By Jim Genia
Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Company
Review by Stephen Koepfer
Head Coach, New York Combat Sambo
Founder, Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York
On November 11th, 1993 the martial arts world was still a landscape of mythological style vs. style debate; what style was best, the most deadly, or the most capable of allowing one to defend against multiple crazed attackers hiding in urban alleyways. Regardless of such pontification however, the reality was that most chose their style or school based on location; how close was the training hall to my home or office. Sure maybe Ninjitsu was better that Shotokan Karate, but the Shotokan dojo is only 10 minutes from my house. We really did not know any better. We took the word of the great masters who ran our local dojos. By the time 1993 came along I was a proud Tae Kwon Do black belt, and I thought I was a badass.
On November 12th everything changed. I was 25 years old. My buddies and I gathered at John’s house to watch a new Pay-Per-View event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). According to advertising, it would be what we had all dreamed of. This was not going to be an insular Tae Kwon Do or NASKA Sport Karate tournament; the glorified games of tag we were used to. The UFC was touted to be a No Holds Barred (NHB) all out battle to see once and for all what style was at the top of the martial art food chain. There would be no weight classes, foam dipped gloves or booties. No face protectors or chest covers. With the exception of a few gentlemanly rules, there were no technical restrictions.
By the morning of November 13th, martial artists across America were struggling to accommodate the shocking reality that most of what they had been training held very little practical application whatsoever. Like smelling salt abruptly waking an unconscious man, the UFC reminded us that we had divorced the martial from martial arts. Some folks kept drinking the Cool Aid, convinced that their grandmaster really knew all the deadly secrets and could defeat those TV fighters if given a chance. Others, myself included, made a radical shift in how we viewed martial arts, training, and fighting. Raw Combat is our story.
Within two years I had left my Tae Kwon Do club to train San Shou (a Chinese form of full contact kickboxing) and entry level grappling. Four years later I fought in my first “mixed martial arts” bout (the term MMA did not exist yet). I lost to a kid fresh out of Riker’s Island, but I was bitten by the fight bug. Unfortunately, it was too late. By 1997, this type of combat sport had been criminalized in New York and many other states. Still, my peers and I kept training. We fought kickboxing bouts, competed in the new and evolving grappling scene, and tried to become the best fighters we could. By 1999, I had been the corner man for several amateur fighters; I found a new coach (a Russian expat who trained me in Sambo); and by 2003 I opened my own club and started to train amateur and professional fighters myself.
Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts, written by veteran journalist and New Yorker Jim Genia is much more than the book’s title suggests. What Genia offers readers is far from a simple gritty look at underground fighting. Raw Combat is a rare, often humorous, and intimate glimpse into the world of New York Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It is a love letter to the sport and community he has covered since the beginning. For me, it was a walk through memory lane. Reading about longtime friends, gyms, and events past and present often brought a smile to my face or heaviness to my heart (RIP Paul Rosner and Gene Fabrikant). New York, where MMA competition is still illegal, is a time capsule. Jim Genia is our official historian.
Since NHB and similar combat sports were criminalized by New York’s Governor Pataki in 1997, the rest of the country has moved on. As NHB fighting evolved into regulated MMA, state after state saw the merits of the new sport. By 2000, the foundation of what would become the formal rules for MMA had been approved by the California State Athletic Commission. Following California’s lead, that same year, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board sanctioned the first regulated MMA event (The International Fighting Championships) and in 2001 adopted similar more refined rules; complete with weight classes, a long list of fouls, and the strict safety, medical and technical requirements expected of any professional combat sport. By 2009, the Association of Boxing Commissions formally approved and adopted New Jersey’s rules as the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.” It was only a matter of time before the sport of MMA was ubiquitous in the United States; except for New York that is (and as of this writing Vermont and Connecticut as well).
What Genia offers in Raw Combat is a detailed timeline of the trials and tribulations of a martial art community abandoned and forsaken during this time of evolution. He allows readers to peek behind the curtain into a community forced to live in the past, presently struggling to participate in the sport it cherishes.
Underground or unsanctioned fighting is often used as an example of why MMA should be legalized in New York. Poor oversight, questionable safety precautions, and lack of regulation threaten the well being of the athletes. If New York were to legalize and regulate MMA, underground fighting would vanish as it has in surrounding states. This can hardly be denied and Genia clearly demonstrates this to be the case.
However, I have often felt that the case against unsanctioned fighting has been overstated; misrepresented. The “underground world of mixed martial arts”, as the book’s title calls it, is often presented as a bone crushing dark place where bloody animalistic instincts rule and respect for humanity and civility are absent. Uneducated mainstream media often suggests that no self respecting legitimate athlete would sink to such a level as to participate in these types of events.
As one reads through Raw Combat, it becomes very clear that the membrane between the worlds of regulated MMA and unregulated NHB fighting is much more permeable, and much less threatening than people unfamiliar with the sport like to think. As I read through the book, I was confronted with fond memories of heading to New Jersey to watch Bart Vale referee BAMA Fight Night, an unsanctioned show hosted by then unknown Big Dan Miragliotta at his Bayside Academy of Martial Arts. Big Dan is now one of the most respected referees in sanctioned MMA, seen in the ring or cage at just about every top shelf show there is.
Raw Combat reminds us UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar and many other now known athletes got their start in unregulated events. We see that the cast of characters training fighters for regulated events in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, etc., are more often than not the same folks participating in unregulated shows in New York; most commonly the Underground Combat League (UCL). We learn in Raw Combat, that while regulation is without a doubt safer and better for our sport, the folks who participate in unregulated shows are not the villains they are often presented as; regardless of whether they make it to the big show or not. In fact, we learn that customarily, despite the primitive nature of many underground events, it is mutual respect and sportsmanship that still rules the day.
Contrary to the book’s title, Genia spends plenty of time sharing his observations and experiences from the world of regulated MMA. We learn the history noted New York fighter and former Bellator Welterweight Champion Lyman Good. We follow the rise and fall of underground boxer turned pro MMA fighter, Kimbo Slice. Genia shares the heartbreaking story of my friend and former student Kaream Ellington, the local would be champion that could not escape the demons of his past. We are treated to behind the scenes stories from the UFC and Pride Fighting Championships as well as many east coast MMA shows that launched the careers of several fighters including Sportfighting, the Mixed Fighting Championships, Reality Fighting, Caged Fury Fighting Championships, and Ring of Combat. Likewise, we ride the rollercoaster of such failed leagues as the International Fight League and EliteXC.
While I do feel at times the book may not clearly delineate the line between NHB and MMA, critical when educating new fans, when all is said and done Genia offers us an important piece of history gleaned from nearly two decades of being the quiet guy sitting in the back with a notepad. Raw Combat has something for both fans of MMA and newcomers alike. For the average reader who was not there as I was, Raw Combat makes them feel like they were. While Genia stakes his claim as official historian for the New York MMA community, his witty tongue-in-cheek style allows him to play court jester as well. And in that role, he reveals some honest truths about our sport. Most importantly, Genia reminds us that the roots of Mixed Martial Arts lie firmly in New York and that we have been denied our birthright since 1997.