Rebuilding Staten Island, the MMA Way

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

If it weren't for the boarded-up church across the road, you wouldn’t think Roseanna Finn’s street was any different than it had been a been a year ago. It was the kind of neighborhood you see all over Staten Island, full of modest houses with unblemished exteriors for working class people who’d been born close and stayed to raise their own families.

Then you’d open the door to one of those houses, like the one Finn’s been living in for almost four decades, and see that nothing had been right there since Hurricane Sandy tore through six months ago. As a result of floodwaters rising as high as seven feet in the house, the place stank of mold. The wood that remained was rotting, the walls falling apart, furniture and photo albums fallen through collapsed floors all the way down into the basement.

81-years-old and thin as a reed, Finn had gotten practically nothing from the government and the little cash she did have was tied up with medical bills. Her lungs hadn’t been healthy in a long time. She’d put together a little to hire contractors, but almost nothing had been done. So the mother of five lived with one of her daughters, whose own house, further inland, had been spared. So when Finn visited the ruins of her home last Sunday to find the site full of MMA fighters, football players, and actors ready to welcome her with a plan to get her back home, she had a simple reaction.

“God bless them.” 

Finn’s house is the third Staten Island residence devastated in October to get help from the non-profit group Staten Strong, started by Sons of Anarchy actor and Staten native Theo Rossi. Since its inception, the group has raised more than $120,000 through fundraisers and social media. Rossi described Finn as exactly the type of person Staten Strong was started to help. “She’s been out of her house for six months, she’s got medical problems, no one’s there to help her or guide her,” he says. “This is a woman who should not be out of her house.” Sunday was only a tour so Rossi and his cohorts could see the place in person and tell Finn what they were going to do. Contractors came out a day later. Finn should be back in her home within a month.

With thousands of homes still in shambles, Rossi needed all the help he could find. He got it from Bad Boy Brands International, a company that manufactures MMA equipment and fight wear.

“We didn’t expect anything from anybody when we put this together,” Rossi says. “But because I have a relationship with Dana White--psychotic MMA fan that I am--Bad Boy got in touch and wanted to help. A lot of people tell you they want to help and you never hear from them again. Bad Boy actually came in and said, ‘We want to help and here’s how,’ and it’s been invaluable.”

“When we went down there we just saw so many people living in these makeshift tent communities,” says Bad Boy’s senior manager Mike Calmenson, who toured the area with Bad Boy fighter and UFC middleweight title contender Chris Weidman and Dallas Cowboy running back DeMarco Murray. “It was like seeing the gypsies in that movie Snatch.”

Before surprising Finn on Sunday, Calmenson had help organize a fundraiser at the Manhattan club Goldbar on the eve of UFC 159 two weeks earlier. Charging $100 a ticket, they raised $22,000 for the rebuilding effort.

“It was just a very emotional day,” he says of the unveiling at Finn’s home. “You could tell she was emotional and very happy.”

It was a feeling, Calmenson says, that Long Island native and Hurricane Sandy survivor Weidman could relate to.

“A lot of people don’t know, Chris lost his place too. And he gets very emotional about this,” says Calmenson. “You know, he was talking about how we can spend all this money paying for foreign military and we can’t help people here at home. There’s just so much work that needs to still be done out there.”

Weidman actually documented his own ordeal though Twitter while the storm was happening, posting updates after his wife and kids had left the house to get to safety while he stayed behind to look after the property. "Storm hasn't even hit yet and people have the audacity of canoeing on my front lawn," he wrote.

At the unveiling Sunday Weidman told reporters, “This hits right at home. My house, I got devastated by Hurricane Sandy and my house kind of looks like this. So, any time you can help someone out that's less fortunate than you …"

It’ll be another month or so before Finn’s house is finished, and she’s just one in a long line of displaced New Yorkers. Staten Strong has received more than 300 applications for assistance so far, which means a lot more money is going to have to be raised. The group isn’t just rebuilding but acting as counselors, helping replace appliances, and even donating baby clothes.

“I understand the world moves on,” Rossi says. “A lot of things have happened since Sandy. You care about Boston and Newtown and you hear about things and it goes away so fast. There are still people that need help out here. I understand we’re an ADD society and people move on quick, but Bad Boy was directly linked to us through Chris, and Chris went through this firsthand. And for what he’s done to help I’ll always be in debt to him.  We’re talking to a bunch of other companies now because that’s what we need.

"You know, there’s no point in being successful and making money if everyone around you isn’t doing good.”

Rossi says most of the people applying for help don’t need construction work as much as guidance. “They get told different things every day," he says. "‘You have to file this paper, oh now you don’t, okay now we’re going to pay to rebuild your property, okay now the funds aren’t there.’ A lot of people just want to ask us what they’re supposed to do next.’

Until Staten Strong gets through all 300 houses on the wait list, Calmenson says he's keeping Bad Boy behind the project. “Staten Strong is a smaller organization right now and we’re a bigger group, so anything we can do to help out we’re going to do,” he says. Bad Boy plans to continue fundraising and is focusing July’s UFC Fan Expo as a target  date for ramping up interest and getting the word out.

“We’re going to continue raising awareness about it, working with Theo and his guys,” Calmenson says. “And we’re going to be selling shirts online with UFC magazine and donate those proceeds to Staten Strong. Anyone who buys one will get a year’s subscription to the magazine."

Currently, Staten Island still has an estimated 3,500 people who have yet to return to their homes or find permanent residence. Mold has made many of the standing structures unlivable. Many residents have already said they’ll never return.

Check out these related stories:

Muay Thai in the Rockaways Fights Back

Mr. Weidman Goes to Albany