a tradeoff: It is free to compete in underground fights (sanctioned bouts in New Jersey require medical tests that can cost hundreds of dollars), but potentially more dangerous. They can get essential practice in actual bouts, but can't build up an official record that could yield more lucrative and high-profile matches. They have the ability to set their own rules, but those rules can backfire.
In an underground fight earlier this year, Jonathan Figueroa, 23 years old, went to the hospital and received "four or five" stitches after getting battered under his chin. ("My teacher said I cut myself worse shaving. It was so exciting. It was great," he said.)
In his latest fight, a punch to his neck staggered him. He swayed in the ring, nearly passing out. But in the last of three rounds, Mr. Figueroa slammed his opponent to the floor, held him down, and pounded his neck and back until time was called. He was declared the winner.
Punching the spine is illegal under the official rules of mixed martial arts, which detail more than 20 fouls.
It is not the only difference between underground and regulated fights. In New Jersey, rigorous medical exams for professional fighters include blood tests, EKGs, an MRI/CT brain scan and an eye exam; fighters over age 40 must also be checked for cerebral circulation and cleared by a cardiologist. Up to five doctors can be ringside for a major event, according to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, which regulates the sport.
The agency estimated that more than 50 fighters from its 42 mixed martial arts events last year were disqualified for medical reasons, including some who tested positive for HIV and hepatitis. Doctors also discovered severe conditions in several fighters, requiring hospitalization and surgery.
"There's a multitude of medical issues that are present," said Nick Lembo, counsel to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. There is no medical testing for the underground New York fights. And fighters could be barred from New Jersey bouts if authorities find out they're participating in underground evens.
Peter Storm, 34, founder of the Underground Combat League, hosted his first event in 2003. Since then, he has run close to 30 "shows" in gyms across the city, charging as much as $45 for tickets.
Professional matches and exhibitions are illegal in New York, but Mr. Storm says that because the fighters aren't paid and alcohol isn't served, his events are legal. He says he has received assurances from state lawyers that this is the case.
But Lisa MacSpadden, deputy secretary of state for communications and community affairs, said via emal that "paid or unpaid, and regardless of whether alcohol is served, mixed martial arts exhibitions and matches are illegal in the state of New York."
She added that if the state "is tipped off far enough in advance of a planned match or exhibition, then legal counsel will investigate the matter and issue a 'cease and desist' letter informing the involved parties that the activity is illegal." So far, she said, the state hasn't received word early enough to take action.
Mr. Storm said the ticket charges cover the costs of running the event, including renting the space--but he occasionally turns a profit, he said. Then, he said, "I eat steak."
Still, he said he would happily shut down his fights if the sport was legalized in New York.
"Not everything that's popular should be allowed, but definitely mixed martial arts is one of them," he said. "It's proven to be a safe sport and a popular sport and it's what the people want."