Driving All Night for a Fight: Life for MMA Fighters Under the NY State Ban

Briggs SeekinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2012

Flyweight Evan Velez looks to pass into side control.
Flyweight Evan Velez looks to pass into side control.

It's about 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 10, in the Shipyard Lounge of The Colisee, in Lewiston, Maine. The room is full of gaunt, hard-looking young men— professional mixed martial arts fighters and their training partners and coaches, here for the weigh-ins for tomorrow night's New England Fight Night I card. Waiting to re-hydrate after drying themselves out to make weight. 

Team Bombsquad from Ithaca, New York, shows up right on time. Back in Ithaca, I work out at their home gym, Ultimate Athletics. On a typical day they are probably the most energetic group of people I see, bouncing around on the mat or joking along the sides as they get ready for another grueling practice.

But this afternoon they look like, well, pretty much what you would expect people to look like after they've driven seven hours over night and then spent the day sweating off large amounts of weight.

"That drive was horrible," says Bombsquad Muy Thai instructor Primo Bellarosa. "We left last night at 11:30, drove straight, crashed in the parking lot outside the gym for an hour, waiting for it to open and we've been cutting weight ever since."

"That was a pretty tough cut," flyweight Evan Velez tells me. I ask him if the long drive made it harder. He shrugs, "I don't want to put it on that. I came in a little heavy at the start of camp." As with most fighters it's a cultivated habit of thought for him to frame a situation in a manner that puts as much responsibility as possible on himself.

Still, he concedes, "The drive doesn't help. It would be nice to do it from home."

But for a professional mixed martial artist who lives in the state of New York, fighting near home is an unavailable option. The sport remains banned in the Empire State, as the most recent attempt to legalize it died in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee last June.

Bombsquad trainer Ryan Ciotoli watches a fighter work.
Bombsquad trainer Ryan Ciotoli watches a fighter work.

I remember reading a Facebook update at the time from Bombsquad head trainer Ryan Ciotoli, regretting the fact that he would face another year of driving. If riding long distances and cutting weight is a regular ordeal for New York state MMA fighters like the Bombsquad, shepherding them through it is Ciotoli's routine grind.

When I ask him how many weekends a year he travels out of state with his fighters he estimates 30-35. "But this is four in a row right now."

Road trips and hotel rooms are not unfamiliar to any professional athletes and long drives are par for the course at the minor league level in any sport. But the New York state ban is unquestionably an extra burden for guys like Ciotoli.

"Not counting the big shows, where you fly wherever they want you, how many weekends a year would you be traveling like this to get guys fights if it was legal back home?" I ask Ciotoli.

"We'd never travel," he says.

I know he's not exaggerating. There are at least a half dozen venues that could host good, high level professional cards within about a two hour drive of Ithaca. And there is no lack of popular interest, to judge from the enrollment in classes like the ones offered at Ciotoli's Ultimate Athletics and the crowds packing into the local Buffalo Wild Wings for UFC pay-per-view cards.  

The UFC has commissioned its own studies on this, estimating that legalized MMA in New York would benefit the state to the tune of $23 million a year, with $16 million coming from the UFC and the rest from an estimated 70 non-UFC shows. 

I covered the Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito fight from Madison Square Garden last December, when 23,000 fans packed the place. The bartender I talked to in the Irish Times Pub, located across the street from the Garden, told me they were having a pretty nice weekend. A Frankie Edgar or Jon Jones headlined show with a bunch of New York city and New York state fighters featured on the under card would do similar gate.  

Lewiston is the second largest city in Maine, but that doesn't mean it's very big. The population was less that 42,000 in the 2010 census. It's a mill town where almost all the mills are gone. 

And it's a fight town. Well, with a primarily French-Canadian population, it is a hockey town most of all. But it's a fight town, too.

In 1965, Lewiston was the site for the notorious Ali-Liston rematch, when Ali's "phantom punch" stopped Liston in the first round. The greatest sport's hero to ever come out of Lewiston is former world jr. lightweight and lightweight boxing champion Joey Gamache.

And on Saturday night, February 11, 2012, a large local crowd is packed into the Colisee, wildly cheering on a steady stream of local amateur and pro fighters. It's a big event for a community this size. When I stopped at Gritty McDuff's brew pub at lunchtime, across the Androscoggin River in Aubrun, people I talked to knew about the show and were excited that it was happening in the community.  

Lewiston is not much different than a lot of cities in New York's Southern Tier: Utica, Binghamton or Elmira. Last month I covered a pro boxing card at Turning Stone Casino, in Verona, New York, where fighters from nearby towns like Canastota and Utica fought for enthusiastic hometown crowds, excited to get on board early with a prospect.

Local fighters sell tickets, which means MMA in New York state is a big deal just waiting to happen.

All together, Team Bombsquad has seven fighters on the Lewiston card, ranging from promising amateurs like Dez Green to experienced WEC and Strike Force veterans like Anthony Leone. Ciotoli and Bellarosa train a lot of fighters and it's a Bombsquad tradition to represent heavy at regional shows.  

Still in his early 30's, Ciotoli is a longtime veteran of the Northeastern MMA scene. He started fighting in 2000, following a stand-out wrestling career at Ithaca College. "The Barn" located behind his old house in McGraw, NY, was a legendary institution in central New York mixed martial arts crowds, a bare-bones proving ground for regional champions and UFC, Strike Force and Bellator veterans.

Check out the linked Youtube videos by Mac's MMA for an interesting documentary look at the Bombsquad camp. 

Ciotoli was UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones' first trainer, but like most fight trainers, the biggest part of his job is keeping his prospect fighters active and ready to step up in competition. Sometimes this means a lot of running around to get everybody's paperwork in line, a task made especially arduous when he tries to stack a card with fighters, to get his guys work.

"Getting physicals done is a real glamour part of the sport," he deadpans when I am talking to him during the weigh-ins, informing me that it took him parts of three days to get all his fighters completely cleared.

Simply preparing a large number of fighters on fight night is a big task. After the card, Ciotoli tells me it took him and Bellarosa two-and-a-half hours just to wrap everybody's hands.

Once the card is underway, Ciotoli and Bellarosa are back and forth to the cage all night, cornering fighters in nearly every other fight. Fighting as an amateur, former University of Buffalo wrestler Dez Green starts the night off on a positive note for the Bombsquad, winning by second round TKO due to ground-and-pound.

Bombsquad amateur Shane Manley continues the strong showing for New York state wrestlers, winning his match by unanimous decision. The Bombsquad ends the amateur portion of the card with a 2-1 record.

The Ithacans continue their roll-in during the pro fights. Flyweight prospect Evan Velez and featherweight Bellator Fighting Championship veteran Brian Kelleher both win their matches by rear naked choke.

In the co-main event, WEC and Strike Force bantamweight veteran Anthony Leone overcomes a first round broken nose to beat fellow WEC veteran and BJJ black belt Paul Gorman by arm bar submission. 

Following a big win, bantamweight Anthony Leone prepares to drive seven hours with a broken nose.
Following a big win, bantamweight Anthony Leone prepares to drive seven hours with a broken nose.

The night ends with an impressive 5-2 record for the Bombsquad. The mood outside the locker room after the card is upbeat, the celebratory atmosphere muted somewhat by the awareness of the long ride home still waiting to be made. 

There is optimism that 2012 will finally be the year the ban gets lifted. Ciotoli, who has been watching the process from the start, is confident. In 2011, the legalization bill passed the New York Senate and two of three required Assembly Committees. The only thing that seems to have prevented its passage this time was the long, convoluted New York state legislative process.

Fans and fighters alike, across the Empire State, are hoping that process can be negotiated once and for all in 2012. In the meantime, the athletes and their trainers will continue to do what they need to do to advance in this tough and competitive sport.