At first, no one knew what had happened. One moment, the two fighters in the cage were intertwined on the canvas; the next moment, the referee was pulling them apart, calling over the doctor, waving the bout off. But then came the blood, the gauze pressed over the fighter's shin, and a peek underneath at the gash that looked like it went all the way to the bone.
The other fighter ambled over to the opposite side of the cage and sat down, and now the referee was tending to him as well. On his shin was an injury of his own. Somewhere between their walk through the crowd, the cheers, the punches, the wrestling and the attempts at choking each other, they'd thrown simultaneous kicks and clashed bone on bone. And now it was over, because unlike the version of cagefighting you may have watched in the mid-'90s, in 2014 the sport is just as concerned with rules and safety precautions as it is with pure spectacle.
Welcome to the Amazura Concert Hall in Jamaica, Queens, host to the New York Fight Exchange's sophomore installment, in a state where confounding laws make it illegal for a promotion like the Ultimate Fighting Championship to stage events, but it's perfectly okay for 1,500 people to cram into a venue to watch amateur fighters throw down on a Saturday night.
Since New York banned professional cagefighting (a.k.a. mixed martial arts, or "MMA") in 1997, fans of the sport that blends elements of boxing, karate and jiu-jitsu with a good, old-fashioned beatdown have had to travel to New Jersey to get their fix. As recently as February, over 15,000 people filled the Prudential Center in Newark for UFC 169.
Meanwhile in New York, it's all about these smaller shows, and the amateurs scrapping for a weekend's worth of glory. In 2013, there were 47 amateur MMA events in New York State, 23 of which took place within the Five Boroughs.
The nightclub dims, and the double-whammy of loud, angry music and lights pulsating in multicolor madness saturate the makeshift arena as each fighter strides out from the locker room (really, just a lounge upstairs) to the cage erected in the center of the dance floor. The fighters are a seemingly endless cast of characters on parade.
There's Elijah Punzone and Eric D'Arce, whose battle takes place mostly on the ground, the two trading dominant positions until all three rounds have expired. Eric, an ex-Marine, wraps himself in a Marine Corps flag while awaiting the judges's decision, and when the scorecards are read and Elijah's hand is raised, Eric's face falls. His girlfriend, who had been shouting and rooting for her man from cageside, consoles him with a hug.
There's Kenny Sweeney, barely old enough to buy a beer, whose dad Ken was supposed to fight on the card as well before his opponent backed out. For a round and a half, Kenny is dominated by Matt Shamloo's superior technique, and then the ref notices Shamloo's broken nose and the bout is called in Kenny's favor. It's unclear how the nose got broken, but a win's a win. Kenny and his people celebrate as if he'd just won by K.O.
One fighter takes punch after punch and falls asleep on his feet. Another taps out to a painful submission that threatens to wreck the precious inner workings of his knee. A competitor from Long Island earns a convincing unanimous decision over a kid who refuses to quit. The crowd loves it all.
Then the main event is upon us, and the NYFE's 170-pound champ—Jerome "The Bull" Mickle—makes his entrance. Jerome is undefeated, has nine fights on his record, and was a champion in New York City's underground fight scene before transitioning to this realm of sanctioned fights like these. The announcer introduces him and his opponent. After a brief staredown, the leather starts flying.
If the sign of a good fisticuff is how well the audience is engaged, then Mickle's is for sure one of the night's best, and when he's above his foe, raining down punches that prompt the ref to step in and declare the contest over, the audience pays tribute with a cacophony of hooting and hollering.
The victorious Mickle leaps up and straddles the cage, flexing his biceps and acknowledging his fans.
And then suddenly it's all over, and the venue slowly empties out, the crowd's bloodlust temporarily sated.