New York MMA: An underground story

James Funaro looks after his fallen opponent following an underground fight.

By Josh Gross

Contrary to public opinion, mixed martial arts can be found in New York. Unsanctioned, untaxed and unencumbered by athletic commission oversight — so long as alcohol isn’t served and fighters aren’t paid — the sport can and does happen in the city.

Since 2003, the Underground Combat League has promoted 23 cards in and around Manhattan. From gyms to warehouses to, most recently, a mosque, promoter Peter Storm, 34, has maintained a place for mixed-style fighting — in this case the kind that harks back to UFC 1 and its “anything goes” rules — in the only state in the country where professional MMA is illegal, rendered so after then Gov. George Pataki labeled the sport “barbaric” and urged the state legislature to outlaw it in 1997.

If it sounds similar to “Fight Club,” Storm likes that impression; it helps his UCL‘s branding.

“But,” he said, “the truth is, that’s not what it is. Nobody is fighting on rooftops, throwing each other through glass. None of that stuff. It’s guys who are mixed martial artists based out of New York, and what they want to do is test their skills on a level playing field where, if they feel like they can do well, they can progress.”

Jonathan Rodriguez, 22, and Israel Martinez, 27, have fought for Storm several times. Self-described “nobodies” in New York’s underground scene, both claim they love to fight and are fortunate to do so.

To prove their point, on Feb. 8 they stood in front of 250 Broadway, enduring wind-swept lower Manhattan at lunch hour. Massive snowdrifts from winter’s megastorms were gone, but it was cold enough for unprepared pedestrians to congregate near street vendors who were selling $5 beanies.

The address wasn’t random.


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