MMA participants at the amateur level hope for improvements in regulation after the legalization in New York State

CREDIT: ERIC GAYNOR

WESTBURY, N.Y. — Brian McLaughlin sunk back into his gold chiavari chair letting out a disgruntled sigh backstage at the Westbury Theater on a frigid mid-December night.

“I’m used to going to fights in Pennsylvania and New Jersey where they have established rules,” said the 32-year-old trainer in one of the theatrical dressing rooms currently doubling as a locker room.

Minutes ago, the referee officiating “World’s Collide,” the largest amateur mixed martial arts event in the State of New York, entered the room as the fighters were getting ready.

“If the ringside physician enters the octagon, the fight is over,” the referee told competitors as they were getting their hands wrapped in preparation for their individual matches. But, what upset McLaughlin was the fact that the physician came in to deliver a similar message just moments before. The physician said that if he stops the fight, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the match is over, he just wants to give the fighters a breather and check things out.

Discrepancies like these at the amateur level are what really bother McLaughlin about the newly regulated MMA scene in New York State.

It’s been almost a year since the New York State Assembly voted in favor of legalizing professional MMA after a 20-year state ban. The new law, however, didn’t go into effect until this past September.

Since then, the New York State Athletic Commission set forth a comprehensive set of regulations governing all professional combat sports. However, it is often overlooked that the commission also regulates MMA at the amateur level.

“That’s just a faux pas that should have never happened,” began Mike Mazzulli, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), referring to the situation backstage at the Westbury Theater, “because bottom line, the ref has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Mazzulli continued that if there is something that the physician thinks he needs to look at, the referee can stop the fight in order for him to come take a look.

Thankfully, the referee and ringside physician met up to clarify the rules before the first match. They both returned to the locker room to let the competitors know that the fight will end if the doctor decides to treat a substantial injury.

One of McLaughlin’s fighters, 23-year-old Lindsey “Damsel” VanZandt, said that this happens everywhere.

“They go over the rules at the meeting, and everybody’s there,” VanZandt began, “so everybody will be on the same page.”

However, McLaughlin didn’t seem as hopeful, saying that match officials in New York State rely too much on these rules meetings when, in fact, they should already have a thorough understanding of the rules and regulations during their training.

“That right there shows me that there is a problem,” he said.

Having been an instructor for almost 15 years, McLaughlin says he asks more questions than the average person at before the fight to avoid these situations.

“When we have a fighter’s meeting, he always asks a bunch of questions,” said VanZandt, as she paused to let out a brief giggle, “so we always know what’s going on. You definitely want Brian in your corner.”

McLaughlin says that people will often roll their eyes when they see him approaching the officials before the fight.

“The frustrating thing to me,” McLaughlin began, “is that I never get the same answer.”

Laz Benitez, spokesperson for the New York State Athletic Commission, said in an email that the Commission holds regular trainings throughout the year and throughout the State for both experienced and new officials. He also mentioned that their MMA officials generally receive formal training and certification from the ABC, the organization in charge of overseeing all the state athletic commissions with regards to boxing and now MMA.

“If you want a sport to stay honest, if you want the participants of the sport to be protected, and if you want the sport to continue to be appealing to a fan base, you have to be able to put some kind of enforcement entity in place,” said ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas. “You need to get the right people in place.”

Mazzulli said that the ABC is in the process of working with veteran MMA referee John McCarthy to establish a three-tier combination training program which includes all-day classwork and thorough final examinations.

“Refereeing is probably the most important job in the industry because the safety of the fighter is what the ABC is all about,” said Mazzulli.

Benitez applauds the new regulations for their heavy emphasis on the health and safety of the combatants, ranking them “among the strongest in the nation.”

When it comes to licensing professional combative sports officials the process is very straightforward. A new MMA referee, for example, must have a minimum of 200 rounds of experience in addition to an ABC approved Referee Training Course Completion Certificate and one letter of reference from each amateur sanctioning organization or athletic commission overseeing the events.

Nonetheless, McLaughlin feels as if New York hasn’t yet caught up to the rest of the United States, especially the amateur level.

“The only real event on the professional level that’s happening in New York right now is the UFC,” McLaughlin said. “You gotta judge them on a different scale.”

Just last month, however, UFC president Dana White took issue with New York referee Todd Anderson at the UFC 208 main event between Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm.

“I feel like the ref from New York shouldn’t be reffing a main event fight,” White told FS1 in a post-fight interview. “They don’t have enough experience. He should not have been in there. But again, we don’t make those decisions. The commission does.”

White continued, saying that several people contacted him during the match asking why the referee had not deducted any points from de Randamie for striking after the bell had rung in both the second and third rounds.

“What’s wrong with the ref is he doesn’t have big fight experience like that. None of these guys do in this state yet, and they should’ve had one of the experienced MMA refs in there.”

The New York State Athletic Commission defends its decision, mentioning that “the UFC made no objection” when they assigned Todd Anderson to ref the match.

“You can’t take human error out of the equation,” said Mazzulli. There will always be a bad call here and there, and that doesn’t always equate to incompetence.

When asked if MMA regulation had improved on the amateur level since December, McLaughlin took a moment to think.

“Has it improved?” he said, chuckling, “not really from what I saw. The problem with mixed martial arts in general, and this is endemic of the whole sport, is that when you take a sport like wrestling — wrestling has a long history. So what happens is that the officials are former wrestlers, the sanctioning body is made up of people who have made a lifelong commitment to the sport. Mixed martial arts, as a whole, only really has a history since the ‘90s.”

McLaughlin says that he would like to see the Commission actively recruiting more trained professionals in hopes that one day they can get the right people in the right positions.

“You gotta look out for the best interests of your fighters,” said Mazzulli. “If you don’t like something, no one knows unless you open your mouth, you know? You have the right to say, ‘listen, let’s get this fixed.’”