Madison Square Garden Had Its First MMA Event Ever

Fightland Blog

By Anil Melwani

Words and photos by Anil Mewani

Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena, hosted its first MMA fights Friday in front of a sold-out crowd of pumped up fight fans. It seemed as if everyone in the building had an extra little pop to their step, knowing that they would be part of an important footnote in the documented history of hand-to-hand combat.

How did Victory Combat Sports, a very young MMA promotion, throw a show at MSG before the UFC? 

According to the NY statute at issue, the State does not have the power or jurisdiction to regulate amateur MMA. The statute also lists a handful of traditional martial arts organizations, such as the WKA, that appear to be potentially allowed to sanction professional MMA as well. The NY attorney general has publicly flip-flopped on this point in papers related to the UFC's ongoing legal case against NY, first saying that this third-party sanctioning option was available for pro MMA, then later stating the opposite based on the statute's legislative history.

So, amateur MMA is legal in NY and reasonable minds differ as to whether pro MMA is legal or not. But this was not always apparent to the public and even the majority of the industry. From 2002-2012 there was pretty much one known MMA show operating in NY state, the Underground Combat League run by local fighting legend Peter Storm. During this time, gyms and promoters were pressured to not take advantage of what was referred to as a loop-hole in the law. Peter was the only local promoter who simply did not give a fuck, and operated one of the most interesting and controversial shows in the history of MMA. Peter is still putting on shows. 

Then in early 2013, the NY Attorney General conceded in writing that Amateur MMA was not banned under the current law. Following this, there was no more pressure regarding amateur MMA and  a number of promotions began throwing shows in NY, such as the NYFE, Golden MMA, and Victory Combat Sports. Victory, under the guidance of CEO and founder Kevin Lillis, was the first to throw a show sanctioned by an organization on the "approved list." Now this list is strange for MMA because no sanctioning is required under the law for amateur MMA, and the State now denies that pro MMA is legal under any circumstances. However, these organizations were intended to have some martial arts sanctioning power under the law, and what better organization to team up with than one in this list? (There are currently no MMA-based sanctioning bodies recognized in any capacity by NY).

The inclusion of MMA referee Kevin Mulhall in the MSG event scored huge points for those intimately familiar with the varied levels of competence displayed by referees at amateur MMA events in NY.  Kevin's refereeing was high-level and the rules meeting that he conducted was very well done.

Kevin Lillis, one of the most interesting people in MMA, and definitely one to watch, threw some successful shows, teamed up with the WKA, and managed to do enough to impress the good people at MSG into allowing him the privilege of throwing the first MMA show at the Garden.  

The fights were great, the promotion well-run, and the house was full. Many fighters, including local Queens-based amateur superstar Bernardo Cano, have since expressed sincere gratitude for being able to fulfill a lifelong dream of fighting in front of friends and family at the storied Madison Square Garden.

We've got a ways to go before the laws are rewritten or reinterpreted by the courts. But through all of the confusion about the laws and sanctioning requirements, the world was put on notice this weekend that New Yorkers are ready to fill large arenas like MSG to watch their favorite MMA fighters go at it. OK, I guess we should have already known that but it was a beautiful thing to see.

Anil Melwani has been photographing NYC area MMA since 2001 and his work can be seen on his website.


Check out these related stories:

UFC Fighters Lobby for MMA in New York ... Again

In New York, We Fight About Fighting

In East Harlem They Do MMA the Bruce Lee Way - Part 1

Ground Play: Marcelo Garcia's Infinite Jiu Jitsu