Fighting for Nothing—and Everything—in New York

Fightland Blog

By Jim Genia

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

Somewhere in between the walk to the cage and the first punch, an existential barrier was crossed, a kind of invisible line of demarcation that usually separates men from beasts, but tonight was traversed freely. And nowhere was this more evident than when the server from the International House of Pancakes battled a kid from Japan.

The cage is set up on the dance floor at the Terminal 5 nightclub, and 2,100 pairs of eyes watch as Rich Pabon—a deeply religious 135-pound ball of muscle from Bay Shore, Long Island—hoists Takahiro Ishikawa up, adjusts to make sure the Japanese fighter’s forearm isn’t too tight around his neck, and delivers a slam that makes the crowd squeal with Roman Colosseum-esque glee. There are promises of great displays of technique and violence further on in the card, but this back-and-forth scrap has taken everyone by surprise, and now the reward for each sudden flurry of punches to the face, each mad scramble, and each close submission barely dodged, is furious cheering and applause.

It’s Friday night in Manhattan, and though a 1997 law makes professional incarnations of MMA competition illegal, amateur fights are 100% kosher—a nugget of truth that Victory Combat Sports (VCS) has turned into something classy and cool. While Rich and Takahiro are duking it out in the cage, cocktails are being sipped judiciously in the audience. Investment bankers are mingling with personal trainers. Under a tent set up in a corner of the nightclub, a tattoo artist’s needle is buzzing. A reporter from a TV network in France is flitting about with a camera.

In Las Vegas, this mise-en-scene would involve fighters who’d survived a stint on a reality show, or fighters who’d maybe clawed their way up a regional circuit until their paychecks had at least three zeroes in them. But that’s not New York or VCS, and when Rich and Takahiro turn Round 3 of their battle into a dogfight of aggressive striking, and submission attempts, the excitement of the bouts can sometimes transcend what you’d see pretty much everywhere else in the country.

Elsewhere, they’re doing it for money. Rich, Takahiro, and every other fighter on the ten-bout card, are doing it for no reason other than that they want to.

And as the intensity of the wars waged implies, they really, really want to.

The bell rings signaling the end and the assembled crowd showers the duo with more applause. Then the judges’ scorecards are read, and by the slimmest of margins, victory is awarded via split decision to Rich. He celebrates with a backwards somersault, and follows that up with copious praises to God, his opponent, everyone.

Soon, two fresh fighters are ushered into the cage. After them, two more, then another two more…

In a dim stairwell, Rich tells me that he’s fought six times since October, and given that it’s now April, that’s a hell of a fight schedule. “You start off as a pro with a 0-0-0 record,” he says. “So now is the time to do all your learning in the cage.”

In March, I watched Rich lose a grueling match at a show in a Jamaica, Queens nightclub. Prior to that, I saw him submit a Marine in a fight on Long Island, and outlast a kid in a bout at a rec center in Corona. None of those performances compare to the effort he put forth tonight, and when I tell him that, he grins. He can’t stop grinning, actually.

For Rich, wanting to be in the Octagon, taking it and dishing it out, is part and parcel for realizing his dream of eventually fighting pro. The hard-earned love from tonight’s crowd is just gravy.

But that love can be its raison d’etre as well.

Bernardo Cano makes his way to the cage, already a champ in another amateur MMA organization, and vying for a shiny belt that VCS is offering up. Like his teammate Rich, Bernardo is doing it for free, doing it because he wants to, and doing it because somewhere on the horizon lurks the brass ring of a pro career.

However, for the tall, affable 170-pounder from Astoria, there’s more to it than that. Because unlike most, Bernardo has already carved out a good bit of fight fame for himself, and it’s manifested in the form of accolades, a camera crew following him around to document his every move, and a partisan section of the audience predisposed to chant his name. Even his dad is there, ready to run up to the cage to shout passionately before stepping back into the masses.

Like Rich, Bernardo thrills the audience. But his opponent—a Brooklynite named Rob Ovalle—is successful in wearing him down, and after Bernardo drops him with a spectacular spinning backfist, Ovalle gets the fight to the ground and more or less keeps it there. The end comes via choke and tap out. When the dust settles, Bernardo apologizes to those he thinks he let down.

The apology is a curious thing, because no apologies are necessary. It’s New York, and just two years before, such an assemblage of combat sports participants and fans would’ve been unheard of. But somehow, in fighting for nothing, Bernardo—and others like him—are fighting for everything.

And without question, those are the best fights of all.


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